I have been a listener in far too many of these conversations.
“Poor people deserve what they are getting; they have brought their situation on themselves.”
“Poor people would be ok if they would just get a job. They are just lazy.”
“Poor people like being on government benefits; they don’t want to work. They enjoy getting a handout.”
My problem is that I have not challenged these statements. I just let them ride. It is too embarrassing to call out my Christian brothers and sisters. Yes, you read that right: “my Christian brothers and sisters.” Sadly, I hang out with Christians who say such things.
People who struggle with poverty are all around us. They live their lives right next to us and the prosperity the rest of us feel in this era of sky high market returns, they aren’t feeling. In America today, 40 million people are below the poverty line and millions more are living just above it. If they are laid off for a long period of time, they slide down to poverty. A major car breakdown can lead to firing and firing can lead to poverty.
What’s my problem?
The longer I have lived, the more privileged I have become. I don’t know what it is to want and not be able to get what I want. When I need food, I just go to the grocery and charge the food on a card, you know, one of those cards that save me fuel points. I know I can pay the bill. I have a debit card and it never gets declined. I don’t buy hugely expensive items but I have never had anyone say “you don’t have the money in the bank.”
In my adult Sunday school class this past Sunday, a woman was there who dedicates a lot of her time to helping the poor at a local Methodist mission center. She described a woman who came in. This lady said “you better stay away from me, I have bed bugs all over my body.” She needed a shower. She had not eaten a good meal in a while. She even shared that she did not have any of the female necessities that she needed.
I listened to the description of her situation and all I thought of is how I could not relate to her situation.
I did feel compassion for her. It never crossed my mind to blame her for her problems or castigate her for not having a job at McDonalds. I did not consider this stranger an abuser of government benefits; I did not feel a desire to tell her about getting on the welfare rolls.
I did feel compassion.
I have a long way to go. My heart may be headed in the right direction but I know I am not where I need to be. There is an old expression I hear in Christian circles: “ I ain’t where I want to be but I am better than where I was.” Maybe I can take some solace in the fact that the human heart is hard to change. I have been raised to believe if you work hard and sacrifice then you have a chance to succeed. I have lived that experience. I am not a mega-wealthy person but I did not find doors slammed when I wanted to enter college. Once I got my degree, I figured out how to market myself and getting that first job was not impossible. I had a profession that was stable, not prone to rapid changes, downsizing or being shipped overseas. As long as I wanted to work and make a wage, I could do that.
That experience I have had is not the experience that many have and the longer I have lived as an employed person, the more I have benefited from the privileges of American society. Pastor Mark Labberton says “The privilege of my life can move me in the opposite direction from following Jesus’ self-emptying example.” He extends this idea of privilege to the church. The church can be so aligned with power and its privilege that it can be more tuned into power and privilege than the opposite. Those who have no power and no privilege get lost in the shuffle.
When Christians cast aspersions on the poor, I don’t join in. I feel compassion. My problem is I don’t do anything. Maybe in the past I would join in and share my own negative, stereotypical thoughts. Maybe my heart has been transformed a little.
When I take action to help the poor, that may be a sign I have really made progress. Maybe I can’t help 40 million or even 10 but maybe I can help one person. When that day comes, maybe I can tell myself that I am beginning to learn the true meaning of the greatest commandment, you know that part about loving your neighbor as yourself.