“Remember the Poor”

“Remember the poor.”

Those are the words of the Jerusalem apostles—Simon Peter, James the brother of Jesus, and John—to the Apostle Paul (Galatians 2:10). In his preaching of his gospel to the Gentiles, these first witnesses to Jesus wanted an assurance from Paul that he would do this one thing: “Remember the poor.”

Theologians speak of God’s “preferential option for the poor.” This is not that God loves the poor more than the rich, but that, because God is love, God pays particular attention to the poor. God acts especially on behalf of the poor, because they especially need God’s help. We see this emphasis throughout the Bible. The Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms all highlight concern for “the poor” alongside “widows and orphans,” often also including “the alien” or “the stranger.”

The apostles’ appeal to Paul to “remember the poor” is likely a specific reference to the poor in Jerusalem, a group that included a high proportion of widows (Acts 6:1). In the Gospels, Jesus focuses his ministry on “the last,” “the least,” and “the lost,” groups that include people who were sick, outcast, indebted, and imprisoned.

These descriptions suggest that “the poor” does not simply refer to the financially destitute. Or we might better say that various forms of poverty—a poverty of belonging, of support, of health, of respect, of purpose, really a poverty of power—intersect with economic poverty in significant ways. And so the God who is love pursues economic and social justice for the poor, seeking the empowerment of all who are impoverished.

Remember the poor.

This is a vital instruction for us in our evangelism or outreach, a necessary reminder that we cannot separate “evangelism” from “social justice” as some Christians attempt to do. It is also an important guide for us as we navigate group dynamics in our churches and communities.

If God is on the side of the powerless (Luke 1:46-55), if the gospel of Jesus Christ is “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18-19), if the poor hold God’s blessing and God’s kingdom (Luke 6:10), if in the impoverished in power we see the face of Jesus (Matthew 25:34-40), then it is vital for us as Christians to pay attention to power dynamics among us. In every situation we face, in every decision before us, we should ask ourselves, “Who holds power here? Who has less power here, or is even powerless?”

Power, in this sense, is one’s ability to shape circumstances to meet one’s basic human needs and the needs of others: physical needs like food and water, clothing and housing, health and safety and security; social needs related to belonging, loving and being loved; and spiritual needs like making sense of the world and one’s place in it, connecting to a purpose larger than oneself.

We acquire this social power in many ways, often simply because of who we are. In most Canadian social contexts, men have greater social power than women, white people have greater power than BIPOC, cisgender heterosexual people have more than LGBTQ+ people, adults have more than children, the middle-aged more than the elderly, the non-disabled more than persons with disabilities, the neurotypical person more than the neurodivergent, the wealthy more than the poor, those with approved pedigrees more than those without.

Our social power—the ability to shape circumstances to meet our needs and the needs of others—is a function of where we sit at the intersection of these diverse factors, and our power can vary depending on the particular situation.

All this means it is critical for us, in any given situation, to be aware of how we hold power, what gives us this power, and how our use of this social power affects others, especially those who are powerless. And then, following the way of God, we need to empower these who are impoverished in power. This is God’s kingdom way of justice, which we are to seek first before our own material needs (Matthew 6:33).

Remember the poor.

In our council and board meetings, in each decision we make—remember the poor.

In our congregational care meetings, our mission discussions, our visioning processes—remember the poor.

In our worship and communion, our preaching and teaching, our fellowship and service—remember the poor.

In our discerning of what love demands from us this day—remember the poor.

Attend to those who are impoverished in power. Remember the poor.

May our lives echo Paul’s own response to this challenge: “This is the very thing we are eager to do” (Galatians 2:10).

Published in Canadian Mennonite 25, no. 24 (2021): 14.

#JesusEconomics

Imagine Jesus as a financial advisor, or maybe even as a political advisor to presidents and prime ministers…

“Okay, here’s my plan (endorsed by God): I’ve come to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim a ‘year of God’s favour’ – a Jubilee where all debts are forgiven.” (Luke 4:18-19) #JesusEconomics

“You who are poor, you who are hungry, *you* are the ones blessed by God. God’s political agenda favours *you*. The wealthy? You’re on the wrong side of history. Nothing but woe for you.” (Luke 6:20-21, 24-25) #JesusEconomics

“Give to everyone who begs from you. Yes, everyone. If someone in need steals something from you, let them keep it.” (Luke 6:30-31) #JesusEconomics

“Don’t lend only to those who can repay you. Lend, expecting nothing in return. Yes, nothing.” (Luke 6:34-36) #JesusEconomics

“If you simply want to preserve your life you’re going to lose it. There’s no profit in gaining the whole world if you lose your soul in the process!” (Luke 9:23-25) #JesusEconomics

“It’s true: a labourer deserves a fair wage. So share peaceful hospitality and enjoy food and drink together. Oh, and heal the sick among you, freely. This is God’s political agenda.” (Luke 10:5-9) #JesusEconomics

“That ‘heal the sick freely’ thing? I meant it. Even when it’s a foreigner, an enemy, someone you despise. They are your neighbour, and loving our neighbour is right up there with loving God.” (Luke 10:25-37) #JesusEconomics

“We need to yearn for God’s political agenda to be implemented. This means ‘daily bread’ for all of us. This means forgiving debts others owe us. Amen.” (Luke 11:2-4) #JesusEconomics

“We need to guard ourselves against every form of greed, always wanting more and bigger and better. True life is not about possessing things.” (Luke 12:15-21) #JesusEconomics

“We need to strive for God’s political agenda, and all our basic needs will be met.” (Luke 12:22-31) #JesusEconomics

“Sell your possessions before they possess you. Give to the poor and needy. Make these your treasure, for these are what is treasured by God.” (Luke 12:33-34) #JesusEconomics

“Don’t throw a party – or a state dinner – for those who can repay you. Lay out a feast for those who *can’t* repay you, especially those society most ignores – after all, they’re the ones who most need it.” (Luke 14:12-14) #JesusEconomics

“If you’re going to do a project you make sure you’ve got enough to pay for it. You might think this means you should save up every penny for yourself. Nope! It means you need to give up the whole idea of possessing anything yourself.” (Luke 14:25-33) #JesusEconomics

“Just to be clear: wealth is a god who will enslave you. Instead, become slaves of God who gives you freedom. Make your choice: you cannot serve both God and money. You cannot serve both God and The Economy.” (Luke 16:13) #JesusEconomics

“Here’s a story: Rich man ignores poor man right next door. Rich man dies. Poor man dies. Poor man goes to heaven. Rich man goes to hell. He should have listened to Moses and the prophets!” (Luke 16:19-31) #JesusEconomics

“If the wealthy refuse to distribute their wealth equitably, they’re not participating in God’s political agenda. They’re not ‘saved,’ no matter what they say. But God can work miracles!” (Luke 18:18-27) #JesusEconomics

“Here’s a better story: Rich man got rich by robbing from the poor. Rich man repents, gives half his wealth to the poor and pays back four times what he defrauded others. This is a billionaire who got ‘saved’!” (Luke 19:1-10) #JesusEconomics

“Yes, pay your taxes. Give to human rulers what they think they need: it’s only money. But make sure you give to God what belongs to God: ‘The earth is God’s and everything in it.'” (Luke 20:21-25) #JesusEconomics

“A poor woman who gives her entire widow’s pension for a good cause has given more than a multi-billionaire donating a hundred million dollars for a university with his name on it.” (Luke 21:1-4) #JesusEconomics

The Gospel of the Lord. #TheGospelAccordingToLuke #JesusEconomics

I’m an Atheist

Okay, it’s confession time: I’m an atheist.

It’s true. But probably not in the way you’re thinking.

atheistEarly Christians were sometimes called “atheists,” did you know that? Not because they didn’t believe in God, but because they didn’t believe in the Romans’ gods. In a world in which there were many “gods” and “lords,” for Christians there was only the one true God, the Creator, and one true Lord, Jesus.

So this is what I mean when I say I’m an atheist. I’m using the word in its ancient sense. I mean there are plenty of “gods” that I don’t believe in—even some that are popular among Christians. Some of these are “gods” that I simply do not believe exist. Others are “gods” that, even if they do exist, do not hold my allegiance.

Here are a few of these gods I don’t believe in:

I don’t believe in a god who is a “supernatural being.” That is, I do not believe God is a bigger, stronger, and smarter version of ourselves—who also happens to be immortal and invisible. In fact, I do not believe God is “a being” at all, as if God is merely one being among many in the universe, albeit the most powerful one. Instead, I believe God is being itself, the One “in whom we live and move and have our being,” the One “from whom and through whom and for whom are all things.” God is that without which nothing would exist. God is being, not merely a being.

I gave up looking for “evidence” of God a long time ago, or denying God’s existence for lack of such evidence: “a being” might leave traces of its existence, but “being” just is. I also no longer look to God as an all-controlling chess master, or a benevolent grandparent, or a strict police officer. Some of these sorts of projections of ourselves are helpful metaphors, useful analogies for God (like God as “father” or “mother”). Others, I’m convinced, are distortions of the true and living God (like God as all-controlling chess master).

I don’t believe in a god who is simply a force, some kind of energy field or “higher power.” (Great, I just ticked off two groups I like: Star Wars fans and Alcoholics Anonymous.) Rather, I believe God is person—not only “personal” but personhood itself, consciousness itself, awareness of self in distinction from other and in relation to other. Just as there is something rather than nothing because God is, so also there is consciousness in the universe because God is.

I don’t believe in a god who commits violence, or commands it, or even endorses it. I believe “God is love”—not only “loving” but love itself, the giving of self for other, for the good of the other. God cannot be other than love; God cannot not love. God always and only works for the good of the other. That which brings flourishing life and well-being: this is God. That which damages or degrades or destroys: this is not-God. Just as there is something rather than nothing because God is, and there is consciousness in the universe because God is, so also there is good in the world because God is.

This is a hard thing for most Christians to accept, partly because many passages in the Bible don’t reflect this view of God, and partly, I think if we’re honest, because we like having a way to justify our own violence. Not outlandish, over-the-top violence, of course. Just our civilized violence, our sanitized violence: the death of vicious enemies over there, or of condemned criminals among us here, demons all. Yet because of Jesus I am convinced that God is love, not harm, and that God brings life, not death—even for enemies and criminals. Isn’t that the gospel?

I don’t believe in the gods “Prosperity” and “Security.” “Prosperity” goes by other names: “Wealth,” “Profit,” or simply “Success.” Jesus called it “Mammon,” and he said one cannot serve both this god and the one true God. Then there’s “Security,” also known as “Comfort” or “Safety.” Prosperity and Security are the twin gods of the modern nation-state. Listen to any political campaign, and these gods are sure to be invoked: “The Economy” and “National Security,” they’re often called. These twins are sacrosanct: they are so obviously good things, who would dare to question them? Who doesn’t want prosperity and security for themselves and those they love?

Yet Jesus never promised prosperity and security to his followers, and he so dramatically gave these up himself. The problem with them? When prosperity and security hold our highest allegiance, whether as individuals or as a society or as a nation during an election year, then we pursue them at the expense of others—including the ailing earth, the needy neighbour, the suffering stranger, and the enemy “other.” The end result is only loss for us all.

There’s a whole pantheon of gods I don’t believe in: the powers-that-be, or the “powers of this age.” These are all our social and political and economic structures and systems, along with the human leaders that support them and the internal “spirit” or ethos that drives them. Presidents and prime ministers, governments and administrations, nations and nationalism, kingdoms and empire, colonialism and racism, theocracy and democracy, capitalism and socialism and so many more.

These, too, are not all inherently bad. Some can bring social order out of chaos, after all. Many even originate out of a desire for the common good. But when we put all our hope in these people and processes, when we give our total allegiance to a nation or an ideology, we’re giving them a power that only belongs to God. Then we’re sure to be disappointed and that power will probably be abused. And when these powers-that-be perpetuate structural evil or systemic injustice, they become “evil powers.” And then they must be resisted, not followed; they must be defied, not deified. Some can be redeemed, but only through deep, collective repentance.

I admit it, I’m an atheist. But by that I simply mean I’m with the Apostle Paul: “There is no God but one. Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:4-6).

Related to modern atheism is another term: humanism. Check out Humanist Canada’s website to learn more. Many Christians have been “humanists” since humanist ideals were first formulated in the late Renaissance. I consider myself to be in the tradition of “Christian humanism.”