The Black Body: Prophets Against Empire

beautiful-black-womanAnd I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for twelve hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth.” 4 These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. 5 And if anyone wants to harm them, fire flows out of their mouth and devours their enemies; so if anyone wants to harm them, he must be killed in this way. 6 These have the power to shut up the sky, so that rain will not fall during the days of their prophesying; and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood, and to strike the earth with every plague, as often as they desire.

7 When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up out of the abyss will make war with them, and overcome them and kill them. 8 And their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city which mystically is called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. 9 Those from the peoples and tribes and tongues and nations will look at their dead bodies for three and a half days, and will not permit their dead bodies to be laid in a tomb. 10 And those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and celebrate; and they will send gifts to one another, because these two prophets tormented those who dwell on the earth. – Revelation 11.3 – 10, NASB

The task of those who take up the mantle to speak prophetically against systems of injustice in this world is an arduous one. When you dare to fight against empire, empire most often fights back. When you become emboldened through the power of the Holy Spirit to speak against oppression, oppressors do not sit idly by – they crack down harder, hoping with every ounce of their being to either make you irrelevant, silence you, or obliterate you altogether. And they often do so in front of the world, using the oppression and death of the outspoken as an example of what can happen when one dares to challenge injustice.

Such is what happened to the two prophets, or witnesses, in the book of Revelation. While it can be argued that these two were persecuted because of their beliefs, we must take our analysis distorted by Tim Lahaye and Jerry B Jenkins a little further and also consider how these two men spoke out against an oppressive, sadistic system which caused deep hunger, poverty, and war while also challenging the people of the empire who committed idolatry, murder, and theft. With every word they spoke, they agitated a system that was bent on destruction and angered a people who would have preferred to wallow in misery than receive the mercies of God. For three and a half years, the two prophets – empowered by the Holy Spirit – rattled this evil system until they were overpowered and killed.

And the bodies of the prophets laid in the street for three and a half days. Unmoved. Untouched. And the people who they prophesied against refused them a proper burial because the prophets forced them to face their sins. For three and a half days, the people mocked and taunted the dead prophets. And the empire was complicit in the mockery because at last, the outspoken voices who reminded it of its wickedness and oppression were silent. Three and a half days. 84 hours. 302,400 seconds of rotting in the hot sun as an example to anyone else who would dare to challenge structural sin and oppression.

Embodying blackness, Mike Brown dared to challenge an empire who wanted to forget about its history of oppression and sin.* As a young, black man in a country which so desperately longed to be post-racial, or rather, a country who wanted to forget about blackness, Mike and so many like him who are profiled and killed on a daily basis, was a constant reminder of the America’s sin. Like the prophets of old, he drew attention to the nation’s history of injustice and exploitation. Like the prophets, his presence agitated folks who did not want to face the truth about the way in which they had been complicit in the sin of empire. And so, they killed him and left him in the street for 4 ½ hours, his decaying body serving as an example to every other black person of what happens when you dare to live the truth.

As with Mike, the same has held true of so many other black men, women, and children in our nation who  are either battered and bruised (Rodney King, Dajerria Becton, James Blake) or violently killed (Emmett Till, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott Freddie Gray, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel L. Simmons, and Depayne Middleton Doctor, Sandra Bland, Kindra Darnell Chapman and unfortunately so many others). The only factor that united all of these was their blackness which continually reminded those in power of our nation’s dark history. Our mere, enduring existence as black people is a prophetic voice against the ways in which we have been exploited and marginalized for profit. And when empire has had all it can take – as in the case of the two witnesses in Revelation – it retaliates. Brutally. The death of so many black prophets have spilled on the ground, remaining, rotting, voiceless and alone because we dared to wake up and walk out into the world, challenging white supremacy with every single breath we take. Our blackness – whether we bear the right name, look a certain way, or have Ph.D behind our name – is a continual prophetic witness against empire and capitalism.

This is a hard truth to bear! However, the more that we come to understand that our blackness is under siege because of the shame that those who are complicit in our oppression harbor, the more we can stop beating up on each other. At last, we could put respectability politics to rest. And perhaps, we could even stop talking about black on black violence. Because the truth of the matter is, we could be as saintly as Mother Theresa, or as far gone as Judas Iscariot and it will not matter because as long as we embody blackness, our bodies will speak out against injustice.

In order to move forward, empire must enter into the sacred process of repentance, confession, and healing. It must recognize the ways in which the ideology of white supremacy has corrupted the hearts of so many people in this nation and has also disregarded the image of God present in every person. This is where the deepest work must take place!

And the emphasis on undoing white supremacist ideology cannot be overstated. For far too long, empire has put the onus on black people to improve and move beyond our position as if we were culpable for our own chains. But we are not! We did not do this to ourselves but rather it is this nation who in the words of James Baldwin has ‘robbed black people of their liberty and who have profited by this theft every hour they have lived.’ No matter the heights black people climb, until our nation shakes loose the shackles of the wretched ideology that has governed the people for centuries, not only is change impossible but so is the liberation of black people. Our bodies will continue to live in protest.

*Last weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a conference that was being hosted at my church, Identity, Theology, and Place: Re-inhabiting the Mississippi Watershed. During the first plenary session on Saturday morning, activist and theologian Ched Meyers made mention of the passage in Revelation and connected it to the murder and desecration of Mike Brown’s body which inspired this post.

The Importance of Worship in Times of Despair

Worship8This last year has left me weary. The constant news of violence against my people has been both overwhelming and discouraging, the latter because I honestly don’t know when relief will come. Our nation has built it’s wealth and prominence in the world by victimizing black and brown people – something that will not be easily overcome, though I remain hopeful as smaller scale victories are won through protest and policy change everyday! I know that our present suffering will not endure forever, mostly because empires, no matter how powerful last forever. And I also know that the fullness of the Kingdom of God, when He redeems those who have been oppressed, is coming! But when that all will be, I just don’t know.

As aforementioned, I remain hopeful. Hopeful that change will come. But it is not the kind of false optimism that believes everything will work itself out in the end – that we as a people will eventually progress to a more peaceful, harmonious state of being. I have no time for such nonsense! No, my hope is anchored in what I know Christ will do as a result of what He already did on the cross. His blood, shed for the sins of all of humanity – past, present, and future – reconciles us back to God, each other, as well as the earth and land around us. And reconciliation is inseparable from justice! God will bring about justice for those who have been chained and shackled by governments and systems of this world that exploit people for power and profit. And despite how much leaders in our nation clothe themselves in American Christianity, there will come a time when those who have been on the delivering end of injustice will be brought to account.

For me, hope goes hand in hand with despair. I despair and agonize over the current situation as I hope for a redeemed, victorious future. As Dr. Cornel West puts it in his book Hope on a Tightrope, “Those of us who truly hope, make despair a constant companion whom we outwrestle everyday owing to our commitment to justice, love, and hope. It is impossible to look honestly at our catastrophic conditions and not have some despair – it is a healthy sign of how deeply we care.”

Hope and despair! You can probably now understand why I’ve been so weary. Two seemingly conflicting dispositions that can either propel you forward or force you to turn inward and as an ambivert, I straddle both pretty well. Reach out or shut down. Engage or withdraw. Fight or retreat. Worship or not.

Ironically, its the worship piece that I have struggled with the most and which I have had energy for the least. And it is not because of disbelief or even discouragement, because remember I know that Jesus will transform this! It is because after expending myself in so many ways throughout the day to stand and fight for justice, at the end of the day I just want to tap out.

However, this is really where our quest for reconciliation and redemption must start! When we begin with worship, God Himself strengthens our hearts and minds when we have grown weary with despair. Additionally, magnifying God above and higher than structural racism and capitalism gives us the perspective and strategy that we need to prophetically counter injustice. When we see God clothed in all of His glory, empires start to look a little smaller.

So once again, I make a commitment to God, to myself, and to those around me to begin with worship. Worship because I have to if I want to ensure that despair doesn’t turn into despondency – hope deferred makes the heart go weak.’ Worship because I want God to take His place and restore everything that has been lost through conquest and war. Worship because the race for justice that we are running is a long distance marathon, not a sprint – I need endurance for the long haul!

Wisdom, Wealth and Eternity: Valuing What Truly Matters

s-RICH-PEOPLE-MEETING-largeI can probably count on one hand the number of sermons I have heard from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Many preachers, I suspect, do not find the book as relevant or God-inspired as the others because it reflects a time in King Solomon’s life – the accredited author of the book – when he was at his lowest. Though Solomon started off his reign having a close relationship with God, his wealth and fame caused his heart to turn away from the one whom he went out of his way to build a house of worship.

Solomon amassed great riches and power as a result of the wisdom that he possessed. He was a shrewd king who worked his people crazily – so much so that when he died, the people requested that his son Rehoboam ease up on the workload that was put in place by his father! But he also made many strategic political alliances with foreign nations through marriage – the Bible states that he had at least 700 wives and 300 concubines representing various nations and people groups. As a result of his craftiness, he is known as being one of the richest people in the world. Says 2 Kings:

“Solomon received twenty-five tons of gold in tribute annually. This was above and beyond the taxes and profit on trade with merchants and assorted kings and governors.

King Solomon crafted two hundred body-length shields of hammered gold—seven and a half pounds of gold to each shield—and three hundred smaller shields about half that size. He stored the shields in the House of the Forest of Lebanon.

The king built a massive throne of ivory accented with a veneer of gold. The throne had six steps leading up to it, its back shaped like an arch. The armrests on each side were flanked by lions. Lions, twelve of them, were placed at either end of the six steps. There was no throne like it in any of the surrounding kingdoms.

King Solomon’s chalices and tankards were made of gold and all the dinnerware and serving utensils in the House of the Forest of Lebanon were pure gold—nothing was made of silver; silver was considered common and cheap.

The king had a fleet of ocean-going ships at sea with Hiram’s ships. Every three years the fleet would bring in a cargo of gold, silver, and ivory, and apes and peacocks (2 Kings 10.14-22, the Message).”

There was nothing that the King could not afford! Everything and anything he wanted he had unlimited access to. For all intents and purposes, he should have been a very content and happy man. Yet, Ecclesiastes tells us what 2 Kings does not and allows us to get a sneak peak into Solomon’s heart as he evaluates all of his wealth:

“I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.” And behold, it too was futility. I said of laughter, “It is madness,” and of pleasure, “What does it accomplish?” I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives. I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men—many concubines.

Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. My wisdom also stood by me. All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor. Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun (Ecclesiastes 2.1 – 11, NASB).”

Meaningless. This is what Solomon concludes of the wealth, of the stuff that he has accumulated in life. Not only is the wealth meaningless; the striving that Solomon put forth to get that wealth was also pointless – no doubt something that probably cost the most vulnerable in his society the most! But why, after living a lifetime in fortune and fame did Solomon draw this conclusion? Because as he neared the end of his days, he realized that: (1) wealth was unable to deliver on the promise of happiness and (2) of all of the possessions he gained, none of them could be taken into eternity with him.

While Solomon may not be in the same place spiritually as he was when he first started his reign, the wisdom and insight that he possesses should not be negated. In fact, the analysis that he provides of his experience deserves much more attention than what most preachers and religious scholars typically provide. Perhaps if we heed Solomon’s advice, we could put forth a better theology that will also have implications on the way that we order society!

We live in a culture, in a nation that places a high priority on the bottom line. Like Solomon, we are willing to do anything and everything to be wealthy, even if it costs others. Indeed, built into our nation’s very economic structure is the oppression of Native Americans and African Americans – it is the land and labor of each that has made this country the fiscal powerhouse that it is. With increased globalization, however, our country is adamant about staying on top and so, we turn corporations into people so that they can continue making big profits, we ramp our already unjust international trade policies, and we continue to police people of color for the most ridiculous things including spitting, lurking, and consuming alcohol in public making them pay for simply being black and brown.

American theology, unfortunately, supports many if not all of these things. Our theology reflects an orientation towards blessing and prosperity and leaves little room for evaluating just how that prosperity is secured. In fact, in many Christian circles, people believe that material blessing is the mark of God’s approval on one’s life. Never for a moment do we ever stop to consider Solomon’s words, let alone any other biblical writer as it pertains to wealth and material possessions. Remember, Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything he owned to follow after Him and He met that quite literally!

Meaningless. Wealth is utter meaninglessness. Oppressing people in order to get it is pointless, hoarding it is stranger still. But then what in life actually, truly matters?

Solomon provides us with perspective once again. He advises us to live simply – eat, drink and enjoy our labor! To me, Solomon’s sage advice means that there is value in providing for the needs of self, family and the community. Working so that you can provide clothing, shelter, food and transportation for your loved ones makes sense and is even spiritual stuff. However, building bigger and better simply for the sake of having more not only is meaningless but it robs other people of their capacity to provide for their basic necessities. Contrary to popular thinking, it is not about narrowing the gap between the winners and the losers; it is about eliminating that gap altogether.

But Solomon also encourages us to set our minds on eternal things, which means that whatever lapse he has taken spiritually has not altered his ability to see the big picture. God matters and spending eternity with him is pretty important stuff. Anything that detracts from that, including wealth, is simply not worth pursuing.

The Ideology of Working Hard Revisited: Saying No

rockanysRest is a radical act. Putting down the plow (or the computer) and refusing to toil any longer is downright revolutionary. Honoring the sabbath, particularly when everyone else around you disregards it, is political and institutional warfare.

Placing boundaries around one’s work and time is so jarring to societal norms because we live in a society that demands constant production. Similarly to the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt, we are expected, no coerced, to keep turning out profit so that Pharaoh America, can build a bigger empire. In exchange for working hard, we are told that we can expect a good life. We  should expect success. But so often, the majority of us yield very little return for the time we spend toiling the empire’s soil.

This is the reality for many people in America, however, it is even more true for low income people and people of color. People who fall within these demographics often struggle to make ends meet, not because they have failed to work hard but because they have not been fairly compensated for their hard work (or because they have been so stigmatized that they have not even been able to find labor). In other words, people are working their butts off for zilch.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Out of Reach 2014 report bears witness to this. The report found that in 2014, the average wage that a full time worker needed to earn in order to be able to afford a two bedroom apartment was $18.92. “This national average is more than two-and-a-half times the federal minimum wage, and 52% higher than it was in 2000. In no state can a full-time minimum wage worker afford a one-bedroom or a two-bedroom rental unit at Fair Market Rent.” According to the report, in order for a minimum wage earner to be able to afford housing they would need to work an average of 80 – 90 hours a week, depending on the state.

Most often, those who have to work like this are balancing 2 to or more jobs. Thus, hours of traveling and commute between the jobs have to be added to the already strenuous burden of a 80 – 90 hour work week leaving little time for rest or time spent with one’s family. Maria Fernandez is just one of perhaps millions of people for whom this was true. Juggling four jobs, Maria had little time to stop and put gas in her car let alone sleep. Pulling into a convenience store for a quick nap, the gas container that she kept in her car overtuned which leaked out toxic fumes that she inhaled, causing her untimely death.

This is what empire does to its people! And the even more tragic reality is that in many cases, empire does not care. People like Maria become casualties of war and imperialism; statistics that get thrown around by political pundits to advance their own agendas. Very few pay enough attention to connect the dots between Maria’s death and our country’s insatiable thirst for more, built on the backs of the poor. Enough never is enough.

At least not until the oppressed declare, “enough.” Until the oppressed rise up and resist, refusing to participate in a system that continues to exploit them, oppression endures. Until those who are held captive to mandates of working hard begin to shake its ideology and demand reciprocity, freedom, and a whole new way of being, Pharaoh will continue to demand their labor if not their very lives.

This is why the Israelites demand for liberation amidst Pharaoh’s thirst for more was so extremely radical. In fighting for their freedom, the Israelites expressed their absolute refusal to continue to be exploited by empire. They declared that they would no longer be slaves but also that they would no longer participate in the economics of the empire by exiting the land.

It is not enough to be liberated from the physical chains of slavery if the economic structures that were created as a result of slavery remain intact. If the economic structures remain as they are, one has to either leave the land, as in the case of the Israelities, or refuse to participate in it. Otherwise, our freedom is not really freedom, but new forms of slavery that continue to demand our labor (minimum wage job earners) and our blood (mass incarceration and police brutality).

What would that refusal look like for millions of Americans whose bodies are exploited for profit every single day? What would rejecting the ideology of working hard mean particularly when, in many cases, to not work like a maniac comes with its own set of consequences?

To me, refusal sometimes simply looks like ‘no.’ No to Pharaoh, no to the cultural expectation to work til I drop, no to the urge to add another demand, another meeting, another project, to an already overflowing plate. And ‘yes,’ yes to self-care, boundaries, relationships, healing, and long life. Yes to rest even when Pharaoh tells me that I should be working.

Is no radical? Yes – it is. When you say ‘no’ to Pharaoh and ‘yes’ to true freedom, love and happiness, trust and believe that he will not be happy. As in the case of the Israelites, no often comes with retaliation and sometimes further exploitation. This means that fighting to say no just so that you can rest comes with a cost. But it is a cost we must be willing to bear if we will ever secure the justice that we all fight so passionately about.

So today, I am saying no. In spite of the cost my no may entail, I proclaim it so that I may be truly freed from an economic system that continues to hold me captive. And Pharaoh? Pharaoh can go kick rocks.

Systemic Oppression: Understanding the Nature of Poverty in the U.S.

poor people's campaign
I still remember the first time I left the United States for a country other than Canada. The year was 2000 and I had just finished the 11th grade. After getting through the Y2K craze that year and all of the fearmongering that went with it (whatever were we thinking), I decided that I wanted to spend the first few weeks of my summer vacation on a mission’s trip. So I packed my bags and headed to the country of El Salvador, chosen because it was still fairly close to home and it would give me an opportunity to practice my Spanish speaking skills.

When we first arrived, I felt completely out of my element. I was in a strange land, eating strange food, with strange customs and surroundings that six years of taking Spanish couldn’t prepare me for. On top of that, I was not bonding with my teammates and one of the youth leaders got under my skin. Day two or three on the trip, I sat down and told God that He was going to have to make things better in order for me to be able to survive the next few weeks. And surprisingly, He did.

Things picked up very quickly. I adapted to my surroundings, and started to enjoy the open roof style of housing. I became accustomed to a steady diet of beans and rice in the morning and pupusas and Fanta in the evening, eaten while watching endless games of fútbol no doubt. And I grew to tolerate the bumpy rides between our ministry destination spots. Most of all, I took great joy in our ministry endeavors, knowing that because of us the salvadoran people might have a chance at eternal life. And not only did I think our efforts could transform their heavenly homes, but I thought that because of us, they might be able to find themselves out of their impoverished situations. I believed that if these folks could just put their trust in Jesus, that He would improve their way of living and transform their way of being.

When I returned to the States, once again I felt out of place but for a different reason. This time, my discomfort was as result of sensing that countries like El Salvador was where I needed to be. I needed to be ‘there’ instead of ‘here’ because of the devastation, because of the poverty, because of the despondency and I just knew that God would use me to transform the situation of ‘these’ people. It was this analysis that led me to pursue a degree in missions in college and is what defined my own faith experience for several years into my adult life. And as I looked around me, this same analysis is what defined the efforts of many ministries both here and abroad.

Many of us in the West have foolishly believed that individual choices, sin and poor values are what causes the poor to be poor, even we often find ourselves poor as well. We somehow think that if people would just get right and make good decisions, including following Jesus, pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps and just work harder that they would not find themselves in the predicaments they are in. But this analysis is not only shallow but it is flat out wrong for three reasons: (1) It fails to take into account the systems and acts of oppression that cause poverty and thereby fails to challenge those systems (2) It places the onus on the poor to find themselves out of it (3) It falsely equates material possessions with God’s blessing.

Systems of Oppression that Cause Poverty

The idea that all that it takes to escape poverty is the ability to make good decisions and work hard comes up short because it does not take into account the very systems that cause poverty. Immigration represents a great example of this, and particularly the immigration of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Central and South America. Political pundits, and whites who fear that undocumented latinos are after their jobs, tend to strongly resist immigration and only wish that these would go back to their country of origin. However, those who resist, including our government, never looks at policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which take away their lands, stripping them of their home and livelihood. With little hope of finding a job in their own country as a result of our policies, many undocumented immigrants come to America hoping to find greener pastures and are met with hostility. Largely, discussions revolve around who belongs and who doesn’t – we never talk about how revising or dismantling destructive foreign policies could make a difference here.

After decades of warring against drugs, we are just beginning to talk about how Reagan’s policies have wrecked utter havoc in the black community. Over the last 30 years, the war has unfairly profiled black children, women and men, arresting them for carrying small amounts of recreational drugs – sometimes with mandatory minimum sentences of 5 years (even with no other history of arrest or encounters with the law). Yet, the same war has ignored white users. Some estimates suggest that 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites.

This war has had negative impacts on many families within the African American community, including my own. When someone is sent to prison for possession, their family loses a potential income earner. After that person gets out of prison, they are often unable to find work because many employers will not hire someone with a record. But it gets worse: someone with a prison record cannot apply for many forms of government assistance, they cannot live in subsidized housing, they cannot apply for college loans, and in many cases they cannot vote so that they can have the power to elect someone into office who can change all of these policies. With no income, housing, or hope at building a brighter future after serving time that they never should have served in the first place, many become repeat offenders. This cycle of recidivism keeps many individuals and their families trapped in poverty. It is not about having good morals, believing Jesus, or working hard: it is about reforming a system completely designed to make profit at the expense of people of color.

Individualism and the Bootstrap Mentality

The analysis of hard work in order to exit poverty is also faulty because it places the onus on the poor to find themselves out of it, often further entrenching their situation. Safety nets that are so to say designed to lift up those who find themselves in desperate circumstances can sometimes prove to be more harmful than they are helpful. A July 2014 broadcast on MPR News tells of a young single mother named Lauren Boria who recently lost her job. Unable to find work, she decided to get on welfare so that she could meet some of her financial needs while she continued to search for work. But for Boria, welfare proved to be a huge an unanticipated burden. MPR reports:

Once Boria enrolled (in welfare), she started getting a check for $145 twice a month. But what she didn’t anticipate was that those checks would come with a whole new list of responsibilities.

The big requirement was that Boria had to show up for what’s called a work preparedness program, Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for three months. “It’s like a job, but you get no money for it,” she told me. “You have to go there ready for an interview, every day.”

But Boria says there never were any actual job interviews.

Boria’s story goes on to tell the transportation and child care costs associated with participating in the program, not to mention the big time suck it required. While $145 twice a month is not a whole lot of money, it is everything when you don’t have anything coming in. Is it better to take the money and jump through all of the hoops to get it? Is it better to put one’s job search literally on hold for 3 months just to get some semblance of security? Or is it better to walk away from the little bit that is guaranteed and risk complete financial ruin?

The poor are often forced to make choices that people of means would never have to. On a daily basis, those who are most vulnerable in our society are forced to choose between putting food on the table or putting gas in the car. Desperate parents choose to feed their kids and go to bed wallowing in hunger themselves. Not even qualified to get a job pushing carts at WalMart, the unemployed turn to alternative methods to get by. The underemployed string part time work together, balancing 2, 3 and sometimes 4 jobs – sometimes suffering fatal consequences. The decisions that people in this predicament face have less to do with failing to work hard and more to do with systemic inequities that privilege the 1 percent at the expense of the rest of us.

Material Possessions Does Not Equal God’s Blessing

This past fall, I had an opportunity to do some speaking on using the Lord’s Prayer as a Model for Social Justice, a model that I had recently put together. One of the points that I emphasized is that God has nearly 7 billion children (who are alive right now) that He loves and cares for. Understanding that God is holding it down for so many others should lead us to a place of also understanding that we are to share our resources and reject our tendency to hoard, to consume, to amass wealth and resources at the expense of others. As I taught this principle, someone pushed back against this idea believing that God just wants us to be happy. “He is my daddy and just wants to bless me,” the person suggested. She continued to suggest that because God wanted her to be happy, that she could essentially have access to anything and everything she wanted.

God is our Father, no doubt about it. And surely He wants us to be blessed. But He does not want us to be blessed at the expense of other people. He is not now, or has ever been, supportive of us amassing wealth and resources by oppressing other people. In fact, blessings derived from the wealth, work, and life of others is not blessing at all: it’s called theft!

In the West, and particularly in the United States, this is hard for many people to understand. Because our country, who claims to be influenced by Judeo-Christian values, has so much wealth and power in the world, many people assume that what we have is a sign of God’s blessing or favor upon us. We forget that our wealth was ill-gotten, built by exploiting American Indians, African Americans and others through the centuries of the nation’s existence.

For this reason, we cannot continue to believe that access to goods is a sign of divine providence. And the absence of it does not mean that God is withholding his favor. In fact, both are often very clear signs that there is a system of oppression at work, allowing those in the upper echelons of society to get filthy rich by exploiting others. Consider the widow whose story is told in 2 Kings 4.1-4:

A certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets cried out to Elisha, saying, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the Lord. And the creditor is coming to take my two sons to be his slaves.” So Elisha said to her, “What shall I do for you? Tell me, what do you have in the house?” And she said, “Your maidservant has nothing in the house but a jar of oil.” Then he said, “Go, borrow vessels from everywhere, from all your neighbors—empty vessels; do not gather just a few. And when you have come in, you shall shut the door behind you and your sons; then pour it into all those vessels, and set aside the full ones (NASB).”

The widow’s story is a clear example of a system of oppression fully at work. Throughout the Old Testament text, God makes it expressly clear that the people of Israel are to take care of the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant among them. But instead of being taken care of after the death of her husband, who worshipped God, the system intended to make her situation even worse by taking away her sons to be slaves – most likely her only hope of economic security.

Unfortunately, this country is full of people whose stories mirror that of the widow’s. And Boria’s. Who have lost their land as a result of U.S. Foreign and Trade policies. Who have been unjustly profiled for generations simply because of the color of their skin. Who have lost jobs in the recession. Who have lost homes after caring for a loved one. We are not suffering as a result of not working hard or for our lack of belief in God who provides; we are being destroyed because the system is unfairly stacked against us. The sooner that we realize this, that poverty is a result of systemic oppression, the sooner we can rally together to change it.