|One poor for the Kingdom of Heaven|
source: Huffington Post
"There's no reason to be poor anymore dude! If you're poor it's all your fault!" exclaimed one excitable fellow during dinner some weeks ago. This crypto-capitalist unfolded the mystery of America's wealth dichotomy, the strange fact that America is the wealthiest and most generous nation the world has ever seen and also one whose Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches mantra could be summarized as "Do it yourself."
"Do it yourself" is an empowering concept that has created considerable wealth and eliminated a great deal of poverty since the Industrial Revolution downsized agrarian life and relocated farmers to cities. "Do it yourself" also assumes quite a great deal. It assumes social mobility, a society that allows anyone to move from his current state, however degraded, to a better one on merit. It assumes the downtrodden are capable and skilled people who can offer something that our consumer-driven, post-industrial, knowledge-based society wants. And above all it assumes that no one needs a second chance, since all opportunity is immanently available.
Is there merit to this logic? Absolutely there is merit. The poor in modern America live in section 8 housing or trailers and collect benefits to use at Walmart or the local corner shop in some crime-infested neighborhood. It may be terrible, but it is not the "leper" society of first century Jerusalem when a mere ailment meant social exile, homelessness, disregard from one's own relatives, and a hungry, lonely death in ritual impurity. Our religious sentiment hopes to assuage genuine poverty in random acts of kindness in encountering a displaced street person, but even they are no longer always what they seem.
There is another sort of poverty that transcends all income levels, that of dis-empowerment, those people who cannot make decisions on their own owing to circumstance. People in this predicament may not live on the street; they may live in a disheveled flat in a bad neighborhood or work away from home for periods of time because their only work prevents them from seeing their families. These poor souls, who cannot make choices with the same levity as most in our post-Industrial, materialist society, are probably the closest we will come to finding traditional poverty.
Poverty, especially of this sort, can be romanticized in literature and devotional writings, not least because for centuries the target audiences for these materials rarely had great means. Dostoevsky almost always has a holy lunatic whose penury frees him or her to embrace a mystical devotion to God. Western spiritual writers seem to think poverty has a merit all its own. This may be true in the case of a devout person, but it cannot be true absolutely. The poverty of dis-empowerment, more than anything, breeds bitterness, resent, quashes dreams, and impinges on one's ability to love others or see beyond the scope of one's own quotidian misery, the latter two being the essence of the Christian life. Far from freeing one of materialistic concerns, this measly state unleashes the worst in our survivalist instincts and when one fails or falls behind, the blame rarely goes to circumstance and almost always to others.
"Blessed are the poor," said Our Lord, but another recounts Him as saying "Blessed are the poor in spirit." Blessed are those who help these poor where ever he finds them. Blessed is he who teaches them to love and to live better. And then will the poor be rich in the kingdom of God.