This article is part of the series, The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In our text today Peter embraces the Gentiles as fellow Christians after he observes them being filled with the Holy Spirit. Earlier Peter had received a vision in which he was commanded to eat things that he considered unclean. Perplexed by the vision, Peter realized its meaning after he was led by the Lord to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile who believed in God. Peter never would have gone inside Cornelius’ home since Jews did not visit with Gentiles, nor enter into their homes. Because of his vision, however, he realized that God was doing a new thing, and he received the Gentiles into the household of faith as brethren.
Sadly, many churches still are estranged from people that they consider “unclean.” While much is made of multiculturalism and racial diversity, the problem of classcism within churches—the discrimination against the lower class at the expense of the upper and middle class—continues to plague American congregations of all cultures. In American society, a society that exalts wealth and individuality above almost all else, the poor and indigent are frowned upon for bad choices and an inconsistent work ethic. Although sociological data may say otherwise, many feel that the poor are to blame for their own condition. Even if others do not blame the poor for their compromised economic position, they seldom desire to be in relationship with the underclass, preferring instead to approach them from a distance through food programs, clothing drives, and other subsidies that keep the barriers between the classes intact. Perhaps the greatest offenders may be the attendees of megachurches who comprise a middle and upper class constituency that exalts wealth, charisma, and success over undesirable traits such as poverty, physical or mental disability, and old age.
While there are several different types of megachurches, the contemporary megachurch is the institution most commonly associated with extensive religious broadcasting, faith based, or prosperity gospel religious teaching, and the iconic celebrity status of their pastors. One of their most distinctive characteristics is that these congregations lionize their pastors as emblems of health, wealth, and charisma, and members identify themselves with the success, fame, and status of their particular pastor. So what becomes of the impoverished members of a congregation? Who has an affinity for them?
In reflecting on the common good of human communities, Alasdair MacIntyre asks, “what difference to moral philosophy would it make, if we were to treat the facts of vulnerability and affliction and the related facts of dependence as central to the human condition?” To extend the scope of MacIntyre’s question, I further add, what difference would it make to our conceptions of and attempts to secure the church’s common good if the church community was to treat vulnerability, poverty, and affliction in this way?
What is needed if we are to be present to the very poor? Beyond food programs, shelters, and clothing drives, members of the community have to learn to enter into meaningful relationships with the poor. This requires what Aquinas calls misericordia, the virtue of taking pity. However, in English, pity is associated with condescension, which does not do this term justice. Rather, the term refers to grief or sorrow over someone else’s distress just insofar as one understands the other’s distress as one’s own. Misericordia is what reorders our desires to meet the needs of the poor for the sake of their need alone, and not because we are engaged in some interminable form of imitation. Misericordia is like the compassion of Jesus, which does not simply heal and restore, but is bodily present in its healing and restoration.
Insofar as many megachurch members do not have intimate and meaningful relationships with other church members, let alone the poor and indigent, expecting the vast majority of these church attendees to develop the virtues of presence and misericordia seems extremely utopian. However, foregrounding this issue accedes to Hauerwas’ proclamation that, “Theology and theologians do little to make the world better. Rather, our craft involves the slow and painful steps of trying to understand better what it means to be a people formed by the story of God.” Hopefully, focusing our attention on the poor will remind us of the dimensions of Christian life which have been hidden by our culture’s preference for such things as power, strength, and intellectual prowess. If the acquisitive desire fostered by capitalism and expressed within the parameters of the megachurch experience is to be reclaimed, it must first be reordered away from our personal desires, and it must be redirected toward others who are destitute and very poor, which realizes the common good. In this way, we can truly experience the joy and unity of Pentecost.