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Poor People’s Campaign? — Douglas F. Ottati

The number of people in the U.S. living below the poverty line in 2011 was 46.2 million, the highest in the more than 50 years that records have been kept.[i] (1961 is a few years before Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” and about seven years before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized the “Poor People’s Campaign” that would take Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis.) Why then is so little attention being paid to poverty and poverty-related issues in the current presidential campaign?…

The number of people in the U.S. living below the poverty line in 2011 was 46.2 million, the highest in the more than 50 years that records have been kept.[i]  (1961 is a few years before Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” and about seven years before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized the “Poor People’s Campaign” that would take Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis.)  Why then is so little attention being paid to poverty and poverty-related issues in the current presidential campaign?  The candidates’ rhetoric points to an answer: the “middle class” and the “job creators” have fused to become the holy grail of American politics.  What’s more, in the current age of the pollster and electronic communications there’s a very good chance they are simply saying what many Americans want to hear.  When poverty comes up at all, it’s at the edges of the campaign – Romney’s comments about the “safety net” and about the 47 million who don’t pay federal income tax, Obama’s claim to help people into the middle class via student loans, etc.

In a Christian perspective, a brief look at Jesus in the New Testament is enough to indicate that this is a poor showing.  This seems worth discussing, especially in a nation where so many voters think of themselves as Christian.  But before we turn to Jesus, we should note four points.  1) Interpreters often domesticate Jesus so that he fits their own preferences and is unable to challenge or accuse those who look to him for guidance. 2) The gospels offer theological reflections about Jesus rather than unfiltered access to the Jesus of history, and historical studies can sometimes help to illumine important patterns in Jesus’ message as well as in the New Testament portraits.  3) Jesus is not the whole of Christian ethics; Trinitarian traditions also ask about our appropriate responses to divine governance in nature and history.  4) Morally important ideas, attitudes, and commitments commended by Jesus in the New Testament do not translate immediately into current policies because additional factors, such as interpretations of contemporary political systems and economies, need to be considered in order to make specific recommendations.


Jesus in the New Testament

Jesus says and does lots of things.  For example, he teaches about divorce in Matthew 5, Mark 10, and Luke 16.  Elsewhere, he heals the sick and casts out demons.  He teaches his disciples to love enemies, as well as where and how to pray and fast.  He sends them out on missions to villages and towns.  He teaches about Caesar and paying taxes, trusting God rather than being anxious, etc.  So, the figure of Jesus in the New Testament does considerably more than talk about the poor and their plight.

Nevertheless, a fair number of Jesus’ sayings and teachings do address the poor and the rich, and these often have an eschatological cast.  Consider three beatitudes presented in Luke 6:20-21.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:  “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

In each case there is a contrast between what is the case now and what shall be.  The reason is that the coming kingdom of God differs from the way things are.  Why? Because it is a kingdom or imperial rule that reflects God’s justice and God’s purposes, whereas the present order does not. The blessings are followed by parallel sayings in 6:24-25.

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.  Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mount and weep.”[ii]

Some scholars think the blessings go back to Jesus’ own teaching but the woes do not.  In any case, what we see here are eschatological teachings connected with the kingdom that express rather definite judgments and concerns.  God’s coming kingdom of justice and glory offers a vantage point from which to criticize the present order of injustice and oppression and to accuse those who benefit from it.

This brings us to a basic point about Jesus’ message.  The Gospel of Mark starts by reviewing the proclamation and ministry of John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism by John, and then Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  Then it turns to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and these are the first words that he speaks.  “‘The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’” (1:14).  This particular summary of Jesus’ message may well be Mark’s composition, but most scholars agree that the kingdom of God is at the center of Jesus’ message and ministry (as it is also in the Lord’s Prayer).  Moreover, as we have seen, his sayings about the poor, the hungry, the rich, and the full are themselves features of his preaching about the kingdom.  So, if his sayings about these things are not the whole of Jesus’ teaching, they are nevertheless near the core of his message, a core that accords with important aspects of the message of prophets such as Amos, who complain that the rich trample on the poor, take a bribe, and push aside the needy (Amos 5:10-12).

We could add comments about Jesus’ recommendation that the rich young man sell his possessions and give to the poor, followed by the observation that “it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:16-25 and parallels).  We might also add reflections about his insistence that one’s heart will be with one’s treasure.  But I trust the point in clear.

Especially when Christians enter into public discourse in pluralistic societies, it is also important to connect the heightened concern for the poor in Jesus’ teachings and a rather widely recognized rule of fairness.  In Matthew 7:12, Jesus teaches the Golden Rule as a summary of the moral wisdom of Israel.  “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”  A negative version was taught as a summary of the law by Jesus’ contemporary, Rabbi Hillel.  The rule comes to expression in many ancient and more recent sources; various formulations, both negative and positive, are widely distributed in the world’s religions and among philosophers.  Whether the Jesus of history himself uttered the Golden Rule is unclear, but it is a bit of moral wisdom that accords in a general way with his admonition to love others.[iii]

One reason the Rule is helpful is that, very often, we do not treat others as we wish to be treated.  In fact, it is especially easy to treat others in ways we would not like to be treated when the others in question are weak, dependent, and vulnerable e.g. children, the sick, and the poor.  The poor are rarely in a position to press or defend their own interests.  This is how Jesus’ sayings about the poor and the kingdom intersect with a widely recognized summary of justice as fairness, and also why the way a society treats the poor makes a good test of whether or not it is just and fair.



Today, a record number of people in the U.S. live in poverty, and reports indicate that 21-23.1% of children in the U.S. live in poverty.  The World Bank estimates that 1.29 billion people live on less than $1.25 per day, and that 2.47 billion live on less than $2.00 per day, numbers that, while disturbingly high, also show recent declines.  The World Hunger Education Service says 925 million people were hungry in 2010 (or 13.1% of the world’s population).  Various studies indicate that many factors are connected with poverty, e.g. war, agricultural practices and land use, as well as the availability of medical care, emergency services, good water, and education.  It therefore looks as if there is no single solution, but also that efforts to address one or more of these factors by governments and agencies, such as the Gates Foundation, can have a significant impact.

People disagree about the statistics, and different poverty studies sometimes emphasize different contributing factors.  Recall also that there is more to a Christian social ethic than contrasts between present societies and Jesus’ vision of the kingdom.  But if the foregoing (admittedly general) picture of our situation is even somewhat accurate, and if, for all of our justifiable attention to needed practicalities and compromises of present orders, we do not simply leave Jesus and his message behind, then, it is apparent that the current presidential campaign in the U.S. leaves much to be desired.

Maybe it’s time, to launch a different campaign.  Churches could try to move on a number of fronts.  Even if every congregation and denomination cannot become a church of the poor, it is worth asking how each may become more welcoming of the homeless and impoverished.  This is a question not only for churches in areas with significant numbers of homeless, such as the Broad Street Mission in Philadelphia, but also for congregations located in other surroundings.  Individual congregations need to ponder what sorts of programs and initiatives make sense in their particular circumstances.

Part of the answer is likely to be increased attention to and involvement with local conditions that can render the poor “invisible” from the vantage point of well-travelled routes and popular destinations, e.g. offices, shops, malls, parks, schools, and restaurants.  Poverty often is closer by than many of us recognize, particularly in comparatively prosperous suburban locations.  Hands-on involvements are important when it comes to real services, e.g. transportation to and from grocery stores and doctor’s offices, and also for developing awareness of the human costs and broader issues.  Again, congregations and denominations need to become educated about and to support poverty-related missions and initiatives in the U.S. and abroad undertaken by both religious and non-religious groups and institutions.

There is also the business of advocacy, including critiques of prevalent social attitudes, injustices, and manipulations.  (Consider, for example, the distribution of educational opportunities in the U.S., or the condition of “guest workers” in many agricultural areas.)  Advocacy, we should be clear, often is not a matter of offering full-blown policies or sets of policies.  Nonetheless, it is critical to put poverty and related issues before the public and body politic.  This includes pestering candidates for mayoralties, governorships, state houses, congress, and president to address poverty and related issues, to elaborate general stance and lines of attack as well as more specific policies.  It is not enough for candidates to say that there is a safety net for the very poor, or that theirs is a political party that has addressed poverty issues in the past.  In fact, when we let them get away with these sorts of remarks, when we let them get away without addressing poverty and related issues in some detail, we become part of the problem.

There is much more that can and ought to be said.  At the end of the day, however, we should also be clear that, when it comes to poverty, responsibilities are widely shared, and few if any are entirely righteous.  This is not difficult to demonstrate almost anywhere, and it is especially important to say in communities of comparative means and privilege.  Among other things, the ministry and teaching of Jesus in the New Testament accuse.  They indicate that, very often, the poor obtain justice only by striving against our own interests and pretensions.


Douglas F. Ottati is Craig Family Distinguished Professor of Reformed Theology and Justice at Davidson College, NC, USA.  He is the author of several books, most recently Theology for Liberal Presbyterians and Other Endangered Species, and is a general editor of the Library of Theological Ethics.  His systematic theology is in press at Eerdmans.

[i] Hope Yen, “Poverty rate Unchanged: Record Numbers Persist,” Charlotte Observer, September 13, 2012.

[ii] In Matthew 5:3, of course, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . (emphasis mine).  A number of scholars think Luke’s version is closer to Jesus’s actual message.  Even if one disagrees, however, there is little reason to dismiss Luke 6:20.

[iii] See The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, New Translation and Commentary by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar (Harper San Francisco, 1993), 155-156.

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