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Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor (Prophetic Christianity Series (PC)) Paperback – April 21, 2017
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— NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice
"Be ready to be stirred up by this scriptural exploration of the meaning of poverty. It challenged me with the moral demand to end poverty now."
Laura Sumner Truax
— LaSalle Street Church, Chicago
"Provocative. Powerful. Persuasive. Liz Theoharis's fresh reading of a familiar biblical text opens up new ground for preaching, teaching, and activism. This is a book of lived theology and radical compassion."
— Center for Earth Ethics, Union Theological Seminary
"Theoharis brings the Bible to life in this exciting study of one of its most famous passages. With a combination of rigorous theological scholarship and personal stories from her life as an organizer, she shows us that the front line in the fight against poverty is not in poor neighborhoods but rather within the assumptions of a society that fosters systemic injustice."
William J. Barber II (from the foreword)
— President, North Carolina NAACP
"The contemporary church has become so accommodative to capitalism that its theology is often viewed as a justification of economic injustice. Dr. Theoharis's work stands as a challenge to such theology and asserts that poverty is an affront to God. The church must be a prophetic witness and actor in the world."
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Dr. Theoharis’ book Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor is, then, a timely, persuasive, eminently readable, and even inspiring appeal to end poverty forever. Starting with Jesus’ words, “The poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11), Theoharis shows that this quote is regularly used as proof that the Bible says that it is impossible to end poverty. Step by step, she shows that the quote means exactly the opposite: that Jesus’ intent was for us to do God’s work by ending poverty completely.
She begins by pointing out that Jesus himself was poor and homeless, almost certainly illiterate, and a representative of the poor in his time. First, she places the quote from Matthew in its full context (Matthew 26: 6-13) and then shows its interrelation with Deuteronomy 15: 1-11, which outlines God’s laws for the elimination of debt and of poverty. “There need be no poor people among you. … I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” These commandments, which Jesus quotes, are to forgive debts, release slaves, and lend money even when the lender knows he or she will never be repaid. Deuteronomy says that since these commandments will not be followed, there will be poor among you. Jesus is reminding the disciples that God hates poverty and commands them to end it. “Therefore,” concludes Theoharis, “the passage is a critique of empire, charity and inequality, rather than stating that poverty is unavoidable and predetermined by God.”
The contextual analysis that Theoharis employs also shows that during the dinner at which Jesus utters these words (not the Last Supper), an unnamed woman anoints him with expensive oil. It was at that point in the Bible that Jesus was anointed the Christ, the Messiah. There is no other place in the Bible where these words are used. This emphasizes the centrality of the Matthew scripture.
Theoharis devotes an entire chapter, entitled “Reading the Bible with the Poor,” to show she puts Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 26 into action. In this central chapter, which is really the core of the book, she outlines the entire process of contextual Bible study. She explains that the Bible study they practice is not only a lesson in the interpretation of scripture, but also an organizing tool, educating and empowering the participants to follow Jesus by working to end poverty. The process they employ is to have the poor read the Bible themselves and interpret the scriptures. The students, called Poverty Scholars, wind up identifying with the disciples and the challenges they faced. They compared the disciples’ work to the community organizing they themselves are doing among the poor. But more than this, the Poverty Scholars shaped the methodological and contextual aspects of the study of the Bible. She outlines their contributions in identifying what poverty means, who the poor are, and in connecting the scriptures from Matthew and Deuteronomy. They present a searching consideration of the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus at this dinner, feasting in the house of the poor, as described in Matthew, and of the setting in which the dinner takes place. Their contributions were a central contribution to Theoharis’ presentation of the deeper meaning of what Jesus experienced and what he said.
Theoharis also provides a historical analysis of empire in Jesus’ time. The Roman Empire, ruled by Caesar had myriad clients, one of which was Herod, who ruled over Galilee and surrounding areas, oppressing and exploiting the people. Herod, the client, was, of course, beholden to Caesar. The parallels with current-day empire, wealth and oppression – and the creation and perpetuation of poverty – are clear. She points out that while the poor make history, it is the rulers – the rich and powerful – who write history. This is why it is so important that the poor themselves read, study and interpret the scriptures for themselves. The real meaning of the scriptures and of Jesus’ ministry is a powerful tool for those working to eliminate poverty.
The book draws on the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King as well. Theoharis begins a chapter with a quote from Dr. King: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” In other words, as she emphasizes throughout the book, charitable giving is insufficient. The essence of God’s work is to end poverty and this requires the crucial insight that for this goal to be achieved, society needs to be restructured. This is the central economic content of Jesus’ words and teaching, Theoharis suggests.
The final chapter is summed up in its title, “Christ, the Social-Movement Leader.” Jesus, poor himself, was anointed the Christ in a poor man’s home by an unnamed woman specifically because he did minister not just “to the poor,” but “with the poor.” His ministry was to build a society to carry out God’s commandment to end poverty. For that, he was crucified: the death sentence reserved for revolutionaries.
Dr. Theoharis has presented a compelling argument for a New Poor People’s Campaign to continue the work to end poverty. This inspiring work is not only an important theological addition to the literature, but an important tool for those in the trenches today, working to end poverty and to change society. Her description of the organizing work to empower the Poverty Scholars is an especially important contribution. There is no question that the movement has important spiritual and moral components. This book outlines the importance and centrality of morality and spirituality and is for everyone. While the teachings of the book are Christian, the lessons it contains are not only accessible, but applicable to all.
This Biblical underpinning then relates to fascinating accounts (and lessons learned) of actions in Philadelphia and elsewhere, spearheaded by people of faith and others, to put into action the words of Deuteronomy 15:4, that "there shall be no poor among you."
This book is an engaging call to action to end poverty here and now, particularly to people of faith. It is a vital thread in the fabric of resistance to the claims of the rich, as Joe Hill taught us, that we'll "get pie in the sky when we die."
Her work and life have been built around this hope. As a pastor and activist, she has worked with and on behalf of poor people, addressing structural poverty and developing solutions for poverty in the U.S. The stories she tells and hope that she offers are encouraging, inspiring, and challenging. Her focus is not so much on charity or redistribution of wealth, but on the unacceptability of poverty and the structures of society. She writes that "God hates poverty and wills it upon no on. We understand that it is not enough to affirm that God loves the poor, but it is the collective responsibility of Christians and all people of faith and conscience to eliminate poverty." The elimination of poverty is Theoharis's driving theme.
I had to part ways with Theoharis for much of the book. She is very clearly a liberation theologian, and embraces all that entails with her view of structural sin. First of all, she asserts that poverty is a sin. The existence of a poverty is a result of structural sin in society. No doubt this is sometimes true, but this view rejects the fact that in a fallen world, poverty is arguably a normal state. Without labor and organization, all of us would fall into poverty. Throughout human history, most people have been what we would consider poor. To Theoharis, the causes of poverty are structural. She rejects a view of poverty that places its cause on personal volition (or lack thereof). She spends lots of time with poor people. Surely she can recognize that poverty in many cases results from the choices that individuals make. I don't accept her all-in for structural poverty position. To address the problem of poverty, societal structures and individual choices have to be addressed.
Part of the structure of society that she doesn't spend enough time developing is the market. The most effective anti-poverty program is a job. When people can get and keep a job, the way out of poverty is much clearer. In any given geographical area, the availability of a wide variety of jobs is the best measure of the elimination of gravity. Again, jobs and a thriving economy alone don't guarantee the elimination of poverty. But not to focus on the job market is a blind spot in the fight against poverty.
I don't know if poverty can be eliminated. I agree that when Jesus declared "the poor you will always have with you," he did not mean, in that context, that poverty is inevitable and ineradicable. I especially admire Theoharis's work among the poor. She is critical of charity--throwing money at the problem of poverty is no way to eliminate the larger issue--and advocates for people in poor communities banding together to address their communities' larger issues. Theoharis and I would find plenty to disagree about theologically, politically, and economically, but I appreciated her portrayal of Jesus as one who has a preferential option for the poor, and I enjoyed reading about her work alongside the poor.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!