Christianity and Marxism have at least one thing in common: a paradoxical view of poverty. Both tend to (1) exalt the poor, but (2) devote energies to making everyone unpoor.
The second part of that formula I readily understand. Having grown up in circumstances well below the official poverty line, I now support efforts to provide jobs, housing, medical care, and basic human services for people who lack them. But what about the first part? The people I grew up around seemed no more virtuous or admirable than anyone else. Indeed, most of us wanted desperately to escape poverty. Why, then, should the poor be exalted?
A phrase being bruited about, “God’s preferential option for the poor,” has only increased my puzzlement. I do not contest the phrase; the Catholic bishops and others who coined it have assembled an impressive list of supportive passages from the Old and New Testaments. One need only read through the Beatitudes (especially Luke’s version) to gain a sense of Jesus’ favoritism toward the poor and the disadvantaged. My question is, Why? Why would God single out the poor for special attention over any other group?
I have received help on this issue from a writer named Monica Hellwig, who lists the following “advantages” to being poor:
1. The poor know they are in urgent need of redemption.
2. The poor know not only their dependence on God and on powerful people but also their interdependence with one another.
3. The poor rest their security not on things but on people.
4. The poor have no exaggerated sense of their own importance and no exaggerated need of privacy.
5. The poor expect little from competition and much from cooperation.
6. The poor can distinguish between necessities and luxuries.
7. The poor can wait, because they have acquired a kind of dogged patience born of acknowledged dependence.
8. The fears of the poor are more realistic and less exaggerated, because they already know that one can survive great suffering and want.
9. When the poor have the gospel preached to them, it sounds like good news and not like a threat or a scolding.
10. The poor can respond to the call of the gospel with a certain abandonment and uncomplicated totality because they have so little to lose and are ready for anything.
In summary, through no choice of their own—they may urgently wish otherwise—poor people find themselves in a posture that befits the grace of God. They are needy, dependent, and dissatisfied with life; for that reason they may be more likely than others to welcome God’s free gift of love.
The Rich And I
As an exercise, I went back over this list, substituting the word rich for poor, and changing each sentence to its opposite. “The rich do not know that they are in urgent need of redemption.… The rich rest their security not on people but on things.” (Jesus did something similar in the Beatitudes, but that portion gets much less attention. After his “Blessed are you who are poor,” he goes on, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” [Luke 6:20, 24, NIV].)
Next, I tried something far more threatening: I substituted the word I. Reviewing each of the ten statements, I asked myself if my own attitudes more resembled those of the poor or of the rich. Do I easily acknowledge my needs? Do I readily depend on God and on other people? Where does my security rest? Am I more likely to compete or cooperate? Can I distinguish between necessities and luxuries? Am I patient?
As I did this exercise, I began to realize why so many saints voluntarily take on the discipline of poverty. Dependence, humility, simplicity, cooperation, abandon—these are qualities greatly prized in the spiritual life, but extremely elusive for people who live in comfort.
I do not believe the poor to be more virtuous than anyone else (though I have found them more compassionate and often more generous), but they are less likely to pretend to be virtuous. They have not the arrogance of the middle class, who often skillfully disguise their problems under a façade of self-righteousness.
As an example, consider the single word dependence. Workaholics and status seekers may spend half their lives trying to disprove their need to depend on anyone else, including God. But we are creatures, dependent by nature, and a repressed dependence will leak out, often in the form of addiction. It is no accident that AA-style 12-step groups require each struggler to begin by admitting a dependence on other people and on a “higher power.” Meanwhile, the poor never have the luxury of repressing their needs; they depend on others simply to survive.
My understanding of the Beatitudes has undergone a radical change. To put it crudely, I used to see them as a sop thrown by Jesus to the unfortunates of the world. “Well, since you aren’t rich, and your health is bad, and your face is wet with tears, I’ll toss out a few nice phrases to make you feel better.”
I now view the Beatitudes not as patronizing slogans, but as profound insights into the mystery of human existence. The poor, the hungry, the mourners, and the oppressed really are blessed. And they are blessed not because of their miserable states, of course—Jesus spent much of his life trying to remedy those miseries. Rather, they are blessed because of an innate advantage they hold over those more comfortable and self-sufficient.
People who are rich, successful, and beautiful may go through life relying on their natural gifts. But there is a chance, just a chance, that people who lack such natural advantages may cry out to God in their time of need. We need the poor to teach us the value of dependence, for unless we learn dependence we will never experience grace.
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