“The poor will always be with you,” Jesus once said, and for centuries his followers have struggled to understand what he meant.
Or maybe not.
“The poor will always be with you” — especially if you’re not poor — seems straightforward enough: Look around, people ! The poor (and their problems) are very much with us!
Viewed through this kind of realpolitik lens, this verse (and the Bible generally) pose no real interpretive challenges to our reading or our living. The world, regrettably, is simply thus. The poor, alas, will always be with us.
But given the shape of Jesus’ own life and ministry (refugee childhood, adult homelessness), the concerns that animated his teaching, the actions that repeatedly got him into trouble with the authorities, it seems clear that this familiar verse is not a benign, resigned observation about the way the world “really” is. Rather it is an invitation to a different way of seeing and being in the world, one that communicates the very substance and character of the reign of God: You, Jesus says to his followers, will always be with the poor.
Mitt Romney stuck his foot in his mouth (again) this week when he said that he wasn’t concerned about the very poor. In the firestorm that followed, he kept pointing people back to the statement in its entirety in which he voiced concern for “middle-income” Americans; the very poor and the very rich, Romney said, are not his concern. After all, there’s a safety net for the very poor. (Of course there are several safety nets for the very rich – bailout, anyone? — though he failed to mention that). And if the safety net
for the poor has holes in it, Romney went on to say, he’ll fix it.
But as Jon Stewart pointed out on Wednesday night, “being in a net is bad — whether you’re a butterfly or a fish or a trapeze artist or a poor person. If you’re in a net, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.” And while safety nets aren’t ways of being with the poor, the image itself is fatally flawed: what the very poor in America are finding is not safety but suspicion and danger, not refuge but rejection, not compassion but contempt.
The same politics that renders poor people invisible to Mitt Romney drove the board of directors of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation to cut off funding for breast exams offered by Planned Parenthood. These exams, offered mostly to poor women, have saved lives — have, in fact, offered a real safety net to the vulnerable poor. But since Planned Parenthood also provides abortions Komen’s conservative leadership finally cut the purse strings to an organization most Americans are woefully ignorant of. And while the Komen folks might have helped their fundraising efforts in an election year, it’s easy enough to see who gets shafted in this one.
And while politicians and pundits and bloggers (like myself) are prattling on about Romney’s remark and the pink ribbon disaster, the “very poor” are predictably absent from the conversation, busy as they areworking multiple jobs and trying to fight a system that perpetually discounts and demonizes them.
Debra Dean Murphy is assistant professor of religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture and Politics and at ekklesiaproject.org.