Saturday Night Theologian
6 September 2009

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

Have you ever noticed that gasoline often costs more in the poorer sections of town than in the rich sections? Similarly, grocery stores on "the other side of the tracks" sell their wares at a higher price. Banks charge fees to those account holders who don't have sufficient resources to maintain a minimum balance, and they charge outrageous overdraft fees to customers who can least afford it. Auto dealerships give the rich auto loans at extremely low interest rates, but they gouge the poor, even if they have perfectly good collateral and steady incomes. States sales taxes--particularly in those barbarous states that tax food from the grocery store--disproportionately target the poor, who pay a higher percentage of their incomes for the necessities of life than do the rich. The exploitation of the poor by both business and government is certainly nothing new, and in many ways the poor are better off than in the past. But not as much as might appear on the surface. There are no more debtors prisons, but fairy recent changes to the bankruptcy laws designed to protect the poor mean more and more families lose everything they have every year. The overthrow of feudalism means that serfs are no longer tied to the landlord's land, but some factory managers and owners of big companies continue to exploit their workers, particularly those without proper documentation. The social safety network put in place in the U.S. by Presidents Roosevelt and Johnson provide a minimal income and basic health care to certain portions of society, but the rest of society's poor continue to barely get by, if they get by at all. The Bible has more to say about care for the poor than almost any other topic. Our reading today from Proverbs has this line: "Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the LORD pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them." In other words, God stands with the poor. That's good, but is it enough? If those of us who consider ourselves the people of God don't stand with the poor as well, of what value is it? It's too easy to leave it in God's hands. "Well, if God wants to do something about it, let God take care of it." Or this old canard: "It's not the government's job to take care of the poor, it's the church's job. If Christians would just meet the needs of the poor, government wouldn't have to." The obvious problem with this line of reasoning, of course, is that the church doesn't take care of all the needs of the poor, nor is it able to. We live in a society where fewer and fewer people attend church, and many who do have no real commitment to the church as an institution, or to its mission in the world. Then there's the problem that the mission of many churches is so otherworldly that they're of no earthly value. Any way you slice it, the church as an institution can do little to address the real needs of the poor in today's world. It's not that they can't do anything, it's that they can't do enough. Only governments--with the strong backing of people of faith who feel God's mandate to care for the poor, the sick, the weak, and the needy--have any chance of lifting people out of poverty and misery. Maybe governments don't do it overtly in the name of God, but that doesn't stop individual believers from casting their votes and lending their voices to progressive causes from doing so in the name of God. One of the most popular patriotic songs nowadays is "God Bless America." Some people sing it as though Americans have the right to be blessed above any other people, but that's clearly ridiculous. What can we do to merit God's blessing? "Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor." This proverb applies not only to individuals, but to nations as well.

Psalm 125 (first published 7 September 2003)

"Peace be upon Israel!" is the phrase that ends this psalm, but the modern nation of Israel is far from peaceful. The psalmist advances the principle that God blesses the upright and punishes the wicked, a nice sentiment and a theme of traditional wisdom (e.g., Proverbs), but one that is not always the case (cf. Job and Ecclesiastes). While suffering is often the result of sin, the person who sins is not always the person who suffers. All too often the innocent, or at least the relatively innocent, suffer for the sins of others. The situation in Israel and Palestine today is a good example of this verity. The history of the modern state of Israel is filled with violence and injustice, including the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes beginning in 1948, violent Arab attacks and reprisals, the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the violence of the Palestinians against Israelis in the two intifadas, and the state-sponsored violence of Israel against Palestinians, both in overt acts and in unjust laws and discrimination on the part of the Israeli government. The current intifada was set off by Ariel Sharon's intentionally provocative visit to the Temple Mount in September of 2000. Other Israeli provocations include the continued building of Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory and the building of a "Berlin Wall" to incorporate appropriated Palestinian territory into Israel. Palestinians have exacerbated the situation by sending waves of suicide bombers into Israel to attack civilians. The most recent ceasefire fell apart after Israel assassinated a number of Palestinian leaders (whom Israel identified as terrorists), killing many civilians in the process, and Palestinians responded by murdering civilians in suicide bombings. Both the overt violence exercised by Israelis and Palestinians and the structural violence perpetrated exclusively by the Israeli government (because the Israeli government alone has the power to do so)--which is directly abetted by the U.S. through arms sales, political support, etc.--perpetuate the suffering of the people of the region, Israelis and Palestinians alike. In the midst of all this violence and suffering, where is the upright person whom the psalmist says God will bless? They don't get much press, but they are there. The Israeli peace activist who advocates talks, not violence, is cause for hope. The Palestinian young person who opposes violence perpetrated against innocent civilians is acting in an upright manner. The foreigners who risk their lives, and sometimes lose them, to stand between warring factions and call for an end to the violence show belligerents on both sides the way out. It is not the rabid right-wing Israeli militants who attend synagogue service on Saturday and spew hatred against their Arab neighbors who are upright. It is not the self-deluded would-be martyrs who go to the mosque on Friday and make plans to destroy their enemies who are just. The God of Jews, Muslims, and Christians abhors the violence of those who falsely claim to be followers of God, but who in reality are only following an evil projection of their own warped hatred. If we would see peace in Israel, we who do not live there must support policies that will put an end to violence on both sides of the conflict. If we oppose Yasser Arafat because of his purported support for violent solutions to the Palestinian problem, we should also oppose Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu, and other Israelis whose antagonism toward Palestinians is evident to all unbiased observers. We must stop arms sales to Israel, and we must pressure those countries that supply weapons to the Palestinians to stop as well. We must begin to treat leaders of Israel and Palestine in an evenhanded manner, so that the U.S. is no longer seen as favoring one side over the other. Finally, we must support those Israelis and Palestinians who are risking their lives daily to bring peace to their land. The Road Map for Peace is a useless piece of paper until we begin to act like arbiters rather than partisans.

James 2:1-10, (1-13), 14-17 (first published 7 September 2003)

Showing partiality to the rich is a longstanding problem in the church, as evidenced by today's reading from James. Even in the first century, the rich were treated with greater respect than their poorer counterparts. The trend continued into the Middle Ages, getting so bad that wealthy families were often able to buy influential church offices, including the papacy. The problem remains today. I briefly attended a church several years ago led by a pastor who was generally respected by his congregation. The one complaint that people had about him was that he had a tendency to fawn over the wealthier members of the congregation, making a spectacle of those who had given large donations to the church. In comparison to the widespread tendency of Christians to favor the rich, an examination of the life of Jesus as portrayed in the gospels shows Jesus praising the humility and faith of the poor and warning that the rich were in danger of missing out on the kingdom of God. Jesus counseled the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor, then follow Jesus. He said that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven. While a guest in the house of a wealthy individual, he criticized his host for failing to provide the simple hospitality shown him by the woman who was washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. Christianity is a religion that calls for a radical reexamination of one's attitude toward riches. If the rich are in danger of being excluded from the kingdom, what does that say to those of us who enjoy comfortable lives, indeed, lives that are luxurious by non-Western standards? The fact that we may not be as rich as some of our neighbors does not mean that God will overlook our squandering of the wealth we have been given. There are many advantages to wealth, and many dangers as well. Money can provide one's family with a comfortable life, it can give one access to a good education, it can ensure decent health care, and it can give the person who has it the leisure to do many good works. These are all positive things, but is it fair that a small number of us--larger numbers in the West--can take advantage of excess wealth while vast numbers of people can barely make ends meet? About two billion people--one-third of the world's population--live either below or very close to the poverty line. How can the excess wealth of the very rich, both individuals and nations, be used to alleviate the suffering of the very poor? As James says, if we see our brother or sister in need, we should act to alleviate the need. Christianity began as a movement among the lower classes, with just a few wealthy patrons. In many places it has become the religion primarily of the middle and upper classes. In making this transition, how has the religion changed? Do the poor still view Christianity as a religion that offers a message of hope, not only in the next life, but in this one as well? When Karl Marx spoke of religion as the opiate of the masses, he was primarily talking about a Christianity that focused on the benefits of the afterlife in order to keep the poor in check. It is small wonder that the twentieth century saw people turn away from the church in droves. However, it is a testimony to the power of the original message of Jesus that many of the poor today, from Latin America to Africa to Asia, are seeking to reform Christianity, returning it to its roots, rather than to abandon it altogether. If those of us who live lives of advantage continue to follow a made-for-the-middle-class Christianity-as-usual, how long will the poor see their religion as the same as ours?

Mark 7:24-37 (first published 7 September 2003)

In the 1980s, after scientists studying AIDS had come to an understanding of what caused it and how it was transmitted, they were confronted with a public relations problem. Although they had released their findings in the media, public hysteria about the disease was still prevalent. C. Everett Koop, U.S. surgeon general under Ronald Reagan, issued a detailed statement on preventing the transmission of AIDS that was designed to calm the public's fears and educate them on the subject. After the statement's release, many of his supporters on the right said that he had sold out and become an apologist for the gay-rights lobby. Misinformation and fear continued to be widespread. Children with AIDS were expelled from public schools and from churches. Fearmongers claimed that if a person with AIDS was sitting in a restaurant drinking water, and a waiter giving him a refill let the pitcher touch his glass, AIDS could be spread throughout the restaurant. Much of the fear and lies about AIDS were spread by those on the right who had a visceral hatred for homosexuals. In the midst of this insanity, one woman almost single-handedly quashed the hysteria of the radical right and calmed the public's fears about people with AIDS. Princess Diana made a very public visit to an AIDS clinic, making a point to shake hands with some of the patients in order to demonstrate that AIDS couldn't be transmitted by casual contact. The pictures of her visit spread throughout the world, and the majority of people came to understand that what the scientists and the surgeon general were saying about AIDS was true, and that victims of the disease deserved love, not fear or hatred. People have a natural tendency to be leery of those who look different, speak different languages, worship God differently, or have a different culture. Jesus confronted this attitude when he visited the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon. He encountered a woman whose daughter was "possessed by a demon" and sought healing for her. He seemed to rebuff her first advances, saying that his healing power was intended only for the "children," that is, the Jews. He might have said this to test her faith, or he might have been giving voice to his disciples' prejudices, in order to expose them as unjust. When the woman persisted in her plea, Jesus pronounced that her daughter had been healed. Who are today's outcasts, the people around whom we feel most uncomfortable? Is it the immigrants who have moved into our neighborhoods, resisting assimilation to our culture? Is it the new family next door that belongs to a different ethnic group? Is it the people who worship at the makeshift mosque or temple just down the road? Is it the homosexual couple who are parents to your children's friends? Is it the street people who hang out around your church? Is your church a mission, doors open to whoever might show up, or is it a club, open to members only (and their special guests)? If the neighborhood around your church changed, would the congregation stay and minister, or would it pack up and move? It's not even enough to welcome all who come our way. If we are to follow the example of Jesus, we must seek them out. Jesus met the Syrophoenician woman in a place that was outside his usual element. Why did he travel to Phoenicia? Was it to rest? Or was he actively seeking to expand his ministry? Either way, the application for today's Christians is clear. We are to continue Jesus' work of bringing the good news to all those whom we encounter, and we even need to go out of our way to make sure that everyone hears--and sees--the message of power and healing.