“The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” – former U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey
“We are all in this world together, and the only test of our character that matters is how we look after the least fortunate among us. How we look after each other, not how we look after ourselves. That’s all that really matters.” – Tommy Douglas, father of the Canadian universal health system
The poverty of wealth
Covid-19 is a term I am already tired of. Nevertheless it has served to magnify some simmering issues in our societies. Canada has its share of troubles but south of the border the headlines have been astounding.
Many people in our countries make minimum wage, which is not livable. Most live pay check to pay check regardless of wage and are not able to pay even basic bills after losing their job. Anyone with a small business or work in the service industry is wondering where their future will be. There are people falling through the cracks on both sides of the border and food lines get longer every day.
Here in Canada everyone has medical coverage but often medication and other expenses are not covered. A significant number of Americans have no medical insurance so the possibility of contracting the virus and going to a hospital is frightening.
Many who have filed for the unemployment benefit in the U.S. are still waiting for it a month later. The federal government has started sending $1200 to people in need but most of the working poor do not have direct deposit so will have to wait longer – unless collection agencies find it first.
Is an economy truly healthy if huge segments of the public are only days away from having no money?
But you see, these vulnerabilities aren’t new. The poor are significantly more likely to contract the virus, not because of biology but because of economy. They are usually on the front lines and in more dense population centres with little money and strangled access to health care, quality food, options.
Early in the pandemic New York State hesitated to close schools. Why? Because of the number of children who would go hungry if they didn’t get the daily meal(s) provided at school. Think about that … in the world’s richest nation.
Even before Covid-19, wealthy people outlived those with low incomes by thirteen years. It’s likely this pandemic will increase that margin.
Marshmallow or Smor?
In our culture, the subject of the poor is typically a dangerous one to bring up. There is still a strong opinion that people should ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’. ‘We shouldn’t be responsible for other people’s laziness’, and ‘we shouldn’t pay people welfare to sit on their butt.’
I suppose that’s true to a point, but I assure you not there are not many employable people who choose to live on the pitiful amount that welfare provides. Those opinions judge the poor with our biased view of the world and ignore the systemic walls that push the poor down and hold them there. It’s usually less about willingness to work and more about lack of opportunity.
Ever heard of the Marshmallow Test? It’s a famous test that was done for years in order to examine whether or not children would be successful in school.
It works like this: You bring a child into a room and put one marshmallow in front of them. You tell them they can eat it if they wish but if they wait and don’t touch it for ten minutes you will give them an extra marshmallow.
The thinking was that kids were destined to be more successful if they were willing to delay gratification in order to double their marshmallow count. In other words they were being raised with good discipline and logical thinking.
Over time the Marshmallow Test was shown to have a flaw, however. What if the child hadn’t eaten that day? What if he/she had never had a marshmallow before? What if the child rarely had treats and someone else took them when they did? Most importantly, what if the child was from a home where promises were never kept and they were conditioned to take what was in front of them or get nothing?
And there is the problem. Most of us have the privilege of planning a strategy or having a fallback position if we fail, but the poor do not. They have to survive right now in a system leveraged against them.
And yet …
The expectation in so many churches is that God wants to bless us. A prosperity gospel that says, ‘If you invest this, God will give you much more back’ or ‘If you give to that, God will prosper you’. There is even a knucklehead pastor encouraging people to send their pandemic relief cheques to the church instead of buying food with it. (Brian note: If your church is asking you to give to it at the cost of providing for your family, leave immediately – it is the opposite of church.)
I don’t doubt that God wants us to do well, but what do the words ‘bless’ and ‘prosper’ actually mean? Are they only about comfort, power, money?
Let me remind you that most of the Christians in the world are uncomfortable, powerless, poor. You and I are the exceptions.
And God’s people have responsibility to care for the poor, not complain about them, judge them, or support feel-good causes. Don’t believe me? The Old Testament Law has provisions to care for the weak; the major and minor biblical prophets have the poor as an important theme; the New Testament is full of ‘caring’ stories, from the parable of the Good Samaritan to the practices of the early church.
And there are bazillions of individual verses:
1 John 3:17
. . . Wait, my fingers are tired . . . There are many more, but you get the message.
The core principle is that God cares about the poor. Not more than the rest of us but equal to the rest of us. Jesus spent time with those who had money yet we find him often in the presence of outcasts or common people who have nothing materially to offer. He is our example.
A butter tart works for me
Remember the Marshmallow Test? (I’m not a big marshmallow guy so let’s make it, um … a butter tart.)
Would you wait ten minutes to get two butter tarts instead of one? Yeah, me too.
What does that say about both our privilege and our responsibility?
This famous passage from Isaiah
The verses previous to this reading speak of God’s anger against his people. Of course they believe they have been following the rules so are confused by God’s complaint: Then why have we fasted? Why have we humbled ourselves? God’s response is that their religious activities are neither humble nor genuine.
Read through this passage with an open mind. What is it saying to our culture? To Christians? To you?
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.” – Isaiah 58:6-11, NLT