The Politics of Poverty | Sojourners

The Politics of Poverty

Save America photo, Andrew Rich / Getty Images
Save America photo, Andrew Rich / Getty Images

I’ll be honest … I’m a coward. During the political season I find myself avoiding certain conversations that I do care about. Mind you, I do have opinions. My wife would say I have an opinion on everything. Faith and social issues are extremely important to me, and I have spent a lot of years studying and following the trends and their impact on people I care a lot about. I am especially focused on issues that affect the poor, mentally ill, unemployed, addicted, and homeless. Topics of Medicare, unemployment benefits, the death penalty, gun control, abortion, gay marriage, state and federal budget and deficits, immigration, and foreign policy all matter to me. I do have opinions! (And I vote!)

Yet during the final months of America’s presidential street fight, I tend to lay low. I know that one simple conversation with almost anyone can turn volatile and unleash the beast within them. If educated congressmen, presidential candidates, governors, and even local representatives can be as nasty and polarized as they have publicly shown, there is little reason to honestly discuss an issue, since the potential for alienation and misrepresentation is at an all-time high. No one seems to be listening, having crystallized their presuppositions with a crafty skill of spinning any topic into their agenda. Ironically, our children are watching adult leaders model behavior we wouldn’t let them get away with. 

In my mind, the poor are the ones being hijacked in all of this. Wealthy politicians from both major parties certainly are not arguing or creating policy from the viewpoint of Jesus. In fact, thinly veiled religious statements have become part of the shallowness of American politics. To the pundits, “Under God” doesn’t mean, “I submit to the teachings of God to love my enemies, serve others, and model the sacrificial lifestyle of God in the Flesh.” It more closely resembles Friday night football in Texas when the public prayer at the stadium blesses the home team and urges God’s victory for them. We have wrapped the Bible in a flag and replaced faith with “civil religion” which ultimately becomes anti-Christian.

Will Christian Americans ever stand up for the poor and marginalized? I doubt it. Though I may be a growing cynic, it is not from cynicism that I make that statement. It’s just that I believe that most politics and religion today are driven by wealth and selfishness. There was a time when government’s role was to protect and advocate for those in our culture who could not protect themselves. Yet today in the U.S., the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Texas is No. 50 of all states in funds to help the mentally ill. It is No. 40 of all states in help for the poor. We have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation. Urban teenagers still drop out of school at alarming rates. And instead of “welcoming the stranger,” as the Bible clearly required of followers of God, we despise the foreigner. There is no restorative justice or rehabilitation in place for the offender and certainly no jobs for the felon when they are released. And amidst all these social dilemmas in our nation and State, there is little room for substantive discussion and compromise, only blame, anger, and creating anecdotal myths that seek to validate our stances, with very little accomplished in the end.

I am hopeful, though not so much for politics in America. I still believe in the transforming work of God’s Spirit, which can renew and transform any of his followers. I still believe the church and God’s people living out the kingdom of God on earth will have more impact than any politician. Yet even that goes with a price —Jesus was crucified by the politicians and religious leaders of his day.

Jimmy Dorrell is Executive Director of Mission Waco/Mission World and pastor of Church Under the Bridge