Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Back to the Agora

Here’s another one of those “poor people have lots of TV sets so they aren’t actually poor” arguments.

It also takes the NT quotation “the poor you always have with you” out of context, which is usual for ill-educate Christians, I have noticed.

Let deal with the latter first.

Yes, Christ did tell Judas it was okay for Mary to wipe a bunch of expensive perfume on Christ’s feet, saying, “The poor you always have with you, but me you won’t always have.”

And (ignorant) Christians have, ever since, been using this verse as an excuse not to give money to the poor, or to take care of the poor, or to serve the poor, despite everything else Christ said everywhere else about wealth and the poor.

Such as:

Matt 19:21: Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go [and] sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come [and] follow me.

Mark 10:21: Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.

Luke 6.20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, Blessed [be ye] poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.

Luke 14. 20: But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind:
Luke 14.21: So that servant came, and shewed his lord these things. Then the master of the house being angry said to his servant, Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind

And many other bits, about feeding the hungry and not worshiping wealth and not laying up treasures on earth, that all say essentially the same thing: Jesus wants people here on earth to take care of the poor; he wants people here on earth to give not just a few bucks to the poor but lots (or even all) of their money and lots (or even all) of their time to the poor.

But faux Christians, whose actual religion is, of course, Capitalism, are not happy with the real Jesus, the one who tells them, over and over again, that they cannot serve both God and money; that if they try they are doomed; Capitalist “Christians” like this love to quote the “poor you always have with you” snippet and pretend Jesus wants them to keep their money.

What’s actually going on with Christ’s crack about “The poor you always have with you”?

Well, it’s context specific.

(1) He’s talking to – scolding – Judas. Judas does not really have the interests of the poor in mind: that’s been made clear. Judas is interested (like certain Christians I might mention) in hanging onto the money.

(2) He finishes the statement with the very important clause: but me ye have not always. In other words, Christ is saying here, “You’ll be able to serve the poor for the rest of your life; this is the last day you can serve me.” What does this mean? Does this mean, “Fuck the poor, they’re hopeless, keep your money?” No, Grasshopper, it does not. It means, yes, the poor need money. You can give it to them all the rest of your days. Today, go ahead and use some to honor me.

(3) Why him this day? Well, duh, folks. He’s about to be killed. They’re putting perfume on his body. They’re prepping him for burial. That’s why. It’s a symbolic gesture that means that Christ is accepting his death: he’s accepting his status as a sacrificial animal.

Which brings me to the rest of what is wrong with Joshua Clayborn’s post.

Sure, poor folks in 2005 have (some of them – but heavens, Josh, get out in the world – not by any means all of them: been on the res lately? Been up in the Ozark hills? Out on the high prairie? Anywhere but your basement?) some poor folks have TV sets and access to public transport and food stamps and adequate housing. Sure, this makes them better off than my great-great-grandmother who, when her husband died, had to sell her children as indentured servants because she couldn’t afford to feed them (the youngest was a year old). Does this mean the poor are fabulously wealthy and should stop whining?

Define wealth for me, Josh.

What are we aiming for in a society?

Lots of TV sets and plenty of Moon pies? Piles of cheap clothing? 24/7 access to brainless entertainment on cable and X-Box and Faux News? That’s our goal for our citizens?

I’m thinking not. I’m also thinking how much stuff the poor has isn’t actually the problem.

(Pay attention to how Christ talks about stuff in your New Testament, Josh. It’ll give you a clue to how to view this issue. I know in the Great Church of Capitalism Stuff is all that matters, but actually? It’s about the least essential part of our existence.)

The poor are poor because they have limited choices.

They have limited choices because their education has been inadequate, because their early childhood nutrition, medical care, and environment (often) has been inadequate, and because their early career options are inadequate.

By this I mean no one is there to counsel them about internships or getting Fulbrights or applying to graduate schools or whether taking out student loans in order to go to a slightly better school is a good idea or whether joining the Navy to pay for university is worth it or to get them a gig in D.C. or any of the rest of it that folks in the upper crust take for granted.

Not to mention, because they didn’t get any of the help when they were thirteen, fifteen, seventeen, half of them have already screwed up somewhere along the line, and have a kid to raise, or a drug bust, or a drug addiction, or massive credit card debt, or some similar problem.

Or parents with similar problems. Or siblings with similar problems.

They are also, often, miles away from that free public transport that Joshua is certain they have access to. (You can tell Josh doesn’t know any actual poor people because he thinks they all have cars.) They are miles away from the shiny high school he is sure they can attend until they graduate – so that they can choose between riding the bus four hours a day or dropping out at sixteen. If they do drop out at sixteen, they are miles away from any useful or well-paying job they might get. They are miles from the clinics, the social services agencies, the trade schools, the universities. They’re really close, though, usually, to the bars and the stores selling Twinkies.

Also, of course, to the 24/7 Cable channels. He’s right about that.

So if our people have a lot of TV and a lot of Twinkies and everybody can, in theory, get to school and wear shoes, does that mean we have no poor people in America? Does that mean people in Josh’s Church of Capitalism don’t need to feel any pangs of guilt as they drive their Hummers past the projects? (Not, mind you, I am certain, that they do feel any guilt.)

Well, I guess not. Jesus said the poor would always be here. So Josh doesn’t have to worry about them. I mean, Jesus sure didn’t, after all.

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