Growing in My Learning on Loving the Poor
In the “Green Room” at our biennial staff conference, Dr. Tim Keller takes a moment to help me understand the role of the Body of Christ in alleviating poverty. The following is a condensation of his thesis called The Gospel and the Poor, and of a message he gave to us (which I’m happy to share). Here is the link to the video, which is now posted. Disclaimer: I may have misunderstood or misheard something, so if I have in anyway misrepresented Dr. Keller’s teaching, the fault lies with me.]
Keller defines the “poor” as: weak, elderly, mentally and physically handicapped, refugees, new immigrants, working poor, natural, disaster victims, unemployed, single parent families, orphans.
The Fall of man created alienation:
Spiritual alienation—Adam and Eve (our representatives) hid from God.
Psychological alienation—Loss of identity, anxiety, fear, emptiness, psychosis, alienation from self.
Social alienation—Adam and Eve covered themselves from each others’ gaze, introduced blame, war, crime, breakdown of the family, etc.
Physical alienation—We become sick and die.
In the Old Testament Patriarchal Period, God makes a promise that the One who will heal all alienation (Jesus) will come through Abraham’s seed. Interesting fact: First blessing to the nations from Abraham’s seed is Joseph, a civil magistrate, who provides food through a famine.
Legislation for the laws of Israel is replete with tremendous amounts of instruction for caring for the poor, for example, the gleaning laws. No one could take all of his land profits; he was required to leave the edges of grain for the poor. The landowner involved the poor in their own rehabilitation in gathering grain for themselves (was not a giveaway). When indentured servants left their work, their bosses blessed them with tools for their trade, grain and what they needed for a self-sufficient life.
Later Israel’s prophet’s condemned Israel for breaking the covenants. One of the reasons for their 70-year exile was a result of ignoring the jubilee years where debts were canceled on behalf of those who could not repay.
The early church stood out in it’s culture for it’s attention to the poor. According to sociologist Rodney Stark, “the Christian concept of self-sacrificial love of others, emanating from God’s love for them, was a revolutionary concept to the pagan mind, which viewed the extension of mercy as an emotional act to be avoided by rational people” (This is a quote from When Helping Hurts, by Corbett and Fikkert). They also quote Stark directly:
“Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate base for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violence and ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services” (page 44).
Jesus “moved in” with the poor. His incarnation identified him with us: poor, alone, sick, alienated. He lived with the lowest class of society. He came to redeem alienation from God, from ourselves, from others, from death.
Summary (directly from Tim’s thesis, pages 2, 3): The church is not simply a collection of individuals who are forgiven. It is a “royal nation”, a new society (I Pet. 2:9). The world must see in us the wisdom of God, namely, what family life, business practices, race relations, and inter- personal relationships can be in all their beauty under the kingship of Jesus Christ. We are a pilot plant of the kingdom of God.
The roles of the Body of Christ
Relief: direct help, emergency food relief, soup kitchens
Development: getting poor on their feet, job creation, training, scholarships (much more expensive and harder).
Reform: affecting at the social system, laws, justice and equity in a community
For the local church, Keller reminds pastors that their role is to preach the Word and enact the sacraments. Elders are assigned ministries of the Word and deacons ministries of deeds, Relief especially and heavily. He cautions churches against getting involved in Reform because there inevitably brings a tie to government alignments. That said, believers, as good citizens, should be involved in law making and battles for equities. No one church or ministry can do all these things, but as the Body of Christ, we should cover them all.
Government worldviews take two points of view: The poor exist because of systemic racism (Democrats), and the poor exist because of the breakdown of the family (Republicans). Democrats want justice and mercy. Republicans want to throw resources at them (great schools, teachers, etc). Both are right and both are wrong, according to Keller. But both can agree that it’s not the children’s fault what family they were born into. There is an inequitable distribution of resources; it’s unjust that whites walk in blindness to their privilege. No viewpoint fits into our social or capitalistic or economic policies, but Christianity informs them.
Christians must get involved. If you remember that you are a sinner saved by grace, you will remember what it is to be marginalized, an alien, an orphan, an immigrant, a slave, alienated from all that is right and beautiful. Theologian Bruce Waltke has done careful, exhaustive translation of the biblical word “righteous.” His definition: “A person who looks at his wealth (possessions, time, land, money) as not belonging to himself, but to his community—“plow it into the community,” he says, whatever it is you have.
My final thoughts: Helping believers know their gifts is vitally important, because not all will reflect Jesus’ mission in the same way of redeeming alienation. Think of the ways you could redeem alienation from God (evangelism); alienation from self (counseling, community); alienation from others (law, peacemaking, forgiveness); alienation from health (nursing, encouragement, visiting).
Questions to come: What happened to the church? Why are we not known for alleviating alienation? Why have we stepped out of the social conversation? What works? What hurts?
Thanks for following me and my journey. Comments and questions very welcome!