Always with us?
Dr. Liz Theoharis is a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a biblical scholar. She has spent the past two decades organizing amongst the poor in the United States, working with and advising grassroots organizations leading to significant changes. She is a Founder of The Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice and the national co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival.
Dr Theoharis issues a strong theological call for ending systemic poverty in her book, 'Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor'.
In her work to end poverty, “the poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11) is frequently quoted to her as an argument that her work is futile. In her book, she examines both the biblical text and the lived reality of the poor to show how that passage is taken out of context, distorted, and politicized to justify theories about the inevitability of inequality.
She reinterprets “the poor you will always have with you” to show that it is actually one of the strongest biblical mandates to end poverty. She documents stories of poor people themselves organizing to improve their lot and highlights the implications for the church. Poverty is not inevitable, Theoharis argues. and all Christians have a responsibility to partner with the poor to end poverty once and for all.
She feels this verse has been used to justify inactivity in the face of great poverty and want and inequality. "God hates poverty as shown by Jesus spending his entire earthly ministry bringing good news to the poor, and what is good news if it isn't the ending of poverty and oppression and marginalisation? What God wants is justice - not just charity, in fact."
She feels the verse informs a critique of dominant economic systems, ones that pay people too little and blame people for being in difficult situations. "God has had a plan around the abolishment of poverty from very early on. Whether it's the Exodus re Manna or whether it's Deuteronomy, which actually this passage is quoting. Saying and reminding us that, 'There will be no needy among you if you follow the commandments that I'm giving to you.'"
What are those commandments?
"Those commandments are to forgive debts, to release slaves, and to organise society around the needs of those who make it up. That if we have poverty in our society, it's because we're being disobedient to God and not following what Jesus has called us to do, which is to live a life of peace and justice, and equality with everybody, and to organise our lives and our communities and our churches in a way that doesn't leave anybody out."
Just a few other key passages:
Luke 1. Jesus' mother says that this amazing thing is happening to her - she is about to bear someone who is going to right the wrongs of society, who's going to fill the poor with good things.
Luke 4. Where Jesus starts off his public ministry. He says basically, 'Here is why I'm here. This is who I am, this is what I stand for.' He says, "I've come to bring good news to the poor."
Matthew 25. The sheep and the goats. The idea that "What you do to the least of these." This isn't about poor people over there that are so different from everyone else, but those among us that live in substandard conditions, that have to worry about feeding and educating their children. How you treat those people is how you are treating Jesus.
James 5. Hoarding wealth. "Woe to you rich oppressors. That the wages that you have failed to pay your workers cry out against you, and they're heard in the ears of God."
Poverty and oppression and violence and racism is not acceptable to God nor will it ever be, and Jesus has come to do is to bring good news. That gets echoed throughout all of these scriptures. The heart of them actually is about the least of these, getting everything that they need. Our duty as Christians, as believers, is to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. To try to live the values that Jesus lived.
Dr Theoharis then proposes that reading these gospel texts and putting them particularly in their economic and social contexts, is to see that early Christianity and Jesus, as the leader of a movement, is a leader of a movement of people, who are trying to right the wrongs of society, trying to organise a moral vision that says that everyone deserves healthcare, that everyone should have a good place to live. That everyone should be safe and not fear violence or repression, and that this is what bringing God's reign to earth is.
These stories tell us that Jesus, who was poor himself, was able to bring together a movement of other poor people to change society, and to challenge those rich oppressors who were taking people's land, and taking people's kids, and making people sell themselves into slavery. Those times might be different now, but we still have some great social ills in our society. Again, we can go back to these gospel traditions and see what it is that is required of us when you see this kind of inequality and when you have this kind of deprivation and want.
"I do not believe that we will actually be able to end poverty with our hands and with our bodies unless we can end poverty in our minds. We need to believe that poverty is not going to always be with us, and that it is not God's will for there to be some that do not have enough in our world. We need to believe that we can organise our society to end poverty for everyone. We need to believe that that the only way to address poverty is not by flinging a coin to a beggar, like Martin Luther King talks about, but instead, as he says, to restructure an edifice that producers beggars."
Liz is interviewed here about the book (25 mins):
The book is available here via Amazon but other booksellers are available.
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