On the margins

Whatever else we know about the Deity as represented in Jesus the Christ, it is that God is on the side of the poor.

By Bill Leonard

“No amount of pacification will be able to last, nor will harmony and happiness be attained in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins or excludes part of itself.” That’s what Pope Francis said July 25 as he walked through a Rio De Janeiro slum.

In a July editorial in the Texas Baptist Standard, Marv Knox wrote: “Ironically, conservative states composed of higher percentages of Bible-believing Christians – from Texas across the South – suffer the blights of child poverty, teen pregnancy, dropout rates and illiteracy much more promiscuously than their more secular counterparts. Those are the states many Texans and Southerners call ‘pagan’ and ‘dark.’ This disparity is an affront to the name of Jesus. Small wonder unbelieving outsiders doubt the compassion of Christ and the credibility of Christians. We often treat people Jesus called ‘the least’ worse than unbelievers do.”

Knox warned his fellow Baptists that recent legislation would compel churches to confront new disparities for infants, children and families on the margins of Texas society. Pulling no ecclesiastical punches, Knox concluded: “And don’t dare claim that’s the job of the church, and the state should butt out. The church has demonstrated its unwillingness to rise to the occasion, and the enormity of the task is about to multiply. Maybe less than 10 congregations in the entire state come anywhere near caring for all the poor people in their community. Others lag far behind. Most don’t try. Moreover, a central task of Christian citizenship is public advocacy for the weakest and most vulnerable and championing the common good.”

I cannot cast stones at my native state. I live in North Carolina where similar legislation threatens those on the margins of our commonwealth. But this is not about legislatures; it is about realities that new legislation creates for individuals and communities of faith now and in the years ahead.

True, religious institutions continue to provide innumerable resources for persons on the economic and familial margins of American life, but in many segments of the country, perhaps in the country as a whole, those efforts are insufficient, and changes in the legislative response to the marginalized mean that their situation is increasingly dire.

Study after study suggests that the so-called upper-economic “1 percent” is ever expanding while the middle class is declining as more people move toward the margins of the society in poverty, housing, wages and identity.

Churches are being asked to respond to these realities at a time when many congregations and denominations are experiencing their own declining resources, revenues and energy.

All this is happening when the American nation itself is deeply divided over how to respond to the people who are falling through the national “safety net.”

Some respond to the poor with the Pauline dictum in II Thessalonians, “Those who don’t work don’t eat,” a rejoinder aimed primarily at millennialists, not poor people.

Others cite the words of the prophet Amos, “You sell the poor for a pair of [Gucci?] shoes,” but cannot keep up with the demands created by governmental cutbacks in many of their states.

Class and economic disparity continues unabated, check the statistics. Can religious communities take up the slack?

Whatever else we know about the Deity as represented in Jesus the Christ, it is that God is on the side of the poor. Those who set themselves on the other side of that affirmation, implicitly or explicitly, are a long way from God, whatever their religious rhetoric may be.

In Luke Chapter 12, Jesus is painfully direct when the wealthy 1 percent landowner tears down his barns and builds bigger ones: “You fool, this very night you must surrender your life; you have made your money – who will get it now?”

Toward the beginning of the 20th century, from the bowels of Hell’s Kitchen, New York, Walter Rauschenbusch addressed such hard economic, gospel sayings: “Jesus knew very well the difficulties of the work he had undertaken. He knew that those who have seats at the banquet where the old wine is served have little taste for the new. He knew that those who hold places of power and privilege will seldom resign them without a struggle…. Moreover his attitude became more revolutionary as he went on; his language grew sterner, his opposition to the powers that were more unyielding, until it grew plain that the most moral community of that age ... was engaged in irreconcilable conflict with Jesus Christ.”

A century after Rauschenbusch condemned the religious and economic insensitivities of his day, the “moral communities” of our era are still in conflict with Jesus over “the difficulties of the work he had undertaken,” with the marginalized.

Pope Francis and Marv Knox know that. Until the rest of us head toward the margins, we’re just fools.


OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.