A friend of mine thinks we’re living in the most divisive time in the United States since the Civil War. That might or might not be true, but it does seem to be the most divisive period in my lifetime.
The terms “Republican” and “Democrat” seem to represent a lot more than politics today; they represent differing perspectives, agendas, even goals and, sadly, even facts.
To me, one of the biggest divisions in our society is over how we view those who live in poverty. This fundamental difference drives many of the other differences.
One side views many of those living in poverty as lazy. Even worse, many are scam artists, taking advantage of the system. Drugs, alcohol, dropping out of school, pregnancy out of wedlock — bad choice after bad choice is made by those living in poverty. The poor are just having to live with the consequences of their actions. The solution to poverty, at its heart, is for these people to get their act together.
The other side views many of those living in poverty as victims of circumstances. Something happened to them, a factory closed, a health issue arose or they were raised in a family in which they never learned important life skills to help them succeed. Yes, many of them make bad choices, though so do many people with more resources. But people with more resources can bounce back. Those living in poverty just don’t have the resources to come back from bad choices. The solution to poverty is to give those who need it a helping hand in overcoming their circumstances.
Unfortunately, our minds tend to work in stereotypes. When each of us tries to think of the millions of people in the U.S. (and billions worldwide) living in poverty, we can’t really wrap our brains around the diversity, the broad spectrum, from conniving scam artists to innocent children, and everything in between.
Instead we picture in our minds a single “poor person.” What that person looks like in our minds dictates what sort of camp we fall into.
Many of us living central Pennsylvania call ourselves Christians. If we’re going to call ourselves that, it should mean something. Our beliefs and actions should be different; it should be affected by the teachings and actions of Jesus Christ. Otherwise, if we’re being honest, we should call ourselves something else.
And if we’re going to use that title “Christian,” it should come first, before “Democrat,” before “Republican” or anything else. Those beliefs should be more important than secondary political beliefs. (See Revelation 3 — God doesn’t like when Christians are “lukewarm.”)
So what does it mean to live as a Christian? A good place to start is Jesus’ summary of the whole law and the prophets: Love God and your neighbor as yourself. (See Luke 10, so you know I’m not making this up.)
What’s the old Ronco infomercial line? “But wait, there’s more!”
Jesus didn’t mean for “neighbor” to be just the person living next door, but all of us, even if we don’t like each other. The Good Samaritan story Jesus told was to show what a good neighbor looked like. (That story also is in Luke 10.)
And yet there is still more. Jesus even goes so far as to say we should love our enemies, not just those who love us back, because anybody can do that (Matthew 5).
So my question is: If we’re going to use the name “Christian,” shouldn’t we at least give people living in poverty the benefit of the doubt? Shouldn’t we at least think of them as sincere, honest and hard-working, until they prove themselves otherwise?
Now before those of us on the left get all smug, we all need to revise and continue to work on how we think of the “poor” — most definitely including me. It’s too easy to think of them as different, as less than the rest of us, as in need of our supervision and “wisdom.”
But Jesus calls for us to love them, just as we do our neighbors, our enemies and ourselves.
Who are the poor? They are us. Period.
Craig Rose is pastor at Howard United Methodist Church. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.