As the fallout from the Great Recession drags on, with high unemployment, a depressed housing market, high numbers of foreclosures, greater demand for food stamps and Medicaid, and the other woes we’ve seen in the United States over the past few years, the debate over what, if anything, we as a society can or should do to alleviate poverty has moved from theoretical discussions in ethics or political science classes to the front lines of policy-making in our governmental institutions, as well as to our streets and family gatherings. In a recent Doonesbury cartoon (October 30, 2011), reporter Roland Hedley begins his report on poverty in America saying: “Jesus said, ‘The poor you will have always.” He goes on to speak of the American poor as “pampered” because they are not as poor as people in Third World countries such as Bangladesh. He specifically mentions that many of our poor have dishwashers and cable TV. They are overweight, so he assumes they have plenty to eat, and he notes that medical care is available through the emergency room, so no one starves or bleeds to death here – both statements patently untrue.
If this were just a comic strip character speaking, I might not bother to address the issues raised. However, this character’s statements parallel those of other real-world individuals, including Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation who noted that, based on federal surveys, most poor Americans have air conditioning, microwaves, TVs, adequate housing, nutritious food and about half even have personal computers. His point is that based on new ways of measuring poverty, “The overwhelming majority of poor people, not all, live in conditions that the average American wouldn’t recognize as poverty.” (The San Jose Mercury News, Oct 4, 2011, pA6). Both statements left me wondering if the speaker were advocating some sort of means test by which landlords would have to remove air conditioning and dishwashers from apartments rented to low income persons?!!!
But then I get serious again. All too often, that quotation from Jesus is used as a means to defuse efforts to draw attention to the reality of poverty and its impact on people all over the world. Poverty does not have to be life threatening to do great harm both to individuals and to nations. There are very real economic reasons why we should not join a race to the bottom in terms of how many people are left to live in dire poverty. However, since the door to consideration of religious implications of poverty gets opened through this commonly misquoted, misapplied and misunderstood quotation from St. John’s Gospel (Jn 12:8), the religious implications have become fair game and I will address them here.
As I am not a theologian and do not speak or read the Koine Greek in which the gospels are written, I asked a theologian friend, Dr. Megan McKenna, to explain the quotation and how it has been understood by the Christian community from its earliest years. Her response was longer than I want to quote here, but I’ll summarize it.
Jesus’ actual statement was, “The poor you always have with you, but me you will not always have.” It was made in response to a complaint by Judas Iscariot that an expensive ointment used by Jesus’ friend Mary to anoint his feet should have been sold rather than wasted on his feet because the proceeds could have been given to the poor. John notes in an aside that Judas was not particularly concerned about the poor, but rather used to help himself to the common purse.
According to Megan, Jesus’ statement was taken by the early church to mean “that whatever you want to do for me, you can do for the poor – and I will take it as done to me… a version of Matt 25: Whatever you do to the least of your brothers and sisters I take it that you did to me, and whatever you ignored or refused to do to the least of my brothers and sisters I take it you ignored me and refused to do it for me.”
She notes: “In the early church there was a saying: ‘See how those Christians love one another [the part they like to quote, the second part of the sentence being] there are no poor among them.’” Christians lived in common and shared what they had because they recognized Christ’s body as being no longer in the tomb but rather having become the Christian community. “What makes one a decent human being and the basis of Christianity is justice – and people deserve justice in all the basic necessities of life – food, water, clothing, shelter, education, health care, dignity, a job, freedom from harm and violence, etc. The rights of justice are listed in the first part of Pacem in Terris – and poverty is an insult to the God of Life who proclaimed that he had come that all might have life, ever more abundantly (here and now).”
Megan’s final point is that “love your neighbor as yourself” is not just a Christian concept. It comes from Jewish theology. “In the Old Testament if you were wealthy and didn’t share, you were considered violent and not a practicing or good Jew. Their understanding is that you are only worth what you give away and share with the poor, no matter what you actually have.”
I find it intriguing that those who are seemingly so concerned about the United States being a Christian nation, who would happily re-criminalize abortion and possibly outlaw birth control, who will spend hours debating and passing legislation re-affirming that the motto of the United States, printed on our money, is “In God We Trust,” would so cavalierly, almost in their next breath, speak of cutting unemployment, food stamps, and health care benefits for the millions of children, their unemployed or underemployed parents, senior citizens, and disabled Americans in order to balance the budget, rather than considering ways to increase revenues.
We as a nation have to decide which way we’ll go. We’ve got to come to an agreement on our social compact and how to fund the infrastructure and human capital development that will be necessary to keep this country and its ideals of freedom and justice for all in a position to lead by example as other peoples in the world reach for the prosperity and freedoms we enjoy. We’re all in this together. We’ve got to make hard choices and sacrifices. But the folks with the fewest resources, even if they have more than those in Third World countries, cannot bear the brunt of the sacrifice or we will all ultimately pay the price. And while that may have nothing to do with religious beliefs or imperatives, for people of faith, Followers of the Way, Christians, those imperatives speak loudly and clearly and are ignored at our peril!