Notes from a Forum on Christian Identity and Poverty
The theme of the presentation was Christian identity, i.e. that care for and about the poor was a significant part of how Christians identified themselves; it was at the core of Christian identity, not peripheral. The focus on poverty and the poor offered a stark contrast with pre-Christian Roman society. There was a new sensibility that carried over into Christian society and Christian art.
In the Middle Ages there were two sides of the poverty coin: 1) voluntary poverty as in the monastic movements, and 2) aid and relief of the poor, the lame, beggars and other marginal folks. As the church became more wealthy and powerful there were periodic revivals of poverty, most notably in the life of St. Francis of Assisi and the order he founded. From the time of the Reformation forward, the state took on more responsibility for relief of the poor in both Catholic and Protestant areas. New movements have emerged up to the present, e.g. the Salvation Army in the nineteenth century and Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker in the twentieth.
Concern for the poor has carried over into a post-Christian society and many programs to address poverty are sponsored by government or non-religious organizations. Nevertheless, Christian involvement in poor relief and in challenging the consumerist notion of identifying oneself by possessions continues.
In conclusion, the church’s mission today includes the following: 1) to aid the poor and marginal; 2) to keep alive the ideal of serving the poor with compassion, not condescension; 3) to advocate for policies to relieve poverty, both individual and systemic, over the short and long term.
Citations and Quotations:
Ps 72 “He shall defend the needy among the people * he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor,” ….”For he shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress, * ad oppressed who has no helper. He shall have pity on the lowly and poor, * he shall preserve the lives of the needy.”
Prophet Amos 8:4ff “Hear this, you who trample upon the needy, and bring the poor of the land to an end. Saying >When will the new moon beover, that we may sell grain? …and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and sell the refuse of the wheat?”
Mt. 26:11 “for you always have the poor with you.”
Mark 10:21 “what you have and give to the poor”
Mark 10:25 “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Lk 7:22 “and the poor have good news preached to them”
Mt 25 Judgment based on feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.
Acts 2:44-45 “And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and good and distributed thm to all, as any had need.”
“And these Christians brought something new into the ancient world: a vision of the good without precedent in pagan society, a creed that prescribed charitable service to others as a religious obligation, a story about a God of self-outpouring love. ….Even the emperor Julian [the Apostate]… was forced to lament, in a letter to a pagan priest, “It is a disgrace that these impious Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well”.” ( David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusiions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 45)
“Nonetheless, the treatment and acceptance of the disabled by the Christian community is in sharp contrast with the way they had been considered previously” (Livio Pestilli, Picturing the Lame in Italian Art from Antiquity to the Modern Era, ”101
Elizabeth of Hungary, inspired by St. Francis “devoted her life to the destitute and thus has been the patron saint of beggars ever since 1235, when she was canonized.” (Pestilli, 111)
“”Nonetheless, the cumulative effect of ethical paraeneis and eschatological judgment is that they serve as a boundary marker for early Christians as God’s eschatological people—they will be judged by what they do to those who are helpless, afflicted, and poor.” (Helen Rhee, Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich: Wealth, Poverty, and Early Christian Formation, 71)
Today’s consumerism: “It deceives us into thinking that the sort of product we prefer and purchase defines our IDENTITY, representing our social rank, worth, and significance in society; therefore each class strives to emulate the class above it and to purchase the goods that could get them to the step above their place in the social hierarchy….” (Rhee, 196-97)
“Cheerful giving (2 Cor. 9:7) [“for God loves a cheerful giver”] in the Christian tradition comes from this gratitude for God’s giving, a fundamental ‘disposition for sharing.” Thus, early Christians were exhorted to not be modest in giving to and sharing with the needy, since our giving would (should) reflect God’s own giving and our fundamental Christian IDENTITY and orientation to life.” How we are giving depends on circumstances, and there is not one way, but many. (Rhee, 200-01)