Gov. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) did a shocking thing recently. He broke with his political allies and decided to expand Medicaid to 275,000 poor people in his state through the Affordable Care Act. Then he called a spade a spade, saying: “I’m concerned about the fact there seems to be a war on the poor.”
Kasich’s statement came just two days ago. And today, 47 million low-income Americans will see their food stamps benefits decrease as stimulus funding ends. In light of this newly named “war on the poor,” I’ve been reflecting on Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, and the man’s question to Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” What an intriguing question.
Of course one of the most incredible things about this story is that Jesus never answers the lawyer’s question. Rather, he tells a story about a man beaten by robbers on a dangerous road. He was stripped naked left lying there, clinging to life. Both a priest and Levite pass him by, but a Samaritan went out of his way, broke his usual routine, used up his own gas (or at least his donkey’s energy) to bring the man to an inn. And he took care of him overnight at the inn, offering the innkeeper what would today be about $330.
And then Jesus flips the script! The lawyer asked who exactly is my neighbor? Who do I have to love? And conversely who can I cross off my need-to-love list?
Jesus doesn’t answer the question. Jesus returns his question with a question: “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
Nowadays we hardly have a concept of what it means to be a neighbor anymore.
We live in a hyper-individualized, digital world where we have the ability to completely surround ourselves only with the people we choose to let into our lives. On Facebook, we accept the friends we want and ignore those we don’t; on Twitter we choose who we follow and block those we don’t want following us; on Instagram and Pinterest we can surf people’s pictures and pins for hours without them knowing. We can feel close to them, but not actually be close to them. It’s possible to never leave our rooms and feel like we’re interacting with thousands of neighbors!
But what did Jesus mean when he said “Be a neighbor”?
Some scholars believe the man who was robbed was probably Jewish. The Jews and Samaritans were serious ethnic enemies. It’s likely that this Jewish man was on this dangerous road to avoid going through Samaria.
So, it’s significant that the one who ended up being a neighbor is the Samaritan. What Jesus is saying is: “Oh, lawyer, you’re trying to ex people off of your ‘need-to-love’ list, but I’m telling you to love like the Samaritan loved — love without placing limits on those you need to love, and then you will inherit eternal life.”
Love without limits is what holiness looks like.
What would it look like to love like the Samaritan loved — without limits? What would it look like for us to extend our love beyond the screens of our laptops, iPads, and iPhone receivers to really love the people who live right next door to us?
Now, what about the neighbor we’ll never know? The one across the tracks, the other side of the highway, the other side of town?
How do we love the people we don’t know? Well, first we can get to know their stories.
There was a point in the middle of The Great Recession when I didn’t know where my next meal was going to come from.
I was the founder and executive director of an anti-poverty Christian group in New York City, called NY Faith & Justice. Two years into our awesome adventure, just as we were receiving new interest from foundations, the bottom fell out of the economy. Suddenly, our money dried up. Several of us worked for little to no pay, including myself, for about a year. I relied on speaking honoraria to make ends meet; sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes I was able to fall back on the kindness of my parents, who helped me get through that year. When they weren’t able to help, I scrimped and looked for coins in pants pockets and jars. And when that didn’t work, I prayed.
One day, in the middle of praying, I remembered my sister. I called her and asked if I could come over to eat dinner with her and her family of four that night. She was struggling, too, but she said, “Sure! Come over!” I’ve never been so thankful for a meal.
As I traveled home, all I could think was: “What about the millions of people across the country who don’t have family or friends they can fall back on?” What if I had no personal safety net?
Poverty is merciless. It hears cries for mercy and laughs in your face. People in poverty have no out. If they are hungry, then they stay hungry. If they are hungry long enough, then they starve or get sick. When they get sick, they wait it out and hope it goes away because they have inadequate or no health care. If it doesn’t go away — like cancer or diabetes or Lupus or asthma or a simple tooth infection — it gets worse. If it gets bad enough, they die. That’s poverty.
Now, consider this:
According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report, in 1959 the white poverty level was at 18 percent. That’s high. At the same time, 55 percent of black people were living below the poverty line.
When 55 percent of any population is living in poverty, we’ve got to recognize — people are getting beat up on the road here. So in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty.” Congress passed a series of laws that created many of the anti-poverty programs we know today:
- Food Stamps (now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)
- Head Start
Ten years later the poverty rate for black people in the U.S. had fallen to 30 percent. What’s more, the white poverty level dropped more than half from 18 percent in 1959 to 8.6 percent in 1974.
We know how to cut poverty. We’ve done it before. We can do it again. What we lack is the will.
Gov. Kasich is right. There is a war on the poor. The same anti-poverty programs that President Johnson championed are under attack and on their way to being funded at lower levels as a share of GDP than before 1964.
Jesus looked at the lawyer and said “Go and do like the Samaritan did.” Be a neighbor. What kind of society do we want to be? Do we want to be the kind that leaves 55 percent of its population beat up on the road? Or will we be a neighbor to all?
Lisa Sharon Harper is Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners.