For the upcoming generation-we are going to have to re-examine what it means to be a person of faith, especially in light of the fact that many of us our turning our backs on the institutional; church. For those of us who chose to leave the church, but still hold onto our Christian identify, we will have to examine and redefine for ourselves the essentials of our faith. What does it mean to be Christian? In a perfect world, how would we reshape the common and often negative perception of Christianity? Even for those of us who want to stay within the confines of the institution, one must be willing to admit that in order for the Church to survive it will need to change. Those who stay within the church will have to ask themselves, “What do we want the mission of the church to be? To be a tool of oppression that seeks to recast everyone in a singular image, or one that seeks to embrace and seek out diversity, no matter how challenging? Do we want the Church to focus on converting and ‘winning souls to Christ,’ which often means trying to get them to accept our worldview, or do we want the Church to be a place where justice and mercy take center stage?
One central component of Christianity, is advocating for the poor. Not just giving “charity” that might provide temporary relief but do nothing to actually change the structurally inequalities, and one must be careful not to embrace a condescending view of advocacy that portrays the poor as simply needing help and as victims of life circumstances. Christianity needs to advocate and empower those who are poor and who are struggling, while not disempowering and infantilizing them. In my personal experience the churches I went to tended to deal with poverty in three ways 1) ignore the issue and deal more with spiritual concerns 2) provide money or food without trying to understand the root causes of poverty 3) embrace the view that those in poverty are weak and defenseless and cannot be held accountable for their own actions. In this view, the voices of the poor tended to be silenced, as members of the congregation attempted to act like messiah figures.
All three are demeaning in their own particular way. In the first view, the realities and struggles of real life are often ignored or reduced to secondary importance as the most vital aspect of Christianity is to win souls to Christ. If people accept Christ as their savior, then God will help them in other aspects of their lives. Or if they accept Christ, they would stop doing whatever it is that is making them poor and their lot in life would improve. Or, if they accept Christ, what they go through on earth is secondary to the promises and wonders of heaven. The second view, does provide much needed short term assistance for those who need immediate help. The lucky few who are helped are able to receive the aid that they cannot receive through the government or their own means. Nevertheless, the congregation doing the help may not be interested in educating themselves on the root causes of poverty. Meaning that while they help a few, the vast majority are ignored and the congregation and pastor, themselves might support policies that adversely affect the poor. And out of their own ignorance and disinterest in investigating the causes of poverty they are actually contributing to the structurally inequalities of the ones they are trying to help. 3) The last view seems to be the least harmful. You have a congregation that educates itself on poverty, that tries to advocate for the least of these so that long lasting change can happen. Nevertheless, the voices of the poor are themselves ignored. They are reduced to victims and while poverty many times has institutional structures, individuals can also help contribute to their dire situation. Those who are in poverty, need to be empowered to fight for change and to also look within themselves and eradicate any thoughts process or actions that help make a bad situation worse. For example, in addition to advocating against cuts in Medicaid and food stamps, some individuals may need education on how to keep a proper budget or on the varying birth control methods. They need to be exposed to opportunities to help them get out of poverty, but they also need to take advantage of said opportunities and not let them pass them by. Furthermore, the messiah figure on the part of some advocates of the poor, mean that some people who need help are ignored because they are not “downtrodden enough” or in a more straightforward matter, they are not the type of poor that will get the church attention for helping then. They might struggle with additional factors that make them not sympathetic enough (the so called non-deserving poor) or conversely they are managing to rise themselves out of poverty, but they need just a bit of help. But they are often dismissed for not needing “enough help.”
As someone who grew up in poverty, and even after graduating from college stayed with my mom in public housing, I can see how the differing responses to poverty on the part of the institutional church have failed. For those who want to continue to work within the church, the above responses need to be addressed and chucked out. Churches should advocate for and with the poor. Listen to them, treat them has human beings-not as selfish horrible people nor as simple victims of a horrible system, (which often leads to actions that continue to disempower the poor). Instead churches need to empower those struggling with poverty. However, many churches are dying and do not have the resources to help members of their own congregation, let alone the least of these.
Those of us who want Christianity to continue-regardless of whether or not the institutional church survives, need to grapple with what we want to be the central component of our faith. What do we want Christianity to be known for? How do we want Christianity to inspire its adherents to treat the least of these? Do we want Christianity to empower the poor? Or do we just want Christianity to be used as a tool of oppression by the powerful? Do we want it to fade into irrelevance ? Once we ask ourselves those questions, individually and as a community, we will be able to figure out how to turn our hopes, and dreams for Christianity into reality. Even for those who want to work outside the church, it is important we question why we continue to hold onto Christianity and how we want it to change and grow in the future. We can start by elevating how we want Christianity to treat the poor.