There is an emphasis in most congregations about responsibility. Taking personal responsibility for our actions is a key essence of basic teaching on repentance and forgiveness. Unless we recognize what we are responsible for, the ways that we have “missed the mark” we cannot possibly comprehend how God can grant us grace to restore us to righteousness.
In our society it is a maxim (a whole profession, in some cases) to avoid responsibility. Corporations are built on reducing responsibility, insurance companies focus on reducing liability, every public apology is seen as an admission of responsibility and so no one apologizes because no one wants to clean up the mess. This comes out in daily life, where if a crisis occurs, then many fingers are set to blame, to avoid the finger being pointed at themselves.
In the majority of our society, including the church, when we discuss responsibility of poverty the fingers all point in one direction: toward the poor themselves.
- “The poor are lazy” say many
- “The poor are immoral, addicts, self-destructive.”
- “The poor lack faith” say some more spiritually-minded.
While the Bible recognizes responsibility of the poor for their poverty in some cases, the focus of the Bible is on a different aspect.
In the Bible there is a strong theme that is associated with the Hebrew word “shalom”. Shalom is usually translated “peace” but it means more than simple lack of conflict. It means being a part of a community of peace, which not only mediates conflict, but also provides for each single or family unit what they need to create a context of peace.
In the Mosaic Law, shalom is achieved not only by establishing a relationship with the Lord, but also in providing each family land, and a system of assistance for those who are impoverished.* In the prophets, shalom is promoted by providing justice for those who might otherwise not have authority to enforce justice on their own. They also promised the coming King who would establish shalom and give perfect balance to the poor and the animal kingdom (Isaiah 11:1-9).
Jesus promoted shalom by healing the sick, raising the dead and releasing those oppressed by spirits. Jesus made sure that those who were artificially separated from God had an opportunity to participate in community. He taught a law of love, which included giving generously to the needy. And Jesus taught God’s plan to take the very lowest and to make them rulers over His kingdom.
The early church continued Jesus’ program of shalom by providing for all the needy of their churches, and, if they had more resources, for those who were not a part of the church. They accepted the Samaritans and Gentiles into their fold and loved even their enemies so that God’s grace might be known to all.
When the Bible answers the question, “Who is responsible for the poor, the outcast, the hungry, the needy?” the answer rings out loud and clear: “We all are.” We have no right to point to the poor and claim that they are responsible for their own demise, even if it partly true. Rather, we are responsible to provide assistance and love, because it is what Jesus would do. The poor are responsible to provide their part. It is our responsibility to provide hope.
What are the needs in your congregation?
Don’t label any of your congregation “poor”, but ask people if they have any needs and what they are. Then give “without the right hand knowing what the left hand is doing”, anonymously and generously to those who have need in the congregation, whether food, help with utilities, rent or babysitting. Make a committee that will regularly seek out and meet the needs of the congregation.
What are the needs of your neighborhood?
Try to find out the poorest areas of your neighborhood. Perhaps it is a large section in an urban area, perhaps it is a single apartment building, perhaps it is an urban “skid row”, or perhaps the poor are spread through a large area. Find out what resources are available for the needy in your area. You might discover this by speaking to other congregations or by contacting a local service organization. Make those resource contacts available to whatever needy come your way.
What other congregations are creating shalom?
As an individual or a congregation, you cannot meet all the needs yourself. But you can focus on one aspect, and meet that. Some projects may be done by one congregation, others require multiple congregations to work together. But don’t be alone. To meet the needs of the poor in your area is like a puzzle. You may be one piece of the puzzle, or you may be part of a clump of pieces that meet a particular need, but many congregations (and secular agencies) are necessary to fill out all the puzzle, to meet all the needs of the poor.
Shalom isn’t the responsibility of one person, but of the entire body of Christ.
If you want to read more about shalom in the Bible, read these essays.
I also recommend reading Ron Siders’ book, Cry Justice: The Bible on Hunger and Poverty and Walter Brueggeman’s, Living Toward a Vision: Biblical Reflections on Shalom
*Some of these systems are demands to provide monetary assistance to poor farmers (Deut. 15), gleaning the edges of fields (Lev. 19:10), two tithes that include the poor (Deut. 14:22-29), and specific commands to give justice to widows, orphans, immigrants and those in debt (Exodus 22:21-27).