This week’s Lenten Practice: Holy Attention

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The Politics of Poverty?


Photo by Zac Harmon-McLaughlin

I recently gave a sermon focused on the scripture in Luke where Jesus claims,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

I focused on the radical vision of justice and concern for the poor and marginalized Christ invokes in this “mission statement” for his ministry, and how that justice is unconditional, lovingly extended to everyone whether they “deserve” it or not.

After the service, I was taken aback when one of the congregants thanked me for the good “liberal” sermon, and joked that he should have worn his “Red-State Democrat” shirt to church that day (the congregation is in Kansas, a majority Republican state). My distress at his comment wasn’t that I was chagrined to be labeled a liberal, but that the message would be taken to be political at all. I don’t believe the message of justice to be liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. It is unfair to assume that conservatives care less about the poor than liberals, just as it is reductive to assume liberals are more concerned about poverty and injustice than conservatives. The political debate is one over the best means by which to attend to the needy and ensure justice: either by the exercise of charity by private citizens/organizations, or by taxation to fund government programs—or (in all reality), some combination of both. To make blanket statements about one side or the other not caring about the poor only exacerbates our current contentious political climate, and worse, potentially alienates our brothers and sisters who may hold different views by denying their good faith efforts to act justly as they understand it.

Sadly there was a kernel of truth in my fellow congregant’s comment: we do find ourselves confronting a cultural climate with an incipient and growing sense that we should not have to care about the poor at all. But this attitude, I would argue, is pervasive throughout our culture, with both conservative and liberal flavors. From one side, we hear that we shouldn’t have to give our money to those who screwed their own lives up; from the other side, we hear a message that abdicates responsibility for the poor to the government and removes any personal sense of culpability for the fate of others. Either way, both liberal and conservative politics have the potential to be selfish and self-serving, obscuring Christ’s message of justice and our personal and collective mission to abolish poverty and end suffering.

Ultimately, the message of justice is not a political one—it’s a Christian one. We may have genuine and (hopefully) productive disagreements about the best course to pursue it, but we should avoid any message—right or left, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican—that denies the worth of all persons and our personal responsibility to honor that worth by actively pursuing justice in our own practices, whatever form that takes.