It is normal to desire health and blessings for our friends and loved ones. Especially in these hard economic times, it is natural to wish prosperity for one another. But I can no longer bring myself to wish for that.
In defiance of the Old Testament prophets and Jesus himself, our culture has equated financial prosperity with God’s favor. And, as the Pharisees before us, we seem to have similarly concluded that poverty is the mark of unworthiness. The poor do not deserve our help.
Recently I have been assaulted one too many times by condescending e-mails, forwarded by well-meaning friends, dead certain that political or religious attempts at social justice are pure “socialism.” Never mind that the charge of socialism leveled at those calls for justice never has had any merit—it misses the mark badly by any accurate definition of the term. But these friends believe that socialism, however defined, is evil—the mortal enemy of the faith. Of this they are certain, and it is their duty to stamp it out. It is their excuse for not helping the poor.
Getting down to cases, these people I am talking about—good Christians all—are convinced that the poor among us do not deserve better, because their plight is of their own making. Their poverty is their own fault! Everyone knows that hard work is the answer to our country’s economic ills. If the poor really want a better life, let them earn it. Hard work never hurt anyone. End of discussion.
Experiencing Poverty Firsthand
Now, I am quite sure that these well-meaning people are themselves hard workers. The ones I am thinking of are like I was—lower middle class, sold on education as the primary means of self-improvement, and committed to hard work. Like me, most of them had a good education, sometimes earning two or three college degrees. And, in most cases, their education has served them well. They are not rich, but they are “making it.” They are not like “those poor people” who always expect a handout, who always want something for nothing.
No, I do not wish prosperity for these people. It would be hypocritical. My wish for them is not prosperity, but empathy. And although they all would claim to hold a Christian attitude toward others, I am convinced the only way most of them will truly change their outlook is if they, like so many thousands of other Americans, experience firsthand the hardship of being poor.
Firsthand experience is something I have gained, I am sorry to say. Yes, I am one of the growing number of “working poor.” I was laid off two years ago when the company I worked for went out of business.
My wife and I are unable to afford rent, groceries, and bare-bones hospitalization insurance in the same month. Even with carpooling, putting gas in the tank to drive to one of our several part-time jobs is a stretch. If we need to see a doctor, we go to the walk-in clinic; no regular practice will take us. Retirement is out of the question.
Yet we are among the fortunate ones. We have a small (though dwindling) savings account. Although the state we now live in considers us homeless, we have a loving family that was willing to take us in so we don’t have to pay rent.
For the last two years I have applied for every full-time job in my field that is even remotely related to my education and experience. Those jobs each have had dozens of qualified applicants—some, as many as a hundred. We are willing to relocate anywhere in North America. In two years I have had three preliminary interviews, but no job offers.
Meanwhile, my wife and I both continue to work as many part-time jobs as we can manage. We work seven days a week. I do not feel sorry for myself. I believe that hard work will pay off and I know my education and experience give me an advantage over many job applicants. God is faithful. But I am still poor by American standards.
My Christian friends who are so vehemently opposed to social justice would never think of lumping me in with those poor people whom they demean with their rhetoric. No, they really have in mind those others, those ethnic minorities, those welfare abusers, those people least like themselves. They refuse to admit that such attitudes are racist and perpetuate class stereotypes. It rarely occurs to them that, if they get laid off, most of them will be just like the rest of us working poor.
To my well-meaning Christian friends who refuse on principle to help the poor because it is socialism, consider this: most of the poor are not lazy. Most of them are hard workers who have not had the breaks that you and I have had. Most of them do not have the educational opportunities you and I enjoyed. Many of them are single moms trying to work, go to school, and raise a family all at the same time.
If those people are white, and attend our church, we will probably help them. Otherwise, no. If they are in Haiti or Mexico, we will send used clothing. If they live on the other side of town, probably not. We will travel over land and sea to win a single convert. But God forbid we should help the poor in our own country.
The Mind of Christ
I am reminded of a parable of Jesus. In our modern situation, it goes something like this:
A man was going about his business, a good worker for his company and contributor to his community. But his employer’s parent company decided to outsource a few thousand jobs to low-paid workers in a foreign country. The man was laid off, lost his pension, health insurance, and house, and was left to fend for himself.
Now, by chance, a Christian minister was going down that road; and when he saw the unemployed man, he passed by on the other side, wishing to avoid any appearance of socialism. And, likewise, an elder from the local church, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But an agnostic, as he journeyed, came to where the man was, and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and gave him some assistance.
And then comes the question of Jesus: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell on hard times?”
“The one who had mercy on him,” they replied.
And Jesus said, “Go and do likewise” (see Luke 10:36, 37).
To my Christian friends, I wish for you—not prosperity—but the mind of Christ.
One of this writer’s several part-time jobs is as an adjunct professor at a Christian college.