Cultural, Biblical and Theological Musings
“A woman came with a….jar of very costly ointment …. and poured the ointment on his head….Some… said in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For [it] could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor”. And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; …. She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me; …… she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.”” (Mk.14.3-8).
Jesus’ answer to the woman suggests that a concern for those in need is an almost universal category of social involvement; as Nelson Mandela has reminded us often, so many other ills are linked to poverty: disease, lack of education, crime and terrorism to name just a few. Like so many of Jesus’ sayings, ‘the poor are always with you’ can be read (and used) in more than one way. It may be quite pragmatic, that is to say, experience shows that this is a (sad) fact of human history: a more ominous view of the saying might be that poverty is, as it were, built into the order of things, an item of the lex naturalis . Such a view is quite explicit in many economic theories of the last two centuries which suggest a pool of unemployed people is required (as in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, 1776) for the economic health of the whole. Either position is problematic for the church: if history shows the ubiquitous presence of poverty, what about those who follow the teachings of Jesus: if it is part of the order of things, what of the church as a new order?
Roman Empire - Hellenism
If it is true that the poor will always be with us, is it, in fact, the case that they always have been? To pose the question at once exposes the relativity of the term. H.D.F. Kitto commenting on life in classical Greece writes, “In Greece one can lead an active life on much less food than harsher climates make necessary”. He points out that much of life was (and still is) lived out of doors not only at work but in leisure; that Athenians had so much of the latter is often attributed to the slaves they owned, but Kitto goes on, “Slavery had something to do with it, but not so much as the fact that three-quarters of the things which we slave for the Greek simply did without”. (Greeks 36).
Slavery was, perhaps, a defining characteristic of the great empires of the Nile and Euphrates deltas, and was firmly established in classical Greece, and later in the Hellenistic world of 300 B.C.E. to c. 300 C.E. It is quite impossible to generalize about so many cultures over a span of six centuries, but some context for the emergence of Judaism and then the Christian movement is essential. It might help to begin towards the end of period with a quotation from Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia, a Roman Province stretching along the southern seaboard of modern Turkey. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (3.27-28). Without an immense effort of historical imagination, it is hardly possible to grasp just how startling, how radical, how quite beyond the pale, sentiments like these must have sounded to the average Hellenistic citizen of the mid first century C.E. Perhaps Paul’s converts were beginning to grasp just how radical the new teaching was, but most of them came from a culture where a human being meant a citizen of Rome, or rather the Graeco/Roman culture that dominated the Mediterranean world. You were a citizen, or you were hoi polloi, - hardly an individual in a great lump of something less than humanity consisting of slaves and barbarians.
Vast numbers of impoverished and destitute people spread across the Roman world, like flotsam washed up on an empty beach. Beggars were everywhere; they appear in all kinds of contemporary writing, not least in the pages of the New Testament, and with them were the chronically sick, the abandoned children. There were also the petty thieves and prostitutes, escaped slaves and fugitives from justice and a considerable number of unemployed who were desperately trying to avoid dropping into the tide of flotsam. The parable of the day-workers that Matthew preserve for us, gives a poignant glimpse of social conditions: queues of unemployed men gathered in the market place and a small number hired. Not long ago, I saw a film clip from the nineteen thirties that had the exact scene at the dockside of a large seaport and noted the desperate look of those who were turned away. In Matthew’s story, there are still men waiting, hoping as late as three in the afternoon. (Mt. 20.1ff). And, of course, there are still people waiting in similar conditions today, gathering in parking lots in the hope of a day’s laboring.
The Old Testament
To see the beginnings of a different evaluation of the human person, we need now to turn for a look at the Judaism from which Jesus and Paul came . The vocabulary of the OT exposes factors that lie at the root of destitution. A Hebrew word, ebyon, used more than sixty times has a fairly wide meaning covering those in need for various reasons, (Deut. 15.7-11; Job 29.16); a word, (ani), used almost as frequently, however, has a distinct emphasis on poverty resulting from oppression by the powerful and rich (Ps. 35.10; Isa. 3.14-15). A major cause of poverty was, and still is largely, beyond human control: the vagaries of climate resulting in famines, and the ravages of epidemics (though, of course, with greater human concern and effort, the effects of these could, in the 21st century, be dramatically reduced). A second cause was, and certainly still is (very much, however,) under human control: human ill-will, greed, aggression and power-seeking, (the bible lumps these together as sin, not perhaps all that PC, but more accurate than something like “compassion impaired”). Very often in both the Old and New testaments there is a polarity between the rich and the poor: the rich are castigated for idleness, luxury, and greed, and the poor are seen as of special concern to Yahweh. A careful reading suggests that the main condemnation of the rich is not primarily their wealth but their misuse of power. After one of the earliest and most damning indictments of the rich, Amos concludes, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream”. (5.24). Many Americans know this verse because it was often used by Martin Luther King.
Prophetic Tradition in the New Testament
When we turn to the NT, we find Jesus firmly in the prophetic tradition; both in his recorded sayings and in the writings of the earliest followers the same themes recur: the rich man who built new barns; the parable of Dives and Lazarus; the Rich young man to whom Jesus said, “sell all you possess and give it to the poor”; a camel struggling to get through a needle’s eye; Peter’s address to Jesus, “we have left everything to follow you”; the Beatitudes, and especially Luke’s highly radicalized version of Matthew’s “blessed are the poor in spirit”, which becomes “blessed are the poor” (period). This is not an exhaustive list but it indicates the prevalence of the issue for the earliest followers of Jesus.
Poverty in Church History
Christian history produced movements that involved total renunciation of ‘the world’; from the end of the second century, this rigorous interpretation was inter-twined with Hellenistic elements of thought which denigrated the material world and regarded sexuality as demonic. These movements in turn, set up fierce theological and ecclesiastical tensions, evidenced much later by the Papal suppression of the Franciscans because of their advocating extreme poverty in the 14th century and the heated discussions of the Reformation period. Calvin’s mediating comment on Acts 16.15 is worth quoting:
“Many place angelical perfection in poverty, as if the cultivation of piety and obedience to God were impossible without the divestment of wealth…Many fanatics refuse rich men the hope of salvation, as if poverty were the only gate to heaven, although it (poverty) sometimes involves men with greater disadvantages than riches. But Augustine reminds us that rich and poor share the same heritage. …[But] we must beware of the opposite evil, lest riches hinder or so burden us that we advance less readily toward the kingdom of heaven”. (Quoted in Bouwsma, Calvin, 198)
Central to the polarizations of society is the issue of power, and the New Testament approach is clear. Authority justly exercised is to be obeyed (Rom. 13.1), but the radical nature of the gospel is seen in a saying like Mark 10.43 where Jesus contrasts the normal exercise of power with what is to be the norm in the Christian community. There was to be no “lording it” over one another; “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant…For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”. The fourth gospel depicts this saying in a dramatic scene: Jesus acts as a slave and washes the disciples' feet. The New Testament, it seems, unambiguously suggests that the Christian is called to follow Jesus by embracing the status of a slave, accepting powerlessness and placing total faith in God. Clearly, the following centuries were to see a great deal of re-interpreting to enable the church to live in “last times” which were to be measured in millennia rather than in decades. Nowhere is this more crucial than in dealing with ethical issues.
Whether the poor will always be with us is susceptible of an answer in the light of several revolutions in the last century and a half: the Industrial, the Green, and Information revolutions to name a few. Given the will and given the compassion poverty could be removed, but, in fact, we live in a nation of immense wealth where the number of those below the poverty line increases every year. “We can do good things for the poor whenever we wish” seems to be a part of Jesus’ saying that has got lost.
In fairness, it must be noted that since the Industrial revolution, the churches have often been in the forefront of those demanding social responsibility from governments. A good early example is the influence of the Christian Socialist movement (F.D. Maurice, Charles Gore, Scott Holland and B.F. Westcott); they produced a powerful critique of the capitalist system, and one important result of their work was the report of a committee set up by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Christianity and Industrial Problems. Published in 1918, the report called for “a living wage, action to deal with unemployment and casual labour schemes, cooperation between employers and workers, extensions of municipal services, restrictions on profits and a housing programme”.
Conservatives Perpetuate Poverty
Doubtless the Archbishop’s committee Report horrified the wealthy members of the ECUSA of the time. Still, in the 1930s Keynes’ work (whether by direct influence or a kind of osmosis) produced the economic theory and policy tools that enabled many of the ideas of the Report to become part of the modern state’s approach to social responsibility. In spite of much rhetoric to the contrary, even the USA has incorporated many of these ideas. It is clear, though, that Conservative politicians do not like social programs, would not be sorry for Social Security to collapse (by using all its surpluses for military expenditure?) and are continually eroding Medicare benefits (note current plans to reduce payments to Doctors – see AMA Web Site)
Further, in certain strands of Christianity (which are usually also politically Conservative), a doctrine of Providence, which at one time was more or less universal, is still powerful. In the 19th century, as the horrors of the industrial revolution became known, various groups entered the fray. Among the first were the English Evangelicals; a group known as the Clapham Sect mounted campaigns for the reform of prisons and the regulation of child labor, but held firmly to a view that divine Providence orders the economy, and that the good are rewarded and the bad punished. Handouts were frowned on except for a sub-class known as the “deserving poor”. The more extreme evangelicals did not hesitate to interpret economic crises and natural disasters, (like outbreaks of cholera, frequent in the first half of the 19th century,) as God’s judgment, just as their successors see God’s punishment in AIDs and the hurricane Katrina.
Unhappily such views are still widely current among the far religious right with some mega- churches trumpeting as the Christian blessing the acquisition of great wealth, a kind of anti-asceticism, which can rest happily in the thought that the poor are always (to be) with us.