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. Read More


Following Pope Francis’ Lead: Authentic Inclusion for Disabled People

For those of us living with disability or chronic illness, Christ’s wounds are a remarkable reminder that we, too, bear the image of God. Yet the inclusion of people with disabilities in society – and even in the life of the Church – has hardly been historically constant. In the fifth century, for instance, Augustine was at pains to confirm to his readers that people with bodies we might now identify as disabled were even human:

At Hippo-Diarrhytus there is a man whose hands are crescent-shaped, and have only two fingers each, and his feet similarly formed. If there were a race like him, it would be added to the history of the curious and wonderful. Shall we therefore deny that this man is descended from that one man who was first created?…Some years ago, quite within my own memory, there was a man born in the East, double in his upper, but single in his lower half – having two heads, two chests, four hands, but one body and two feet like an ordinary man; and he lived so long that many had an opportunity of seeing him. But who could enumerate all the human births that have differed widely from their ascertained parents? As, therefore, no one will deny that these are all descended from that one man, so all the races which are reported to have diverged in bodily appearance from the usual course…unquestionably trace their pedigree to that one first father of all. [City of God, XVI.8]

Augustine’s theological purpose here – to confirm that all rumored monstrous races in fact trace their lineages to Adam – is of less interest to the modern reader than the sociological implications of his treatment of the two people he mentions. While he is right to affirm the humanity of people whose bodies differ from the ‘usual course,’ it is questionable how thoroughly their human dignity could have been affirmed so long as they were viewed as objects of curiosity and fascination. The inclusion of people with disabilities in the life of the community as dignified members is therefore only one part of Christian social obligation; the second part is hinted at by the melancholy note Augustine strikes when he mentions the short life of the second man discussed – that is, for genuine inclusion to take place, people with disabilities must also have adequate care.

On both of these levels, Pope Francis is shaping up to be an extraordinarily exemplary figure. Again and again, Pope Francis has placed just the right amount of emphasis on his willingness to reach out physically – as Christ did – to those experiencing illness or other forms of disability. This gesture of touch embodies visually what communities should undertake in a more general sense; that is, the welcoming of persons at all levels of physical ability into the fold of social life. But Pope Francis’ embrace of people with disabilities doesn’t end at sympathy and pathos. In Evangelii Gaudium, he writes:

I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare.

The weight of the expectation that states should ensue that all citizens have healthcare shouldn’t be underestimated. Like his predecessor, Pope Francis appears to be calling for universal healthcare access – which would benefit none more than people with disabilities.

After all, employer-based healthcare approaches are unfavorable to people with disabilities, as they engage in part-time work at higher rates than people without disabilities and also experience unemployment at higher rates than their non-disabled counterparts. It should therefore come as no surprise that people with disabilities are also particularly likely to suffer the effects of poverty, with over 1 in 5 disabled people in the United States currently living under the federal poverty line. Without the steady employment necessary to benefit from employer-based healthcare or the means to purchase their own, people with disabilities in the United States often rely on a piecemeal set of benefits programs which, while well-intentioned, do not amount to universal, free-upon-delivery care.

It may at first seem curious, given the specific and often unique needs of people with disabilities, that Pope Francis has not addressed this population directly with any regularity; yet by repeatedly addressing the exclusive nature of economies that produce inequality and poverty, he has nonetheless addressed the structural weaknesses that result in the ongoing suffering and isolation of many people with disabilities. It will always be incumbent upon the Church to include all members in her corporate life, but for that inclusion to bear its fullest fruits, people with disabilities also require the support of the broader institutions of society. Pope Francis’ approach therefore seems especially primed to serve as an ongoing example of inclusion and embrace, underpinned by a serious commitment to policies – like universal healthcare – that clear the way for the authentic inclusion of people with disabilities in the lives of their communities.