The clear distinction between the Christian works of mercy and generic social activism and charity work is often forgotten, leading to a fraught relationship between them and the Christian gospel message. In 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul offers us a better way.
Jesus’ statement ‘You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me’ could easily be regarded as a shrug of the shoulders in the face of the enduring problem of poverty. However, closer examination of the context of the statement in John’s gospel reveals a more compelling picture.
Although the parable is typically referred to as that of ‘the Prodigal Son’, the son who receives the father’s welcome has long since fallen from his state of prodigal living into one of the most abject poverty and lack. This father’s loving embrace challenges us to consider our provision of welfare and welcome to those in need among us, irrespective of how ‘deserving’ we might suppose them to be.
Often misread as a statement in praise of ‘sacrificial’ giving, Jesus’ observation concerning the widow’s offering at the temple is designed to condemn exploitative structures that prey upon the most vulnerable. We should not be able to read this account without reflecting upon comparable systems of economic injustice in our own day.
A 2005 New York Times poll discovered that 80 percent of US citizens believe that it is indeed possible to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps (quoted on p. 70). In her new book Solidarity Ethics, Rebecca Todd Peters argues that it is this belief in self-sufficiency that, in part, underwrites the structural issues of oppression and inequality of our neoliberal globalized world. Global structural evils stand on the values and worldview of the privileged. And the benefits of privilege are so deeply woven into the fabric of our quotidian realities that it requires a concrete change in perspective—a conversion, in fact—to recognize the problems this privilege also creates for others.
The Middle Ages were filled with strange, passionate, and fascinating figures, often hidden from our view by the long shadows of the likes of Anselm, Francis, Aquinas, or Ockham. The great theologians earned their influence, of course, but there are also things to learn from some of those to whom history has been less magnanimous. I want to introduce one such figure here: Arnold of Brescia.