I’m not making a political point. I’m really not. I don’t want to talk about the efficacy or morality of government programs. I want to ask two questions. First, why are so many people so angry – furiously, tremblingly angry – at poor people whom they probably don’t know and would rarely see in the course of their daily lives? And second, what is the proper Christian attitude toward the poor in today’s complicated economic and political climate?
Why Are They Angry?
First, maybe they’re angry because American poor people don’t fit American notions of what poverty really is. Many Americans considered poor in the census data own televisions and refrigerators; they buy soda and cigarettes ahead of us in the grocery store. They’re more likely to be overweight than underweight. Heck, some of them are even employed! If they looked like Somali famine victims, or even like the ragged foreign children in advertisements for charities, people might feel more sympathetic. But is someone sympathetic to the foreign poor because she sees them as genuinely needy or because she doesn’t have to stand behind them in grocery store lines? Would she grow angry with Somali famine victims if they were on the sidewalk outside her house?
Second, many Americans have the understanding that the poor are exploitative. We see claims in the media that they abuse food stamps, welfare benefits, and unemployment insurance. Some people hold that even the lawful and correct use of these benefits is exploitative. Of course this thinking relies on careless generalization and stereotyping: ALL of the people defined as poor are “the moocher class,” “parasites,” and “utterly irresponsible animals.” Really?
Third, some angry people justify their wrath by pointing out that in a land of opportunity like America, poverty is the result of poor personal choices. Better thinkers than I have tackled the question of whether poverty is personal or systemic, but let me just say this. Why is it excusable to feel rage toward people who are victims of their own bad choices? Are there grounds for compassion toward the victims of society but none at all toward the messed-up people who are floundering around in a disaster of their own making?
Fourth, many of these ranters have a materialist, zero-sum view of the universe. Unlike the strong in faith, who know that there is enough good to go around, they feel that humankind is competing over scarce resources. They are sure that every benefit enjoyed by someone else represents a loss in their own potential for happiness. Every day I hear people who struggle and work hard for something rage when someone else gets that thing “for free” from the government or a charity. These people identify with the workers in the parable who were hired early in the day, and they resent the free-loaders who came later.
Fifth, perhaps people are angry because they’re frustrated. The poor are a seemingly insoluble problem. We keep trying, in this rich and blessed country of ours, to wipe out problems like poverty. And yet no matter what we do or how rich we become, some people stubbornly stay poor. Their existence is almost an insult to all our best efforts. More than an insult – an indictment: of our world, of our country, of me. Who likes a reminder like that?
Sixth, perhaps people cultivate anger at the poor because it enables them to feel better about themselves in contrast. Ninety years ago Virginia Woolf asked herself a similar question to the one I’m asking: Why are men angry at women? This was at a time when women, like the poor, had few rights or powers, and Woolf was as baffled then as I am now. “It seemed absurd, I thought, turning over the evening paper, that a man with all this power should be angry. Or is anger, I wondered, somehow, the familiar, the attendant sprite on power? Rich people, for example, are often angry because they suspect that the poor want to seize their wealth. . . . Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority.”
Finally I would suggest that the prevalence of anger arises from a misunderstanding of what anger is. There are people who approve of anger, who think that it is the appropriate response to exploitation, unfairness, or wrongdoing. Anger, they think, is proof that you care; proof that you discern wrong from right, evil from good. In addition, anger toward evil proves that the angry person is not himself guilty of the evil – it distances him from it.
This misunderstanding leads me to consider my second question.
What is the proper Christian attitude toward the poor in today’s complicated economic and political climate?
Short answer? Same as it ever was.
Today’s complicated economic and political climate doesn’t change a thing. Everybody who ever existed lived in a complicated political and economic climate. The universal understandings expressed in the Bible are still true.
“The poor you will always have with you,” according to Jesus in Matthew 26:11. That there are poor should not be shocking to us; that they exist is no excuse for anger. The commands to help the poor and the examples of charity offered throughout both testaments make it clear that anger is not the biblical response toward poverty.
“Do not go over your vineyards a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:10) Now try replacing “poor and alien” with “moocher class” and “takers” to see how anger sounds in contrast to the Bible.
“Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the oppressed.” (Psalm 82:3) Again, try switching “weak and fatherless” or “oppressed” with “utterly irresponsible animals.”
“The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away from me.” (Matthew 11:5 and 6) This verse is one to remember when looking at a long line of “parasites” at WalMart.
You know these verses. You can find them and many more by looking up “poor” in your concordance. You can read the Church Fathers, like St John Chrystostom: “If you see anyone in affliction, do not be curious to enquire further . . . [the needy person] is God’s, whether he is a heathen or a Jew; even if he is an unbeliever, still he needs help.” Or read Martin Luther, who called the poor “living images of God.”
What you won’t find anywhere is a mandate to be angry at the poor or to consider them as less than human. Never mind mandate – you won’t even find an excuse to do so. Believe me. I’ve spent decades wrestling with this issue, and if there were an excuse to find, I’d have found it. I’ve lived and worked with the ragged-children poor on two foreign continents and the Cheetos-and-cigarettes poor here in America, and I keep wanting to say to the Bible, the Fathers, and the other Christian writers, “Yeah, BUT . . .” But a lot of poor people are exploitative and self-destructive; but a lot of charity is useless or worse; but throwing money at a problem doesn’t help; but I’ve been ripped off and abused by poor people I’ve tried to help.
And Jesus responds, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:44-48)
I can’t find any room for anger there. Only compassion: toward the poor, and even toward those angry at the poor. Toward all.