That’s not a picture of me, but it might as well be.
Then I read this statement by Ita Ford:
One who is committed to the poor must risk the same fate as the poor.
Sure, I love those who are poor philosophically. I believe in helping the poor and defending them when they cannot defend themselves. I cognitively understand the effects of systemic poverty and how difficult it is to overcome it. I get riled up when people show disdain or little empathy for those who are poor. Philosophically, I have all the love for those who are poor.
But I don’t love those who are poor.
Theologically, I understand the deep love God has for the poor. Advent reminds me of God’s affection for the poor as God incarnate does not take the place of a king or well-to-do merchant, but is born to poor parents. Mary’s Magnificat rejoices at the revolutionary inversion of the humble and proud in the kingdom of God. James goes so far as to say that religion that God accepts as pure is religion that cares for the plight of the less fortunate – systemic or circumstantial. I’ve preached sermons and exhorted our congregation to care for the poor. Theologically, I love the poor.
But I don’t love those who are poor.
I believe in charity. We give money, donate to food pantries, and even adopt families during the Christmas season. I’ve volunteered in food pantries, served meals on the streets, and given people rides in my car. These activities are good, and I would never say they are unimportant. But they do not equal love. I can talk about serving the poor after doing these things, but I cannot talk about loving the poor. I cannot even talk about empathy with the poor. Acts of charity are acts of compassion. You can have compassion those who are poor by doing something for them, but empathy begins when we start understanding their circumstance because we have stopped doing, stopped waxing philosophically and theologically about loving them, and started listening to them.
Loving those who are poor means that I know those who are poor. If I do not love the particular individual who is poor, then saying I love the poor is nothing more than saying I love an idea. A circumstance. Rather than loving a human being with a name and story and eyes that see my eyes, I love a face-less being that inhabits a particular socio-economic status I deem beneath me.
That’s the kicker. In order to truly love one who is poor, I have to stop seeing them as beneath me. It isn’t that they make bad choices and I make good choices. It isn’t that I manage my money well and they don’t. Because truth be told, I don’t always make good choices and I don’t always manage my money well. I never have. For as much as my parents tried to teach me about good stewardship, I will always be the kid who wanted money to buy a newspaper before he could read simply because I wanted to spend money. That’s me. I was the cocky 26 year old who told his boss that he thought his micro-management of me was “bullshit.” Exact phrase. Yes, I got fired not long after. Thinking I am some white-knight who loves those who are poor by teaching them all my wisdom is wrong. More than that, it is unloving. The moment I start thinking that I am above those who are poor, or that some how I am more righteous than them because of my good decisions, or that they need me because I am overly impressed with my awesomeness is the moment that God starts to oppose me. At that point the kingdom of God’s inversion of the humble and the proud that Mary’s Magnificat rejoices in flips me upside down in my self-righteous stupor.
So I need to admit what is so in order that I might repent.
Loving those who are poor starts with listening to their stories. Loving those who are poor means being present with them for longer than a Saturday morning. Loving the poor means making room for them in my life. Loving those who are poor means that I stop thinking about ministry to the poor, but open myself up to being ministered to by those who are poor. By ministering with those who are poor. Until I do that, until I start making relationships that are friendship, loving those who are poor will always be a philosophical and theological love without any real teeth.
While admitting it brings shame, it has become very clear to me that I do not love those who are poor. So I admit it in order to shine light on the truth, expose the shame, repent, and open myself up to a new way of being.
Maybe this Advent God will incarnate himself in my life in some new ways. I pray so.
What about you? How do you relate to those who are poor?