Every once in a while, I blog about something I consider a “no-brainer,” something so obvious (at least to me…) that I cannot fathom anyone disagreeing. But I am always wrong — there’s no such thing as a sure thing. Case in point: caring for the poor. The idea that the body of Christ exists in this world to care for the poor and marginalized is just plain, basic fact to me. It isn’t open to question for United Methodist Christians — being a central and constant teaching of Jesus, Paul, James, almost all the Old Testament prophets, John Wesley, Jacob Albright, and Philip William Otterbein. Care of the poor is in our DNA — who could argue? Well, at least seventeen people since Thanksgiving. No fewer than one person per day has written to me to inform me that I am a moralizing, trouble-making, naive, sanctimonious liberal Democrat with socialist, un-American tendencies. I have been told that I “miss the point” of being Christian — Christianity isn’t what we “do,” but what we “believe.” From a pastor I have been taught that the instructions to care for the poor came before our government took over the task and that now our main task is to convert the non-Christian. From a Republican I have been chastised for “forcing politics” onto the gospel. From a Democrat I have been scolded for “imposing a religious agenda” on a social problem. From another pastor I got, “Why make people feel guilty about not caring for others when it is all we can do to care for ourselves?” Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not backing off of this one.
For all those who hide behind “moralizing,” read your Bible. Christianity is, by its nature and definition, a moralistic faith. Philosophically, any belief system that affects behavior is moralistic — so to choose not to care for the poor is as moralistic as choosing to care for the poor. Selfishness, arrogance, narrow-mindedness are all moral choices. To say that Christianity is about belief and not behavior is to reject Christianity. Our remembrance of the Christ-birth-event is nothing more than an affirmation that we accept Christ as Lord, and keep covenant to be the body of Christ in the world — as Jesus did, so must we. We do not get to pick and choose only those parts we like, nor do we get the luxury of “waiting for the Christ,” without acknowledging who Christ came to save and serve. There is nothing wrong with anyone choosing to be a goat instead of a sheep (ref. Mathew 25:31-46), but don’t you dare try to say there is no difference between them.
Having the poor with us always (John 12:8) is not permission to ignore them while we pay lip service to Jesus. It is a reminder that they are a full-time job, and that while there is a time and a place for our attention to be in reverential focus on God, there is an ongoing need to serve God by serving the needs of God’s children. If there is not even a slightly greater openness to serve and to give at Christmas time, then we are in huge trouble. It all boils down to this arrogant “us/them” attitude that modern Westerners are so blessed to have. “Us” deserves everything we have. “Us” should never be made to feel uncomfortable or guilty. “Us” should never have to face the fact that much of our comfort and affluence is nothing more than the luck of the draw, and not a stamp of approval from on high.
Is this moralizing? Yes, it is. It is an affirmation of 1,001 teachings from our scriptures not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, to care for those less fortunate, and to do the right thing for no better reason than it’s the right thing. I know people don’t like to hear it. I know it makes people feel guilty. I know why, too. We’re broken people who know in our heart of hearts that we can and should do better. And I also know from experience that there is only one thing to do about it. Get over it and get out and get busy doing for others. The only way past the guilt and past the fear and past the judgment and past the disdain is to go meet real people with real needs and do something about it. What I discover every time is that we’re all just people. We all need to eat, we all like to be warm and dry, we all deserve respect. It actually isn’t such a bad thing to live a morally pleasing Christian life. In fact, it’s pretty great.
And to all who have written me directly, I have really tried to see your side… and in the rare cases where I have succeeded, I respect your right to the view you hold, but I disagree with you. I cannot believe in a Christianity that has no requirements or costs, that isn’t concerned with justice or equity, that requires no sacrifice or discomfort. I wish you well as you seek such a faith, but I kind of hope you never find it, because if you do you will miss so much of what makes Christianity so worthwhile.