In recent columns I have been expanding on what it means to become a “Matthew 25” church. Recently, the Presbyterian Mission Agency launched an initiative to focus the work of our denomination, presbyteries, and congregations toward fulfilling Christ’s vision for the people of God described in Matthew 25:31-46 and summarized in the commendation, “As you did it to the least of these members of my family, you did it to me.” The “it” consists of simple acts of feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the sick or imprisoned.
The national movement has three objectives:
- Building congregational vitality by challenging people and congregations to deepen their faith and get actively and joyfully engaged with their community and the world.
- Dismantling structural racism by advocating and acting to break down the systems, practices and thinking that underlie discrimination, bias, prejudice and oppression of people of color.
- Eradicating systemic poverty by working to change laws, policies, plans and structures in our society that perpetuate economic exploitation of people who are poor.
I have already addressed the first two of these; in this column I will address “eradicating systemic poverty.”
God’s concern for the poor is at the heart of the gospel. Jesus announced his own ministry with the words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor…” (Luke 4:18). The prophets – from Moses to Mary the mother of Jesus – decried the injustice that causes poverty.
American society, with its emphasis on individual responsibility and the Protestant work ethic, is prone to view poverty as a moral failing of individuals. We say the poor are lazy, or that their poverty is due to some personal vice. Conversely, we see wealth as God’s reward for goodness. But that is not the biblical view, and it is false economics as well.
The major causes of poverty are social and systemic. They are rooted in long histories of colonialism, exploitation, unjust laws that favor the wealthy, unequal access to education and medical care, and other structural causes. Poverty overlaps significantly with other forms of injustice such as racism and sexism. Hunger, homelessness, addiction, environmental illness, increased infant mortality and other problems are directly related to poverty.
Poverty is a major problem in the communities of our own presbytery, both in our urban and rural areas. The recent ALICE study of working poverty by the United Way shows that in some of our counties, the true poverty rate – both those under the federal poverty income level and those who are “working poor” exceeds 50% of households. Just this week, the Detroit Free Press has been running an investigative report on the prevalence and experience of rural poverty in our state.
What can we as a Matthew 25 church do to address systemic poverty? Charitable undertakings like food and clothing drives, help address the symptoms of poverty, but not its cause. To address systemic poverty, we must also advocate for better public policies, including job creation, greater empowerment of workers, a stronger social safety net, early childhood education, rural medical access, and more. We can’t do everything, but we can do something right in our own neighborhoods, and with our civic, state, and national governments.
In my next column, I will conclude this series by addressing what the Matthew 25 movement means for our presbytery.
Dan Saperstein, Executive Presbyter