Friday, April 21, 2017

Always with Us?, by Liz Theoharis

When Jesus said, "The poor you will always have with you," did he mean that poverty will always be an issue no matter what?  According to many Christians from across the ideological and theological spectrum, the answer is yes.  According to Liz Theoharis, the answer is definitively no.  In Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor, she argues that Jesus did not teach that poverty was inevitable, and that, in fact, the eradication of poverty is possible.

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!

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