January 15, 2021

The Surplus Population


Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

– James 2:5-7

“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”

* * *

God has chosen the poor. We do not.

In his NY Times opinion piece, “Rich People Just Care Less,” Daniel Goleman writes,

A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power. This tuning out has been observed, for instance, with strangers in a mere five-minute get-acquainted session, where the more powerful person shows fewer signals of paying attention, like nodding or laughing. Higher-status people are also more likely to express disregard, through facial expressions, and are more likely to take over the conversation and interrupt or look past the other speaker.

…A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain. In 2008, social psychologists from the University of Amsterdam and the University of California, Berkeley, studied pairs of strangers telling one another about difficulties they had been through, like a divorce or death of a loved one. The researchers found that the differential expressed itself in the playing down of suffering. The more powerful were less compassionate toward the hardships described by the less powerful.

In short, those high up on the ladder give little thought or time to those below them. To them, “the poor” are, in Scrooge’s memorable phrase, “the surplus population.” However, lest we breathe a sigh of relief that we are not those “rich people” with little sensitivity or compassion, Goleman notes,

Of course, in any society, social power is relative; any of us may be higher or lower in a given interaction, and the research shows the effect still prevails. Though the more powerful pay less attention to us than we do to them, in other situations we are relatively higher on the totem pole of status — and we, too, tend to pay less attention to those a rung or two down.

Daniel Goleman cites this research to make a political point about inequality in America, but I am not interested in discussing politics or economics. My purpose is much more personal and pastoral. For I have seen this dynamic to be pervasive and little acknowledged in churches and Christian communities, and I can hardly think of an attitude or behavior more contrary to what should be the outworking of the Gospel.

The church growth movement exacerbated this social problem when it promoted its philosophy of homogeneity. The largest megachurches grew in the suburbs, where they could capitalize on the fact that life was all about birds of a feather flocking together. So they began targeting people who looked alike, had similar backgrounds and life experiences, drove the same cars, and shopped at the same malls.

That situation has been changing for some time now, and no matter where we live (unless it’s in a very select neighborhood), our neighbors may be “the poor.” Furthermore, we come into contact with people in challenging life circumstances everywhere, whether it involves the overt poverty of the panhandler at the interstate ramp or any number of more subtle socioeconomic or psycho-social difficulties faced by individuals and families in our churches and communities.

Will our churches adapt and learn to welcome, include, and involve “the poor” in our congregations? Will we listen to them, embrace them, honor them?

scrooge 1As a pastor for many years, I of course dealt with people in all kinds of circumstances, but I didn’t realize how insulated I was from the world around me until I became a hospice chaplain.

In this role, I have entered homes and encountered situations and dealt with people I never would have known as a pastor. My job requires me to go into those situations with no agenda other than meeting folks where they are and offering my attention and support. In other words, I get paid to humble myself and serve people, no matter who they are, no matter what their circumstances.

It is not always easy. I have my prejudices and there are people I don’t like. There are folks I naturally avoid. I would probably not choose to go into unclean places reeking with cigarette smoke, infested with fleas or cockroaches, cluttered with junk and trash, inhabited by people whose lives are marked by dysfunction, conflict, addictions, and all manner of sin and suffering. But what I have found is that many, many of these folks, “lower” than me on society’s ladder of value, have lifted me up in countless ways as I have tried (not always successfully) to just do my job and make myself available to them. We have connected. I hope they have been helped. I know I have been blessed.

The epistle of James is the NT document (along with Luke/Acts) that most emphasizes the poor and the Christian duty to include and relate to those “down the ladder” rather than neglect them. In his fine commentary, Peter Davids suggests that this epistle may have been written in a life-setting of economic turmoil in Palestine in the decades before the First Jewish War (66-73 AD). This was the season in which James and other church leaders in Jerusalem asked Paul and Barnabas to “remember the poor” (Gal. 2:10), an exhortation which Paul took seriously and made a key focus of ministry among his Gentile congregations. James’s letter addresses a multitude of “stress fractures” plaguing the Palestinian churches, most of which grew out of socioeconomic pressures and conflicts between rich landowners, merchants, and oppressed, impoverished workers.

In this context, James rebukes many of the tendencies we all have when it comes to social behavior amidst the “rich” and the “poor.”

  • We forget that God judges “riches” and “poverty” differently than we do. (1:9-11)
  • We are blind to the neediest among us and forget that “true religion” means seeking them out and serving them. (1:27)
  • We show favoritism to wealthier people (2:1-4)
  • In our theology, we forget that “God has chosen the poor.” (2:5)
  • We turn a blind eye to the troubles the rich and powerful cause. (2:6-7)
  • We have an insufficient understanding of faith and its nature to produce good works — specifically in the way we treat those who are less fortunate that we are. (2:14-17)
  • We get caught up in our own plans to “get ahead,” and neglect more important matters. (4:13-16)

Where in our churches today do we ever hear words like those James writes in 5:1-6?

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.

Whatever my “riches” may be, I cannot afford to neglect those “below” me on society’s ladder.

The studies Daniel Goleman notes in his NY Times piece show that folks lower on the socioeconomic scale tend to do better relating to others. “Poor people are better attuned to interpersonal relations — with those of the same strata, and the more powerful —  than the rich are, because they have to be.” 

The other day I was visiting one of my hospice families. They are relatively poor — working poor. They have a house full of kids from various relationships, and I’m not sure if mom and dad are married. They live in a relatively comfortable house, but it’s small and crowded, a tract home in an older suburban neighborhood that’s looking worn. I’ve never been in the home without seeing a cockroach on the wall. It is a mostly minority community, on the edges of some really scary neighborhoods, though this one seems relatively stable. These folks don’t profess any faith and thus far we haven’t talked too much about that.

On my visit, they told me a story. Lately, their family has been doing a little better financially. They were able to get a reliable vehicle and catch up on some bills. Despite having to care for a dying family member and facing the struggles of a busy life and many other life pressures, they have been feeling blessed.

So when they came out of Walmart the other day and saw a woman with several children holding up a sign for help, they stopped. The woman was a recent immigrant from Eastern Europe and spoke no English, but the children did. They’ve been trying to get settled but were at a point where they’d run out of food. They didn’t want money, just some food. My friends took pity on them, went back into Walmart and bought them some simple provisions. As they pulled out of the parking lot they saw the children on a bench by the store, enthusiastically eating what they’d given.

I didn’t sense that they told me this story to brag or to justify themselves as good people. They were simply happy that they had the opportunity to do something nice for someone. They’ve been in the position of needing assistance so many times, and it felt good and right for them to help someone else. In fact, if I had to guess, I might even say they were more capable of seeing that woman and her children and responding to their needs because of their experiences.

In the end, I don’t care about making any big, profound point with all of this.

It simply comes down to what Paul writes in Romans 12:16. I think the old Jerusalem Bible captures the idea best when it renders it like this: “Never be condescending, but make real friends with the poor.”

I had to get a job where it became my responsibility to act like this before I began to grasp what it means.

No matter what society tells you about where you are on “the ladder,” we’re all in this together.


  1. Mike – thank you. I could stand to learn what you’re learning.

  2. Good and necessary reminder, CM.

    This is a very difficult reality to respond to graciously. However, when my economic well-being drops a notch or two it becomes much more understandable.

  3. Adam Tauno Williams says

    > No matter what society tells you about where you are on “the ladder,” we’re all in this together.

    I understand the sentiment behind this statement; but no, we are not. There is a group [or ‘are groups’] that ignores the rest, because they are not ‘in it’ with them in any real way at all, they have no need for the others. I do not see how the post [very true and well written] actually comes around to this conclusion. We can choose to be in this together, or we can choose to not be [the effectiveness of those choices is greatly influence in every practical way by where was in on that “ladder”].

    The conclusion of the research just seems entirely obvious. I suppose it is nice that someone verifies what everyone knows with research, but… My great grandmother explained it to me this way: there is a rusty tricycle with a bent wheel in the weeds next to the railroad track. When the Union Pacific freight train comes thundering down the pass pulling a million tons of coal – nobody expects the engine to come to a stop to ask if the tricycle needs any help.

    Aside: I’ve always wondered about the correlation of white flight –> suburbia –> evangelicalism. It is a religious tradition that well matches a life that never sees poverty first hand, never encounters the mentally ill man on the street, the handicapped person stuck in the entrance to a building, the elderly person at the bus stop, the frustrated immigrant who can’t understand what is happening. It is easier to believe in a tidy moralistic world when you carefully avoid being entangled in it. When many [sincere and honestly well-intentioned] people do encounter these things it is often in a scheduled and controlled ‘event’ environment [lets go into the big bad city and help the X for 2 hours and 25 minutes]; which is simply not the same as meeting them in real-life.

    >They were simply happy that they had the opportunity to do something nice for someone

    True. It took me awhile to see this. I occasionally mow some of the un-kept yards in the neighborhood where single mothers live [they either just don’t have lawn-mowers, don’t have time, or their landlords are d-bags]. Occasionally as I’m heading out they come running out of the house and want to give be $5 or some such pittance amount. I used to refuse, and it was awkward. Now I take it and say “Thanks” [hey, its $5]. The relief they feel in rendering value for the service, of not being charity, is clear and visible. Giving something in return gives them dignity. The right-wing spewing about the lay-about resource-consuming selfish poor are disgusting and false; I’ve only very rarely met them. In my experience the poor are anything but, they do not like or want to be charity, they count the value of *everything*, and they work their asses off – to get next to nothing in return. They may appear to make bad decisions – might that be because they have so few choices, and long-term planning is an unreasonable expectation when you have critical immediate needs. They would much rather be the givers; while the privileged are constantly concerned about somehow being exploited.

    • As for “we’re all in this together,” that’s another advantage of my job. Rich or poor, high or low, I end up seeing them all in the same place — their death beds.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        Which is inches [albeit very important inches] from a religion-of-the-afterlife. I understand what you are saying, but it is a very narrow truth, most of us spend only a tiny fraction of our lives in our death beds. We may all end up in our death beds but all also feel cold when it is cold, hungry when there is no food, sick when we are sick, lonely when be are alone, and hurt when we are betrayed.

        And some of those death-beds will be much more comfortable than others. And some will get back out of those beds thanks to care unavailable to others; those sons and daughters get to have their parent for more days, those lovers their partners, those parents their children, and those friends their friend.

        • Good points

        • Adam, I think I hear what you are saying, but I have quite a bit of expereince in hospice as well, as a nurse. There is something about facing death that makes most people consolidate and clarify their view of what comes after that final breath, and it colors the entire dying process by its success or failure. You are quite right regarding the availability of life-saving care, but by the time a person gets to hospice THAT ship has sailed for the rich and poor alike….and no amount of money can bribe death to go away.

    • Someone with more historical depth can correct me if I’m wrong but originally I think that evangelicalism was much more the religion of the working classes (white) while the liberal Protestants attracted the professionals. Think about William Jennings Bryan and the Populist movement which was very closely associated with the evangelical movement, or Dwight Moody’s work in Chicago. My guess is that evangelicalism submitted to Richard Nixon’s southern (make whites resentful of blacks) and northern (make working-class whites resentful of blacks) strategies. My impression is that, unfortunately, evangelicalism used to be much, much more concerned with poor and outcast people than it is today.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > Someone with more historical depth can correct me if I’m wrong but originally
        > I think that evangelicalism was much more the religion of the working classes (white)
        > while the liberal Protestants attracted the professionals

        That certainly is my vague sense of it; but it is hard to say this more than very generally. First one would have to define a point in time for the origin of Evangelicalism [which has always been a rather fractured thing], and regions may have different flavors or dominant ‘schools’. The north certainly differed from the south in what was associated with what. And the same issue arises when one tries to define high-“L”iberal-Protestantism. The advanced forms are easy enough to recognize, but the borders are wide and blurry.

        In any case that phase of either of the movements is now completely historic. Mainstream vocally Christian intellectuals are an endangered species. The issue of the poor and disadvantaged barely makes the back page in Evangelical media. Evangelicalism has been in that formation [in the rust-belt anyway] for at least ~20 – 30 years.

        > My guess is that evangelicalism submitted to Richard Nixon’s southern and northern

        I dunno. Alternately it just was a natural consequence of misguided government housing policies [which heavily subsidized white flight] and an abandonment of urban planning [cities rather than approaching rising issues aggressively threw up their hands in the wild ride of circling the drain]. The result was an isolated and segregated population; then the others becomes The Other quite naturally.

        I clearly recall how vogue despair was in the late ’70s and through the ’80s; the only solution was to build walls because the issues were made out to be insurmountable towers of doom. And Japan was going to own the United States… yeah, remember that one. “Downtown” became “the inner-city”. And our leaders stoked the stupidity constantly.

        > My impression is that, unfortunately, evangelicalism used to be much, much more concerned with
        > poor and outcast people than it is today.

        I never met that Evangelicalism [@ 40 years old].

      • Evangelicalism dates at least as early as John and Charles Wesley. The Wesleyan Revival certainly showed concern for the poor and the working class, both in England and in America. So, of course, did/does a well-known outgrowth of Wesleyanism, the Salvation Army.

    • I would say that the rich (and certainly the upper-middle class) are affected by the condition of the poor, whether they realize it or not. Maybe not in the immediate direct sense. But large-scale widespread poverty will affect everyone over time.

      I worry that this will become a bigger problem as our country’s socioeconomic stratification increases.

  4. We could all stand to learn it.

    Once again, we are exposed.

  5. We all need to read these thoughts often to remind ourselves of the Biblical mandate to love and care for the poor. My own church offers services of food and clothing, as well as prayer to the needy in our rural community, but we find it challenging to have them actually visit our church. I think that too many have the idea that they have to clean up, look “right”, and act “right” to be accepted in churches…and unfortunately, they may be correct.

    Christ, on the other hand, makes no such distinctions. He invites the poor and needy to be with Him as honored dinner guests. I wish we Christians weren’t so unwilling to share more than a pew seat with the poor, but to share a seat at our tables, as well. I wish I wasn’t so unwilling…

    Lord have mercy on us all…

  6. The last church I attended could stand to learn the lessons in this article. They are a fast-growing trendy church situated in an affluent suburb of Pittsburgh. Their focus has always been on “discipleship” which is a code word for church growth and member retention. There are no outreach ministries for the poor. The congregation gabs incessantly before service, wandering into worship holding their coffees and continuing their conversations while the worship team struggles to be heard over the din.
    I have never ever sat in a church where their chief pride is how many former Pittsburgh Steelers attend there. I have never observed so many cars in a church parking lot hogging multiple parking spaces.
    The churchgoers are socially cold to anyone outside their circles. They fight over shaking hands with the head pastor every Sunday.
    In 2 years there, never once met one of the pastors.
    The teaching there was good but not challenging. Enough to tickle the ears of the flock but not shear them of their pretentions. It celebrated the blessings of God’s generosity but not asking of the flock to convey the same to the less fortunate.
    I grew up in a house where my parents struggled to keep us going. We often had nothing. As the oldest, at 12, I told my parents to spend more on my siblings for clothes and birthdays and not to worry about me. I wore one pair of pants for the entire year at school. One pair of decaying shoes. This isn’t about me though. I’m not bragging. This is about the insulation the affluent have against the people around them. They see less well off people as unworthy. I live in a somewhat affluent suburb of Pittsburgh and while I have a job that puts me in a good place, I’m acutely aware of the focus that the retired church-going men in my neighborhood have on maintaining their lawns but being poor neighbors. They look down on people who don’t mow their lawns twice a week and maintain their properties. Yet, they attend their churches and serve as elders.
    I see churches whose main goal is preaching a ‘God is a wealth machine’ gospel and celebrates financial titthing but not charity. I see church people with cold hearts, unwelcoming yet quick to gossip and judge.
    The judgment of the rich will not be just for those who hoard and cheat the poor, but those who push others away out of a sense of superiority. I am trying hard not to fall into that same trap. I’m not wealthy nor do I want to be. Better to me wanting in money than poor in spirit and charity.

    • Ah… another Pittsburgh native… a hearty hello…

      If this church is located in the South Hills I might just know the place you speak… having heard about it from former members of my tradition… especially the Steeler Celebrity stuff….

  7. It’s a saying I’ve often heard “Only the poor help the poor”.

    Poor people know the reality of the suffering of another person, because they’ve either suffered it themselves or know someone who has been in the same boat.

    To be fair to the well-off and high status, they probably get so many calls and demands (people who win lotteries and the like get floods of begging letters) and are often targeted by scams and confidence tricksters, so they would develop a habit of ‘tuning-out’ anything that looks like the person is going to ask for money.

    But yes – we all need to be aware that we turn our hearing off selectively.

    • “if you’re in trouble or hurt or need – go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones.”
      Ma Joad – “Grapes of Wrath”.

  8. The church I attend has historically been a Caucasian, semi-affluent congregation. The community we’re in has slowly evolved from one which looked exactly like us to one which is a mish-mash of races, languages, cultures, ages and incomes. We now find ourselves, like it or not, amongst the poor.

    We faced a crossroad several years ago of “getting out of Dodge” or staying and embracing what God might have for the people of this community. We are now quite intentionally trying to engage this community for Christ, knowing that our congregational profile will change quite a bit. I don’t think any of our leadership is thinking we won’t have our struggles as we navigate this territory, but I’m excited to see God at work through this, and to interact with this community for Christ.

    I don’t say any of this to pat myself or our church on the back. This has all come about because of God’s gracious hand in our church, and Jesus’ love.

  9. David Cornwell says

    I remember when first entering the ministry, becoming pastor of the first parish in Indiana, and the church growth movement was taking hold. We were all expected to “grow” our churches, much as if we were a business exec hired to turn around a failing company. One of the principles expounded by the movement, just as you said “it promoted its philosophy of homogeneity.” I was uncomfortable with it then, but they made it sound so “right.” One of the problems is that it totally forgets that these kind of boundaries no longer exist for us as followers of Christ.

    So when we are out looking for “people like us” we fail to see everyone else. I mean literally fail. They do not appear in our line of sight. It takes an effort to look at them, to look into their faces, their eyes, the expressions on faces. To even smile at them, means we have to connect to their eyes, and connecting with the eyes, we might see hurt, hunger, pain, and ignorance. We don’t like those things and can be revolting to us.

    So now we have huge churches, full of people like us. Pretty sad. And heretical (the teaching that made it possible).

  10. Beautiful and challenging, Mike. These are Christ-like words.

    I also have been enabled by my job (teaching at a community college) to see what I hadn’t always seen before. I love it, even though there are frustrations, too. It’s a blessing in many ways, not least because, since I have a defined role, I know what to DO for the needy people that God places in front of me, and the work I’m asked to do matches my abilities. It’s much harder to know how to respond to the random homeless person with whom I have no relationship. Partly for that reason, I’ve sought out a lot of jobs that dealt with the marginalized in one way or another.

    • It is easier when the role is defined and your comment leads me to conclude that our churches need to do a better job of helping people love others through apprenticeship relationships in which serving and caring is modeled and taught.

      • Good point. I wonder what that would look like?

        • Getting to know someone personally is one way. Our city-center church recently had our bishop speak on our men;s retreat. He spoke about the homeless folk that are often around, some of whom regularly attend worship services. He suggested that instead of just seeing them as “the homeless”, we get to know them by name: “Fred, how are you doing this week?”. Engage in conversation.

  11. Christiane says

    One of my fondest memories of teaching was when OUR school won a contest run by the whole school district to prepare and give baskets to needy people in our communities at Thanksgiving time. Big school system, and WE won!

    Why so thrilled? Well, there is a detail I left out: my school was in the inner city, and had seventeen bus loads of project children among the pupils. There wasn’t a lot of money there, no. But in was THESE CHILDREN and their parents who gave, and gave, and gave . . . the teachers collected some of the money for the turkeys and hams, but the children did all the other, donating their allowances, and cans and boxes of food for ‘the cause’.

    I often think about those children. How their lives were constricted by poverty and how so very often, a grandmother held the family together because the parents were incarcerated or ill from drug abuse. And yet they were the generous ones . . .

    not the district where I had my home (middle class to upper middle-class) or even the top of the line neighborhood schools with the many professional parents . . . oh, of course they gave something, but it was paltry compared to what the children at my school did that year.

    What does it take to make a people reach out to others in need? Do they have to themselves have suffered need in order to understand? Or had our students seen up close how others lived who were in great need? Whatever there was that made them so generous, I think it must have had something to do with compassion, with empathy. And something not too far removed from love for others in worse shape then they were.

    Good memory, that.
    Those kids helped me understand that people are more able to give when their own lives are not so far removed from those who are receiving. I hadn’t known that before.

    • I think the phrase you are describing is a deep and visceral understanding of “..there but for the grace of God go I.’

      …especially if “I” was there last month and may be again next month.

  12. A little back story for you. I was privileged to have Peter Davids as my Hermeneutics professor when at Seminary. He shared a story about when he was a student he had to write an essay on the poor in scripture (I forget the exact title). After handing it in to his prof, his prof ripped it up in front of him, and told him to rewrite it and that he didn’t really understand what scripture says on the topic. (Something about being too influenced by Western civilzation.) This event I believe had a significant influence on him when he wrote his commentary on James.

    By the way, not only is Peter a scholar, but he is also a Charismatic Anglican Priest, while being a theological consultant for the Vineyard movement among others.

  13. David Cornwell says

    What the church is offering in many cases today is a form of spiritual malpractice clothed in the some of the language of “evangelism.” It is really just the same old capitalistic marketing that we see for everything else. When the church calls us to be rich, rather than listen to the words of Christ or Paul or James or Church tradition, it is heresy. Because when we use this language, then the poor become an obstacle to our vision of success and a good life. Our moral vision evaporates.

    Real concern for the poor begins in prayer, and that prayer begins in the Church. I suppose it becomes “private” also in the sense that we must harbor it our heart constantly. Mother Theresa, speaking of family prayer, said the following:

    “There is so much hatred, so much misery, and we with our prayer, with our sacrifice, are beginning at home. Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do, but how much love we put into what we do. . . I want you to find the poor here, right in your own home first. And begin love there. Be that good news to your own people first. And find out about your next-door neighbors. Do you know who they are?”

    This would seem to be Catholic in approach, based on the longtime principles enunciated in Catholic moral teaching (if I’m wrong, some of you Catholics need to correct me).

    • David, I’m not Catholic, and I won’t correct you either.

      What Mother Theresa said is right in tune with the Roman Catholic position since the 1968 Latin American Bishops’ Conference: a “preferential option for the poor”. This is the basis for a lot of liberation theology, which finds itself allied with Marxist efforts occasionally, complicating things.

      I bring up the Marxists because the passage that Mike quoted from James 5 (“Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you…”) reads partly like an OT prophet (well, James was close enough) and partly Karl Marx. It’s altogether too threatening for a lot of us North American evangelicals, who have been brought up on a heretical form of the gospel, more resembling capitalism, as you said.

      How can we have it both ways? Are the Catholics, and Mother Theresa, wrong? Is James wrong? Is the Prosperity Gospel wrong? (We all know that Marx is wrong—it”s in the bible somewhere, or at least in the Constitution.)

      • David Cornwell says

        There are things about liberation theology which one could easily find objectionable. But I like it that at least the Catholic Church has teachings on this subject that has basis in scripture, and seems to have the endorsement of the Church. And Protestant teaching seems all over the place and confusing.

        What Chaplain Mike says in this piece is an excellent starting place for evangelicals or any Protestant.. Some congregations are at least attempting to understand this. And it isn’t easy work. The same thing he talks about happens in congregations, as far as “seeing” or not seeing those in need, even when we intend well. To me this is where prayer comes into it, because our own hearts need to be awakened to people right in front of us

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I bring up the Marxists because the passage that Mike quoted from James 5 (“Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you…”) reads partly like an OT prophet (well, James was close enough) and partly Karl Marx.

        Pope John Paul II approached Marxism as a Christian heresy. As in taking James 5 et al in isolation and firewalling it to the max. Chesterton wrote that Christianity is a dynamic balance of several doctrines, any one of which in isolation could lay waste a world. And Marxism took one of those doctrines in isolation (“Woe to the rich!”) and laid waste half the world.

        • Good point. Any doctrine, if pushed too far at the expense of other doctrine, becomes a heresy.

          But the other extreme is to throw the baby out with the bathwater and reject it wholesale.

  14. An excellent reminder. I’ve seen this dynamic of a lack of compassion and empathy in the (relatively) wealthy, and as I grow older I think I’ve become better at guarding against it myself. I still have a lot of work to do for sure.

    Beyond the personal responsibility and the need to counter what is sadly the sociological norm in this area, there is also a need to try to counter the systems and structures of our culture and society, which are heavily weighted against the poor and in favor of the more affluent. The poor pay more for just about every service than the rich, and are rarely offered some of the perks that the more affluent have access to. Credit is harder to get and more expensive. Bank accounts cost if you don’t have a minimum balance. Nickel and dime charges for ATMs. Rent or mortgage eats up a much higher percentage of your income. If you recently got out of prison, good luck qualifying for just about anything or finding any decent job.

    Recently we’ve been in a position to begin looking at small properties for investment (eg. condo, duplex) as a rental. What I quickly realized was that potential rental profit margins are considerably higher on low-cost and low quality properties than on something I’d be willing to live in myself. In short, it pays better to be a slumlord. I refuse to buy anything I wouldn’t be willing to live in myself, but a lot of people don’t have those kind of scruples, and the system rewards them for it.

    Seeing these kinds of systemic injustices in addition to knowing individual friends’ struggles has given me more compassion for the poor on the personal level. But there is a larger battle to be fought also, against systems that are gamed against the poorest and most vulnerable among us.

  15. Daffyfiregirl says

    “Never be condescending, but make real friends with the poor.”

    Think that sums it up best.

  16. Something happened when I was a young man that had a huge influence on me, and it still lingers today. I was a TV repair technician (back when people actually had them fixed) and was doing a service call in a home in a poor neighborhood (I was in my early 20’s and not doing that well myself!) at the home of a woman who was a single mother, on public assistance, and SSI. She was in her 30s, and had children at home. She was talking on the phone to someone and complaining about how SSI was cutting off her money and she wasn’t getting enough food stamps, and AFDC wasn’t paying her bills. After she got off the phone she began talking with me and started dragging out all this expensive jewelry and showing it to me. ‘This diamond is so many carats and cost $$$’ and so forth. Needless to say, my wife didn’t have that kind of jewelry and I found it rather difficult to feel much compassion over the fact that she wasn’t getting enough help from the government to allow her to continue adding to her jewelry collection. My first thought was ‘sell one of them rings and buy some food for these kids!’

    Now I know that is anecdotal, and perhaps stereotypical (and may sound harsh and unloving), but I’ve seen the same kind of thing many times. It does demonstrate that 1) poverty itself is not a virtue nor are poor people (typically) much more virtuous (or less materialistic) than the rich and 2) simply providing assistance without accountability and education usually doesn’t bring people out of poverty (if it did, poverty in the U.S. should be all but eradicated, given the money and programs that are in place, and have been for the last 50 years). James reminds us to ‘remember the poor’ but the challenge is how to do it in ways that are truly helpful. Simply saying ‘here’s some money’ might not be much better than saying ‘be warm and fed’ (James 2). And simply saying ‘woe is I for I is rich’ is not really helpful at all (and in a world where 2.4 billion people live on less than $2 a day, WE are all VERY rich).

    • Greg, I appreciate your comment, but it really misses the point of the post and the article. They are not so much about “helping” the poor. They are about “seeing” the poor — recognizing that those who are “down the ladder” from me exist, listening to the them, relating to them, and being willing to admit them into my circles.

      There is also an important paragraph in the post noting how this is all relative. Sometimes we are the people with the power and the resources, sometimes we are on the other side of that. I move in some circles where I would be considered (and feel!) poor and powerless, where people would give me little attention, respect, or time. I wouldn’t be able to play a meaningful part in fulfilling their agenda because I don’t have whatever they’re looking for as a contribution.

      You had an opportunity to go into the home of someone “down the ladder” from you, and like I said in the post, the scene isn’t always pretty. What if that woman were your neighbor or a member of your church?

      • CM, I appreciate the post and your point (and agree), and realize my comment might not fit directly with ‘seeing’ the poor. But my point was that simply ‘seeing’ doesn’t always tell us the whole story, and that we are probably called to do more than just ‘see’ – we are called to try to help in meaningful ways. ‘Seeing’ the whole story requires involvement and commitment, and helping in meaningful ways requires accountability.

        I’m not sure that my opportunity was to go into the home of someone ‘down the ladder’ from me; she seemed to be doing pretty well while I and my wife were working very hard to make ends meet (with limited success). If she were my neighbor of a member of my church, I would (hopefully) admit her into my circle, but I’m afraid I might tell her to sell some of them rings and buy some food for those kids.

    • Why did she bring the jewelry out to show off to a complete stranger?

      • That’s what I wondered too. I thought maybe it was to make a statement about her status or something. Definitely not something I expected.

        • Let’s try an 8th commandment exercise together: what is the best possible read on her actions?

          Because my thought, as someone who has been desperate enough in the past to entertain some pretty extreme ideas about how to put food on the table, was that she was trying to get you to make an offer on one of the jewelry pieces. So she COULD sell it, and feed her kids.

          • I guess that’s possible, but if it was I completely missed it (not the first or last time I misunderstood someone’s intentions). It just sounded like bragging to me.

          • And if it was bragging, let’s try to read that through the 8th commandment too. Maybe she was embarrassed that you had to overhear a conversation revealing how pathetic her present situation was.

            By the way, unless she was sitting on the Klopman diamond–and here I speak as someone who in order to not become homeless had to sell all my jewelry at one point–she likely didn’t have enough in her jewelry box to do any more than pay a couple bills, for one month. The pawn and resale rates on this stuff is pretty low. (Not to mention, not all that glitters is gold–it could just have easily been costume jewelry that no one would pay more than a few dollars for, but which still looks valuable to an untrained eye.)

            Then, next month, where would she be? SSI means disability. A month isn’t long enough to pull together a long-term plan to get out of poverty when you are disabled, have small children, and no savings or social capital.

            If we are determined to see the poor as people just as complex as anyone else, it’s not too hard to find a way to read these supposed smoking guns of “entitlement mentality” in a more charitable way.

        • Dan Crawford says

          Maybe it was because they meant a great deal to her – maybe they reminded her of family or friends or a better time in her life and that was why she was reluctant to give it up. And isn’t it sad that her doing that seemed to evoke not an attempt at understanding, let alone compassion, but only resentment.

          • Exactly. It’s so depressing. And it makes poverty even more lonely. You become so isolated. It troubles me so greatly how little heart for the poor one finds even in our churches.

            (And tbh it’s why I am practically drooling with envy every time Pope Francis speaks. There’s a true “Jesus shaped” spiritual leader.)

    • Greg,
      You were in somebodies home as a service-person; you overheard a conversation this woman had on the phone with someone else, but that doesn’t mean that everything you heard was true; when she got off the phone, this woman did not ask you for a handout or pity, at least you don’t mention that she did.

      It seems to me that you jumped to some conclusions and made some judgements that the situation didn’t warrant, because you could not have gained an inside perspective simply as a result of being inside her home and overhearing a conversation.

      Poor people’s lives are at least as complicated as middle and upper-class people’s lives.

      • (sic) somebody’s…

      • It’s exhausting, speaking as a formerly VERY poor now modestly working class/scraping by person, keeping up with the multitude of uncharitable ways people find to read your every action when you are lower class.

        Literally every move you make, the middle and upper class folks can find some way to spin it as you having sinister motives or bad judgment or being unworthy. A cynic might say this is so they can exempt themselves from responsibility for the role they play in rampant economic inequality and the suffering it causes. That cynic might be onto something.

        And they forget we have emotions. I cried so hard, and periodically for months afterwards, about having to sell a kitchen table to pay the rent while my husband was out of work. It was my grandparents’. It wasn’t worth a lot of money–though more than we sold it for, because you can’t always get “list price” from Craigslist, et al, when you need the money within a week or two at most. It was just a beautiful thing that reminded me that I had a life beyond the crisis at hand. That I hadn’t always been hungry and scared. That once I had eaten good, solid middle class meals around a table with people who had a modest house and a pension and there wasn’t this constant panic.

        It was so, so hard letting go of that table.

        Or the tiny gold heart locket that commemorated my baptism. It’s just a thing, right? I think I got $15 for it from the guy who melted it down. But once I was someone who had a little gold locket to remember things, and now I am not.

        They don’t give you any credit for that. Just sniff that you need to sell your stuff to pay the bills because adults have responsibilities, then they call you a “lucky ducky” and take a massive write-off for their house.

        • I hear you, Katharina. Poor people are not supposed to have “nice things,” according to many in the classes above.

          I was thinking about the woman mentioned in the anecdote above, and it occurred to me: this woman was showing Greg something beautiful in her life, something she was proud of, perhaps gifts from someone who once esteemed her enough to give her beautiful and expensive things. Maybe she wanted Greg to see that her life was more than her impoverished circumstances and embarrassing phone conversation would ever lead him to believe.

          Maybe Heaven rejoices when, despite their poverty, poor people own and enjoy some good things, some things that reflect the magnanimity and glory of their Creator.


      • Robert, you are certainly correct, and I probably did jump to conclusions about her situation based on limited information. But my impression of the situation at the time (based on that limited information), to be honest, was that this woman was taking advantage of the ‘system’. She appeared to be a woman complaining that people weren’t adequately taking care of her needs while showing me jewelry she said SHE had recenlty paid hundreds of dollars for (and that was back in the 80s), while I was working two jobs for low wages to pay the rent and buy groceries. My reason for mentioning this episode at all was to point out just what you note – people’s lives are complicated, and ‘seeing’ the poor requires not only compassion but also discernment, particularly if we want to go beyond merely ‘seeing’ but actually attempt to help.

        And, Katharina, it’s not just middle and upper class people who question the motives and judgment of poor people (and I was at best working class back then); it goes the other way as well (sometimes deserved, sometimes not, in both cases). Most of us have been (or still are) in tight situations at one time or another (some of us for long periods of time) and know the pain of which you speak.

        • As a Christian, though, what good does it do your soul to not even try to assume the best about her? Aren’t we called to be a little “naive”? To the point of giving someone both our cloak and our garment? And here, you were not even called upon to give her any money. Just understanding and trying to read her in the best light.

          If you are helpless and someone is charged with caring for you, and they do not provide what you need, then “entitlement” follows. My kids feel entitled to us making dinner for them. If that were to suddenly stop, they would throw quite a “fit” of “entitlement” indeed. A disabled, poor woman with no resources felt “entitled” to the disability benefit that got cut off. It is hard to work a lot for little pay. No doubt about that. It is also hard to feel completely helpless and at the mercy of aloof, faceless others to provide for your basic needs.

          “Entitlement” also comes from this bind–we cut down your benefits, but we also have screwed with the economy to the point where it’s near impossible for you to find a job that will pay your bills without assistance. And this is what I run into when I try to talk with people on the economic right about poverty. They want people off the dole. OK. Raise wages, make education more accessible. Noooo can’t do that, raising wages is unfair to the business owners! OK, then supplement the low wages with SNAP and Medicaid. NOOOOO give a man a fish, teach him to fish, etc.

          Something has to give.

        • Well, I see that they weren’t gifts from someone else, but perhaps they were gifts to herself. The same principle holds.

          And the fact is that neither you nor I are in a position to have the inside information required to be particularly discerning about the circumstances of people whose lives intersect with ours for the briefest of moments. Without intruding into their lives, how could we?

          Remember that the Good Samaritan helped despite not really “seeing” most of the circumstances surrounding his beneficiary; sometimes the requirement that we should “see” before helping is a way of playing God.

          • Vega Magnus says

            Better to be generous and get tricked on occasion than to be so suspicious that you help no one.

          • Vega, as a repeat sucker, I’m not so sure. Generosity ought not be measured primarily in what you do for complete strangers.

          • Marcus Johnson says

            Why can’t it be measured that way?

            Granted, it is bad stewardship to cash your paycheck into singles and make it rain on the poor in your town, and random acts of charity should not be a substitute for supporting established charitable institutions, but a constant state of generosity is just as representative to me of the Christian calling as is a constant state of prayer. Not wanting to be a sucker should never prevent us from being generous.

          • I will note once again that in this anecdote, Greg wasn’t being asked to give his money or resources. The charity required of him was merely a charitable view of her as a human being. A listening ear for a couple of minutes and a reluctance to leap to judgment.

        • Boy howdy, folks, we seem to be enjoying whipping Greg for his sharing of some honest emotions…..Greg did NOT chastise the woman with the jewelry, nor did he call social services to report her. He had a human reaction to her situation in relation to his OWN working class (at the time) perspective. I have had the same emotions; and OTOH I have been equally horrified at the extremes of poverty and loneliness I have encountered in other homes. (As a home care and/or hospice nurse, for the record…)

          In my opinion, it is MUCH harder to have a charitable mindset and respond with Christian compassion when we are often twice-removed from the poor. Because much assistance is from taxes that are taken from our pay INSTEAD of from money we willing contribute, it is easy to feel as if the poor are “the government’s problem” and that we have “given at the office”, as it were. This can also lead to frustration when some people “scam” the system….whether this is rare or common is irrelevant to the emotional reaction.

          This is a far cry from bringing in your harvest and coin and knowing that these are supporting widow and orphans in your own village, as it would have been in the early Church.

          My point being is that it is easier to see and respond to the poor if they have names and stories and lives that intersect with ours, instead of being a faceless mixed group of “deserving and UNdeserving” folks who we try to avoid.

    • Marcus Johnson says

      Yeah, that is a pretty big generalization of the typical situation of most poor folks. I wouldn’t let that one anecdote guide my sense of charity.

      That being said, let’s just assume on a whim that a significant percentage of poor people exploit entitlement programs and flaunt their accommodations before others (it is a ridiculous stereotype, and one that is only used to further marginalize the poor, but let’s play with it for now). We are not asked to give based on the merit of others, or in the hopes that someone else will become a better person. We are asked to give unconditionally, without reserve, even to the undeserving, even to the ungrateful.

      Remember Matthew 5, when Jesus commanded the crowd to give their coat to the man who took their cloak? Nothing in that passage said, “…but first, make sure that he has a real need, and isn’t posing just to get more stuff.” In that statement, Jesus made it clear that the giving is not done for the benefit of the receiver, but for us as the giver, because the act of unconditional giving has a maturing spiritual effect on us. It reminds us that everything we own falls under the lordship of Jesus, who gives unconditionally. It gets us away from the mindset of “I worked hard, I earned, I own, this is mine to give away as I see fit.”

      If our goal is to become more like God, and God gives love and satisfies need without regard to merit, what does that say about how we are supposed to give?

      • Marcus, in the passage you reference in the SOTM Jesus is speaking of lawsuits and the assumption is that the plaintif has a valid case against you. However, he does later say to lend without expecting repayment. But Jesus also said that if your right eye offends you (causes to you have desire for a woman who is not your wife) pluck it out. I haven’t seen very many men (or women for that matter) with one eye, or one hand. I’m not disregarding what he says, but Jesus is making broad generalizations in the SOTM, giving us illustrations of kingdom principles rather than case-law. It would be foolish, and contradict a great deal of other Scripture to simply give (or loan) to anyone who asks, regardless of their need (or the ability of the giver to provide).

        For example, in 1 Tim 5 Paul places limits on the support the church is to provide for widows – they must be widows indeed, for Roman law required children to take care of their parents, be over 60, and so forth. In this case Paul is endorsing the customary practice of Roman society, and Roman law (because some apparently WERE taking advantage of the generosity of their brothers and sisters in Christ – so it would seem at least POSSIBLE that one or two persons in the world might perhaps, on a whim, entertain at least the remotest possibility of exploiting systems designed to help the truly needy). I realize Paul’s social context is different from ours, but it does point out that while Jesus’ generalizations say to give to anyone who asks, Paul says that we are to exercise discernment, for not all who are ‘needy’ are truly needy.

        My post was not to generalize about the poor or further marginalize them. It was simply to point out that ‘seeing’, pariticularly if one intends to help in any way (which, admittedly in this situation I did not) one must exercise some discernment (or Paul’s instructions about widows were terribly wrong). Would it be loving to give an alcholic money knowing he would just get drunk and then go home and beat his family? (Again, not making any generalizations about the poor, or alcoholics, but just pointing out that giving without discernment might make me complicite in his violence towards his family.)

  17. Thank you for writing this, Chaplain Mike. I wept when I read it. As the daughter of overseas missionaries, from the time I was out on my own, there was no question in my mind that we should remember the poor, and especially do good to those who belonged to the family of believers (Galatians 6:10). So when I moved to the Midwest and joined a church (that was trying to grow into a mega-church), the behavior of my fellow church members towards the poor and disabled puzzled me and caused me great anguish, especially because they claimed to be disciples of Christ who followed the Bible. And yet I witnessed their reluctance to give even food to needy church members, their favoritism shown towards “sharp” people (who were rapidly promoted to church leadership positions), and general lack of empathy for those who were struggling with chronic illnesses, poverty, or disabilities.

    My husband (when he was a poor young single just out of school) reported being chastised once by a wealthy deacon for not wearing better clothes (even though they were clean and decent). My husband replied firmly that he was wearing all that he could afford, and the deacon had nothing to say. The same deacon later bought a BMW for himself (with approval from church leadership), but both of his children went astray and had troubling lives.

    I tried to advocate for the needy, but as I had no standing with leadership, they would not listen to me. I would often bash myself for not being “powerful” enough to help them more, and would wonder why nobody else seemed to want to help. It took me years to finally understand that what my old church really wanted (which is the goal of a good number of churches), was to be “respectable”. Thus, those who did not add to that image were marginalized and not welcomed. Very sad.

  18. A pastor told me he was upset because some people serving on Church Council gave very, very little to the church. He didn’t know which people they were, he had just asked the bookkeeper to give him the contribution numbers for everyone who was on Council, with the names removed. He was angry and wanted to have a big confrontation with the Council as a whole about their responsibility to be “leaders in giving.” Since my own young family has struggled a great deal, my immediate thought was to want to give the benefit of the doubt. It seems obvious, in fact–you have to know the context to judge, think of the widow’s mite, etc. I said, “well, might it be good to find out what the reasons are for their giving habits? Maybe they are overwhelmed with other responsibilities, or maybe they have a specific concern about how their donations are used that you could put to rest.” I was trying to be constructive and helpful. He snapped back, very harshly, “there is NO excuse. Not for Council members especially.”

    I understand that there are many stresses in ministry and in trying to keep these aging churches solvent. But that he wasn’t even willing to entertain the possibility that one of his faithful flock was struggling, or concerned that they might be in need, was shocking. Extremely shocking. Honestly, this combined with some similar church problems has left me struggling with how to hold onto faith in a world and a church so cold and uncaring.

    • you have to know the context to judge, think of the widow’s mite, etc.
      One thing that’s often overlooked is that the widow’s offering comes immediately after “they devour widows’ houses.” Realizing the connections there really does add whole new dimensions to the passage.

      • Good point. The Mark (12:38-40) version, for anyone who doesn’t feel like going to look it up:

        As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

        It is legitimately shaking me up how much this reminds me of the social hierarchy of my relatively bland mainline church…

        • It’s common nowadays in North American theological circles to hold the Latin American Liberation theologians of the 70’s and 80’s in amused contempt, but these were men and women (mostly priests and nuns) who worked and lived and suffered with the poor peasants in whom they sought and found Jesus Christ, who gave up ecclesiastical comfort and security for an uncertain and risky endeavor of love.

          Sometimes they also gave up their lives.

          • Amen.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Problem is, by the time Liberation Theology got up here, it had gone Syncretic with the remnants of Sixties Pop Marxist student Radicalism. The type of Pop Marxism recited by On-Fire Revolutionaries who were also Yuppie Puppies from the rich part of town; after they Went All On Fire For Power to the Proletariat against the Capitalist Pigs, they’d drive their Beemers and Benzes back to the gated communities(TM) where they lived with their parents. Up here the most On-Fire ones had NO real life experience. It was like they were playing a Live RPG about being Progressive Revolutionaries.

    • I’ve seen extremely similar occurrences. In fact, in every financially declining congregation I’ve ever been a part of, the leadership has reacted similarly. 1. Express frustration at those failing to pay their dues, 2. Lack of concern for those who may legitimately be on hard times, 3. Deny at all costs that any mismanagement on OUR part could possibly be contributing to reticence on the part of some or many.

      I believe the combination of these three are possibly what causes many churches to go into decline in the first place. I wish more pastors would realize 1. People don’t owe you money, 2. Giving to a church can be exceptionally difficult, especially in this down economy or if you’re actively involved and see how the funds are actually used. I don’t think most worshipers dispense out of their surplus these days. It’s blood, sweat, and tears that go into the collection plate, and those who pull their living from it should learn to appreciate this. 3. Pork barrel spending is the highest art in many congregations. Nip it in the bud at all costs. Shrewd fiscal management is imperative if we care about either the mission of Gospel proclamation or ministering to the needs of the suffering. The religious organizations with money coming out their ears always seem to be the ones with a reputation for running a tight ship.

      • Yeah exactly. It’s not the fault of the current pastor at this church, but the previous one MASSIVELY overspent and caused a complete disaster that had to be cleaned up. Thousands gone and nothing to show for it! People who have belonged that whole time and remember it all too well (which would be the majority of Council)? OF COURSE they are going to be scared to throw money into what was, for 5 years, a total black hole of irresponsibility and waste.

        I honestly gave more to my church before I was involved in leadership for the precise reason that now I see how messed up the priorities are. The pastor makes 3x what my family lives on and is always complaining that we don’t pay him enough. They had a part time staffer via private grant for a year, knowing the grant was only good for a year, and made NO move during that whole year to find a source to fund that position for another year, then went into freak out and finger pointing blame mode when her contract ended and suddenly no one was around to do the work she had been doing! They are staring down some HUGE financial crises that will hit before they know it, but spend money on stupid things, vain things, wasteful things, without really thinking it through. They send TONS back to a synod that is dysfunctional on an even more amazing level…it’s hard to give the tiny amount I have to contribute to charity to people who are just going to use it to buy overpriced yuppy accessories for their pet projects while neglecting basic aspects of mission…

  19. Dan Crawford says

    Thank you, Chaplain Mike. Your essay reminds me that the insensitivity of the wealthy and the powerful toward the poor has gone on as long as humans began to divide themselves on the basis of the haves and have-nots. We don’t need Daniel Goleman to confirm it for us. The Hebrew Scriptures and the Politics of Aristotle eloquently underscore Goleman’s findings.

  20. Steve Newell says

    A couple of years ago, the new president of the LCMS brought a new theme for the next years simple titled “Grace, Mercy, and Life Together”. For mercy, my small Lutheran congregation has been trying to find different ways to bring mercy to others, both in and outside of our church. It was found its way in monthly preparing breakfast at Ronald McDonald House, supporting a poor intercity church with both financially and with service, Habitat for Humanity, and providing our church for groups such as Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous. Even in our affluent St. Louis suburb, there people who are poor, nearly homeless, hungry.

    As one who has been laid off three times in the last 10 years, many of us much closer to being one of “those people” than we are willing to admit.

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