Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Poverty and Earth Vision

In this space the last couple of weeks I have written about God’s—and therefore our—vision for the earth. He doesn’t intend to destroy and replace his creation, as some popular theologies assert and many people seem to believe. These theologies and beliefs need to be Left Behind so that we can grasp the biblical vision: that God intends to renew, redeem, and restore his creation. The proper role of humanity in this renewed creation is one of stewardship and care-taking, which has certain implications for the role of ecology in theology.

Taking hold of God’s earth vision has certain implications for the role of poverty in our theology as well—or, perhaps better stated, the role of theology in our dealings with poverty. This was brought home very forcefully this past Monday at a Symposium on Poverty that I participated in that was held in east Baltimore. The group that sponsored the symposium was the “New Day” group of Caucasian and African American pastors that I wrote about a few months ago. In east Baltimore, the issue of poverty and systemic racism cannot be separated. Poverty and class-ism cut across racial lines, but particularly in urban areas racism has to be thrown into the mix. (I’m not talking about the kind of hate-filled racism characterized by white robes and burning crosses, but rather a set of problems caused, often unintentionally [but not always] by societal systems that disproportionately affect one race or class of people.) We heard from a variety of people leading organizations that try to help people in Baltimore city deal these issues, from prison re-entry programs to HIV/AIDS awareness, job training and housing renewal. After each presentation one pastor would always ask, “What can churches do to help?” And as I listened to the answers, I kept thinking, “Our theology is too small. In order to make a difference, the theology of many of our churches has to change, has to enlarge, has to encompass, not only the death and resurrection of Jesus, but his life and teachings as well.” As long as our theology is principally about heaven and hell, there will be no moral or theological imperative to deal with poverty. It will be seen as a good thing to do, along with a lot of other good things that Christians do. You know, one option among many. The problem is that dealing with poverty is tough, complicated, messy, scary, costly, and any number of other difficult things. Given a choice, most Christians will opt for another Bible study. And do.

What is needed is a more complete theology, one that includes not only the death and resurrection of our savior and the afterlife of humans, but the teachings of the biblical prophets as well—including Jesus. A prophetic theology—a theology of the Kingdom of God—sees issues of poverty and justice as imperatives, things that the Gospel compels us to do because they are central to our understanding of what God is doing in our world. Lacking that, churches will do little to address poverty.

This was poignantly highlighted to me at the end of the meeting. The organizer of the symposium is a member of our New Day group, Bill Simpson, who started and runs a ministry to the poor in east Baltimore. Bill expressed his frustration over the fact that he has a hard time getting evangelical churches to work with him. Most maddeningly, the Southern Baptist Convention will not provide him any funds if his primary focus is addressing poverty and not evangelism and church-starting. Understand, he’s not against evangelism, but he does not understand a mindset that views addressing the needs of the poor as unworthy of support in and of itself. And neither do I.

One of the pastors present mentioned that, in the few areas where the SBC has ministry to the poor as its primary focus, the effort has resulted in a higher percentage of baptisms than in efforts that are primarily about evangelism. In other words, ministering to the poor and addressing the issues surrounding their poverty is a more effective evangelism strategy than evangelistic efforts to the poor aimed primarily or solely at their spiritual conversion.
We need a theology that does away with dualistic ways of viewing a person i.e. of having a soul that is spiritual and separate from the body, which is unspiritual, so that you minister to each one separately, and ministry to the soul is more important than ministering to the body. Instead we need a theology that embraces a biblical view of the person as a whole, with a body and a soul that are united, so that ministering to one is to minister to the other. We need a theology that likewise does away with dualistic ways of viewing heaven and earth as separate entities, one spiritual and eternal, the other unspiritual (or even anti-spiritual) and temporal, and instead embrace a biblical view that the end that God is working toward, and which he invites us to join him, is the renewal of all creation, the heavens and the earth, and every creature in it. Until then, our theology will be too small, and insufficient for following our Creator God.

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