Posted by: dacalu | 12 January 2014

The Poor

I’ve been giving some thought today to the “option for the poor”, God’s seeming preference for poor people in the Bible.  I must admit, there has always been something in me that resisted this type of thinking.  As I reflect, I think it runs counter to two trends in American thought.  Curiously, they are contradictory trends, but that’s never stopped us.  In any case, this post spells out my attempts to rationally get past these objections and understand why the poor are so important, because at the end of the day I think they are.

God favors the poor.

American Objection #1: Why should God favor anyone?  Aren’t we all equal? Yes and no.  I think we start off equal, and I think God loves us all equally, nonetheless, there are senses in which God favors the righteous.  Mind you, God doesn’t favor them with easier lives, gifts, and favors.  I do think God favors them with special concern.  And, perhaps it’s easier for them to see God.  I think we do all warrant equal love, but I don’t think we all warrant equal treatment.  You can see my post on justice for more details. 

For now, let me say that this notion of equality seems to rest on the idea that the rich are rich incidentally, rather than on their own merits.  Few people believe everyone should be treated equally regardless of behavior.  This brings us to point two.

American Objection #2: Aren’t the rich better?  They worked for it, didn’t they?  There is a cult of wealth by merit in this country that was summed up beautifully by recent arguments that entrepreneurs earned their wealth by their own labor – and without help.  The philosophies of Ayn Rand and FA Hayek seem to support this Horatio Algerism (“pulled himself up by his own bootstraps”).  I won’t comment here on whether or not this notion is true economically.  I just want to point out the idea, very strong in the United States, that money is correlated with personal achievement.

We could argue that the rich have achieved their own happiness, and God is just helping out those who lag behind.  I was thinking along those lines for a while and I can see some value in that for theology.  Still, it didn’t quite sit right with me.  It accounts for God’s love of the poor, but not for the numerous admonitions against the rich.  God seems unhappy with them, repeatedly.

Let me make another suggestion.  Wealth represents stored power.  Money in particular, has to do with generic “value” that we save up so that we can trade it for specific valuable goods.  Rather than bartering 50 eggs for a goat, I can sell my eggs one at a time to 50 different people for $1 each and then buy a $50 goat.  Money makes trade much easier, and for this I am a fan.  It means, though that money represents stored value or potential power.  How does God feel about power that isn’t being used to do good?

Once you see money as power stored up for future use, you have to ask a very simple question:  Why haven’t you used it yet?  There are people in need everywhere.  There are worthy causes, widows, orphans, the sick, and those in prison, most of whom need our help.  It may not be virtuous to be poor – who knows where your money went or if you ever had any.  It cannot be virtuous to be rich.

I’ll soften that a bit.  I do think there is such a thing as future good.  I think there is merit in producing and saving enough money to live on and to retire on.  The question is, how well should you live?  I think there is merit in saving for other ends as well, but only to a point.  No one knows what the future will bring.  Opportunities to do good now are definite.  Opportunities to do good in the future are less certain.  Saving money means denying real present needs in favor of possible future needs, or even future wants.

I am not in a place emotionally (theologically?  philosophically?) where I’m ready to give up my minimal savings, much less my above average standard of living.  I say these things not to judge you – certainly not to judge you relative to myself.  I say them because, for the first time, I am beginning to understand what it means for God to favor the poor.  I might even have glimpsed the idea that God wants me to be poor…and that I would be better off.

As we move through the season of gifts (Epiphany), I would challenge you to take a good look at your beliefs, particularly those that tell you what wealth is for.  As the days grow longer and we enter a season of self-reflection, honesty, and discipline (Lent), perhaps you and I will discover we can do more and make do with less.

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