God’s Favorite Children Are Not Wild Animals
So, poverty is in the news here in South Dakota.
It always should be, as we have the top two poorest counties in the nation, and three of the top four.
This time, though, poverty in South Dakota garnered national attention thanks to a Republican contender for the U.S. Senate, Annette Bosworth. Last week, she posted a meme crudely comparing food stamp recipients to wild animals who become dependent on handouts.
Lots about this episode is shocking: the insulting initial comparison; the number of people who emphatically agree with Dr. Bosworth; and her repeated (and widely-flung) references to herself as a politician informed by her Christian identity.
It’s hard for me to imagine Jesus comparing hungry people with wild animals; he pulled the vipers barb out of his pocket every now and again, but to poke into the powerful religious authorities who were more interested in preserving their legalistic interpretations of law rather than engendering and celebrating mercy and grace.
(Hmmm. It just dawned on me, interestingly, that it is possible to find Amos, an Old Testament prophet, comparing wealthy women who exploit the poor to livestock. They became the “cows of Bashaan.”)
It won’t be a surprise to many regular readers that Annette Bosworth’s politics and mine differ in the extreme.
But that’s not the point.
This post isn’t about politics, though I wade into them in this post.
It’s about religious perspectives.
One could argue that interpretation of it matters even more.
“Just like it says in the Bible: ‘God helps those who help themselves.'”
Except that the Bible doesn’t say that.
Instead, there is a long history (the “proper” term is Heilsgeschichte, namely salvation history, the story thread throughout Scripture of God’s involvement in the world) of God’s commitment first to the poor, to those who are helpless in so many simple and complex ways.
Erma Bombeck (and who doesn’t miss Erma Bombeck) wrote a piece called “My Favorite Child.” In it she admits that yes, yes she does have a favorite child. And then, in detailing a child in various and sundry states of trouble and pain, she wraps it up by saying “All mothers have their favorite child. It is always the same one: the one who needs you at the moment.”
God’s history shows that yes, yes God does have a favorite child: the poor one. The sick one. The vulnerable one.
Liberation theology has given us this phrase: God gives preferential treatment to the poor.
If we identify ourselves with God’s name, I figure that we, too, are called to give preferential treatment to the poor.
Among other things, that suggests that as Christian policy makers and voters, our decisions are to be made from their vantage point. Not from the vantage point of those with an abundance of resources. But from the vantage point of those with exactly a scarcity of resources.
The Republican-led Congress of 2010 threatened to dismantle, and, in fact, succeeded in dismantling, a variety of social assistance for God’s favorite children. The outcry from religious traditions was loud, both before and after the decisions. One movement called the Circle of Protection has signatures from a wide swath of Christian traditions, and calls out those who vote to reduce SNAP, who reduce corporate taxes while disproportionately taxing the poor (as in, for example, the food tax, which, again to our shame, South Dakota still employs), and the threatened end of emergency unemployment benefits.
Several states, including South Dakota, are refusing Medicaid Expansion. Even as I write this, news is coming from Missouri with protestors flooding the Senate because of their government’s resistance to expand this critical aid to the poor.
Of course, not only are Christians dismayed by policies that harm the Least of These. Here in January 2013 I reviewed the faith traditions of nationally elected officials and their stated religious affiliation’s official statements on economic justice. I was simply curious about how votes mirrored religious alignments; not only those of Christians, but of Jews and Muslims too.
The review of religious stances demonstrates wide religious distress at policy decisions which work against the poor.
The idea of dependency which Annette Bosworth raises (though in an extremely tactless way) is worthy of consideration…and when considered, reveals that while an issue, it is not, in fact, a big issue…for the poor.
For the rich, on the other hand, governmental assistance seems to be a more significant addiction.
Interestingly, the attack on Food Stamps seems to be an easier target than, say, corporate subsidies, as my husband and I have noted and addressed in the past.
I sincerely doubt that, if weaned off of large tax breaks, the children of big oil execs would suffer in the same way as the children of the working poor, or the disabled poor, or the ill poor.
In other words, Annette Bosworth is right about one thing: the children of the poor are dependent on the system.
Now, I began this blog by saying that Scripture matters, as does interpretation.
There are scads of texts about poverty and our calling (as Jews and Christians) to be their advocates, to not exploit them, and to serve them: over 2000.
There are no texts that come to mind to suggest that God’s people are to become wealthy for wealth’s sake (in fact, of Luke it’s been said that a basic message of this gospel is that just as the poor are to be redeemed of their poverty, the rich are to be redeemed of their wealth).
There are no texts that come to mind to suggest that political or social systems that benefit the wealthy while causing harm to the poor are consistent with God’s agenda (in fact, Matthew 25 warns of grave consequences to those nations which don’t feed, and heal, and clothe, and visit the most vulnerable).
There is one text that is about poverty that has been mis-adapted to be not about poverty. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah has been construed to be evidence of God’s displeasure about homosexuality.
In fact, Ezekiel 16:49-50 states that the judgment rendered against these cities was rather because they did not aid the poor and needy.
That, ahem, totally reframes the notion of anti-sodomy laws, doesn’t it.
There are two texts that seem to be oft-referenced to legitimate refusing to relentlessly help the poor.
One is Matthew 26:6-13. The famous line is “The poor will always be with you.” It’s often used as a statement of fact, as in “Well, there’s nothing you can do about that. It’s a reality as true as the sun rising in the East and setting in the West.”
Read literally, it’s easy to assume that’s the gist of it.
Read contextually, read historically, read in light of God’s Heilsgeschichte, then you come out in a different place.
First, it isn’t a statement of fact to be left there. Instead, it’s set up to be a contrast with the following statement: Jesus won’t always be with them.
This isn’t a minor quibble.
Not only does this text follow almost exactly after the Matthew 25 text I mentioned above.
It follows right before Jesus’ execution.
Taken in its entirety, the point is far more rather that this woman couldn’t save him from crucifixion (a death brought about because of his entire ministry on behalf of the Least of These), but she could anoint him king…and this was her only shot at it.
And a woman was his anointer!
It’s an extraordinary text.
Another is this one, from 2 Thessalonians. “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”
Oh, this one grates me when it is misused.
Note that the text comes from 2 Thessalonians. Not 1 Thessalonians. But 2 Thessalonians.
Earlier, Paul had come to the Thessalonian community to spread his grasp of the gospel. Later, this same community began to be confused, because they had believed that no one would die before Jesus would return. But people were dying. So, what was up with that, the people wondered.
Paul had to clarify his point, then, but still there were people who were so convinced that Jesus was coming any moment that they simply stopped bothering to work.
They didn’t, however, stop getting hungry. And so they expected other members, members who weren’t so sure that Jesus would come before their next lunch, to feed those who were.
Behind this, however, is yet another important piece. The community was just that: communal. Everyone was to participate in the entire community, toward the entire community, to the benefit of the entire community, as each could for each who needed.
And all of this is done in Jesus’ name.
And this is my interpretive lens, my hermeneutic (to use more theo-lingo).
If we do anything in Jesus’ name, then we have to think and act like Jesus.
The thing of it is, from the long tradition in the First Testament (Old Testament) of God’s deep commitment to the vulnerable; from the moment that Mary learned of her pregnancy (the Magnificat) and sung of her God–this same God–who lifted up the lowly, filled up the hungry, and sent the rich away empty; through Jesus’ life of feeding the poor, healing the sick, and forgiving the sinners; to his death where he forgave his oppressors; to his resurrection which announced that life wins, well….one has to squint to make Scripture say that we should denigrate and subjugate the poor.
Now, it is true: dependency can become a way of life, for the poor–and for the rich.
But rarely is this tendency reduced to an individual habit. It’s a systemic issue.
In the case of the rich, the system (governmental, educational, social) facilitates their continued success.
In the case of the poor, the system (governmental, educational, social) facilitates their continued struggle.
So again, the liberation theologians speak to us: we should have preferential treatment of the poor and vulnerable. Everything that we do should be from their perspective first.
Perhaps, as a result, we allow a few poor dependents a free pass.
But I’d rather be judged for that than be rebuked and later called by Jesus a wild animal, a snake, for example, for turning my back on God’s favorite children.
Last Sunday carried my latest Argus Leader Faith and Doubt column. This article was dedicated to the notion of compassion, as it is threaded through the major religions. You can read that here.