There is little more pressing than working against the poverty that persecutes and oppresses the majority of people on this earth. But, poverty is an intensely complex oppression: it is a historical, economic, and social problem that is tied inextricably to the origins of our country. Built on the backs of slaves, our nation has a history of dehumanizing people from all angles, stripping people of their agency, dignity, health, opportunities, and sense of place and belonging. Our economic system is built to keep some down: preying on the debts of the poor and restricting the rights and voices of those in poverty. Shockingly, “out of sight out of mind” plays heavily into our complacency around poverty: as most people in UU congregations benefit from the labor that low-wage workers (and in many contemporary cases, people who are enslaved) endure. This is an ugly truth, but a necessary realization.
As religious people, it is our duty to expand our depth of our commitment to economic justice. When Jesus said “the poor will always be with you,” perhaps he did not mean that there will always be poverty. (I cannot in any way imagine that this is the good news of the Christian God. I cannot reconcile that ignorant thought with the teacher of justice Jesus and believer in omni-present love Jesus. That would mean that he was condoning the presence of oppression at the hands of the state!) Instead, perhaps Jesus meant that poverty will always be “with you” as in “in humanity.” Perhaps he meant that poverty is a human-created (not Godly) phenomenon and we therefore have the responsibility and duty to examine how we are implicated in perpetuating this oppression.
And, the poor will always be with us – as an incredible and over-looked asset in the fight against oppression! As a group of intelligent, worthy, street-smart, and oppressed people (which is increasing in size) who have a lot to say about human dignity and the struggle to survive. These are people who have been continually stripped of the barest needs for no reason other than luck of birth into an unjust system. Dignity and survival are central principles of our religion, so we would do well to hear Jesus’ words: that, in the fight for economic justice, we must believe that poverty is not natural. Nor is poverty the result of individual pathology. Poverty is a systemic oppression like the rest of them. Poverty is an affront to the inherent worth and dignity of all people and therefore should be central to our religious life and work.
“Drawing on the legacies of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Union Theological Seminary as well as on four decades of organizing poor communities, the Poverty Initiative was founded in 2004 by a group of Union students in collaboration with seminary faculty, staff and community leaders—charged to research and reshape public and theological debate, ministry and social action on poverty so as to address its root causes. The Poverty Initiative’s work is aimed at transforming the structures responsible for perpetuating poverty and hunger through leadership development, and the advancement of effective anti-poverty organizing and ministry models in New York City, in the United States and globally.” -Poverty Initiative Mission
I worked for three years at the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary. The “PI” is a community organizing network that is rooted in Dr. King’s Poor People’s campaign and the uprisings of the poor in South America, most widely known through the ministry of Archbishop Oscar Romero. The PI reads the Bible as a radical social document that weds anti-poverty to God’s command. When read with a keen eye for decrees against poverty, the bible is clear that there is nothing less godly than an economic system that functions on the backs of the poor.