A fine state for the church to be in when it has no support left but God! …
– Blaise Pascal, Pensees
* * * * * * * * * * * *
It’s a bad thing to be poor. Right?
Of course it is. A lot of very intelligent, conscientious, and compassionate people have thought so – with good reason. The more eloquent among them have given moving expression to their ideas on the subject.
“Poverty,” says author J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame, “entails fear and stress and sometimes depression. It meets a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts — that is something on which to pride yourself. But poverty itself is romanticized by fools.”
Confucius, in the Analects, took a similar point of view. “In a country well governed,” he said, “poverty is something to be ashamed of.”
“Where justice is denied,” wrote former slave Frederick Douglass, “where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
South African statesman and civil rights activist Nelson Mandela dedicated his life to opposing this kind of oppression. “We pledge ourselves,” he said, “to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination.”
Jesus of Nazareth was as intelligent, conscientious, and compassionate as the best of them. He put his concern for the poor into action as nobody else could when He miraculously multiplied the loaves and fishes to feed the hungry multitude. He and His disciples had very little money, yet He placed Judas, treasurer of the small band, in charge of making regular contributions to the needy. And when a rich young ruler asked Him what he had to do in order to be saved, He told him to sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.
How strange, then, that Jesus never had anything to say about the evils of poverty! Quite the contrary. In one of the oddest of His many odd and paradoxical statements (the radical and nonsensical implications of which are usually piously overlooked), He actually called the poor “blessed.” He even went so far as to declare them lords and proprietors of the heavenly kingdom. In so doing, He suggested that the poor have a huge spiritual advantage over the rest of us. Why would He say such a thing? Because the poor, unlike the rich, have nothing to fall back on except sheer divine providence. In effect, Jesus told us that we, who sometimes pride ourselves on being their kind and generous benefactors, have much to learn from the example of the poor.
Not many of Christ’s followers have taken Him seriously on this point. Of the few who have, Francis of Assisi, true Pilgrim in the earth, was perhaps the most notable. At the decisive turning point of his life – that moment of crisis biographer Julien Green calls “The Great Refusal” – Francis, crazed with an unearthly love, stood before his rich bourgeois merchant father, the man who had hitherto supplied all his needs, and declared his intention to abandon human support and live a new kind of life – a life of complete and utter dependence upon God. Stripping off his clothes and throwing his money on the floor, the young man cried out, “Listen, listen, everyone! From now on I can say with complete freedom, ‘Our Father who art in heaven!’”* Then he went off, as he put it, to marry Lady Poverty. She was his closest companion for the rest of his days.
Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty. He meant well, of course, and his goals made perfect sense from a strictly social, political, and human point of view. But the Pilgrim knows that, for his purposes, it’s much better to wage war on wealth and affluence. He understands that, all too often, our financial assets become our support, our comfort, and our confidence – in other words, a false idol.
The Pilgrim, of all people, lends generously to the poor. But at the same time he is careful not to do the good he does out of a secret sense of superiority, skipping over the fundamental truth that giving is not so much a matter of helping as it is of identifying with the helpless – of becoming poor and destitute himself.
It’s a lesson the rest of us desperately need to learn.
*Julien Green (tr. Peter Heinegg), God’s Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), p. 82.
* * * * * * *