I spent five years of my ministry among the poor. The first three were as an authority figure in a homeless shelter. The next two were as a rural pastor in one of the poorer counties in the country. It was with weeping but with a deep sense of calling that I left those settings to move to a wealthy suburb to pastor mostly wealthy people where I have now been for two years.
It will come as no surprise to any of you that the number one thing I have learned is that the wealthy are clueless when it comes to poverty. And it isn’t their fault. Our society is built to separate the poor from the rich at every level. Our culture has named politicians who do not know the poor as our poverty experts. Our TV shows, novels, movies and songs all confirm our deepest stereotypes about poor people. We have been brainwashed to believe on a very deep level that the poor are worthless sinners.
We are taught that those with money are perfect in every way. Those without money are flawed. The “have’s” are godly. The “have-nots” are worthless. The rich are smart. The poor are dumb. The wealthy work really hard. The poor are lazy. Even if we consciously know this to be untrue, we (and yes, even I) still act in ways that show we do believe it.
As long as we don’t know the names of the poor, it is easy to continue to believe these things. One of the great ironies of our hypocrisy is that we claim to know everything about the poverty but very few of us can even tell you their names and the names of their children and their favorite ice cream and sporting team!
In the last few decades, the Evangelical church has discovered a very clever way of baptizing this ignorance. We have very casually changed one of Scripture’s most important words. Scripture tells us to “serve the poor.” We have interpreted that as “help the poor.” Over the last couple weeks I have done a survey of Scripture’s most prominent poverty passages and books (The Good Samaritan, James 1, Joel, Hosea, Job etc.) and have discovered that “help” is not there nor is it implied. But through that little four letter word “help” a lot of evil has entered into our thinking and tainted our otherwise loving acts of service.
The word “help” implies I am the rescuer. It means I am here to save you. The word “help” confirms our biased suspicions that I have IT all together and you have none of IT together. I am the knight on the white steed. You are the damsel in distress. I am worthwhile and you are worthless. Lucky for you God sent me here to show you how to be like me.
With that thinking in mind, it is not surprising that there are tons of books on “helping” the poor. Ironically, all those books begin with telling us that Jesus was wrong. The first chapters of those books explain that “We know that Jesus said, ‘Give to everybody who asks of you’ but God surely wouldn’t want you to do that. What if they spend the money on drugs? What if they waste your gift? You don’t want YOUR money going to drugs do you? We know Jesus said God shows kindness to the wicked (Luke 6:35) and gives rain to the just and the unjust (Matthew 6:45) but you shouldn’t do that. What if they ruin your rain or take advantage of you? Jesus doesn’t want you to be taken advantage of. It’s not like he was taken advantage of and crucified or anything! So Jesus was wrong and we wrote our book to tell you the true way that God wants you to ‘help the poor.’ Step 1: Ignore everything Jesus said.”
Then they go on to talk about “tough love” which is neither patient nor kind nor biblical. But it turns the impoverished poor people into responsible, white, American capitalist citizens!
The problem with “tough love” is that it doesn’t come from Scripture but from Darwinism, and a very archaic Darwinism at that. It comes from the idea that only the fit and the strong survive. So it is my job to help you become fit so that you can survive. I have to be tough because the theory of evolution only chooses the tough! So I can save you by teaching you to save yourself so that we can continue thriving and evolving.
That ancient form of Darwinism isn’t even alive in science any more but we have sure preserved it in the church. And it is not Biblical. In Scripture the fit do not survive. They perish. The righteous and the faithful, those who call on the name of the Lord survive and thrive. The crucified criminals are saved. The poor and the down and the out and the beggar at Lazarus’ gate survive and thrive. The wealthy, the fit, the pretty only are saved as they empty themselves of all but love and admit their own horrific sinfulness and wretchedness and fall on the throne of grace. Of course, that is how the poor are saved as well but it is so much easier for them to do.
We do not help the poor. But we do serve them. We do wash their feet. We do associate with them (Romans 12:16).
And we do this as a means of allowing God to help us and to save us from our pride and our arrogance and our wretchedness.
So what’s the difference between helping and serving? Let me give a few examples:
Helping says, “Can I tell you why what you are doing is wrong?”
Serving says, “What do you need me to do for you today?”
Helping gives money to a local service organization.
Serving spends money to take the poor out to eat.
Helping invites them to your self help event, or easier still, just gives them a self help book.
Serving enters their home and laughs with them around a dinner table.
Helping gives them a list of criteria by which they can be accepted.
Serving accepts and associates with them regardless.
Helping tells them your personal success story as if it could be easily replicated.
Serving tells them about this gracious God who gives to all who ask.
Helping doesn’t care about their name.
Serving learns their name.
In closing here is a quote from Soong Chan Rah’s book “Prophetic Lament” which helps me incredibly as I try to purify myself from my suburban wretchedness and associate anew with the lowly:
I was listening to the speaker before me when he dropped this little gem: “It’s not about a handout, but a hand up.” Actually it’s not about either. A handout means you think you are better than me and you’re handing me something. A hand up means you think you’re better than me and you’re trying to lift me up from a bad place to your wonderful place. Actually if it’s a choice, I would rather have the hand out. If you’re going to be condescending, I might as well get a direct benefit out of it instead of being told I need to become like you. Forget the handout or the hand up. Just reach a hand across. Let’s be equals and partners. I don’t need you to rescue me, just like you don’t think you need rescuing by me. My rescuer is a Jewish carpenter.”