The Rich, the Poor, and Jesus

jesusrichyoungruler100In November of 2013, Oxfam International released the results of a study that found an ever-growing concentration of the world’s wealth into the hands of a very few. The Irish Times quoted Oxfam chief executive Winnie Byanyima: “It is staggering that in the 21st century, half of the world’s population—that’s three and a half billion people—own no more than a tiny elite whose numbers [eighty-five souls] could all fit comfortably on a double-decker bus.”

The concerns of Oxfam over the findings are political inasmuch as this kind of wealth concentration rigs government processes in favor of the rich, which makes the divide between the haves and the have-nots permanent. This effectively destroys the reality of equal opportunity. Their research shows that “opportunity hoarding” is as rife as the hoarding of goods and resources.

The troubling nature of these findings seemed self-evident to me when I shared the Irish Times article about this report on social media. The response I got is a bit of a surprise. It didn’t surprise me that some people objected immediately to the conclusions of Oxfam. What surprised me was the visceral anger and resentment—with a tinge of hurt feelings even—coming from people I know who call themselves followers of Jesus Christ. They reacted as if I’d lobbed a Molotov cocktail into their living rooms.

I am not an activist. I am not involved in partisan politics in any way—I am political at all only inasmuch as I do vote. Is it possible to talk about the implications of this report without setting off an angry debate? I am truly puzzled about the rush of some Christians to defend wealth hoarders.

I understand where the antipathy toward social programs comes from. It began with the Social Gospel movement around the turn of the last century. Most associated with Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch, the Social Gospel was a theologically liberal replacement of sin-and-salvation preaching with a focus on living the teachings of Jesus practically in relation to the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised. Reinhold Niebuhr took it a step further, argued that the aims of the Social Gospel should be sought by political means—and force, if necessary.

Fundamentalists rejected both of these notions, claiming that the sole commission of Christians was to save souls. This sentiment is evident in the words of the Fundamentalist preacher Vance Havner: “If they had a social gospel in the days of the prodigal son, somebody would have given him a bed and a sandwich and he never would have gone home.” Don’t let them get comfortable where they are, the thinking went. Make them as miserable as possible, so they will see their need to be born again.

The soul of the poor is their concern, not the physical well-being and comfort. I get that. What I don’t get is where this urgent, almost panicked, need to defend the rich comes from.

Jesus does talk about being reborn. Nicodemus comes to him by night (John 3:1-21) and Jesus says to him “You must be born again.” From there he doesn’t mention any kind of sinner’s prayer or confession however—he talks about deeds and tells Nicodemus “everyone that doeth evil hateth the light…. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought of God.” What are the deeds Jesus speaks of, and do they have anything to do with the rich and the poor?

Judging by the rest of the red-letter parts of the gospels, yes, a little bit, they do. One example: Jesus tells the rich young ruler, something so important that it appears in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew 19:21, Mark 10:21, and Luke 18:22)? “Sell what thou hast and give it to the poor.”

The response of some to the Oxfam post was tinged with real outrage: “Do we take rich peoples’ money and give it to poor people? Do we raid rich nations and give it to poor nations?” This is followed by the argument that, “Fifty years of the war on poverty should show that [giving money to the poor] is wrong.”

In a blog post for ABC Religion and Ethics, Stanley Hauerwas interacts with Robert Lupton’s book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help. Of all the real problems the book discusses, the one I hear most often is that charity will “erode the work ethic of those being helped with the result that their dependency is deepened.”

Hauerwas admits that problems exist, but he doesn’t let Christians off the hook. His conclusion is not that you do not give, but that you don’t simply throw money at the problem. It comes down to relationships: “The challenge is to be with the poor. To be with the poor means one must first learn to listen to the poor and, by listening, to discover that the poor are not without resources for survival. That means, at the very least, if you want to be with the poor a commitment of time is required for the building of trust necessary to sustain honest relationships.”

To the discussion following my post of the Oxfam report, my nephew commented with the simple letters—though they’ve become a cliché, are they not still relevant?—WWJD?

Vic Sizemore earned his MFA in fiction from Seattle Pacific University in 2009. His fiction and nonfiction are published or forthcoming in Story Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, PANK Magazine, Pembroke, Saint Katherine Review, Rock & Sling and elsewhere. An excerpt from his novel The Calling was a finalist for the Sherwood Anderson Award; other excerpts from The Calling are published in Portland Review and are forthcoming serially in Connecticut Review. His short story “Hush Little Baby” won the 28th New Millennium Writings Award for Fiction. Sizemore teaches at Central Virginia Community College.

Note: This post was originally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.