Writing this morning at Ethics Daily, Drew Smith reminds us that the political message of Jesus has more in common with that of the Hebrew prophets than with many American Christians today. He argues the prophetic political mandate was to “confront the leaders of Israel with their injustices.”
These leaders, who were to be the shepherds and caretakers of God’s people, were charged by God to govern people with justice, to strengthen the weak, to feed the hungry, and to shelter the displaced and homeless. These leaders were charged by God to be generous in their leadership, and they were judged by God when they kept their positions through political compromises with the rich and powerful.
For Smith, this mandate translates into the contemporary situation like this:
We have the power to change things, if we only will. Like Jesus, we need to have a sincere consciousness about the plight of people in our country, especially the poor. In developing such a consciousness, we must hold our leaders accountable until they make real progress in solving the poverty of this nation, and indeed, our world.
So in response to the WWJD? question, Smith says, “Elect leaders who will priortize the problem of poverty.”
This is a good word and a needful one. I wonder, though, if it misses the forest for a single tree. As I read the prophets and Jesus, I see them treating poverty as an important problem, but not the most important problem. Poverty is just one of many results of oppression, the abuse of power to deny some their basic human rights. Oppression in American society is so systemic and so protracted that the poverty it produces has proven all but intractible–a condition I suspect Jesus observed and lamented in his own society, noting, “The poor you will always have with you.”
Oppressive acts by the powerful against the weak take many forms, but can be understood collectively as marginalization, the relegation or confinement of a group to a social position of powerlessness. By marginalizing the poor, the wealthy keep their disproportionate influence–they keep themselves in power. (As evidence, note that the four remaining Presidential candidates spent a combined total of over $198 million on their campains in 2007, according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission. Our system of choosing a Chief Executive favors the rich and marginalizes the poor.) But the poor are not the only victims of marginalization. As commentator “PW” noted in response to Christianity Today’s recent article on transgender people,
When conservative Christians, particularly Evangelicals appeal to “moral authority” and “the Christian sexual ethic,” it is important to understand that they are actually appealing to the patriarchical heterosexism that they think God has given his divine seal of approval. The focus and teaching of many Evangelical churches (with which I am very familiar) is completely slanted in favor of straight married people, particularly those with children. People who don’t fit into this box might as well be invisible as their experiences are not acknowledged as part of reality as Evangelicals understand it. So it’s not surprising that many of them ignore the obvious [gender] variations in the Bible, nor is it surprising that gays, lesbians and the transgendered (and others for that matter) find themselves being discriminated against by people of Evangelical belief. Their devotion to patriarchal heterosexism is very strong; so strong that I suspect that the response the article mentions, the appeal to ‘biblical compassion’ is really about making sure that Evangelicals are armed with the “right” rhetoric, the “appropriate” support groups and the “biblically correct” agendas to make sure that the rest of us conform to their view of reality.
Those who would seek to practice politics in a way that is faithful to the political ethic of Jesus and the prophets should address the problem of poverty, to be sure. But the only effective way to do that is by dismantling oppressive systems and institutions and enacting legislation that protects the basic human rights of all people. To do anything less is to treat a symptom rather than the syndrome.