Why are people poor? Why do they stay poor? What would it take to get them out of poverty? These are major questions that have been heavily debated for a century in our country.
One popular explanation blames powerful economic and social forces beyond the control of any one individual. This belief holds that it is the very structure of the American economy that denies poor people equal opportunities. To counter these economic forces, the solution becomes to give the poor what they lack: food, housing, and money.
The opposite explanation for American poverty puts the blame on the individual, centering the entirety of the problem on the bad decisions poor people make. The solution to this problem is not handouts, but moral guidance and strict rules for the poor.
Depending on the state of the economy or the tides of politics, our nation's explanation for why people are poor has sat on these two poles.
Are people poor because of unjust and unequal social structures that limit opportunities for certain people? Yes.
Are people poor because they make choices that reinforce their poverty or further complicate the chances of the next generation? Yes.
Do these two mutually reinforce each other? Yes.
What came first, the chicken or the egg?
At the end of the day, how much do our answers to these questions matter? Opinions, my friend tells me, are cheap. They don't cost us anything. More important than asking the question of why are people poor, is answering the question -- are we being Jesus to the poor? Are we loving, serving, and sacrificing for the poor in our cities and neighborhoods? Is our life set up in such a way that we're not simply building kingdoms of comfort and isolation, focused on preserving our own wealth and comfort, but instead focused on manifesting the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven? That's what makes a difference, not our opinions.
So where is the church in all of this? Instead of promoting a faith and lifestyle that looks like Jesus, we have promoted a faith and lifestyle that looks like the American dream. The debate about poverty has rested in the political realm for too long. The church needs to step out of the simplified answers of liberals and conservatives and instead promote an answer that looks like Jesus.
I believe that Jesus offers us another way, a third way, a better way. Jesus, I believe, had an entirely different set of ideas about how to rescue and put back together the broken pieces of our world.
His way is not accomplished through violence or dominance but through peace and service.
His way is not accomplished through building towers for ourselves, but through sharing our bread with our neighbors.
His way is not accomplished through greed or economic exploitation, but through generosity and solidarity.
His way is not accomplished through policies made in Washington, D.C., but instead is accomplished through death on the cross.
So this weekend as we celebrate Easter and the death and life of Jesus, my prayer is that we would be willing to ask some hard questions of ourselves.
"Does my life look like Jesus on the cross?"
"Am I sacrificing for, serving, and loving the people in my midst?"
Neeraj Mehta has been working with others to uncover beauty and strength in North Minneapolis for the past 10 years. Previously he worked for Project for Pride in Living and most recently as program and strategic development director for the Sanctuary Community Development Corporation. Currently, he is working with the community-building intermediary Nexus Community Partners, partnering with others to create more engaged and powerful communities in the Twin Cities.