Dangerous Unselfishness

Here's a piece I wrote for my church's Listening Life group.

To paraphrase Gregg Koskela (our head pastor), I’m not really going to think about poverty… am I? Not today of all days. It’s April 4th, 2008, the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the man who, in my opinion, deserves the title of “Greatest American”. King’s critics like to point out his flaws. He was human, after all. But I think many of his supporters also do him a disservice by describing him only as a civil rights leader. Dr. King was so much more than that. He was a pastor, a child, a husband, a father. He was a great leader who led in the struggle for social justice on many fronts. He opposed the Vietnam War and advocated the use of nonviolent resistance here at home. He spoke out against not only racial injustice, but against misogyny and other forms of social injustice. In the days before he was killed, he traveled to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers, men (black and white) who faced such awful working conditions that two had recently been killed in one of the city’s own trash compactors. Not only were the conditions brutal, but the pay hardly allowed them to feed themselves and their families. King went to Memphis to strike with these men, but at the time he was planning a much larger march on Washington D.C. This was not a civil rights march, as we have come to think of them, though the struggle against income inequality is an essential part of the struggle for civil rights for all people. No, at the time of his death, King was working on the Poor People’s Campaign. You see, at his core, Dr. King was a Christian. His faith motivated every aspect of his life. And King recognized that poverty was the greatest threat to our nation’s soul.

Since King’s death, we’ve come far as a nation on the issue of race relations. Now we can indulge in the debate about whether we’ve come far enough. Personally, I think we still have a long way to go, but I agree with Dr. King: our greatest challenge, and our greatest moral obligation, is in the struggle to end poverty. Over the last forty years we’ve made such great strides on the front of race that we’ve lost sight of this even more daunting challenge. Since that time, income inequality has grown. In fact, every quintile of the American population has seen its income drop when adjusted for inflation, except the top quintile, which has seen a dramatic increase in wealth. When comparing our national wealth to world averages, this income inequality becomes even more dramatic; while our rich are getting richer and our poor are getting poorer, our poor are still outpacing the poor of the third world. In other words, we are so wealthy that our poor are rich, relative to the world’s poor, at the same time that all of us lose ground to our super-rich.

Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, instructs his pupil to “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share." This command takes a kind of moral courage that is, in our world, very difficult to find. Even though Jesus clearly tells us that wealth makes it harder to get into the Kingdom, we all seek security in our wealth. We need this sense of security because of a very justified fear of the consequences of poverty. And yet, it’s our fear for our own economic insecurity which drives us to hoard at the expense of others. We create the poverty we fear.

Where can we look for the kind of courage we need? Jesus makes this abundantly clear, as well. We need only look to the birds of the air and the flowers in our gardens, and see how God provides for them. Jesus tells us that God loves us more, and will provide for us just as richly.

But that’s easier said than done. Sure, I want to put my trust in God. I know He will care for me. But what if God has plans for me that are different from my own? What if God’s not so keen on that new computer I’ve been coveting? What if God thinks I don’t need another car? If I trust in Him, I know I’ll have everything I need, but I may not get all the junk I want.

Wouldn’t it be easier to believe in a god who just wants to give me that junk? It would certainly be easier to sell such a god. The other night my wife, Paige, and I were idly flipping through the channels on T.V. and came across a pastor preacher the “Prosperity Gospel”. God, he told people, would pay down their credit card debt. God would make them wealthy. I was incensed. I couldn’t stand hearing the Gospel cheapened so. Did God send his only Son so that whoever believes in Him would not suffer the indignity of walking down the street in off-the-rack clothes, but enjoy Armani suits in that new Lexus SUV? That’s not quite the wording in my Bible. But I can’t deny this fact: that mega-church was full to the gills.

And why not? Of all the parts of the Gospel to dismiss, this is most tempting. It was such a long time ago. Jesus couldn’t possibly have predicted my economic circumstances all those years ago, right? The disciples didn’t have computers and cars to covet, after all. I know I should be spending my time researching how best to give to my brothers and sisters in need, perhaps through some mechanism like the micro-loans Josh Reed (our youth pastor) was telling me about, but I have so much online shopping to get to. I’ll give when I am wealthier, when I feel more secure in what I have, when I no longer need to depend on God.

But I know the kind of courage Jesus calls me to isn’t outdated. It’s just hard. If only I had some modern example of courage to look to. If only someone facing much more dire circumstances could show me what that kind of faith looks like.

Forty years ago, the night before he would be killed, King preached a sermon that provides that kind of example. Facing more immediate and severe threats than any I’ll ever face, he said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will… I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

When I think about poverty, I should remember that King said something else in that speech. The night before his assassination, King told that congregation in Memphis, and reminded all of us, “Be concerned about your brother. Either we go up together or we go down together. Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness."