Poor folks, Jesus, and Brad Pitt

Yesterday I linked to Andrew Osenga’s post (his site appears to be down, but I have copied the relevant text here at the end of this post) about the differences between Live8 and a gigantic Christian music festival being held the same day. Some comments have already started to surface about this, and I decided to move my responses from the comment section to here. To be fair, I’m not trying to go at anyone in particular. I don’t think the comments that prompted this post are unique or represent an uncommon perspective in the American church. So, I’m not picking on my commenters. I’m picking on a lot of people, including myself. I’m not very good at what I’m about to preach about, but I’m wrestling with it almost every day, and I’m praying that my life will be transformed in this area.

First, it wasn’t Andrew’s point (or mine) to exalt the motives or lives of the celebrities at Live8. There’s plenty of silliness in that whole scene. But here’s the deal – I’m more inclined to reserve the label of hypocrisy (which is the common and completely understandable response for many of us when we see Brad Pitt and Snoop Dogg talking about how wealthy countries should help poor countries) for Christians, or at least to apply it more rigorously in that context. Why?

Live8 rock stars aren’t under any particular mandate to do what they’re doing. If their motives aren’t entirely pure or their words and lives terribly consistent, well, who’s surprised? Obviously not us. In that way, they have the luxury of posing for a good cause before chartering the private jet to Cabo.

But here’s what I think matters: Christians do have a particular mandate in this area, and Americanism and conservatism have mostly neutered this part of the Gospel. They have made us more concerned about being irresponsibly generous than about actually feeding, clothing, and housing Jesus. Yes, Jesus. He said it, not me.

Again, I’m not preaching at you any more than I’m preaching at me. I’m just saying. It’s in the Bible: Feed hungry people. He doesn’t attach many conditions to this command to give and live generously. He doesn’t say, "feed them as long as they prove they deserve to be fed." You think he didn’t know lazy people existed and would continue to exist? That seems unlikely, yet we think we need to add all sorts of caveats and conditions to his teaching. Jesus didn’t coin the "teach a man to fish…" maxim. That doesn’t mean it’s a categorically bad idea; it just means it’s time for us to stop using the folks who take advantage of generosity as a crutch for ignoring one of Jesus’ most common and most consequential teachings.

Listen, do we really pay attention to the fact that all the "feed, clothe, and house me" talk is buried in a passage about sheep going one way and goats going another? He actually tells people who neglect the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, and imprisoned to Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Are we really so willing to continue to hedge on this?

One other note which has been acknowledged in the previous comments: Applying the standard arguments about irresponsible American welfare recipients to the global poverty discussion is a really, really bad idea. Read a little on global poverty first. Even if you think those arguments work for Christians and the poor in this country (and I’m not nearly as convinced as I used to be that they do, or that being poor in the U.S. is always a choice), global poverty isn’t the same animal by a long shot. Over 1 billion people in the world live on less than a dollar a day. Another two billion have about twice that. That’s not because they happen to be the 3 billion laziest people in the world or because the art of fishing has eluded them. In most cases it’s because they have zero opportunity to change their circumstances (and it’s hard to fish where there’s no water). There are millions of men, women, and children in the world working at least twice as hard of any of us just so they can starve slowly instead of all in one week. This isn’t Sally Struthers cheese. It’s the world we live in; the world God gave us.

Why are we taught to spend more time thanking God for all the many ways He has "blessed us and our nation" than living out the reality that we’ve been blessed to bless others? In all of our years of good Christian training, why have we never been encouraged to ponder the biblical reality that Jesus generally seems to take a much greater interest in "the poor" (and the oppressed, neglected, unpopular, and unclean) than he did in the responsible, tax-paying good citizens?

So yeah, there’s a difference in the point of Live8 and the point of a hundred thousand Christians throwing a party on July 4th weekend to entertain themselves. And, frankly, that difference is the point.

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