On a back wall of the chapel at Moody Bible Institute – where I graduated from college – tucked away and mostly ignored there are rows upon rows of slim plaques. On each plaque is inscribed the name of an alum who went from the freezing windswept streets of downtown Chicago to work in some faraway forgotten place as a missionary. The University is almost 150 years old, so there are lots and lots and lots of plaques. Beside many of the plaques is a small white star – to identify those who lost their lives in the line of their work, martyred for their Christian faith.
There are many stars.
These missionaries were taking Jesus’s message to the world; and most of them were doing so by helping the poor. They understood that the fight against poverty is central to the Christian message and wanted to do their part, usually forgotten and unthanked, to make the world less cruel and heart-wrenching. Some were doctors who started hospitals, or teachers who built schools; while others were farmers who taught people how better to feed their families and even musicians who started orchestras, knowing food for the soul was just as important as that which feeds the body. There were social workers and linguists and even athletes doing what they knew in a place they knew not.
They went to China, to India and Indonesia and every other desperately poor country in the world long before the aid workers made doing so chic. The earlier ones often even packed their personal effects in coffins as they bid tear-filled goodbyes to their families – understanding and accepting the likelihood that they would die serving the people they had been called by God to fight for.
Many of them did.
I once tried to quantify this volunteer army. Standing in front of the lists, I did some sloppy Bible College math and figured that there are at any one time around 300,000 American Christian missionaries somewhere in the world helping the poor – costing perhaps up to four billion dollars a year. The effort is organized and supported through private Christian organizations and funded through voluntary donations of churches and individuals. Farmers from Chattanooga and bankers from Kalamazoo who take Jesus’s story of the widow and her mites seriously, heeding God’s call to help the poor through charity; giving generously and joyously from their wealth, their middle-class incomes and even their own poverty.
Because Jesus’s exhortation to help the poor was clear and unequivocal. From the lesson in Mark 10 where He tells the rich man to sell all he has, to Matthew 25 where He says “I was hungry and you gave me food,” to His urging in Luke 14 to invite not the rich but the lepers to dine and on to his most famous speech of all – the Sermon on the Mount. I like the Sermon on the Mount – it’s as if for a moment Jesus stopped talking in riddles and parables intended to obfuscate the idiots and laid out His vision of what was important, His instructions that the path to saving your own soul goes through the poor and our service to them. I especially like the version in Luke. “Don’t count too much on money” He said, “it makes you lazy and arrogant. Now poor people, they really need me. And I will be there for them. They may die of hunger, but their faith will be rewarded.” It’s a hard message, and one that we who have chosen to fight poverty don’t like; which is why it’s best told by the apostle Luke. Luke was a doctor – and was more finely attuned to human suffering than Matthew. His read of Jesus’s statements was earthy and natural and human – which is what I think Jesus intended. During that speech, Jesus famously talks about how “blessed are the poor”.
He does not, however, say “blessed is poverty”.
Jesus didn’t object to the rich because of their wealth; but because their wealth gave them a cushion which naturally led their faith in Him to drift. The intent of Jesus’s message on earth was not to eliminate world poverty – he even said so in John 8, “The poor you will always have with you.” He was not a fool – He knew that the situation was going to be impossible to change while men are in charge. We are a nasty lot, humanity – don’t take my word for it, just look at the news. His intention was to show people a way to Him – an individual process of salvation which starts with an act of sacrifice – His sacrifice – and is emulated by other acts of sacrifice – our sacrifice. That is why He talked so much about the poor; to steer us toward what matters, to prepare us to sacrifice, and to recognize our limited ability to plan our way out of this mess – extending to our inability to save our own souls. “You can’t solve world poverty,” He often says to me in my mind’s eye, “any better than you can save your own soul.” Not that we shouldn’t hate poverty, and try to end it, which is the other side of His message. Jesus recognized poverty as an abhorrent state – against nature and against His perfect will. “I have come to give you life, and life more abundant.” “I have come to set the captives free.” “I care for every sparrow, how much more do you think I care for you?” This is the paradox which is only solved by understanding human will (in fact it’s probably where the entire idea of paradox came from). But thankfully we are not left with only that – we are told what to do. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” we are told in Philippians. Jesus is reaching out to us as individuals – calling us to sacrifice of ourselves and in doing so trust the spontaneous order of personal regeneration exponentially magnified through millions of caring souls.
I mention this, because there is a narrative around the Pope’s visit that seems to suggest a new bureaucratized model of help is more appropriate. “Love poverty like you love your mother,” he said (ironically – an irony evidently lost on the Pope – to the Cuban people, victims of ‘love poverty’ programs for fifty years and consequently the poorest people in the world and pretty sick of it). The proposed solution? Individuals should surrender personal, voluntary sacrifice and its regenerative qualities for the imposition of more programs, funded through taxation and administered by bureaucrats. I find this odd. Replace Jesus’s plan with a program? Forms signed in triplicate, public workers unions and strikes? The result will be worse for both the rich and the poor – as those with means can no longer heed Jesus’s call voluntarily, and those on the receiving end replace trust in God for a manmade program.
Besides, it won’t work anyway – just ask the North Koreans or the Cubans – with the added bonus of destroying personal faith as the unintended consequence of the scheme.
In my work here in Mali, where I have been trying to stop a war, I had a discussion with a colleague about the Pope’s visit to the USA. “I think it’s good,” she said, “because people who have forgotten why the church exists are talking about the real purpose again.” This is thoughtful; not because I think the Pope understands the purpose of the real church – at least so it would seem from some of his puzzling recommendations – but because my friend is right. While we would be wise to ignore the Pope’s policy ideas, we definitely should take this as an opportunity to reiterate the vital redemptive quality of sacrificial service to the poor by committed Christians. We do need to be reminded that this is what we do – American Christians. We are a people who care deeply about the poor, and always have. In the history of the world, never has there been a nation with such committed missionaries and such sacrificial charity as that of American Christians. And let’s remind those who are quick to forget that America has always fought against poverty in faraway places (and at home, of course, but that’s a different blog post), because we love the poor and because we hate poverty.
A few years back I was working the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in the course of my daily business happened upon an older mulatto man. Over lunch we began discussing our lives, and he told me his story. In the bloody aftermath of the Congolese independence wars, mulattos were ostracized by the newly freed black population as symbolic of co-existence with the Belgians. This man was just a child at the time, and no school would take him. A group of American missionaries – Moody Bible Institute graduates – set up a school for the many Mulatto children abandoned all over Goma. “It is because of them I am here today, and I wanted to thank you.” Thank me? And my mind took me back in time to the wall half a world away and bunch of little white stars beside the names of American missionaries to the Congo. Thank them! But of course, they are already receiving thanks for their acts of service to the poor.