Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Blessed Are You Who Are Poor (April 2, 2017)

In Washington, in state capitols, and in boardrooms around the country there is war raging against the poor. This war is justified, in part, by a myth that if you are rich it is because you are clever and hardworking, and if you are poor you are just not working hard enough. This year a draft Statement of Conscience on Escalating Inequalities appears before the UU General Assembly. It’s a rich document, full of important ideas, but today I want to focus on this one sentence “Another myth is that that the poor have only themselves to blame, which discounts systemic racism, the sources of inherited wealth, exploitation of low wage earners, and other factors.”[i]

I want to start here, because our Unitarian Universalist theology is fundamentally at odds with this myth. The very first of our principles is the “inherent worth and dignity of every person.” This is the modern way of thinking about the very old Universalist idea that God’s love embraces the whole human race. And that idea arose as an alternative to the popular Calvinist idea, that actually god’s love did not embrace the whole human race. Some were God’s chosen, or “elect” and the other folks were… not. Well, I am noticing that old Calvinist idea creeping out of the churches and into our legislatures and social institutions. I encourage you to listen to the news next time with this in mind - listening for the idea that some of us are worthy and others are unworthy.

Consider how this subtle theological point impacts social policy. If I am rich or middle class, it is because I am chosen, because I am worthy, and you are living in poverty because you are not chosen, because you are unworthy, then I am absolved of any responsibility to help you survive. In fact, if it’s your fault you are poor because of something you did or didn’t do, then maybe we should add some punitive obstacles, so you learn your lesson. Straighten up and fly right. I think the drug testing for welfare recipients is a perfect example of this.
Saying it is “unfair for Florida taxpayers to subsidize drug addiction,” Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation requiring adults applying for welfare assistance to undergo drug screening…
The aid recipients would be responsible for the cost of the screening, which they would recoup in their assistance if they qualify.[ii]
When the law went into effect in 2011, during the four months the state tested for drug use, only 2.6% of applicants tested positive. It’s important to notice that in the whole state of Florida there is an illegal drug use rate of 8%, “meaning far fewer people on services are using drugs than their better-off counterparts. The drug testing cost taxpayers more money than it saved, and was ruled unconstitutional [in 2014]”.[iii]

When we separated myth from fact, we find out that actually people on public assistance tested positive at a LOWER rate than in the population as a whole. Notice this myth playing out here in policy in 2 ways, first the assumption that people requesting public assistance were more likely to use drugs, and second the creation of punitive obstacles that we don’t impose on other folks receiving money from the government, like, for example, State governors or State senators.

But I’m a Universalist. I believe that the rich, the middle class, the poor are all chosen, are all worthy. And every one of us has certain inalienable rights. I believe everyone has a right to food to eat, clean water to drink, and a safe place to sleep at night. Every person. That includes people living in poverty. That includes people struggling with drug addiction.

“But” I hear so often “what about my cousin who manages her money badly, and wastes money on soda and her smart phone and comes up short for her rent?” Yes, even her. Even people who are bad at money management have basic human rights.

“But” they say “what about that guy who shows up late for work and doesn’t have a good work ethic?” Yes, even him. People with poor work ethics have human rights.

Moreover, I know rich people who use drugs, rich people who manage their money badly (there are some famous rich people in the news right now who have declared bankruptcy multiple times.) I also know rich people who are lazy. All of us have gifts, and all of us have faults. UUs are not charged with dividing people into groups called “worthy” and “unworthy.” When we talk about the inherent worth and dignity of every person, that word inherent means it is intrinsic to our nature. We don’t have to earn our worth, we don’t have to earn our dignity. We don’t have to earn basic human rights.

Let’s go back to that myth “that the poor have only themselves to blame, which discounts systemic racism, the sources of inherited wealth, exploitation of low wage earners, and other factors.”[iv] The math is not hard - we know for a fact that there is enough food on this planet to feed each and every person, but caring for each and every person is not the goal of economic system - the goal is to see who wins the game by having the most money. We know that there is a gap between the minimum wage and a living wage. (A living wage is the amount it really takes in any community to live.) The minimum wage is $7.25 per hour here in PA, but in Bradford a living wage for a single adult is $9.42[v]. And if you’ve got just 1 child who you are parenting alone, a living wage is $19.97 per hour. That means no matter how virtuous you are, no matter how frugal you are, how hard working, there is always going to be a gap between what you make and what you need to live. You are always going to have to choose between the heating bill and the rent, groceries and a visit to the doctor.

This myth is not based on math or statistics, it is really theological. That old Calvinist idea has given way to a new idea called the “Prosperity gospel.” This is a new theology which came to American in the 1950s. According to David W. Jones, Professor of Christian Ethics, “Simply put, this ‘prosperity gospel’ teaches that God wants believers to be physically healthy, materially wealthy, and personally happy… Teachers of the prosperity gospel encourage their followers to pray for and even demand material flourishing from God.”[vi] “Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver security and prosperity.”[vii] Suddenly everything makes sense to me. If you view the world through this lens, it’s clear who has the most faith in God, the most favor - it’s the wealthy people. And who does not have enough faith in God? The poor. This theology is affecting social and economic policy for all of us, especially those most vulnerable. So let’s dust off our Bibles and take a hard look at this.

First, I want to tell you that many Christian preachers, even conservative preachers, agree that the prosperity gospel is a heresy. They caution that it makes wealth into a false idol. They caution that it treats God like a vending machine or ATM. So let’s look at what the Bible does say. First of all, let’s look at who has God’s favor in the Bible. Consider Moses; after following God’s instructions and leading the people out of Egypt, Moses becomes, with the people, a wandering refugee. He is homeless for 40 years.

Or let’s look at Jesus, who was born into probably a middle class family (carpentry is a skilled trade) but renounces His privilege to live as a mendicant, a teacher traveling from place to place staying at the homes of supporters and students and eating at their tables. Consider His birth in a stable. If God showed His favor to those who pleased Him by providing wealth and ease, shouldn’t Mary have had the penthouse suite it the inn? But in case there was any doubt, Jesus’s teachings are very clear about this: “Looking at his disciples, [Jesus] said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.” — Luke 6:20-21

These examples, and many others, show us that economic status is not a sign of God’s favor, and the Bible is also very clear about our obligation to help people living in poverty. I found literally 12 pages of quotes supporting this, throughout both Jewish and Christian scriptures.
Here’s one from Deuteronomy:
If anyone is poor among you… do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need — Deuteronomy 15:7-8
And here is one from the new testament in the letters of John the Evangelist
"If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth." 1 John 3:17-18
Even though it’s not always visible to those of us with full refrigerators according to a 2013 study 20% of children struggle with “food insecurity” here in Bradford county.[viii] So I spent some time last week making up a quick reference guide for people in urgent need. It’s a list of places you can go, if your heat is about to be turned off, or to get a hot meal. It’s interesting that almost every one of those places is faith-based. Catholic charities, the Bridge, Salvation Army. From the far right to the far left, the different faith traditions agree, that people of faith have a duty to help our brothers and sisters in need.

At the same time, I think liberals and conservatives agree, that food pantries are just a Band-Aid on the problem. Surely everyone would rather have their own income, so they could walk into any grocery store when they realize they are out of milk, instead of waiting for the 3rd Wednesday between 10-11 am when the food pantry is open. So we are called to help create a more just system, where all people can meet their basic human needs and live lives of dignity and purpose. The book of proverbs has some clear statements on this:
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy — Proverbs 31:8-9
And the prophets speak, quite passionately about this:
Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. — Isaiah 10:1-3
In America today this means not only standing up to protect programs like Meals on Wheels, but it also means continuing to fight for a minimum wage that is a living wage. It means searching out the roots of our economic inequalities like systemic racism. And we do make a difference - our hard work to raise the minimum wage worked in the state of new York did help change the law, we are up to $9.70, and are on a path to $15 per hour by the end of 2021.[ix]

In our proposed statement of conscience, this is where we placed our emphasis - building a just system for everyone. I completely agree with that - but something started to bother me about our UU stance on poverty. I don’t see anything in the statement that calls us as simply as Jesus did: “I was hungry and you gave me food.” Yes, we must work to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, but we have been fighting that battle for years – where are folks trying to support a family at a minimum wage job going to live while that battle continues? What is our responsibility to folks at the losing end of economic inequity right now? Our safety net has holes, and people are falling through it right now, today.

When I worked in Palo Alto, Calfiornia, folks came to our church every week asking for material help. The head of the non-profit who helped un-housed people in our community gave me her card, suggesting I give her a call, whenever I needed help. So when a man came in saying he had been evicted from his home and was having trouble putting together the funds to sign a lease at a new place, I called her. I told her, that he said he had tried every social service agency he could think of. I was shocked when she replied with a sigh “what he’s telling you is probably true. There really is no help for folks in that area.” There was not enough money in the Minister’s discretionary fund to meet his need, nor in my pocket. He went away empty handed, both of us feeling powerless.

One of the sources of our UU tradition are “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves” and the Judeo-Christian scriptures are clear - we are called to remember the poor, not to look away. Are we looking away by climbing up into our heads and analyzing the problem, instead of opening our hearts in compassion to the hardship all around us? It feels better to say “I wonder how this guy screwed up to get himself in this situation” or even to blame the 1% than to confront the depth of real need in the world.

As Jesus said “the poor will always be with us.” As a faith that affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every person, each of us is called to stay present with that difficult reality, and to offer a helping hand whenever we are able. And we are called to help in 2 ways - the first is “to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter when you see the naked, to clothe them” (Isaiah 58:7)” That’s why today, after social hour, I’m going to offer a workshop about “being a good Samaritan”- so we can talk in more depth about specific strategies and challenges in responding to people who ask for our help. Second, we are called to help by working to change a system of escalating inequalities. It means having your congress member on speed dial, and buying fair trade goods. Our statement of conscience has dozens of other suggestions for things we can do as individuals, as congregations, and in our legislative ministries like UUPlan and Interfaith Impact NY, to fight for justice.

We are all responsible for people living in poverty, and for the unjust system that permits poverty to exist. When we encounter the myth that “the poor have only themselves to blame,” we need only remember that Jesus called the poor blessed, and, that we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.


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