Remembering the poor

A few years ago, I was invited to a Phil Collins show in New York. He made a statement at the end of his show “rather than spend money on concessions after the show, go out to the streets and give that money to the homeless.”  I am sure his concession company had a different view, but I always respected him for that.

In the lead up to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, many political and religious leaders were quoting Scripture to justify shutting down food programs and kicking mothers and their babies off of public assistance. These leaders, many of them self-described Christians, ignored the majority of passages from the Bible and instead put forward a historical, non-contextual, and unethical (mis)interpretations and (mis)appropriations of biblical texts like — “The poor will be with you always.”

Such interpretations of biblical texts were extremely damaging to the lives of everyone, but especially the poor. The battle over theology and biblical interpretation was central in the abolitionist movement. In the 1800s, slaveholders quoted the book of Philemon, and Pauline texts like “Slaves, obey your masters,” to claim that God was blessing them with the prosperity of owning many slaves and making hoards of wealth on the backs of the poor. But abolitionists insisted that the God of the Bible was the God of the Exodus, a God of liberation who sent Jesus to preach good news to the poor and let the slaves go free.

We are living in another moment when such a battle of theology and biblical interpretation is necessary. In the past few weeks, politicians and religious leaders have quoted these same texts from 2 Thessalonians and Matthew 26 to justify cutting people off of healthcare and food assistance. They misuse these passages to blame the impoverished for their poverty.  It is the rich whom the apostle Paul is criticizing.

“The poor you will always have with you” is actually one of the strongest biblical mandates to end poverty. “The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.” – James 5

“Compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs reconstructing”- Martin Luther King

I am crediting Liz Theoharris for excerpts included in this post

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