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Identifying Assumptions in Christian Approaches to the Poor

Today with the George Fox Discovery Team, we discussed the assumptions of different Christian approaches to the poor.

We looked at:

– Evangelism leads to social change

– Social action is pre-evangelism

– Transformational ministry

– Christian presence

– Microfinance

For each approach we asked the following questions:

What are causes of poverty for this approach?

What are the assumptions of this approach?

What would this approach use for scriptural support?

What are other examples of this approach?

What are positives? What are negatives?

How would you answer these questions?

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Blessed or Cursed?

(I wrote this reflection in the spring of 1998, while living with boys that we were taking off the streets.)

Every time I return to the US, I have been asked by my brothers and sisters in Christ, “Seeing the poverty, did you realize how blessed we are here in the States?”  It is difficult though for me to find a response.  If we reverse the question, we ask, “Do you realize how cursed they are?”

Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.”  I am living with four children who have spent most of their lives scrapping to survive on the streets.  They have known poverty.  They have known hunger.  They have known sorrow.  And they are blessed?  They have experienced disease, sexual abuse, and rejection.  And they are blessed?  Everyday I have to remind them of normal habits like to change their clothes, to speak without screaming, and to resolve their problems without beating each other up.  And these teenagers are blessed?

I would say they are cursed.  They have little education and little hope of reintegrating into society.  They are stigmatized by a city who knows the faces of her beggars.  They bear the emotional and physical scars of being beaten, being rejected, and being cursed.  In turn they beat, they reject, and they curse.  Sin and evil in people and society perpetuate the curse.

But as I seek to know Jesus intimately in the least, He begins to reveal their blessedness.  It is hidden and sometimes evasive, but let me tell you how they are blessed.  In a few words: they need a Savior.  These boys realize they can’t save themselves, as opposed to some of the wealthy who do just fine on their own.

Last night I had a one-on-one discussion with each boy.  They had each been misbehaving and asked me to discipline them.  We discussed their consequence and then prayed.  Each one asked God to forgive them and to change them.  I wish I could so easily admit my errors and recognize my need for correction. They are blessed because this is the posture of the heart that pleases God, and God joins them and fights on their side.  Blessed are the poor!

These former street children are teaching me how to seek God.  My understanding of “blessed” is not God’s understanding.  The Father sent the blessed Son to “redeem us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us – for it is written ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”  He was not only cursed but became the curse for us.  Jesus identified with the cursed of His day – those working in commercial sex, the outcast, and the diseased – and calls His church to do the same.  Jesus even countered the blessings with the verses under which I tremble:  “But woe to you who are rich, for are receiving your reward in full.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you shall be hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.”  In the past, I identified the blessed as having enough money to sustain a comfortable and healthy.  But my own life identifies much closer with what Jesus warns against than with what He blesses.

And that brings me back to the question which I struggle to answer, “Do you see how blessed we are?”  I think it is better asked, “Do you know how blessed they are?”

How do we understand “advocacy?”

What is the goal of advocacy? We have said it’s “raising awareness.” Others who advocate say “to create change” or “to acquire justice.” I think we are saying, “to create relationships.” This is not “networking” – as I don’t really like the mechanistic language – but it is connecting people. We are a channel that connects the non-poor to the poor; we help create space where the voice of the poor is heard. Here too advocacy implies justice, but we understand justice as a relational category.

Here is a brief sketch of what I think is a good trajectory for the kind of advocacy we’re talking about:

The OT word for redeemer is “Go-el”. We read this word today as “personal Savior”, the One who has purchased us by His blood and given Himself as a ransom for all. That’s fine and good, but it’s bad exegesis to impose contemporary usage on concepts formed in a different historical context.

Go-el meant “kinsmen redeemer”. It means that the next of kin, the closest family member, is obliged to buy back property or to buy out of bond-slavery. See Leviticus 25:25ff. The whole chapter is about the jubilee, the context of redemption, reconciliation and redistribution. See also Lev. 27:13ff.

Justice isn’t just positive for the poor; it is negative for the perpetrator. So, Go-el also means “avenger”. If your family member was murdered, the kinsmen redeemer would kill the murderer. If the murder was not intentional, the kinsmen redeemer would still seek compensation for the family. See Number 35:18ff and Deuteronomy 19:6ff. This is not, then, simply legal justice but relational justice that seeks restoration.

The word “Go-el” is close to the verb “ga-al” which means to liberate, to redeem, to ransom. The Go-el, then, is the one who pleads justice and does justice; he/she is the avenger, arbiter and redeemer. The goal is familial freedom and restoration.

If there is no kinsmen redeemer, then the Lord is the kinsmen redeemer. See Numbers 5:8.

In Job, he calls God his Go-el (19:25). “I know that my redeemer lives and that he shall stand on the latter day upon the earth.” Here there is a hint of resurrection and new creation.

Ruth is the best narrative on kinsmen redeemer because Goaz plays this role and redeems Ruth. Read chapter 4.

God is also called the kinsmen redeemer in Exodus. He hears the cries of His people and redeems them.

We can draw a lot from this and I think it fits well within the frame of awareness, worship and action.

–       Family – We cultivate community among the poor, creating familial relationships, and take on the obligation of kin. God also calls the poor family and names Himself as their kinsmen redeemer. If He is our Father, then His family is our family. So, we also are kinsmen redeemers. It’s about being family to one another.

–       Justice – We put justice in relational categories not legal ones. Raising awareness means creating relationships. We work towards modeling communities of liberty, restoration, reconciliation, and redistribution. Doing justice might be hard and even ugly, as the cross is hard and ugly, but it beautifies.

–       Voice – The vulnerable are not voiceless; their voices are marginalized and silenced. We hear the cries of the poor and respond.

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