Posted by: Dan | May 13, 2007

Christianity and Capitalism Part IX: Missional Sharing (Life Together with the Poor)

Is this not the fast which I choose:

To loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery will speedily spring forth; and your righteousness will go before you; the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry, and He will say, “Here I am” if you remove the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness. And if you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom will become like midday.
~ Is. 58.6-10.

Extra pauperes nulla salus.
~ Jon Sobrino ["Outside the poor, there is no salvation."]

I concluded Part VIII by asserting that Christians, following the “preferential option” exercised by God, and the life-trajectory established by Jesus, must learn to share life together with the poor. In order to grasp just how much this differs from the charity that is affirmed by capitalism, we must come to recognise the ways in which the Christian community has, by and large, outsourced the practice of charity to “professionals” and “social workers.”

Unfortunately, just as the outsourcing of blue-collar jobs devastated life in many North American inner-cities, so the outsourcing of charity work has had a similarly devastating impact upon the life of the Church. Generally what we find are Christians who provide others with the material resources that those others need in order to engage in charitable actions. So, for example, instead of feeding the hungry, they make a financial donation to a soup kitchen; instead of clothing the naked, they give some used clothes to the Salvation Army; instead of inviting the homeless poor into their homes, they donate some money to a homeless shelter. Consequently in these (and other) ways, charity is outsourced. Christians have learned how to share material resources with the poor, while also ensuring that their actual lives are well separated from the poor. Therefore, if we are to learn to share our lives together with the poor, we must move beyond this approach to charity.

In particular, we must begin to explore the ways in which our faith communities can began to enact the form of sharing that is described in the passage that I quoted from Is 58. Is 58 — along with the rest of the prophetic tradition, including Jesus — does not call us to pay others to feed the hungry, it calls us to feed the hungry, just as it calls us to clothe the poor, us to loosen the bonds of wickedness and oppression, and us invite the homeless into our homes — and this call is addressed to all of the members of the people of God — it is not simply directed at social work professionals.

Consequently, we realise that, in order to do these things, we must actually personally encounter the hungry, the naked, the poor, the oppressed, and the homeless. And this is why it is so important for the Church to be rooted in the marginal places of our world, the “groaning places,” the places where the darkness of exile is still most strongly felt. When we pursue the life-trajectory encouraged by capitalism we end up in self-enclosed work places, churches, and neigbourhoods which leaves us scratching our heads thinking:

Clothe the naked? I've never run into any naked person…. hmmm, that must mean that I should understand this to refer more to my attitude than to my concrete actions… in fact, maybe all the commands — about eating, or taking in the homeless, or fighting oppression, or whatever — aren't actually literal commands, maybe they're actually trying to point to a more “spiritual” reality.

However, when we are situated in the groaning places of this world we discover that the prophetic call of Isaiah, and the other prophets, requires us to engage in a very literal response to that call (staying with the example of “clothing the naked,” I have had at least half a dozen opportunities to literally do this in the last seven months). Therefore, the first step to sharing life together with the poor is to choose to live where the poor live. The life-trajectory of “downward mobility” leads us to move to “dirtier,” “more dangerous,” and less comfortable neighbourhoods, not because we want to be “more radical” but because, if we are called to love the poor, and love our neighbours, then it is vital that the poor become our neighbours.

Consequently, I would like to envision a network of Christian community-homes that are rooted in such marginal places (see here for more details on this approach: Personal Calling and the Calling of the Church). In this way, we can learn how to journey alongside of the poor, treating them as friends and neighbours, rather than as clients, projects, or targets. Furthermore, by rooting ourselves among the poor we quickly learn that, in our professional approaches (through social service agencies, or through churches), we often try to share things with the poor that are completely useless (and perhaps even detrimental) to the poor. Our proximity to the poor provides us with the insight to engage in more appropriate and meaningful form of sharing.

At this point, I would like to pick up on one particular aspect of the passage in Is 58. I have continually been struck by these words: “bring the homeless poor into [your] house.” It is interesting to begin here by noting that Jesus and his disciples, as well as Paul and those who traveled with him, assumed that people would take this passage literally. Therefore, in order to build on the model of Christian community-homes that I described in Part VII, I would like to argue that each community home should have at least one (or more, depending on the size of the community-home) guest room set aside for guests like “the homeless poor” and those who are oppressed. Thus, a network of community-homes, each with a particular missional interest becomes quite important — one home could focus on bringing in sex workers, another home could focus on women with children leaving abusive relationships, another could focus on men with addictions, and so on and so forth (the reason why a network is important is that it is often a good idea to keep members of these various different groups apart — for example, mixing sex workers and battered single moms together isn't the best idea because the single moms often end up getting recruited into sex work because they are so desperate for money).

Finally, although “success” is not my motive for pursuing this vision (my motive is a desire to be faithful — the motive that I believe should be at the root of all Christian action), I also suspect that, if we begin to share our lives together with the poor in this way, then we will begin to see the transformation for which we long. Why do I believe this? For two reasons: first of all, because I have personally invited the poor into my home on a number of occasions — and I have seen wonderful transformation result from that action — the sort of transformation that almost never seems to come through social service agencies and Church outreach; the kind of transformation that is best described as new life (and not just harm reduction). Secondly, I believe this because Is 58 tells us that this is the case. When we share our food, our clothes, and even our homes, with the poor, then God promises to hear our prayers and be present among us; conversely, when we don't do these things then God promises to ignore us and depart from us. This is why Sobrino is correct to assert that extra pauperes nulla salus. Such assertions are bound to make us uncomfortable, but discomfort is no basis for discarding or ignoring Sobrino's assertion.

Now, it doesn't take a lot of thought to realise that this sort of charity seems utterly nonsensical to those whose lives are dominated by capitalism. Our priorities and life-trajectory are bad enough — but the idea of inviting the homeless into our homes (homeless people that are strangers to us!) would be (and has been) described as crazy (“fucking insane” is how one of my friend's put it). However, given the content of scripture, I can only conclude that Christians are called to make their home among the poor, while inviting the poor to make their home within the Christian community.

I realise that the idea of embodying this form of charity is scary to a lot of people and so, in my next few entries, I hope to finally address what I see as the second key component of a a Christian political economics: radical dependence/nonsensical vulnerability.

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