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Occupy the Holy

August 26, 2015

 [This post was originally drafted in April, 2012.  Unfortunately, it is still relevant.]  As we commemorate Jesus’ final days, it’s worth recalling his mission of bringing “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).  Despite his insistence on helping the poor, many on the Christian Right actively oppose government support for those living in deprivation.  Rather than a morality of love their stance reflects an ethic of purity that is squarely at odds with Jesus’ ministry.

 Advocates for denying support for the poor justify government neglect by depicting poverty as self-inflicted, the result of “an awful lot of bad choices,.”  Deprivation is treated as reflecting deep seated character flaws that can only be cured by the Gospel.  Government assistance only compounds the problem because, in the words of the right wing Christian advocacy group Liberty Counsel, it “trap[s the poor] in dependence,” serving only to “enslave them in an endless cycle of poverty.”

This perspective idolizes the independent, self-reliant, and, above all, self-supporting individual as the model of righteousness.  The misguided and dependent poor share the status of the “unclean” of Jesus’ era: their condition makes them morally suspect. This attitude is reflected in the demeaning tests for receiving aid: drug tests for unemployment beneficiaries (which applicants must pay for) and fingerprinting food stamp recipients.

Blaming poverty on the “undeserving” poor is a well worn tactic, but it’s a grotesque distortion of the phenomenon of poverty in this society.  When poverty increased as a result of the deep recession, was it because there was an epidemic of bad character choices?  And what about the working poor?  They don’t fit the moralists’ model of the undeserving poor do they?  Yet there are 45 million people in low income working families, 1.7 million more than in 2008.  What about the elderly?  Over 18% of the elderly in this country were living in poverty in 2010 –– over 7 million people.  Are they plagued with bad character?  And children?  More than 1 in 5 of them are poor –– the result of bad choices?

Can we rely on the economy to solve the large and growing problem of poverty as Republican presidential candidates would have us believe?  No.  For the overwhelming majority of Americans the economy simply doesn’t work.  Instead, it overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy few.  In the first year of recovery after the recession, the top 1% of wage earners hauled in 93% of the income gains.  The same year the top 10% of wage earners reaped almost 50% of the total income produced by our economy.  As long as the economy is misshapen to such an extreme extent, it will fail to provide adequate support for tens of millions of our fellow citizens.  Without government support as many as 40 million more people would have sunk into poverty.  Far from seducing people into slavery, government support is keeping them from catastrophe and the despair that goes with it.

 

It’s time to repudiate the distorted images that come from the Christian right and return to Jesus’ message.  When he talked about the poor, he didn’t blame them, he comforted and fed them.  Unlike the rich and powerful in his society, who considered the poor the “least” in the society –– the least worthy, the least moral, the least clean –– he unequivocally identified with them, proclaiming them his brothers.

 

And they are ours, too.  In this Holy Week, let us occupy the holy ground, the place where we meet each other’s needs, where we stand together in community.  The place where Jesus leads us, where we love one another as sisters and brothers.  Let us occupy that place where all are worthy, where we become holy by caring for one another.

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