Why you have to be poor to treat people like Jesus did

The title is everything if you want a well-trafficked blog post. Now my task is to explore whether this provocative statement is actually true. I spent last week reading a couple of Catholic writers offering a provocative definition of “poverty” as a positive state of character. So I thought this could be my contribution to the Despised Ones synchroblog this week on how to show genuine solidarity to marginalized people. I think that you have to become poor to live in true solidarity, which is what God decided to do to humanity by coming to Earth as the poorest man who has ever lived.

I should acknowledge from the get-go that it’s very suspect for a privileged guy like me to speak of poverty. My privilege allowed me to choose to live in low-income situations for my first three years out of college but I never lacked the security of knowing that my parents could have bailed me out at any time. There is nothing noble about people lacking the resources they need to live. And yet, there is something about the word “poverty” that is very true to a way that we need to learn to relate to God and His creation that is often exemplified in the attitudes of people who lack economic self-sufficiency.

In America, the default assumption is that self-sufficiency is moral, while dependency is not. The moralization of self-sufficiency (at least in my middle-class frame of reference) is the primary basis of our lack of empathy for people who need help for whatever reason. Ilia Delio argues in Compassion: Living in the Spirit of St. Francis that self-sufficiency is the original sin of humanity exemplified in Eden:

The poverty of created existence reveals the richness of divine presence… As long as humans recognized and accepted their own poverty, they knew God. But when humans refused to be poor, they desired to possess rather than receive. This is the root of sin, Bonaventure claims, because humans chose to love their own good rather than receive the goods of the divine Giver. [35-36]

So the question is whether we live with constantly open hands receiving God’s gifts or with hands tightly clutching the resources we presume to possess (which really belong to their Creator even if we have the receipt, title, or whatever other “proof” of ownership). To be poor in the sense that Delio writes is not to be without resources; it’s to renounce exclusive ownership of any resources: “To live in receptivity to the gift of God’s goodness in creation is to live as a poor person, open to and dependent on the good of the human person, the good of the earth, and the good of the cosmos. When we claim the good as our own and refuse to share the goods of our lives, we miss the mark of God’s justice; this is sin” (36).

In my experience walking with people who are materially poor, I have seen how necessity forces them to be dependent on each other. Your friends are not just people you go to coffee with every two weeks. They are people whose families get to sleep in your living room for two months after they get evicted. How many middle-class families who actually have the space in their houses for two or three other families to hunker down during tough times would open their homes rather than let another family go homeless? Some do and thus show that they are really poor people trusting in and depending on God’s blessing. While there are many negatives that come from living in economic insecurity, the solidarity that is borne of real necessity is concrete and genuine in a way that sanctifies if it is experienced as the providence of God.

There is of course an unhealthy kind of dependency. It’s not all just a stereotype that rich, self-righteous people use to talk about people “living off the government.” I’ve seen people spend all of their social security checks on cigarettes and lottery tickets because the Catholic Workers had their food and housing covered. I’ve felt the queasy ambivalence of hearing people whose last rent check I paid myself talk about how God always provides for them while waving around newly manicured nails (which, to be fair, is a practical investment, since acquiring a boyfriend is a means to economic security).

So I guess it might be true that what I write about here with regard to “poverty” is not really universally applicable, but rather an unlearning that someone who grows up in my middle-class circumstances needs to go through (whereas people who actually grows up in economic insecurity have a totally different set of issues they need to wrestle through).

In any case, the problem with self-sufficiency is of course not that I am taking responsibility for my own problems, living within my means, etc, which is all noble and faithful stewardship of God’s resources. The problem is when my own behavior becomes the means by which I assess whether other people deserve my sympathy or help, which is how I become a hideous miser. If I am truly to avoid that diabolical attitude, then my perspective on my own resources should always be to think of myself as the otherwise poor trust kid of my heavenly Father.

The more credit I give myself for being a model middle-class citizen, the more I became a child of the accuser. This is why Jesus tells to live as though our left hand could forget what our right hand is doing (Matthew 6:3). That’s what being both faithful and poor in spirit looks like. God absolutely wants you to get and keep your financial house in order so that you can help other people, but when you turn that into a soapbox from which to heap scorn on others, then you would have done far less damage to be a widow with only two copper coins.

There’s another side to spiritual poverty that Henri Nouwen addresses in his book Reaching Out. In writing about hospitality, he says that “once we have become poor, we can be a good host” (103). Poverty to him means engaging others with an “articulate not-knowing” (105) that allows them to be experts with something to offer, not in a disingenuous Socratic/psychotherapist sense, but having an intentional naivete that allows you to discover truths simultaneously together.

The paradox about showing hospitality (or solidarity) to others is it’s not primarily about what we give; it’s about the space we leave. Nouwen writes that “hosts often feel that they have to talk all the time to their guests and entertain them with things to do, places to see and people to visit. But by filling up every empty corner and occupying every empty time their hospitality becomes more oppressive than revealing” (73).

To take care of other people perfectly is to patronize them perfectly; that’s what that verb literally means. We have to always ask ourselves whether what we’re doing is about love or control. We may even have the best intentions, but we need to deliberately practice poverty in how we help others, which means that we disempower ourselves from being experts and sometimes even from being practical. If it’s all practical, it’s not friendship.

To be spiritually poor means to renounce having anything to prove. When we’re anxiously trying to prove something with our perfect treatment of others, the lack of genuine love reveals itself plainly. People stop trying to prove themselves when they have their dignity taken away from them. This is a terrible thing in itself, but the upside of that is that they aren’t trapped in the self-justification that dignity demands of people who feel they have to defend it at all costs. Since materially poor people have often had their dignity crucified, they are incidentally in a better position to be spiritually poor and capable of solidarity than those of us whose dignity is our most valuable possession and the main motivation for our behavior.

One of the biggest reasons middle-class people can’t show solidarity to poor people is because our dignity pushes us to use them as the means by which we justify ourselves. “See, I worked at the soup kitchen, and that’s why you should take my views on small government seriously” or “See, I marched against those cuts to Medicaid; that’s why I’m not a self-righteous miser like other people who have as much money as I do.” People who are props and photo ops in our personal campaign for credibility aren’t really people to us.

So what does all this have to do with Jesus? I know, to do justice to my hit-seeking title, I should have budgeted my space differently and used Biblical examples of Jesus in action instead of quoting Catholic writers. But those examples of Jesus showing solidarity by being poor are all over the gospels, especially to the women. Letting himself need the oil that the prostitute pours on his feet and the nard perfume that the rich woman smashes and dumps on his head to prepare him for burial. Needing water from a Samaritan woman. Needing lunch from the rich tax collector Zacchaeus. Jesus of course didn’t need any of these things, but he chose to need them and thus to grant dignity to the people who loved on him. He let himself be poor for their sake.

Of course, the most compelling witness of poverty and solidarity is Jesus’ cross, about which Ilia Delio writes the following:

On the cross, God himself becomes poor. The poverty of the cross, Bonaventure indicates, is a mystery of poverty because on the cross God is not “possessing” love but fully “communicating” the mystery of his love in his radical openness to and acceptance of the human person. In the crucified Christ strength becomes weakness, the powerful God becomes the poor man. [37]

The cross is the ultimate expression of poverty. There is not a more perfect display of absolute helplessness (and the trust and faithfulness that gives it meaning). The cross is not only suffering. It’s not only a payment for sin. It’s the most profound indignity. Since our age has turned it into a gold necklace, we have no concept of that.

It’s unconscionable for us to describe the atonement of the cross in ways that completely preclude the solidarity the cross shows to those who are being crucified by world. Why would God not want to make Himself at-one with those for whom sin is not an abstraction of their guilty consciences but evil that has been physically inflicted on them, literally leaving bruises and gashes on their bodies? As I preached last weekend, Jesus’ cross gives dignity to those who bear wounds and heavy burdens by naming those burdens as crosses.

I would say the one thing that distinguishes true solidarity from patronizing “help” is to be concerned about the dignity of the other person. I had an experience this afternoon in which I got to practice poverty and solidarity with somebody whose his dignity I tried to honor. I was at church by myself in the afternoon and I saw a homeless man trying to open the locked door of our lobby.

He was wearing a jean vest with the word “Scout” on it over a leather jacket (that was why I presumed he was “homeless” even though I never asked directly; you don’t wear a leather jacket in 95 degree heat unless you don’t have a closet to put it in). He also had a knit hat with little ears sewn into it and he was riding on what looked like a child’s scooter. His hair was black with reddish tips and reasonably well-kept. One of the most fascinating angels I’ve met so far in my life!

The responsible voice in my head that I never listen to told me that it would be setting a bad precedent, enabling, etc, to do anything other than say, “I’m sorry, sir. We’re closed. If you need something, we will be happy to assist you during business hours tomorrow.” Kinda like the synagogue leader who stands up and tells the sick people to come back the day after Sabbath to get healed by Jesus (Luke 13:14). Since I had just preached that morning about being welcoming, I couldn’t just send him on his way even though I had a lot to do. I figured he was an angel God had sent to test me (Hebrews 13:2). I’m not joking; that’s literally what I believe he was, even if he was a real physical historical person and not an apparition who vanished into thin air afterwards.

He asked me if he could have something to drink. It was hot outside, so I figured why not. We went into the kitchen. All we had was Sunny Delight so that’s what I got him. When he guzzled the first cup, I got him a second one and then a third one. He asked if he could sit down. (I was like damn it God, you really are testing me!) So I said sure. We sat at the table in the church kitchen and talked for the next hour. He explained to me the three sub-cultures of homeless dudes that he runs with over in nearby Falls Church: the punkers, the goths, and the train-hoppers.

I got really excited when he talked about the train-hoppers because back in my anarchist early twenties, I actually hung out with some train-hoppers. I said I know I’ve got a tie on and everything but I used to hang out with people that got their food out of dumpsters. I kind of wanted to knock out the divide between the tie and the “Scout” jean vest.

So we talked some more. He said he really wished he could relive his years from 18 to 34 again. I said I had a few years that I lost in my twenties too. It made me wonder if a guy like him could ever be rehabilitated back into a normal social existence. If you fall off the conveyer belt and stay off for a certain period of time, are you pretty much set psychologically for life? I think about this with the guys I hang out with once a month playing jenga and spades at our Lamb Center game night.

It feels like there are two schools of thought among those who work or walk with homeless people. Well, basically whether you work with them or walk with them, honestly. People who work with the homeless talk about the importance of setting boundaries, using tough love, etc. When I see them interacting with homeless people, it’s always clear who the “adult” in the conversation is. Those who walk with the homeless are not “adults” about it. I suppose we “enable” them by pretending that we’re just friends making conversation and not me talking with someone who has a problem and needs help.

I don’t want to knock the professional support systems; I would say those who work with the homeless complement those who walk with them. But I have to admit that my gut wants it to be true that the pure solidarity of straight-up humanity does more than professional counseling conversations, even if that’s not the case.

Anyhow, Mr. Scout (I don’t know his real name) wanted to know if someone like him who had his GED could be the senior pastor of a church. I said if the Lord wants him to be a pastor, then He will find a way to make him one in whatever setting is appropriate to his gifts. I said there’s probably some Pentecostals somewhere who live enough in the kingdom that they wouldn’t automatically disqualify someone without a college degree or a home from being their preacher if it was clear that God was speaking through him.

He actually had a lot of Biblical knowledge. I’m always impressed by how much more Biblically literate I’ve found most homeless people to be than the average Sunday morning churchgoer. I guess if you’ve got a Bible and you have a lot of downtime, you’re going to read it a lot.

Anyhow, he asked me how to witness to people. He said he wanted to talk about Jesus to his punker and train-hopper friends. I told him that he had been witnessing to me and that it wasn’t about coming up with a fancy explanation for things but just talking about how Jesus has moved in your own life. I saw that he needed more than that because he kept on asking me the same question, so I laid my hands on him and asked God’s blessing for the call that He had put on Mr. Scout’s heart.

At least a quarter of the homeless people I’ve met consider themselves to be called by God to a specific prophetic or pastoral task. There’s one guy who used to come around the Lamb Center who got the word “Reverend” tattooed on his arm for this reason. I wonder what God sees from his vantage point looking down on people who know their Bibles and talk a lot about Jesus, while at the same time dealing with some mental illness, possible substance abuse, or other social issues. I don’t see any reason why a homeless prophet/evangelist is categorically different than a sinner who has a place to live and engages in prophecy and evangelism.

Anyhow, as Mr. Scout was leaving, he got a serious face and said, “When I say the word friend, I don’t use it lightly.” I think he was about to say that I was his friend, but he got off on a tangent talking about two people at some Baptist church in Richmond who were genuine friends. It was uncanny how his description of their interactions sounded so much like the way Henri Nouwen talks about his friends in Reaching Out. The whole conversation was peppered with references that Mr. Scout didn’t know he was making to everything I had read the week before. It was like he was Henri Nouwen in 40 year old, “Scout” jean-vest, punk-rocker form.

Whenever God sends me angels like Mr. Scout, I cannot put words to what a blessing it is to sit with them. I know if I read that sentence without having the inarticulable encounter that inspires it, it would sound like pious blather. But God really does say “I love you” when he sends homeless guys knocking on my church on Sunday afternoon. Mr. Scout gave me dignity. I got to be a pastor and love him. In truth, he was the one who showed me solidarity.

10 thoughts on “Why you have to be poor to treat people like Jesus did

  1. @Morgan, You gat to have share button so that one can share it across Facebook Page cuz I feel like sharing it so that my friends can benefit from this… Thanks for sharing, It is really challenging and comforting. God bless you.

  2. The middle class is rapidly disappearing. Many who can still lay claim to it are just a pay-check removed from joining the ranks of the downstrata themselves. How did we come to this? The question is just as plaintive today as it was when Edward G. Robinson asked Charlton Heston the same thing in the old film Soylent Green.

    • You’re absolutely right, Mr. Potter. Our family fell from middle class to working poor after the crash of 2008, and we’ve never recovered. How did we come to this? We’ve been victimized by greedy men and women who have bought out our government so that they escape justice for gambling with our economy. CEO pay is now hundreds of percentage points greater than that of the average worker, whose wages have stagnated for the past 35 years. Furthermore, we’ve been complacent about how these same forces are raping God’s creation to increase their profits, destroying the planet on which we live. And yet our churches do nothing to protest these outrages and stand up for God’s realm of love and justice.

      • I’m originally from a medium sized town in the Southeastern corner of Wisconsin. It’s right on Lake Michigan and a river meanders through it. It was once a model of sustainability and symbiosis between small to medium sized farmers and small to medium sized manufacturers. It’s almost all gone now. It has been systematically looted and gutted by a new breed of financial entrepreneur that cares nothing for and has no stake in a thriving local economy.

        And you’re very right Cynthia, so long as the churches remain silent they will continue to do as they’ve always done …The weak are the meat which the strong do eat…

  3. Most of my family and friends say not to give to the homeless because they’ll just spend it on drugs. I’ve always felt this to be wrong and to take away their dignity. I walk in chicago every day and see these people on the street corners. I don’t have much in the way of ministry in my life, but I feel the least I can give is some money or food along the way to work. God bless you in your ministry.

    • Even just taking some time to sit down and have a conversation can be huge when you’ve had your humanity taken away.

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