Is poverty something to be fixed, or something meant for healing through faith-filled communities?
Another generation grew up after [Joshua’s], who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel. ~ Judges 2:10
A lot of people of all ages struggle to make ends meet. Our government counts some as being officially poor – about ten percent of all people in my home state of Connecticut. And then there is A.L.I.C.E. – Assetless, Low Income, Constrained Employment people. ALICE lives in all of our towns and cities – and often in places where you’d least expect to find ALICE. Statewide, ALICE makes up about 25 percent of our population. That’s more than one third of people in Connecticut who have a very hard time making ends meet, and little ability to create any financial reserves. It’s basically the same proportion of people ill fed, ill homed, and ill-clothed during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
We know ALICE. We might even be ALICE, or have been ALICE for a good portion of our lives. What’s surprising is how you can find ALICE in many places that you might think were quite comfortable communities. The seaside town of Westbrook, a very scenic place, has the highest level of ALICE households in Middlesex County – 31 percent, according to a recent report from the United Way. Many other towns that you’d think would have a relatively low number of ALICE households have very high levels of near-poverty. In other words, ALICE comes to the communion table with us when we worship, no matter where we are.
Can we reconcile ALICE with Christianity?
There is a lot to be proud of and grateful for in our nation, but these statistics do not inspire pride or gratitude in me. Neither should they for any Christian, I would think, since we are a faith that is dedicated to sharing fairly the abundance of what God offers us through faith. In the Acts of the Apostles, we see clearly how the earliest Christians “…were together and had all things in common…with glad and generous hearts…day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:44-37) There was apparently a direct connection between early Christianity’s mutual generosity and its ability to attract followers. They walked Jesus’ talk. The rest is history – the world was attracted to a a just and healing community that was open to everyone.
If ALICE is the net result of centuries of Christianity dominating faith in the U.S., then there is a mismatch between what we practice and what the earliest Christians practiced. The worldly success of many American Christians cannot be reconciled with the struggles of a third of our population’s most basic needs. We cannot lay it at their feet: many of these people are already Christians. Others, like in the time of Acts, are the ones waiting to discover Christ’s healing power in their lives. When we dismiss the needs of the poor and ALICE, we dismiss what Christ wants – wholeness and healing for the entire world, right now, in the image of God’s eternal love. We also sow the seeds of our own undoing, both as Americans and as people of faith.
Judges: From perfect wholeness to chaos
You don’t have to look at American history to learn this lesson – we can look just as easily at the story of Judges in the Old Testament. Judges describes the transition from an ideal time for Israel – after Moses had led the Israelites through the desert forty years, a new generation that grew up under Moses’ leadership conquers Canaan under Joshua. This new generation is pure in heart, strong in battle, and just in their allocation of land and resources. Yet the generation after Joshua’s was much more selfish, less focused on faith, and sunk into bruyal warfare under a series of leaders called judges.
Some of the judges eventually did some good things, like Samson’s turning to God for strength after being blinded and robbed of his dignity and freedom. But the very ending of Judges seems to sum up the weakness and corruption of these times: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (Judges 21:25) Chaos, selfishness and strongmen ruled the day in the time of the judges; faith was an afterthought, and the faith of Israel was just one of many that these new generations tried out. Sound familiar? Sadly, it is: a generation that had abundant blessings from God forgot how to pass them along to everyday believers.
From fixing poverty to healing poverty
Even Jesus admitted that there would always be poor people: we are always far from perfect. But perhaps we can take some lessons from Jesus about how to deal with poverty. Jesus dove in intimately to embrace the problems of both the poor and the well-off, and brought healing to them all. He didn’t “fix” people: he brought healing. Jesus understood that the wholeness of people depended on not just statistical goodness, but inner completeness that is built up as a family-like community. When we try to fix problems like poverty for “them,” we ignore the spiritual problems that are part of “us” as the family of humanity. Our fear of poverty makes everyone poor, and so we all need healing to embrace how these fears have hurt even those who are well off.
Faith takes us away from such fears, and encourages us to pass on this wisdom and strength to new generations. As our church engages in programs such as Habitat for Humanity to solve housing problems alongside ALICE families, it becomes apparent that hearts working together to solve these problems are the real solution. Christianity grows when we embrace our entire communities as our family, looking them in the eye, and telling them, “You’re ours.” This is what the world expects us to give them, and to train future generations to do again and again. ALICE may live here, but, through faith, ALICE can start to experience healing alongside us, as we seek healing as a loving community of people in God’s loving image.