Summer speaker: Focus on poverty and problem improves

Who your neighbor is and how you should treat them were topics addressed by keynote speaker Lisa Sharon Harper at Saturday's Summit on Race, Poverty and Inequality held at the Henderson Fine Arts Center.

The Chief Church Engagement Officer for Sojourners in Washington, D.C., Harper told those gathered for the event, "It's my job to get the church out of the pews and into the streets ... and not just into the streets, but into the halls of Congress and the places where people make decisions which guide the course of life for us."

The event wasn't limited to people of faith, she said, but for anyone concerned about the issues being discussed.

"What we're talking about today is race and poverty," she said. "Can we agree that we have a problem in our country? The question that we are all struggling with is how to solve the problem. I'd imagine that's why you're here."

"What I'm going to share with you is that I have done some deep thinking about scripture and how our faith applies to the public square," Harper said. "That's my job and also my calling. We're not going to do deep Bible study today, so those of you who are not people of faith who are here, don't worry ... but we are going to unapologetically ask the question how our faith connects with our public life and how we move together ... politics isn't supposed to be partisanship. In its purest form, it's figuring out how the people are going to live together. That's what we're going to be looking at today. The point here today is how our decisions have affected our neighbors."

Harper said most people have heard of the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. In fact, she said, "it cuts across most of the worlds major religions."

"In the Christian tradition, we have Jesus who has an interaction with a lawyer in the book of Luke. The lawyer asks Jesus how to get to heaven. Jesus says, "What have you learned?" The lawyer says, "Love God and your neighbor."

Harper said according to scripture, the lawyer then asks Jesus who should he consider a neighbor?

"And what Jesus does is fascinating," Harper said. "He flips the script. He tells the story of a Samaritan and at the end of the story, the punch line is 'Now go and be like the one you said is the neighbor. Be the neighbor.' Jesus didn't answer the question of who is the neighbor. He said to go and be the neighbor."

"The question today is what does it look like to be a neighbor," Harper said. "In our digital world today, we can surround ourselves with only people that we choose. On Facebook, we can accept the friends we want, ignore the friends we don't ... Unfriend someone who gets on our nerves. On Twitter, we can block people we don't want following us ... We can be close to people without really being close to them."

"What would it look like to love our families with the same love with which we love ourselves. What would it look like to extend our love beyond the screens of our iPads, iPhones and computers and really love those right next door, the way we love ourselves?"

"Even in a small town we experience some levels of isolation that we didn't experience before the Internet," she said.

Harper said in the Christian faith, the importance of the Golden Rule is linked to the book of Genesis "which gives a picture of some truths about our relationships with God, each other and the rest of creation."

"The climax of Genesis 1 ... These words spoken at the beginning of the sixth day ... And God said, 'Let us make mankind in our image, according to our likeness and let them have dominion' over the earth," Harper said. "The writers of Genesis were saying that every single human being bears the image of God. Everyone. Therefore, every single human being deserves to be treated and governed as if they are of the stature of a king."

Dominion doesn't mean domination, she said, it means stewardship.

"To limit the capacity of someone made in the image of God is to limit the image of God on Earth. The way we govern, for people of faith, directly affects our witness. It directly affects the capacity of the image of God to shine on earth. Within our borders, within our jurisdictions. Here's the thing, the fastest ways to limit the capacity of human beings to have dominion is through poverty and oppression. So consider this — this question is particularly for those who consider themselves people of faith — is there a way to truly love God and to not protect, serve and cultivate God's image in every corner of the earth?"

"Poverty is merciless," she said. "It hears cries for mercy and laughs in your face. People in poverty have no out. If they're hungry, they're hungry. If they're hungry long enough, they starve. If they get sick, and they don't have good health care, and a lot of people have no health care at all, when they get sick, they wait it out. If it doesn't go away ... then it gets worse and it gets extremely painful ... and they can die. That's poverty."

Harper said in 1959, the poverty rate among African-Americans in the United States was 55 percent and roughly 18 percent among Caucasians.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson launched his war on poverty in 1964, he created programs such as food stamps, Head Start, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and block grants.

"Ten years later, black poverty level had dropped to 30 percent. White poverty was cut to 8.6 percent," she said.

Then when the Vietnam War started and the nation entered a recession, the funding for those social programs dropped and poverty levels increased, she said.

When President Bill Clinton began pouring funds into the social programs, Harper said, poverty levels for both races dropped to their lowest ever.

"My point is, when we have focused on cutting poverty, when we have focused on protecting, cultivating and serving the image of God in all of them, everyone benefited," Harper said. "But when we took our eyes off that ball, everyone suffered."