If you listened only to the current presidential candidates talk, you’d think the United States is a nation comprised solely of rich and middle class individuals. Almost nothing in their speeches, party platforms, and interviews would tell you that approximately 47 million citizens live in poverty in the United States.
The reason for this political hush about poverty is because the poor are collectively not seen as a group likely to cast a vote in November. So, once again, poor people will be regulated to receiving the leftover legislative scraps from the political table that is prepared only for middle and upper class people.
One glaring example of this: Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump hosted major political conventions last month to accept their party’s nomination for president, and they both said almost nothing about poverty, affordable housing, or food insecurity. But they had more than a little bit to say about tax cuts and credits for the middle class.
Defenders of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – and the political parties they represent – will say that although their policies are publically geared toward the middle class, if implemented the policies would also have a broader effect upon low income individuals as well.
This response would be fine, except that history tells us that a rising economic tide seldom lifts all boats. If you’re poor you don’t have a boat, and you’re more likely to be on the shore watching the tide and not rising with it.
Perhaps the two most troubling aspects pertaining to all of this are that America calls itself a Christian nation, and that the group most effected by poverty overlooked is women.
In a country where 77 percent of adults identify as Christian, you’d think that there would be moral outrage about the poverty rate in the United States. But most churches are, by and large, as middle class-focused as the presidential candidates. The shameful irony of this is that most churches stay afloat from the offerings of women – who also happen to be the group most saddled with poverty.
According to the U.S. census, more than 24 million women live below the poverty line. Single mothers are twice as likely to be poor as single fathers. But who is talking about this in public political discourse, or in mainstream Christianity? It’s as though poor people (and poor women in particular) are invisible – not because they cannot be seen but rather because we choose not to see them or even say their names.
Interestingly, though many Christians choose not to see the plight of poor people, Jesus’ eyes saw poor people just fine. In the synoptic gospel accounts from the New Testament, we are provided a portrait of Jesus as one who has his social and theological imagination keenly fixed upon the poor and oppressed – so much so that he routinely looked for teaching opportunities to show that the poor and oppressed were at the center of God’s concern.
In Luke 14: 1, 7-14, Jesus is the guest of a religious leader, who is identified as one of the Pharisees. In typical fashion, Jesus sees this occasion as an opportunity to critique the social order of his day, and propose a new way of being in relationship with one another.
Consider Luke’s account here:
One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Notice that while many guests at this party were vying for the seats of honor, Jesus counter- culturally says that the best seat is the lowest seat, and the best dinner guests aren’t the social elite but the poor, the differently abled, and the oppressed. In other words, he completely disrupts and overturns the social order of his day by proclaiming that the most honored guest at God’s table is not the “haves” but the “have nots,” who obviously had not been invited to this dinner table.
I wonder what would happen if our Christian nation and professed Christian presidential candidates took these words of Jesus seriously? I wonder what would happen if our major political parties made poor and oppressed people the center of their political and social imagination as Jesus did? What would happen if U.S. foreign policy was largely influenced by the millions of poor and hard working women and children in refugee and displacement camps all over the world? What would happen if poor people and socially invisible women actually had a political party that truly advocated for them?
Sadly, if things stay the same, we may never know the answers to these questions. But it’s safe to say, based on the Jesus that we encounter in Luke’s gospel, that his preferential concern for the poor and desire to change the social order would probably keep him out of the Democratic or Republican parties.
How will those of us who claim to follow Jesus and seek justice respond to the plight of the poor and oppressed this election season? With whom or what will be place our allegiance? Will we continue to support a political table only set for the haves, or will we push for a table inclusive of the have nots?
The choice is ours.