Do you remember when you were a little kid, somewhere between the ages of 4-7, or maybe even a teenager, and your parents or teacher would give you elaborate instructions or explain how you should or shouldn’t do something…then you would go and do exactly the opposite of what it was they had just told you. And when you came back, even though they might help you through it, you got that “I told you so” look or lecture.
Well I’m pretty sure that this is how Christ feels about the church sometimes…actually maybe a lot of the time, especially as it relates to the way we have interpreted his teachings on poverty and marginalization.
In my last column I talked about how I critically reflected on Martin Luther; that is also the jumping off point for this week. See, in 1525, Martin Luther wrote an essay called “Against the Robbing and Murderous Hordes of Peasants.” It was his take on the The Peasants’ War, in which German Peasants attempted a violent overthrow of the landlords and nobles. This uprising was in fact inspired and borne out the Peasants’ identification with Luther’s reformation; yet, as Luther’s title might allude to, he was not on the side of the Peasants.
Luther wrote that the Peasants had “taken on themselves the burden of three terrible sins against God and man, by which they have abundantly merited death in body and soul." And he would later go on to give the nobles and landlords the supposed theological grounding to kill the peasants with no holy ramifications. More simply put, in this moment Luther took the side of the social hierarchy to side with the nobles and landlords and condemn the peasants.
While in the 21st century the church is not calling for the heads of the poor, there still remain some teachings that align with the way that Luther viewed the rights and status of the poor, which also hold cognitive dissonance with Jesus’s teachings.
At present the institutional church only likes to engage with issues such as poverty, food insecurity, lack of clean water or unsafe living conditions when it is mutually beneficial to the institution. There is a clear preference for sending parishioners on summer-long mission trips halfway across the globe for the perfect photo opportunities, while turning a blind eye to the many families and communities crying for help in the very same cities we find these churches located in.
That is to say, social equity is only fought for in places that the United States has deemed “developing,” while ignoring the need of those here, because even the American Church has been permeated by the false notions that everyone in America can pull themselves up by the bootstraps in this country. When the church does engage with poverty or living inequity in the United States, it is not in ways that fight to help reform policy, uplift the community or help change the conditions. Instead it is your standard once-a-year Thanksgiving food drive.
The church is not fighting to upend and end poverty. It is fighting to silence and placate those in the midst of suffering and need.
And this is not to say that every church in this nation ignores the need of their community, but rather to say that on a whole the church has pushed away the revolutionary ideas of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. The Church has embraced a twisted notion of “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:3)," leading the church to conjure up an exegesis which, as Dr. Liz Theoharris of the Kairos center aptly states, “spiritualize[s] the gospel and claim[s] that Jesus is not concerned with material/economic issues.” In fact, Jesus intended the phrases to teach us not to prop “up the hegemonic system that impoverishes and exploits the many.”
Yet from theologians as seminal as Luther to the present day church, we find a church that turns its back on true and deep change in the way the church engages, fights against classism and stands with those who are in poverty.
And as I have said before, if the church aims to actually get back to those ideas of Jesus, like the ones he put forth in his Sermon on the Mount, then it must stop standing with the hegemonic power structures and instead be an active force in dismantling them through true cooperative and purposeful works with in its local communities.
And the church has frameworks for this; it just needs to use them. For example, it could draw on the teachings and critical thought of 1960s and 70s Latin American Theologians Liberation Theologians like Gustavo Guiterrez, or womanist scholars and theologians such as Katie Cannon and Emilie Townes.
In reading and practicing theologies and teachings modeled by voices like these, the church has a chance to fully embody what Jesus envisioned for us when he gave his Sermon on the Mount.
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