[Touchstone, May 2006]
What happens when Christians are attacked by the contemptuous secular world? Often we start talking about how much good Christians have done. I just encountered this response in a book aimed at non-believers, which builds to a chapter that presents a whole parade of do-gooders to vindicate the Christian faith. Everybody got their paragraph in the sun, from Mother Teresa to Basil the Great to the Liberation Theologians.
It’s a difficult problem in apologetics, I admit, how to win a hearing for Christianity today. The alternatives that worked for earlier generations (describing miracles, explaining how Christ takes away sin) don’t work as well for ours. But I always feel funny when fellow-believers pull out our earthly good works as the trump card. The real purpose of Christianity, after all, is the reconciliation of God and humankind.
We’re a religion, not a social service agency. Even though we do social justice very, very well, that doesn’t mean it’s our most important product.
To some extent, we must respond to the world’s challenge in terms the world can understand, and of course the world will be most interested in making things better in the world. While we can answer the world’s challenge in it’s preferred terms, doing so can distort our faith at subtle levels. Sometimes when I read enthusiastic accounts of how much Christians have done for the poor, I get the uneasy feeling that the poor aren’t being seen as fellow toilers on earth and eventually fellow citizens of heaven, but as a separate, segregated species, a foil for our charity.
In the most egregious cases, the poor are transformed from individuals, with their own quirks and talents and relationships with God, into The Poor, a subgroup of humanity that is passive, homogenous, and apparently perfect. Though most people are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, The Poor seem to get a free pass to Heaven thanks to their (privileged?) economic status. And if we do enough good works for The Poor, if we “identify with” them insistently enough, some of their shininess might rub off on us .
I’m not making fun of real-life poor people, who are as varied and worthy of God’s love as people of any economic stratum. Rather, it’s we earnest Christians who are laughable, turning others into an object — or, better, a passive subject — of our eager, self-validating ministrations. We forget our theology and anthropology, we forget the simple human unity displayed in both the Creation and the Fall, and mash everyone together who falls below an income line. Those who get rated Poor are lifted to a pedestal, and used to display our generosity.
The reason, I think, is a theological “usual suspect”: salvation by grace is simply uncomfortable. We would really rather be saved by good works. It’s easy enough to convince yourself that you have done some fine things, and easy enough to find other who haven’t (for example, The Rich, always a satisfying target). If only God was obligated to reward us, contractually bound! We could point to a corral of well-tended Poor, and feel quite satisfied.
We’d get a document to file away until it was time to flash it at St. Peter and breeze through Heaven’s gate. How pleasant it would be to spend the intervening time admiring our own compassion.
But God is not fooled. He intends to transform us completely, from the deepest inside out. So he asks, not token good deeds, but a relationship: continual prayer, abiding in his presence, taking every thought captive to Christ. The process is intimate, thorough, and frequently uncomfortable. Yet no other means will render us bearers of his glory.
One of the ways that we learn to bear God’s presence is, of course, by being instruments of his power in this world he loves so much, particularly by serving the poor. This is why the Christian Church has accomplished so much that is heroic in the realms of charity and compassion. But we must not let the pressure of the world’s opinion lure us into treating those we serve as a passive mirror for our virtue.
Poor people are fellow members of the same sad wash of humanity that encompasses us all, and have just as much need of salvation. Poor people are sinners, too, and come to Christ — or don’t — as individuals. We need to offer them not only food and shelter, but salvation, on the same terms that we receive it: through repentance and faith.
That seems to be Jesus’ approach. In his day Israel was occupied by a foreign army, and the common people were not only impoverished but literally oppressed. But when some told him of a Roman atrocity, he didn’t exhort the multitudes to rebellion, or even to dreams of liberation, but to self-examination before the Holy God. “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5).
This is a hard word. It shows that people don’t get a free pass to Heaven on the basis of their social, political, or economic status after all. Jesus turns the tables on our familiar expectations, and tells the oppressed poor to repent. He blesses the wealthy tax collector, an exploiter of the poor, who had invited him to dinner — solely because that tax collector had begun to repent.
You can spot a consistent theme here: Everyone has to repent. Even those who suffer injustice. The persecutor who repents at the eleventh hour will be welcomed into Heaven by exuberant choirs. The oppressed person who refuses to forgive his persecutor will be lost. This is a hard word, but it’s what Jesus has told us from the start, and if you don’t like it you’ll have to find another religion than Christianity.
So I hesitate when Christians trumpet our historic generosity to The Poor. It gives a misleading impression of the basis of Christianity, because even that good work doesn’t save us. We may have led the world in charitable acts, in the founding of orphanages, hospices, and homeless shelters, but the greatest treasure we have to offer is life in Jesus Christ.
Even if the world keeps going from bad to worse, God will keep on reconciling it to himself. He will continue to win victories in the lives of all kinds of people, Roman centurions and collaborationist tax collectors, kings and peasants and fat bourgeois.
Christ predicted that the poor would be with us always, and so far he’s been right. We will be disappointed if we stake our hopes on the mathematical impossibility of lifting everyone above median income line. But the number of radiant saints who have walked this earth, both rich and poor, increases every year.
We have two thousand years of wisdom on how to cultivate that transformation into sanctity. It’s a promise that people accept and enter as individuals, one at a time, no matter how large or small their bank accounts.