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Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Weapons of the Poor

The Weapons of the Poor

By Rev. Howard Bess
January 11, 2014

Many on the American Right define themselves as Christians
and angrily defend the religion’s symbols and myths, but this
Christian Right ignores a core reality about Jesus, that he spoke
to and for the poor, decried the rich, and demanded social
justice for all.

Jesus spent nearly all his life with poor people, and these were
the truly poor, eking out a subsistence living, struggling just to

In Nazareth where Jesus grew up, there were no people of wealth;
there was no middle class; the people were rural and illiterate.

These people of Galilee were not simply poor, they were
expendable as far as the ruling elites were concerned.

As such, they were not a happy, contented lot.

They lived at wits end, which is why Galilee gave rise to
the Zealot movement of violent rebellion.

It was from this population that Jesus drew his disciples
and found the audiences for his sermons.

His relationship with the poor people of rural Galilee became the
context in which he advocated for justice or what he called the
kingdom of God on earth.

Somewhere in my theological/religious journey, I found a truth
in reading and interpreting the Bible.

It was that a text without context is a pretext.

As applied to Jesus, that means that if the reader does not
understand the context in which Jesus taught, his stories can
be twisted to mean whatever the reader wants.

It is the knowledge of the context of the life of Jesus that ought
to keep every Christian minister honest.

That seldom happens, however.

Hiding from the context of the ministry of Jesus – i.e. ignoring
that he spoke to and for the poor and oppressed, is a safe harbor
from which Christian ministers and leaders are hesitant to depart,
because it is much riskier to venture out onto the sea of Jesus’s
advocacy for the downtrodden and disdain for the rich.

Yet, when the parables of Jesus are examined and placed into his
historical context, we find that the issue of wealth and poverty
(what we would call “income inequality”) was one of his favorite
topics, and the messages were not comfortable for the rich.

Jesus spoke about the unfair relationship between employer and
employee, about inequitable wages, about the absurd excesses of
wealth and the terrible consequences of poverty.

Recently I reread the parable of the dishonest steward as recorded
in Luke 16:1-9, in which a rich man prepares to fire his manager
who then, to gain the favor with the rich man’s creditors, lets them
reduce what they owe the rich man, such as slashing a debt of 900
gallons of olive oil to 450 gallons.

There are long-standing disagreements about the ending of the
parable as it was first told by Jesus.

Some scholars insist that the story actually ends with verse 7
and that verses 8 and 9, in which the rich man commends the
manager for his deceit, were tacked on by Luke in a lame effort
to make sense of the story two generations after the death of

Yet, when the story is placed into the context of Jesus’s ministry
among the poor, it becomes a different kind of story about
dishonesty, one about a corrupt system.

To Jesus’s audience of peasants in Galilee, the rich owner would
be understood to be the crook who stole property with the help of
the Roman rulers.

He would have lived in luxury in one of two large cities in northern
Galilee and would have hired thugs to extract all the money they
could from the peasants who tilled the land.

The steward would be one of those thugs who did the dirty work
oppressing the peasants, while stealing as much for himself as
he could.

The poor peasants, who were trying to survive, would not be
concerned about the difficulties of the two men nor with the
laws prescribed by the rich rulers or, for that matter, the
religious rules set by priests and other religious leaders who
collaborated with the wealthy and the powerful.

In the ears of Jesus’s listeners, the story takes on an ambiguity,
even an irony, as the corrupt steward betrays the corrupt
absentee landlord by seeking to gain favor with the people
in the landlord’s debt, though the volumes cited in the
parable suggest that these are debts far beyond what peasants
would be allowed to accumulate.

So the debtors may be viewed as part of the corrupt scheme,

Thus, the parable becomes a great cartoon portrayed by
exaggerated characters and inflated numbers, with a critical
message roughly parallel to “no honor among thieves.”

Jesus probably told the story as a discussion starter among
his poverty-stricken friends who surely found themselves in
difficult predicaments confronting the rich, the powerful and
their “stewards.”

Surviving In Poverty

In an attempt to understand the poor, scholar James Scott has
looked at the weapons that they use to survive, including foot-
dragging, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander,
arson, sabotage, lies and half-truths.

In real life, when people are truly impoverished and oppressed,
they will participate in any of the listed activities to get by
without feelings of guilt, sensing the injustice inherent in the
economic and political structure that surrounds them, and the
imperative to survive.

It was surely the same in Jesus’s time.

You might think also of the scenes in the movie, “12 Years a Slave”
when the African-Americans find themselves with no choice but
to deceive their white slave masters in order to avoid brutal
punishments and even lynching, actions that were tolerated by the
legal system of the American South at that time.

Survival ethics are very powerful, the laws of political and religious
rulers notwithstanding.

But Jesus was not a law keeper or an enforcer.

He was an advocate of a justice that demanded dignity for
everyone and insisted that their basic human needs be met,
heaven on earth.

Since my youth, I have tried to take Jesus and his teachings seriously.

That has meant friendship with the poor.

I found a lot of them in jail.

In the past, very intentionally, I was a regular visitor of those
who found themselves locked up.

I have welcomed them when they left jail.

My wife and I have hosted and befriended thieves, rapists,
prostitutes, drug users, alcoholics and drug dealers.

I have spent a good bit of time in courtrooms and have taken
legal actions on behalf of the guilty poor.

Some have become long-term friends.

Some have stolen from me.

I have found that what James Scott said about poor people
is true:

Poor people will do most anything to survive and do so with
a clean conscience.

What every Christian must realize is that poor people with
seemingly dishonest ways are the people of Jesus.

The “weapons” used by these poor to survive often clash with
the priorities of nice society, which then responds by putting
the poor into jail.

During my trips to jail, I never met a rich person or even a
middle-class person who was incarcerated.

I suspect the simplest way to reduce our jail population is to
make friends of poor people, invite them into our homes and
churches, share our food with them, and help them meet their
human needs through social programs, such as raising the
minimum wage to a living wage.

Being a disciple of Jesus begins by placing him in the context
in which he lived and taught.

When we do that, we find lots of poor people surrounding him.

To understand the message of Jesus, we need to know and
understand the poor people whom he was addressing.

Until then, most Christians will remain frauds in the kingdom
of God.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister,
who lives in Palmer, Alaska.

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