Monday, July 17, 2006

A Response to Backwoods Presbyterian Part 2

To Backwoods Presbyterian: Thank you for your willingness to share your own experiences of poverty in rural West Virginia. You have some great ideas and I appreciate the perspective your travels around the world brings, but there are two things I must clarify.

One: Your comments seem to accuse me of just wanting to "throw money" at the problem of poverty. First, I've been addressing the attitudes of wealthy Christians, not suggesting particular political agendas or proposed solutions to poverty. I certainly realize it's not that simple and recognize that much has to change in the mindsets and attitudes of some people living in poverty. Being new to Pittsburgh and new to urban environments myself (I come from a small town where homelessness is unheard of), I don't have the experience or vision yet to know how to change the people affected by poverty. What I do know, however, and what I hope to convey in my blogs about this subject is that as followers of Jesus Christ we are called to avoid greed like the plague. I believe that a great deal of poverty is in fact caused by greed (i.e. the stealing of aid-funds by governments in countries you mentioned). However, if we are followers of Christ, we too must watch out for greed in every aspect of our lives. That America has become an icon for the idolatrous religion of the wealthy is what I mean when I say we are complicit in the problem. Would Jesus be pleased by business people making millions upon millions of dollars in unjust ways? Of course not, and yet some churches are filled with those very people. If I may be bold, I will say it is inexcusable for a person who claims to be a Christian to become wealthy. Why? Because Jesus told his followers, not just the rich young man, to sell their possessions and give to the poor. Because our material comforts lull us into a spiritual sleep (think of Christ's words to Laodicea in Rev. 3:14-21 - they're wealth distracted them from worshipping God). And because God cares about economic justice (all the Prophets).

Two: You seem also to assume that racism does not exist in America today and is not at least somewhat to blame for the problems facing inner-city minorities and immigrant communities. This winter, an incoming student here at PTS told me about an encounter she had with a local realtor: Moving here from another state, she contacted this man to look at houses in the area of the seminary. When she told him her price range, he responded with "Oh, if you have that money then you don't want to live down near all those black people." Little did he know that she was African-American. It's not a violent example, so it would never get in the newspapers, but it shows how this subtle racism works. The man automatically assumed that a woman with that much money could not be black. It's that same attitude that allowed white anglo-saxon protestants (yes, I think we are partially to blame because of our failure to follow Christ) moved out to the suburbs of Pittsburgh fifty years ago to escape the minorities living in the city. So much for listening to Galatians 3:28.

That's all for now. Thank you again for your comments and ideas and may God use both of us to glorify Him on this earth today!!


John said...


i think you're right on with many of your perceptions of the city. My family, back in the 1960's moved out of the city due to the racially motivated riots that were happening. My mom had grown up on the South Side and my dad on the North Side. Both sides of my family are, excluding my parents and some others at their current stages of life, very racist. The middle class left the city and largely became conservative republicans who fight to give less money is taxes to those in poverty left in the city. Now the issue is, how do as the church of Jesus Christ break down the hard relational walls between whites and blacks and begin dialoguing and learning from one another. The Open Door must do this in order to be what God is calling us to be. As for systematic injustice, just look at the design of Garfield. Walk up through the neighborhood. As you walk up you'll notice the property get worse and worse. As you near the top of the hill you'll enter the projects, if you can find them. The people are forced high up away from all the rest of us. They're forced into areas where we'll never have to see them. The system and politics of the years passed were convenient for the middle class who wanted avoid contact with those in need. The reason for the violence in these nieghborhoods was due to the exclusion and the hopelessness forced upon people.

If you're interested, read anything by John Perkins.

Backwoods Presbyterian said...

I too appreciate this discussion. I believe that this healthy for the both of us for I know that this has forced some much needed and serious prayer and bible study on me. Let me take the two insinuations first.

1) I do not mean to say that I think you believe money solves everything. My point is that the first response has been since the 1930’s to give money first and my position is that response needs to change. The New Deal was supposed to wipe out poverty, so was the Great Society, but neither did or can. I can tell you from my experience in rural West Virginia that these government-led programs have created more poverty than was there to begin with. My grandfather is fond of saying that, “We didn’t know we were poor till Lyndon Johnson told us we were”. His point being that until the government created arbitrary levels for poverty they did not consider themselves to be poor. 40 years later we have “rural slums” where able-bodied people live of government subsidies and there is no reason to work the type of jobs that are available if you can provide for your family by a monthly trip to DHHR.
2) Of course racism exists, to believe it did not would be ridiculous. I certainly know that it does and have seen it in action more than once (both black and white). As long as we continue to define our differences along skin color (in the church and society) racism will exist, which is interesting that you point out Galatians 3:28 when it stands in quite contrast to our need to have racial statistical analysis in the PC(USA) but I digress. You mention the white flight phenomenon of the 50’s, 60’s, and so on. While their definitely was a racial component to it and that cannot be denied it was not the only reason and was definitely not a motivating factor for the vast majority. The majority reason was with the exploding economy brought on by the freer economic policy of Truman and Eisenhower and the industrial explosion caused by the Second World War it gave Americans purchasing power they never had before. To give an example in Pittsburgh, why live with mom, dad and grandma in a small apartment in Oakland when you can now afford to by a car and a 3-bedroom ranch in McCandless? This unprecedented economic prosperity allowed us to move from apartments to homes; to move from traditional cramped city neighborhoods like East Liberty, Bloomfield, and Friendship to the new open suburban communities like Robinson Twp., Monroeville, and Upper Saint Clair. It is also important to point out that neighborhoods like Homewood and Wilkinsburg used to be the middle to upper class African-American communities in Pittsburgh. Due to “progressive” policies on the Hill and in Uptown the poor African-American community was basically forced into these neighborhoods thereby leading to the black flight out of these communities of middle and upper-class blacks. So when we speak of white flight it was much more an economic reality than a racial one.

Now to move along to the heart of the discussion which are the wealthy and their place in the Church. I agree wholeheartedly in your denouncing of those who come by their wealth through illegal and immoral means. I think your use of Revelations 3:14-21 is spot on. Believe it or not through prayer and study I have come to agree with the premise of your statement of your position that, “If I may be bold, I will say it is inexcusable for a person who claims to be a Christian to become wealthy.” My only caveat is that we must figure out a way to define wealthy, at least more to a point than just those that have more than others, because if we define wealth in this way than I believe we will cause much more harm to the church because it will disintegrate into accounting hell. We can point to passages like 1st Timothy 6:17-19 and see that the problem is not wealth in and of itself but the actions one takes with that wealth. Though I think we can agree with reference to earlier verses in that same chapter that the accumulation of wealth is wasteful and pointless for those of us who await the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I’ll close with Titus 2:11-15:

11For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men,12 instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, 13looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, 14who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. 15These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you.

Backwoods Presbyterian said...

Now to look at the comments made by John.

I knew the “conservative Republican” slur would avail itself at some point and I must now take exception to your classification of conservative Republicans as racist. This comment is what bothered me,” The middle class left the city and largely became conservative republicans who fight to give less money is taxes to those in poverty left in the city. “ First, Your view of conservative economic policies-however misguided-is just plainly incorrect. Second, the amount of tax money taken by the township of McCandless in no way effects the amount of tax money flowing into the City of Pittsburgh. I should not have to remind you that there has never been a conservative Republican at the head of this city and currently there are none on city council. Democrats have ruled the city government since before the Second World War so to blame poverty in the city on ”conservative Republicans” in the suburbs is absurd.

John said...

I must of course disagree with Backwoods again. Your choice to talk about McCandless is ironic. I grew up in McCandless. I'll end my part of this conversation with these comments so you don't have to deal with my "absurdity" anymore.

I'm sorry that you consider "conservative republican" to be a slur. I have no problem with republicans, but many that I have met, espcially the more conservative ones, are against having a welfare system, as you have stated you are, which I respect, and against government money going to the poor, Just as you have described. I'm not using it as a slur, I'm using the term that we all use when we talk about the politics you have described over and over again.

Your wrong that the suburbs haven't fought to keep their money in their own neighborhoods. It's true that there are few examples of tax money going from suburbs to city, and that's exactly my point. Thankyou for pointing that out. Years of politics have kept the boundaries as they are. Suburbanites make their money in the city, but take it out and pay their taxes in other parts of the city.

I did not know one Christian democrat growing up in the suburbs. At my 2000 member PCUSA church it was joked by the pastor once that someone was a democrat and actually was also a Christian, as if that could not be. So from what I experienced, the people who left the suburbs were republicans and the people in the city were democrats. The problem that I see is that the money is also in the suburbs, so the schools are great, the opportunities are unbelievable, much different than what you came from. People in McCandless and all of the North Hills, Cranberry, etc, do not know African Americans, there are none. They were not welcome in the suburbs in the 60's when the whites left the city. I know I sound like I'm blaming, in some ways I can because I'm from the suburbs and I often wish I still lived in the comfort of the sprawling burbs. I just see the extreme differences in opportunity and I see that most people just don't care.

I highly respect that you were able to pull yourself up by your boot straps and make a very good life for yourself. For myself, as a follower of Jesus who didn't have to do that, I feel it is my duty to follow Jesus to help give opportunity to those who have little. We cannot, as Christians, tell people to pull themselves out of their miseries, that is not the gospel. I agree though that the answers are not easy and we cannot give of ourselves in ways that only prolong the problems of drugs and prostitution, etc.

Chris, sorry that the two of us have taken over your blog! I promise I'm done!

Anonymous said...

If Christians cannot be wealthy, then how do you account for the wealthy women who housed the first churches in which Paul ministered?

Jesus was addressing a particular person in the passage you cited in the post.

Maybe we should quote Tevya, "The Lord made many poor people. It's no shame to be poor, but it's no great honor either!"

Chris said...

To Classical Presbyterian: The wealthy widows and other women who supported Paul's ministry are a perfect example of the argument that I am making: as new converts to the faith, they gave their resources to the cause of the Gospel. Rather than seeking to horde money and keep it for themselves, they chose to give it away in support of others - exactly what Jesus commands his followers to do!

Not only did they give, but there is no evidence that the women who gave to Paul accumulated more wealth after becoming Christian. How could they amass fortunes and build bigger houses in only the short time span between their conversions and the visits of Paul and the writings of the epistles? Isn't it more likely that they were widows who chose to sell or give away parts of their husbands' estates, perhaps retaining the houses as meeting spaces for the sake of the Church?

Secondly, Paul himself didn't just accept support for evangelism - he collected offerings for the poor, too - see Romans 15:26. Of course, we can attempt to proof-text certain sides of this issue all we want, but when we read it in the full context of the New Testament, it's clear that the early church understood provision for the poor and repentance from wealth as essential to following Christ.

And as for your Tevya quote, I still prefer to quote Jesus: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

Anonymous said...

I prefer Jesus too!

My own take on the overall biblical message for the wealthy is the same as for the middle class and the poor:
Use what you have been given for the glory of God and the promotion of the gospel.

God uses rich people too!

And yes, the rich man can get through the eye of the needle--by the grace of God in Christ Jesus alone. All who are in Christ get through the eye of the needle because of the cross to redeem us.

With God, all things are possible! That's the whole point of Jesus' message in that passage.

Heck, if he would save me, then anything is possible and that's wonderful news for the rich and the poor!

Chris said...

Again to Classical Presbyterian: I’m glad we agree that God uses rich people (though I believe people who really want follow Jesus won’t stay rich for long). I'm also glad that Jesus saves even the rich, too. Echoing you, if He saved me, He can save anyone!

However, that “anything is possible with God” is definitely not the main point of that passage. In Mark 10:24-27 we read:
“24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God." 26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, "Who then can be saved?" 27 Jesus looked at them and said, "With human beings this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God."
In saying that “anything is possible with God”, Jesus is responding to the disciples’ statement in verse 26. When they say, “Who then can be saved?”, they are expressing shock Jesus reversal of the cultural assumptions of the time. First century Judaism (strangely like 20th century American Christianity) assumed that wealth in this life was a blessing from God. Jesus turns that notion upside down. By telling the disciples that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom, Jesus corrects the disciples’ assumption that God favors the wealthy and levels the playing field. Instead, Jesus says “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20) and "But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6:24-25). When you we start to interpret Jesus’ sayings by comparing them everything else He says in the Gospels, you’ll find that He doesn’t cut the rich any slack. When read in light of Luke 6 and in light of its historical context, the three main points of Mark 10:17-31 are: 1) God does not favor the rich, 2) our possessions alienate us from God by making us less reliant upon him, and 3) we are commanded to provide for and care for the poor.

I'm not saying that salvation is impossible for the rich - this isn't about who gets into heaven and who doesn't. It's about how faithful we are to Jesus Himself as King and Lord over our lives - two titles we cannot honestly give him if we are afraid to take his teachings seriously, as much of the Church fails to do.

Anonymous said...

Have you been looking at this passage in your Greek class? :)

We are not really that far apart. I sometimes 'beat up'(rhetorically!) on rich people too!

Sarah Louise said...

Ouch! Inexcusable to become rich? Where did you read that? Money is not the enemy. It is the LOVE of money that is. If there were not wealthy Christians, there would not be fewer foreign missions or hospital wings. Be careful when you use the word *inexcusable.*

My parents live in a house in the DC suburbs worth more than the $300,000 they paid for it. They own another house that gains rental interest. They paid for all three of my and my siblings private college educations. This qualifies them as rich. Yet they are Christians and that word *inexcusable* jabs hard.

I have been less than rich since I graduated from college, as I had an English (read: not highly marketable) degree. I am fully conversant with not having enough money for groceries, not having a car, and contemplating whether I qualified for food stamps. At one point, I even accepted money from my church to help with bills. I am more solvent now, due to a number of blesssings. My "giving" has been growing as my income has. But when I was "poor" and I got letters from friends going on mission trips, I always forwarded them to my "rich" parents who always were more than generous.

Be wise in your choice of words. Shalom!

John said...

I totally agree that the gospels are pretty tough on the rich, and I agree with Classical Presbyterian that through Christ the rich actually can be saved, according to Jesus though it's no easy task!

Here's the kicker - we are the rich! If you're an American living relatively comfortably, you're rich compared to very much of the world.

So, as Chris and I bemoan the rich and the injustice of the discrimination that we see in the inner city, I, and I think we, are really speaking and reacting against our own place of relative wealth and priviledge.

Sarah Louise said...


Anonymous said...

From the foundation of all existance there have been and always will be those that have and those that have not. Adam vs. Eve. Cain vs. Able. Angels vs. Satan. Though one can argue economics in a spirit of Christian theology, economics trancends all religious beliefs and how one approaches wealth is neither based on Christian teaching nor pagan illusions. Most men want to improve their lot and this is always at the expense of others in some form or fashion.

I applaud all of your ruminations and speculations of the political back-patting or back-stabbing relative to how one addresses the poverty in the US relative to party lines, but no one yet Christian or non-Christian can solve economic poverty, if indeed it needs to be solved. It is greed that needs to be addressed. This is the sin of man. This is what needs to be solved.

Backwoods Presbyterian said...

Check out this link and scroll down to an entry entitled "Theology and Economics".

I believe this will help the discussion.