Christians Must Reshape How our Culture Views Poverty and the Poor

This talk was given October 1st 2017, at St. Luke’s Parish in Darien, Connecticut, as part of an ongoing speaker series about finding Christ.

Our savior was poor. “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ,” St. Paul wrote, “that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”It is hard, now, to hear just how radical that is. The din of time has mellowed the force of the fact. A different challenge presented itself to Christianity’s early preachers and practitioners: Convincing others, and themselves, that such a thing were really possible, and that it mattered.

To focus on the Latin west, it is worth noting that the ancient Roman social imagination was not organized around poles of poverty and wealth, but rather citizenship versus barbarianism. This is not to say that there were no poor people in ancient Rome; there were, of course. But their poverty itself was not a major source of social concern. “Poverty, in itself, gave no entitlement,” according to historian Peter Brown, “those who received benefits from the wealthy received them not because they were poor but because they were citizens.”

Which is not to say the ancients held the poor in high esteem — a failure to focus on poverty per se did not imply an absence of stigma. On the contrary, an ancient Roman legal text off-handedly identified poor persons among those unworthy of presenting complaints in courts of law or giving testimony; but by the middle ages, Christian authors would modify this rule on the grounds that poverty itself wasn’t a moral failure, and wasn’t “a kind of crime.”

But to get to that point, the preachers of late antiquity were tasked with reshaping the imaginations of their hearers. For them, the poor had to be, in some sense, invented, and their poverty presented as a moral issue. People that these fledgling ancient Christians had seen for years in one way, they were now asked to see in a new and peculiar light. The sermons of late antiquity, a period roughly between the third and eighth centuries, right around the time that Christianity was gaining serious ground in terms of adherence, authority and civic attention, tell the story of this reinvention.

“The poor man seeks money and has it not; a man asks for bread, and your horse champs a gold bit under his teeth,” St. Ambrose of Milan wrote, “And precious ornaments delight you, although others do not have grain.” To the pre-Christian imagination this scenario might’ve landed as gauche or petty; it’s in poor taste, after all, to notice the humiliation of a fellow citizen and carry on without mercy. But Ambrose insisted that it was worse than impolite; it was morally wrong: “Mercy is indeed a part of justice, so that if you wish to give to the poor, this mercy is justice…since the Lord our God has willed this earth to be the common possession of all and its fruit to support all.” The poor, in other words, have a claim and a right to the fruits of the earth, because God gave the comfort of nature to all to hold in common. Ambrose’s notary and biographer Paulinus commended the bishop for his own indifference to riches, so, “like a lightly clad and unencumbered soldier, he might follow Christ the Lord, who, being rich, became poor for our sake.”

The preachers of late antiquity set themselves to work upending the reactive, negative notions that developed about the poor among a newly accountable upper class. “You are often idling at the theaters all day,” said St. John Chrysostom, “or in the council-chambers, or in useless conversation. You blame many — but you fail to consider yourself as ever doing anything evil or idle. And do you condemn this poor and miserable person who lives the whole day in entreaties, teas, and a thousand difficulties?” Chrysostom elsewhere argues that the great inheritances common to the aristocracy suggest there’s no more virtue in the acquisition of wealth than the collapse into poverty: At least a poor man living in poverty doesn’t deny others use of the land.

Christ, having been Himself poor, was believed to hold the earthly poor especially close to Himself — a strange thought to a culture more accustomed to thinking of Gods favoring heroes, great beauties and bold conquerors. Almsgiving, Ambrose wrote, can “make God your debtor by a kind of pious usury,” an admittedly unsettling notion to modern ears. But God was understood to consider alms given to the poor as a gift made to Himself, so dearly did He love them.

Lastly, the social condition of the poor itself was adduced as a parallel between themselves and God. “Like God,” per Brown’s account, “the poor were very distant. Like God, the poor were silent. Like God, the poor could all too easily be forgotten by the proud and wealthy.” In other words, the Lord found fellowship with the poor, both in life on earth as Christ, and at a heavenly remove. To love Him was to love them, and to love them was to love Him.

Thus the preachers of late antiquity transformed their era’s view of poverty and the poor. The Christian imagination, as distinct from the pagan Roman imagination, became accustomed to marking gaps — between the rich and the poor, the living and the dead, the human and the divine — and setting about closing them, in part because the Christian imagination envisioned an original perfection of humankind which confirmed the promise of this kind of unity. We were once neither rich nor poor, but held all things in common; likewise we were once not divided by death and life, because no human being knew death at all; and we were not sundered from our Lord, God, because our will matched His will and we shared ourselves fully with Him.

In John 17, Jesus Christ prays: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Our journey as Christians consists in part of getting ourselves back to this original unity, through the unity of all things in Christ: who was rich, the King of Kings, and yet poor; who conquered death, leaving only life; who was fully God and fully man.

Medieval Christians, following in the tradition of their late antique forebearers, developed a rich theory of poverty and its spiritual significance, what being poor meant to God and thus to a just society, what the duties were of the rich to poor. At the center of it was the image of a Christ who was Himself poor: Thou, the Lord of all things, who had need of nothing, did not refuse, even at the very outset of thy human life, to taste the full inconveniences of most abject poverty,” St. Anselm of Canterbury wrote some time around the late eleventh century, “Be comforted, be comforted, all you who are nurtured in filth and want, for God is with you in your poverty.”We can be critical of the practice all this resulted in, but at the very least, the Christian world had succeeded in lending a dignity and even sanctity to the condition of poverty, and to according rights and recognition to the poor. As the medieval monk Gratian wrote in his splendid canonical law text The Decretum, “the bishop ought to be solicitous and vigilant concerning the defense of the poor and the relief of the oppressed.”

None of this is to say that medieval or late antique perspectives on poverty and the poor were without error; no era can claim such clarity of vision. (“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known,” says St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians.) It is only to say that they, in working to overcome the inherited wisdom that threatened to obscure the truth Christ had revealed, grasped something very firmly that has, I think, gotten away from us again.

Consider how we now reflect on the poor.

The poor are accused, more often than not, of being lazy. Their alleged indolence is supposed to be evidence of moral failure on their part, which places the burden of action on them, not anyone else. They are construed as indiscriminately criminal, sexually promiscuous, self-indulgent and unscrupulous. Metaphors of hygiene and disease — poverty as infectious, poor people as dirty — often creep into our conversations about those of little means. They are more often than their wealthy counterparts victims of crime, sometimes of the cruelest sort; the National Coalition for the Homeless tracks hate crimes against the poor, including beatings and other abuse of people living with no fixed shelter. When a recent study found that people seem generally disgusted by the homeless, one liberal pundit wrote: “About half the homeless suffer from a mental illness and a third abuse either alcohol or drugs. You’d be crazy not to have a reflexive disgust of a population like that.”

It was once understood that poverty is not a kind of crime. Now that simple fact seems less certain. Masses of fees attached to even the smallest infractions mean that poor people who end up in jail often have no way of righting their situations; inmates are, in some cases, charged room and board for jail cells and billed for public defense, and consequently wind up spending more time behind bars for their inability to pay these sundry fees than the initial crimes they were charged with — in one case in Georgia, stealing a can of beer worth less than $2.

And when we deign, either privately or politically, to address poverty, we often misidentify the source of the injustice. We presume that the poor deserve their circumstances: That they have failed to earn the requisite education or credentials to work jobs that would afford them better circumstances, or that they have not yet elected, out of good habit or good sense, to live well and work hard. Our policies and practices are often aimed at ‘fixing’ these errors. We would rather teach the poor to compete with us for their share of the world than consider how we might simply share it with them.

Put more simply, the gap Christians once marked between themselves and the poor — the yawning chasm of dread and silence and disgust — is now open wide again, a gaping wound in the body of Christ.

So it seems to me that we again have an ‘imagination’ problem before us. And it is up to us as Christians to challenge ourselves, and our fellow Christians, and the social imagination at large. It is up to us — in fact, it is required of us — to reshape how our culture reflects on poverty and the poor. This is a great undertaking, just as it was for the preachers of late antiquity. There is no single story we have to tell, but rather a variety of different correctives to current conventional wisdom.

First, we must recall that the earth and all of material creation was made by God with intention. “God gives the world to the poor as well as to the rich,” St. Augustine of Hippo wrote; it was indeed common knowledge among the earliest Christians that God intended the world to be held in common by all, to the mutual satisfaction of all. Through sin, though, we come to require the restraint of law, and the institution of private property may be introduced to maintain order.

But, second, we must campaign in our own times and places for a just order, and that means a just distribution of property, which is merely a matter of civil law. “Whence does anyone possess what he or she has?” asked Augustine. “Is it not from human law? For by divine law, the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s.” Augustine was correct. The great structural determinants of what goes where, who owns what, who may use this or that — are all encoded in law, and are changeable. Insofar as we, as citizens, can influence and shape our laws, we ought to demand those which favor equitable distribution of the world’s bounty, and those that would reduce the misery of the most vulnerable people.

Third, we must not confuse that duty, which is a duty to justice, with the duty to charity. If all things really were held in common by all and no poverty endured, we would still be required to act charitably to one another, that is, to act with generous love. Sometimes charity takes the shape of almsgiving; indeed, to be virtuous, all almsgiving must be done in the spirit of charity. But we shouldn’t accept the error that charity and justice are mutually exclusive: that Christ commanded one and not the other, or that Christians may pursue either but not both. Every family, every community has its members of lesser means in need of charity — not just their own share of the world, but love, generosity, care, fellowship, friendship. We must insist on both.

Fourth and last, we must again see Christ in the poor. Jesus Christ could’ve come as a king or an emperor, but instead he came as a person of little status, of lowly means. Again and again, he commends care for the poor, and damns injustice toward them. None of this is a coincidence. It was, in fact, revolutionary: It overturned an ancient mode of organizing society and introduced as meaningful and urgent the station of the poorest members of our society. It extended dignity and value to people otherwise invisible. It charged generations of Christians, present company not excluded, with the holy task of finding the face of Christ the Lord of all things in the pain and suffering of those with nothing. Christ is with the lonely and hungry people who wander city streets in need of money and medical care. Christ is with the families fleeing ruined, flooded homes in Puerto Rico, who have no recourse, no food, no medicine for their injuries. Christ is with the refugees who find themselves in foreign lands, leaving their lives and families and communities behind in blood-soaked, war-torn places. In our modern world we struggle with faith; we want tangible proof, evidence we can see and touch for ourselves. Here is your chance: Christ comes to us as the poorest of the poor, and in touching them, you touch his wounds like Thomas, and drive away the shadow of doubt.

Please pray with me.

Jesus Christ, my Lord and my Savior, I love you. I was fashioned by your hand to see You. I was formed in Your image to be with You, to love as You love and to live as You live, eternally. You have come to me, little that I am, and have shown me your holiness. Now I ask You to guide me further, to bring me nearer to You. Please, Jesus Christ, light of the world, let me see as You see. Do not let my understanding be clouded by the judgments of the world, or the lies of the enemy. Make me an instrument of Your mercy, a voice of Your justice. Have mercy on me for my sins, please, and gather me near to you again when I fall away.

In Jesus’ name I pray: Amen.