Let us begin with a thought experiment, that may not apply to everyone but most certainly to some: You are walking down the street, an urban street aligned with many shops. You see a homeless man on the ground, with his dog, sitting on cardboard begging for change. He’s got quite the scraggly beard, wearing plenty of stained and filthy clothing. You see an empty cigarette pack near by, and you have more than a slight suspicion it is his. Do you stop to give him change? Most likely not due to the fact that you do not think he will spend the money on the right things, but rather will spend it on liquor, drugs, porn, etc… You continue down this street and a few blocks later you see a woman, mostly in the same position and condition as the previous man but this time it is claimed that she has a hungry child to feed. You’re not certain of her claim for she seems a little too old to have a baby to feed, and you suspect that she may be taking advantage of strangers’ sympathy toward a woman’s voice in order to gather money for cheap groceries or the like, and so you decide not to give her any money. Finally along this street you come across a young man, along with a young woman, both of whom are wearing t-shirts and holding clipboards, trying to raise money for some cause or other. You see that it is for breast cancer research, and given that you have personally lost a family member to breast cancer, and are a genuine supporter of cancer research (and not merely one who wears an ‘I love boobs’ bracelet), you decide to give them a hearing. You listen about their donation plans, the particular organizations they sponsor, and the work that is being done. They appear to be professional enough so you commit yourself to a monthly donation, and you’re very appreciative of their efforts. Now here is what you do not know: the first man had been a recovering alcoholic, and did not even know the empty cigarette box was there, rather he was asking for money so that he could buy his dog another sweater for an insensitive drunken idiot doused the last one in cheap beer. The woman was in fact taking care of a child, though not her child, but a child she had found in the dumpster not too long ago when she heard it crying in the middle of the night. She had found the child just in time, but kept it in hiding lest anyone else try to hurt the child or take it from her. Finally the two young people you had met, while genuine and sincere themselves, were in fact working (unbeknownst to them) for a front company that took all the funds gathered from raising money for breast cancer research to funnel it into off-shore accounts for future investment opportunities.

            What is this particular story suppose to show? That you should always give money to homeless people? No. That you should never give money to charity workers? No. The story intends to illustrate a prejudice deep within our society, that of our prejudice against the poor, as exemplified in the heighten skepticism toward those with less wealth. Recently the Pilion Trust, a London located registered charity, put out an interesting video campaign called “F*ck the Poor”. The video was intended to illustrate that people really do care about the poor, for they are willingly to stand-up against a man spreading the message of ‘F*ck the poor’, but also that people may not care enough to actually give money to people spreading the message of ‘help the poor’. What the video may actually illustrate however is not that people care about the poor, or that they just don’t care enough to give, but that they actually don’t care about the poor at all. If they cared, presumably it would be easier to give some spare change to a stranger than to confront someone publicly about their blatant prejudice, which would be an act of great courage proceeding from their commitment to the poor, which they’ve already demonstrated in giving change and other means. If they cared, they would have done both, and the act of actually giving spare change would presumably be the easier task of someone who cares. No, what the video actually illustrates is not that people care about the poor-just not ‘enough’-but that what they care about is the pretension that they care about the poor. What most people care about is reassuring themselves that they are not prejudiced and that they really do care, and what a better opportunity than publicly denounce someone whose prejudice is so blatant and obvious. It could not have been easier to stand for justice then.

            The desire to be perceived as a champion of the poor, and actually being a champion of the poor, must be distinguished. The sign or the demonstration of a true champion of the cause of the oppressed and the poor is the dwelling with such people. George Müller, the 19th century Christian evangelist, famous for his establishing the Ashley Down orphanage in Bristol, England, having cared for 10, 024 orphans within his lifetime, knew this fact well. When Müller took his pastoral position at the Teignmouth congregation in 1830, he not only refused a fixed salary but did so precisely because it was most likely based on the system of pew rents, which would discriminate against the poor who could not rent pews or if they could would sit in the back. Müller saw that this practice divided the Church from communing with their brothers and sisters, regardless of economic status (Pierson, George Müller of Bristol, 63, 444). Pew rents were a religiously instituted form of prejudice against the poor by refusing to be associated with them, and Müller saw that this went against the principle of impartiality in the Christian faith (James 2:1-9). You could only claim to love and care for the poor, as the Christian faith does, if you are actually with them, and it is this that not only the church but society at large is firmly against by actively pursuing to push the poor out of its sight.

            Strong language is not often justified, and is usually quite dismissive, but in this area there can be no question that political bodies, cultures, societies, and people groups, will tend to do anything possible to keep the poor away from them. One example among many is the increasing trend as seen in Palo Alto, Calfornia’s Silicon Valley, of creating laws that make it a crime for someone to sleep in their car, so as to rid rich neighbourhoods of the uncomfortable presence of homeless people. Another example that can be used is from Canada, the bastion of multiculturalism itself, which apparently cannot tolerate the culture of the poor however. In Abbotsford, British Columbia, the local government itself spread chicken manure over an area frequented by homeless people, in an attempt to drive them out of the city. The implicit message is clear, “We would rather have an area covered in shit, than you be here.”

            No more examples need be cited, the particular prejudice against the poor throughout much of our society is more than clear, but what may need to be elucidated a bit more is just how hypocritical our churches and society at large are when it comes to claiming that they represent and desire to care for the poor. A culture that spends millions of dollars on the sport-entertainment complex, movies, music, TV shows, books, cathedral/church building upkeep, and so forth, for seemingly the sole purpose of entertainment and enjoyment, cannot possibly claim to care about poverty in Africa, let alone the increasing wealth inequality gap within its own boarders. No more need be said. Yet we keep this pretension that we care* by what Slavoj Žižek rightly calls “…one of the names (and practices) of non-love today…”, that of charity (Living in the End Times, 117). Charity, not in the classical sense of self-sacrifical love, but in the form of atonement we today call ‘donations’. ‘Donations’ function for us today not as a by-product of a stance of self-sacrifical love,** but as a form of atonement. The difference between ‘donations’ as a product of a life lived entirely in self-sacrifice, and ‘donations’ given for atonement, is well illustrated by the story of the widow’s mite in the Gospel of Mark (Mark 12:41-44). In this story the rich donate out of their riches into the temple treasury, whereas the widow who donates very little is honoured because the ‘little’ that she gave was out of her poverty. By all standards of the society at the time, including ours, the rich men gave more, but Jesus proclaims that the widow did better. The parallel in our societies is the charitable giving of philanthropists in comparison to the meal offered one by a poor family in a middle eastern country. By the standards of the economy, none of us would be able to give as much money as rich philanthropists, but by the standards of actually caring for the poor, the middle eastern family was in fact more generous because they exemplified an entirely different economy altogether. The economy based on love, has no need for philanthropists, because there is no need for ‘donations’ of atonement, because there would be no oppression by the rich for which to atone.

            The ‘donations’ of atonement are made in a society that feels guilt over its oppression, exclusion, and outright prejudice toward the poor, but is not willingly to give up the benefits of such sin, namely their wealth. Atonement functions not as a step of repentance, not as the proper procedure when one has committed sin, but it is precisely the means by which we appease our guilt, so that we can keep on sinning. One of the most terrifying passages in the New Testament, for anyone situated in the position of the rich, such as ourselves, is in the epistle of James. In the midst of his warning and condemnation of the rich (James 5:1-6), which only a Jewish man in the prophetic tradition of God’s justice could make, and the atheistic socialist is unable to make, there is no procedure given for the rich other than to weep. More terrifying still, within the worldview of the epistle of James, there appear to be no righteous rich people. If you are rich, you’re a blasphemer, oppressive, greedy, and a vicious prosecutor of the poor. In our contemporary discourse we would call this the ‘demonization’ of the rich. The doctrine of universal human empathy and state of sin, would make us want to say with Mitt Romney, “Corporations are people, my friend.” Should not a Christian account of the state of prejudice against the poor, embodied in our self-justifying atoning ‘donations’ and our institutional oppression of them out of our sight, be complemented by an account of the humanity of the oppressor? The need to realize that the collection of wealth is a sign of their insecurity and of their enslavement to sin? The problem is that in the New Testament, Babylon is never redeemed- Babylon falls (Revelation 18). If the rich want a defence and an apologist, they have more than enough resources to get one for themselves, the church should stop being it for them.

            As Miroslav Volf, in his masterpiece Exclusion and Embrace (Abingdon: 1996), rightly says, “For those who appeal to the biblical traditions, the presumption that one perspective is as valid as the other until proven otherwise is unacceptable. The initial suspicion against the perspective of the powerful is necessary” (219). It is such an exercise of such initial suspicion that this exploration has been. Stances against outright prejudice toward the poor without care for the poor should not be misconstrued as justice or the desire for justice, but be understood as hypocritical defences to keep the pretension of caring alive. The institutional and personal attempts to literally push the poor out of our sight are not only injustices, but outright violations of the principle of impartiality in the Christian faith. It is not merely an injustice or bigotry, it is sin. The donations of the rich and philanthropic are mere atonements design to keep a state of wealth and inequality going. Jesus does not applaud charity of this kind. Jesus applauds those, like the widow, who give up everything that they have and are for a different order altogether. Lastly, the appeal to consider the humanity the rich and powerful elite, with a connection to consider ‘the boat that we’re all in’, is an unnecessary appeal, and quite possibly one that will maintain the order the wealthy have created. The rich have not been portrayed as demons, merely in the service of them. The rich have not been portrayed as monsters, only those who do monstrous things. If they need an apology or a defence, they have more than enough resources to get their own. So great is our sin, it is even questionable whether we would recognize and honour the poor, if they came in the form of God himself.***

RNS-HOMELESS-JESUS

* Of course speaking about a society as a whole, not necessarily every individual within it.

** If they do for you, then an honour will no doubt be given to you in God’s new world, and in truth you probably do not need to read this exhortation.

***Burnett, John. “Statue Of A Homeless Jesus Startles A Wealthy Community.” Public Radio. NPR.org, April 13, 2014. http://www.npr.org/2014/04/13/302019921/statue-of-a-homeless-jesus-startles-a-wealthy-community.

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