Jesus Loved the Poor. Why Don't Some of His Followers?


Jesus' Scripture choice for that first sermon was Isaiah 6 in which he identified with the prophetic call to minister to the poor and the disenfranchised, Harton writes.
There are many professing Christians among those who oppose two issues facing the region of Virginia and city of Richmond where I live: immigration reform and bus rapid transit.

Many of these folks have little sympathy for those in our country without documentation regardless of their circumstances.

Some of these same people want to keep city buses out of the surrounding counties. I am not one of them.

Bus rapid transit (BRT) involves dedicated bus lanes, expanded routes and special buses, all of which increase accessibility.

The system is proving its value in places like Cleveland, Ohio, where businesses are seeing increased bottom lines, development is thriving, more people are finding employment, and poverty is being addressed.

I recently met a young woman who holds a responsible job at a new Kroger grocery store. She rides a bus to work from the inner city most days.

Until recently, either she would not have had the job, or she would have had to walk under a freeway, where there is no sidewalk, and cross a busy highway, where there is no pedestrian crossing. The buses stopped at the city line just short of the freeway.

No buses are running near Kroger, however, when she gets off work in the evening.

Therefore, she must take a more than 30-minute walk across unguarded, unprotected, open space to reach the nearest bus stop. Not something any vulnerable young woman should have to do.

She would like to work on Saturdays or Sundays but no buses run those days. Because buses do not run further into my county or into other surrounding counties, unemployed persons without transportation have no access to hundreds of available jobs.

I have a Hispanic friend who works as a laborer. I was surprised when I found out he had been in this country for a number of years. I know nothing of the circumstances of how he got here and, frankly, I don't care.

He has talked numerous times about setting up his own business. Presuming he didn't know about the pro-bono immigration clinic provided by the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, I offered to take him to the clinic in order to start the process of getting him a green card. He was delighted.

He was also disheartened – as was I – when he was told that there is no avenue to a green card for a common laborer short of marrying an American girl and having a child.

So much for his dreams of starting his own business and providing employment for others.

To my churchgoing fellow citizens who oppose either or both immigration reform and BRT, I would inquire of their familiarity with Jesus' inaugural sermon at Nazareth, and I would ask with whom Jesus spent most of his time while on the earth.

Jesus' Scripture choice for that first sermon was Isaiah 6 in which he identified with the prophetic call to minister to the poor and the disenfranchised. His models were the parents of the prophets, Elijah and Elisha, who ministered to foreigners.

Jesus proclaimed that God had appointed him to "heal the brokenhearted," "to preach good news to the poor," "to proclaim release to the captives," "recovery of sight to the blind," "to set at liberty those who are oppressed" and "to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."

These were tasks Jesus emphasized and backed them up with purposeful action (see Luke 4:4-30; 7:22).

In so doing, he soundly rejected the expected nationalistic identity as a political leader with political solutions.

Wayne Oates, in his book, "Christ and Selfhood," averred that Jesus focused not on himself but on the plight of those in his midst.

"His powers were focused not upon his own identity but upon the removal of hindrances to new life in those about him," he wrote.

Evangelicals might be prone to interpret that "new life" only in salvific terms. A broader interpretation includes new life without the pain of ostracism or hunger, a new life of freedom, sight and recovery from the vestiges of poverty.

Oates observed that the early church embraced Jesus' life tasks after his resurrection and intentionally shared his redemptive love and power to "foreigners" like Cornelius, a leader of the despised Italian Guard (see Acts 10).

In "A Thicker Jesus," ethicist Glen Stassen calls Christians to incarnational discipleship.

This concept not only encourages Christians to embody the lifestyle and focus of Jesus but also insists that they must in order to claim identity as Christian (defined as Christ-likeness).

Knowledge of Jesus' lifestyle and focus comes from none other than the New Testament, which provides historical evidence to support claims about Jesus' focus on the plight of others.

However, too often Christians suffer from what Stassen calls mythopoeic thinking, which "tends to keep people subservient to the dominating myths and authorities, without checking and balancing their injustices and their powers by realistic historical testing."

Considering Jesus in political messianic, merely salvific terms or both is mythopoeic thinking.

Stassen says this "reduces the gospel to private matters or general principles that do not clash with interests and ideologies ... and Jesus to a thin principle or high ideal or only doctrinal affirmation without solid grounding in his actual history."

A large cloud of 20th century witnesses provides examples of incarnational discipleship:

−     Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in a German POW camp for his stance against Hitler

−     André Trocmé, who led a small French village to save 3,500 Jews

−     Martin Luther King Jr. who held up Jesus' way for guidance of the civil rights movement

−     Clarence Jordan, who established Koinonia Farm in Georgia as an example of equality

−     Dorothy Day and Muriel Lester, who advocated for justice for the powerless

With regard to both immigration reform and bus rapid transit, the question posed by youth some years ago seems painfully apropos: WWJD – What Would Jesus Do?

Both issues are complicated. But our thinking about them must be tempered by a consideration of just what it means to incarnate Jesus' life tasks.

Otherwise, calling ourselves "Christian" is no more than a social-political identity.

Mike Harton is a retired seminary professor and dean living in Midlothian, Virginia. He is a former board member of Baptist Center for Ethics. A longer version of this article previously appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch and is used with the author's permission.

Editor's note: "Gospel Without Borders," EthicsDaily.com's documentary on faith and immigration, brings more light and less heat to the issue by separting myth from fact and examining what the Bible says about "the stranger." Learn more here.

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Tags: Discipleship, Immigration, Mike Harton, Public Transportation, Social Justice


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