Monday, May 28, 2012

Preference for the Poor?

A fairly common idea in theological circles the past number of years has been that God has a “preferential option for the poor,” or, to put it in the words of the Belhar Confession, that God “cares in a special way for the poor.”

What exactly this phrase means is a matter of interpretation. But the way it is often used suggests that the financially poor somehow figure more prominently in God’s field of vision than the more wealthy in the world. The result, is that this phrase is frequently used as a way to marginalize the wealthy, making them feel like second-class citizens in the kingdom of God, regardless of how they use their wealth. It is, in fact, guilt by association.

It is true, of course, that the Bible carries some stern warnings about the dangers of wealth, particularly when wealth is used in an oppressive way. The minor prophets in the Old Testament and the gospel of Luke in the New Testament are perhaps the most obvious places where these warnings crop up. The question is whether warnings about the dangers of wealth warrant a theology of preferential treatment of the poor by God.

That seems questionable at best. If God cares in a special way about anyone in Scripture, it seems to be his people, those called out of the world and into relationship with him. That includes rich and poor and middle-class and every other class. And of his children, God seems to pay special attention to those who suffer in one way or another in the same way that a parent might take special care of an ailing child.

To suggest that God’s cares in a special way for the poor, seems to imply that poverty, in and of itself, leads to God’s special care. And it implies that the brokenhearted rich, whether they are God’s own children or not, are somehow less the objects of God’s love and care.

What Scripture is consistently demonstrating, however, rather than a special concern for the poor, is God’s special concern for God’s people who suffer or are marginalized. Over and over we are reminded that God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy to his people. Repeatedly Scripture tells us that God is near to the brokenhearted, that they can trust him for everything they need. And throughout the Bible we are taught that God will never leave nor forsake his people, indeed not even death can separate his people from him.

And who are the marginalized? Wealthy Christians can bear witness to the fact that great wealth carries with it great—sometime almost overwhelming—responsibility. And it can marginalize one in even very simple things like friendship. Imagine having to always wonder whether someone you meet is really interested in getting to know and love you, or simply wants to be with you because of your wealth. And the last time I checked, the wealthy are not immune to disease, broken relationships, children who leave the church, and the like. Money cannot, in fact, buy comfort. Comfort is found by all only in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Unless we are willing to include in the word “poor” all of God’s children who suffer and are marginalized in one way or another, we should take care with how we throw this phrase around.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Love Your Neighbor

Recently, in my little town, we were asked to vote about an additional tax that would bring public transportation to our town, connecting us with the nearby city where many people work. The tax would have amounted $120 per year for a $200,000 house.

Now of course, if you have read my blog in the past, you realize that I am not particularly unbiased where public transportation is concerned. For a substantial part of the year, I take the bus to work, although I drive to get to the nearest stop. So I am a believer in the importance of the city bus.

What is impossible not to notice when I do ride the bus, is the number of people who, unlike me, have no choice. This is, in fact, their only means of transportation. Many of them have to transfer routes, wait in the rain, and spend more than an hour getting to a place that would probably take only 15 minutes if they could drive a car.

Some of the people on the bus have lost their driver’s license for one reason or another. Some are simply unable to drive because of physical or mental disabilities. Some are too young to drive. But what is characteristic of nearly all of the riders, is that if they want to get to work, school, a doctor’s appointment, or even the welfare office, the only way to do it is via public transportation.

Enter the Tea Party. Worse yet, enter the local Tea Party pastor. Yes, I did say pastor.

Just days before the election, one of our local pastors who identified himself as a co-organizer of the local Tea Party, wrote a letter to the editor of our paper. In it, he urges voters to “vote no on this request.” The reason? Affirming the proposal for public transportation would “increase the size of government and taxes.”  He asks, “If we are fed up with the size, growth, and cost of government elsewhere, why would we vote for a government-run, tax-funded public transportation system?”

Well Pastor Tyler, perhaps because we care about those around us who do not have access to transportation without such a system. Unless of course, you are proposing to organize your parishioners to provide such a system to those who cannot get their children to the doctor, are unable to find reliable transportation to work, or even are unable to find a way to get to church on Sunday.  And maybe you would be on the top of the list of those willing to spend several hours a week driving the elderly, disabled, and others who cannot drive to their destinations.

Not that I’m cynical, but I doubt that our good pastor thought that far. After all, doesn’t everybody have a car or relatives to take them where they need to go? And if they don’t, isn’t that their fault? And why should I pay for them to get to work? Wouldn’t I rather complain about all those people on public assistance who are “too lazy” to get jobs and just ignore the reality that without transportation, they can’t work?

I wonder whether the pastor thought about how the non-Christian community would view a church that is so myopic that they cannot see the most basic needs around them. I wonder how the church's message of “love your neighbor” sounds to those people. I have a pretty good guess.