After returning from a church mission trip to urban Milwaukee, I have a few new thoughts concerning assumptions about helping the poor. This was the first mission trip I had ever been on, and overall, I thought the experience was a good one. Working in soup kitchens, spending time with the mentally/physically disabled, and playing with children who get very little attention from home were rewarding experiences for all involved. It was good that the youth at my church got to see a different way of life, and to experience the reality that poverty, violence, and homelessness do exist. What I walk away with as much as anything else, however, is the realization of how generous Americans are. We have so many charities here, no one should ever die of starvation. In fact, I am convinced that we could probably make do without one more food pantry, soup kitchen, or government program. Seeing so many charities in action leads me to think that, if anything, we need to be personally involved with those whose life experiences have broken them as much as handing them a hot meal from time to time.
One of the popular sayings of those who favor liberation theologies (theologies that focus primarily on reversing the plight of the poor, often adopting Marxist ideas and politics) is that when you spend time with the poor, you begin to see Jesus in the their face. They make the point that Jesus had a “preferential option” for the poor, and therefore the whole mission of the church should be to care for the poor. I do not dispute that Jesus did have such a preferential option, but it was not limited to the financially poor only, but also the spiritually, mentally, or physically poor. And yes, as hard as it is, it is crucial to see Jesus in all people, as a way of protecting the sanctity of human life and seeing the value in those who are in very different situations. The problem for me is what we do with these people after we see Jesus in them, and even after we recognize that Jesus has a preference for them?
When I think about the life of Jesus, I do not see his ministry only, which was only the last three years of his life. I see a man who labored for probably close to 18 years in back-breaking work. The Greek word for Jesus occupation, “teknia” suggests that he worked with heavy materials, certainly wood, but also possibly stone or even metal. Jesus, unlike so many “holy men” of ages past, never looked for a handout, or found a way to get out of working. And from those precious 18 years that he labored we get the sanctification of work, of labor. We get holiness in the workplace not from cube-to-cube evangelism, but from the fact that Jesus himself, God made flesh, toiled with humanity.
Now, from here I will not go on to say that the poor are poor because they are lazy, although some of them certainly prefer begging to working. My point is that if we are going to say that we see the face of Jesus in everyone, and especially the poor, then why do we often coddle the poor? Why do we assume that the only way they can succeed is by taking money from rich people and giving it to them? Is that how we would treat Jesus, with pity, and not mercy, with a handout, but not love? I’ve said it before, and it’s worth saying again, when Bill Clinton suggested that every church should help to take one person off of welfare and help them transition into the workplace, this was a very appropriate understanding of how the church can and should help the poor. Unfortunately, the church (technically the National Council of Churches) said, “No thanks.” What a shame. So the poor have enough Jesus in them to be pitied, but we dare not have expectations for them? Can we not ask that addictions be quelled? Can we not ask that efforts be made by those able to work? Can we not ask that mistakes that helped lead to poverty not be repeated in the future, not out of high-handed elitism, but out of love?
The more involved I am in church work, the more I realize the real economic issues at work in America are either ignored or flatly misunderstood by the Church. I don’t expect such mission trips to be able to cover everything that is at play in what helps create, recreate, or sustain poverty. But let’s at least act like we mean it when we look for the face of Jesus in the poor. Let’s have a little respect for what they are capable of, instead of writing them off as welfare-dependent victims. Then we will really be looking for the face of Jesus in the poor. And not just the Jesus who died for our sins and fed the 5,000, but the Jesus who toiled with us so that our own labor might be redeemed.