“God made some people poor and others not so that those who are not have the opportunity to be able to help others.” This quote, said by one of the Social Security guests, made me freeze in place when I heard it a few days ago (and okay, so I did not write it down and I had to translate it, so it’s probably not an exact quote, but you get the point).
Another Annunciation House volunteer and I challenged her on this idea, particularly the implications implicit in it, namely that God has chosen for a group of people to suffer from the oppression of poverty so that others would have the opportunity to engage in charity. Does God really want to condemn some people to suffer the violent oppression of poverty?
Well, of course, I don’t know the answer to this question from a theological point of view. I don’t really know what I think about religion in general, let alone a specific question like that. But I do know how I feel about the implications about religious beliefs like this from a sociological standpoint and as someone who cares about social justice and human rights.
Any god who decides that some people should be poor so that the rich have an opportunity to help them, is a god who is taking the side of the rich. In this scenario, the rich are the actors who god is empowering spiritually, while the poor are simply in the place that god intends for them (and thus should stay there) to be acted upon. Of course, this view is not without any sympathy for the poor, as she clearly believed charity should be given, but they should not fundamentally change their position or the structures because this is the way god wants it to be.
Before I go any further it might be helpful to explain something about the guests in the house, because you might be a little confused why a woman who lives in a homeless shelter has this view of god from a non-poor standpoint. While many of the guests are in desperate poverty, some of the Social Security guests are solidly middle class in Mexico. All SS guests are women whose husbands worked legally in the US and paid into the system, so the women can collect the benefits when their husbands pass on. However, because they must stay in the US for 30 days every 6 months, even if they are middle class and are receiving money, if they do not have any family or friends in the US, they could not afford to stay in the US for the entire month, so they need to stay with us (although not all SS guests are middle class). The woman who said the above quote is definitely middle class in Mexico.
Working for an organization with a Catholic background (and participating in prayer services or masses about once a week as part of our staff meeting time), I have been reflecting a lot on religion, and what Christianity calls its followers to believe and do about poverty. And I have to say, I am so incredibly thankful that liberation theology, a movement in the Catholic church, came into existence and that that is the perspective Annunciation House takes.
Instead of siding with the rich (or trying to remain neutral, which inevitably means siding with the rich if you are not challenging the status quo), liberation theology calls for a preferential option for the poor. In other words, God is on the side of the poor, believing they are an oppressed people who are worthy of a better material existence. Rather than simply focusing on the next life, liberation theology believes that this life matters too and that material suffering now should be alleviated. The kingdom of god should be brought to Earth now, rather than simply telling the poor that their time will come in heaven when they will be blessed. Some priests in El Salvador in the 1970’s and 80’s literally took up the fight in Salvadoran civil war to pursue this kind of justice for the poor and oppressed.
While neither I nor any other person can really know the truth about what god wants or thinks, I know that I personally have no interest in any god who takes the side of the rich and condemns the poor to suffering so that the rich have an opportunity to perform charity. Yes charity can be very important, as quoted from Matthew 25: 34-40:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
Therefore, yes, obviously, Christians are being called to charity work. To feed, to give drink, to provide hospitality, to clothe, to take care of in times of illness, and to visit in prison (incidentally, all things that Annunciation House does).
However, I must ask a question that I feel is all too obvious but usually ignored: would a loving god really just want us to provide this charity and stop there? Or, instead, would he/she want us to question why people are poor, hungry, naked, homeless, or imprisoned (or in detention), and work so that no one will be hungry in need of food or homeless without a place to stay?
So, my answer to whether God really wants some people to be in poverty is I sure hope not. And I know that I am exceedingly blessed to be working for an organization that simultaneously provides charity and works for justice. No one deserves to suffer the oppression of being in poverty. Whether we view it as being brothers and sisters as part of the same human family or brothers and sisters in Christ, I hope all people will come to the view that poverty is not something that needs to or should exist.