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.

<Below is the post I referenced>

By Andrew Osenga

So today, I’ve been watching the Live8 shows all day here at my hotel in Dallas. I had to leave for a few hours to go and play at the Celebrate Freedom Festival, a Christian music festival bigger than many of the Live8 shows. I was surprised by some of the differences. The Live8 shows were all about feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, and healing the sick. The Christian festival today seemed to be basically be all about providing a “safe”, i.e. without cussing or sex, entertainment for our Christian kids. Live8 was imploring the leaders of the world to be responsible for the life and death of a continent. We watched the Chik-Fil-A cows dance and Bob and Larry push their new video. I don’t mean to come down on the festival, or the people at it, but I really was disappointed that non-believers, people who adamantly stand against the Church were taking responsibility for what Jesus asked US, the Church, to be doing. Obviously, that’s a terrible blanket statement, and there are many, many, many people doing wonderful things within the Church for the world around them. Caedmon’s is a part of that. Compassion, World Vision, Dalit Freedom, Living Water, and all the churches who support these excellent ministries, are leading this charge. But I couldn’t help noticing the differences watching one festival and going to another. They were too close to me to not contrast them. However, Pink Floyd’s re-uniting was not near as cool as Tait and TobyMac getting back together to sing Jesus Freak. That was a joke. Pink Floyd. Holy Cow. So freaking great. Anyway, I think I’m just a little discouraged that the event we took part in didn’t seem to be near as Christ-like as the event of a bunch of rich, spoiled rock stars and actors. I hope that we can look to what happened today, people uniting to help care for the poor and needy, and realize that the world should be looking to US, because it really is OUR responsibility to take care of the hurting around us. I think if we spent more time fighting hunger and poverty instead of retreating into our corners and priding ourselves on songs that say Jesus and don’t say cuss words, the world really would see more of Christ in us. Please pray for me that I can be more active, both globally and locally, in reaching out beyond my own little world. I am definitely way too interested in my own life.

7 thoughts on “Poor folks, Jesus, and Brad Pitt

  1. Good clarifications. I struggle with agreeing with what you’ve written and then looking at the regular patterns into which my life falls. I have to stop and ask myself questions: Am I following Jesus in a radical life of servitude, particularly to those who are most without? Does my use of resources entrusted to me reflect such a commitment?
    I hope my answer over time shows a pattern of transformation. I have the same hope for the church.

  2. I agree, Thad. It’s unfortunate that I’ve been exposed to a particular brand of Christianity over my lifetime that has a very hands-off approach to dealing with the poor. One of our pastors referenced the “be warmed and well-fed” verse in this weekend’s services. That hurt. Not because I was suddenly convinced that I should be helping those who are needy but because I know I should and I have done little (which is probably worse). I am, however, not excused because of my exposure to modern Pharisaism.
    I have a lot more compassion on the poor than I led you to believe in my previous comment. I used the poor as a platform to jab at my coworkers in my previous statement. I regret writing it out of respect and love for the poor (excluding the lazy).

  3. I wholeheartedly agree that poverty in the US is a completely different animal than it is in the rest of the world. I remember riding a bus in Greneda and seeing shacks that people called home. I built better forts in the woods when I was a kid than these homes. It gave me a different perspective of what poverty is.
    Should I be better at helping the poor? Definitely. There are many things I struggle with and this is one of them. I guess I’ve had “bad” experiences with helping the poor. I recall one time I went to the grocery store and bought a Thanksgiving dinner for a “needy” family. When I delived the meal to the family, I walked into an apartment that had a big screen TV, surround sound system and a playstation. Now it’s not my job to judge their need, so I gave the meal with the notion that they really did need it. It’s just difficult for me to get past that image.
    Let’s see if I can dig a deeper hole than I already have 8^). I would say that giving out of genuine compassion is far better that giving out of guilt. I think the key is “the reality that we’ve been blessed to bless others”.
    As for Live8 and Celebrate Freedom, I think it’s very dangerous to paint either one of them with a broad brush.

  4. You wrote that Americanism and conservatism “have made us more concerned about being irresponsibly generous than about actually feeding, clothing, and housing Jesus.”
    Query: What does it look like to be irresponsibly generous versus responsibly generous? Do we see stories of Jesus that depict one or the other? John’s narrative of the blind man at the pool of Bethesda in John 5 comes to mind. The man didn’t seem to show a particular desire to have Jesus heal him and didn’t seem to show any faith after (actualy turned Jesus in to the pharisees). So maybe Jesus was about more than just meeting that one guy’s physical need (though he still did).

  5. Okay so he was crippled and not blind. Same point. It wasn’t about the man’s response but about Jesus’ action.

  6. Hi, Thad. This is Stefan, one of Britt’s friends from Wake Village, and I followed a link from his Xanga to your blog here. I really enjoyed what you’ve shared here and I’ll be stopping by more often in the future. Thanks for the encouragement/conviction.

  7. Preach it brother! I’ve preached it for years now and unfortunately it has fallen on deaf ears but not always. The overall biggest issue for us western Christians is we have to change the way we view life – in every area of our life. It’s not about us!!

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