Church Leaders, Like Politicians, Must Shift the Dominant Narrative on Poverty | Sojourners

Church Leaders, Like Politicians, Must Shift the Dominant Narrative on Poverty

If you are a Christian and a millennial, then public theology likely matters to you. Younger faith leaders are seeking ways to use their moral center to address social injustices and discover tangible ways to solve issues like gun violence, police brutality, and racism. And Christian millennials are also showing politicians in the 2020 election how important it is for faith to intersect with justice matters, politics, and public policy.

This past week, the Black Church PAC and Young Leaders Conference gathered 5,000 millennials to ask important questions of the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, seeking to understand how the politicians planned to address the injustices in a moral way. The young Christians asked the politicians — Sen. Corey Booker (D-N.J.), former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, and Mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg — questions on gun control, police shootings, and student loan debt, among others.

We are at a pivotal moment in history where many people who claim a faith want to know how decision-makers will use a social ethic and a moral center to correct the injustices we see happening across the country. When many Christians hear about the El Paso and Ohio shootings, children seized from their parents at the border, or about issues that disproportionately marginalize and oppress people of color, they want to understand what their faith has to say, and furthermore, how decision-makers will be held accountable.

Political figures are starting to respond in tangible ways. Buttigieg, for instance, just this month hired Rev. Shawna Foster, the first faith outreach director of the 2020 campaign season.

Booker, who The Washington Post reports is also in the process of hiring a faith outreach director, even made a scriptural case for incorporating faith in the public square at the Black Church PAC and Young Leaders Conference, saying, “I get very frustrated when people want to try to separate this idea of the role of the church and the role of the civic space,” Booker said. “That is just not true. You could no more divide your own body. The church is not four walls. The church is the body of Christ.”

So how will the church use public theology to teach about real topics such as immigration, gun violence, and poverty? What does the Bible have to say about issues that will be at the center of presidential debates?

Inevitably, presidential hopefuls will be called upon to debate the issue of poverty and access to healthcare and employment opportunities. At the conference, Buttigieg addressed this head on. The Episcopalian presidential hopeful referenced Rev. William Barber of The Poor People’s Campaign, saying: “We’ve got to be honest about the fact that (poverty) is a moral issue.”

Church leaders, like politicians, have a responsibility to shift the dominant narrative people hold on poverty. All too often, people view the poor as "lazy,” “uneducated,” or “criminals."A 2017 study by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that many Bible-believing Christians hold negative views against those who are impoverished and experience homelessness. While only 29 percent of all surveyed non-Christians said that a lack of effort is generally to blame for a person’s poverty, 46 percent of Christians supported this negative viewpoint.

This perspective is antithetical to the life and witness of Jesus. Christians who hold these negative views toward the poor connect poverty to sin and immorality. Therefore, if you are impoverished, it must be because you have sinned against God or live an immoral life.

The church has a responsibility to educate and help change the narrative of individuals who are struggling with this issue. Theologian and scholar Howard Thurman painted a vivid picture of the Messiah's experience in his book Jesus and The Disinherited when he reminded us that "Jesus was born a poor ‘outsider,’ a member of the Jewish minority under Roman occupation, without rights and privileges in the wider society." So how can those who follow a Messiah who experienced poverty and homelessness feel so negatively about those living in poverty today? Where is the biblical breakdown? 

When Christians lack a holistic view of impoverishment, including systems and structures that perpetuate poverty, then one-sided narratives that dehumanize the poor become the dominant narrative. These false narratives about the poor have led to harsh political policies that affect the poor, ultimately dismissing them, stripping them of their humanity. Do people who experience poverty work hard? Yes. But, productivity does not always equate to more income in our country. As Matthew Desmond reported for the New York Times in 2018, “If the federal minimum wage tracked productivity, it would be more than $20 an hour, not today’s poverty wage of $7.25.”

The church must be clear to assign worth and value to members of society who are economically disadvantaged and share the good news about those who are impoverished. As we get closer to the general election, persons of the Christian faith and the church must hold political figures accountable, helping to rewrite the false narratives concerning the poor and marginalized in our country so we can love those on the margins as Jesus would.

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