North Park Professor and author Soong-Chan Rah has a brilliant observation about a distinction between White, middle class churches and churches of color. Middle class churches tend to earnestly sing songs about lack, about need. About hunger and thirst. Churches of color, however, tend to sing about joy and hope and even happiness. This is a reason why Black Gospel music is so much better than White, CCM-based praise and worship music.*
I thought about this trend shortly after reading Rod of Political Jesus’ blog on White God, suffering ,and Christian atheism. It’s an important piece and should be required reading because he highlights the injustice-masking of sanctified suffering.
White middle-class churches sing songs and preach sermons about suffering as a type of longing. They will esoterically talk about the cross and fasting and other forms of suffering as if these are otherworldly experiences, as if they are situations they want to reach – but not for long – and the end-game of spiritual nirvana (on the way to an otherworldly, out-of-body heaven, that is). There is this cornerstone of the very non-Jewish, non-embodied, non-Jesus Greek philosophy of Gnosticism that lingers in Christianity: the flesh is evil and needs to be put into submission and done away with. This stands in stark contrast to the God who put upon flesh to be one of us.
Poor white people may sing songs of suffering, but my experience is that we’re not singing them with any sort of spark in our eye. When we sing songs of suffering and hunger, we are speaking of experience, not romanticism. Yet I also feel we’re told through middle- and upper-class expectation that we need to be content with that suffering. Suffering is a good thing – for those who haven’t been subjected to oppression. When one can choose to explicitly fast, one can usually afford to plan the day or week around that. That’s a different animal than constantly worrying about your kid’s next meal or praying you won’t get stranded across town because your bus ticket doesn’t have any money left in it or stopping short of crying because you can afford the slightest minor derailment from the $25 you have for the week and yet here you are.
There’s quite a distinction between choosing to live on a food stamp budget for a week and being forced through poverty to live on a food stamp budget. Between helping volunteer at a soup kitchen, snapping pictures and telling stories about it versus being the one who endures the humility of being told that “beggars can’t be choosers”*and telling others where the best place to eat, sleep and find clothes or work is (or deciding to hide that information).
I sometimes hear from Evangelicals that being poor is being near the heart of God. And generally, I agree with that statement. It’s certainly a step up from the middle class conservative approach that blames the poor for their problems. But I’ve also seen It used as an excuse to pardon and not seek injustice: Why do the poor need food stamps or living wages if being poor means they are closer to the heart of God?
The poor don’t quite feel the same about being poor as those who gaze upon us with a sacred jealousy.
I prefer what Latin American Liberation Theology says instead: God has a preferential treatment for the poor. Which is to say that the institutional and ecclesiastical body of God is to prefer the poor by acting with it and – as an extension – decisively pursuing justice and mercy with and for the poor.
But it is in considering the story of the widow and her mite where I come to grips with Jesus and the prophets shakedown of the religious elites: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. From Mark’s Gospel, chapter 12
Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (vv41-44. NIV)
When I was taught this story, everytime Jesus praises the widow for her sacrifice. Yet he doesn’t. Jesus situates himself as an observer of people (some spiritual people focus on the inside, others on social interactions, many on both. I tend to resonate with the social observations) and highlights a practical, regular, ordinary, but hidden injustice. Contrary to depictions of this scene in movies like The Jesus Film, Jesus doesn’t rush out to praise her. Neither does he condemn her. It’s rather a condemnation on the system of wealth extraction that goes on in the temple.
Let’s use the example of tithing, as an example. Say two people go to the same church. One is a single mother who gets by on $250 a week. The other is a financier who makes ten times as much. Both are pressured to give ten percent of their income (before taxes) to the church. Both feel an obligation to do so. Each week, the mother gives $25 to the church, and has 225 left for taxes, transportation, rent, food, utilities, insurance, and perhaps some emergency jar. Each week, the banker gives away $250. He looks like he’s giving away a fortune in comparison, right? But that’s only part of the story. Because the mother is giving away much-needed money, she is encouraged that her action it is one of sacrifice, an act of penance and repayment perhaps. The $250 is not much of an actual sacrifice for the financier – it just means less-expensive nice things. Yet it’s still touted as a sacrifice. The additional suffering that the woman is going through is sanctioned through the teachings of the church – her real reward is in heaven, etc.
The church does not see it as its obligation to practice mercy upon the mother, but demand further sacrifice of her. If it were to practice mercy, it would take the offering of the rich and distribute it to the poor.
Sacrifice privileges those with much to lose and still much left over. But when we ask, guilt, or push the already marginalized to further marginalize themselves, do we not see it for the sin we are committing? Jesus did. And later calls them out for it.
I desire mercy. Not sacrifice.
I fear this sanctification of suffering is why we do not fight for mercy and justice for the poor. We believe they are better off with sacrifice (or rather, they are better off being sacrificed). So middle class white Christians join in solidarity with the US upper and middle class contingent, which believes that the poor are wicked and lazy, in order to create a superbloc focused on making the poor suffer. This group justifies antagonism towards the poor and financial injustice through keeping wages low, health insurance unreachable and food assistance unattainable. Because suffering is noble, apparently.
But Jesus requires mercy. Not sacrifice.
*That and musicianship and quality and stuff.
**You’re probably wondering what POS can honestly say that to another human being. It was me. And I’ve been working through my shame issues ever since.