Are the poor culturally distant from Christ?


A good friend of mine, Brandon Eidson, emailed me a blog post from Justin Taylor the other week that was basically a selection from yet another blog post by David French. I want to respond to the entire blog post made by David French entitled “Our Depraved Poor” .

First, let me respond to the part of the post that Justin Taylor re-posted on his blog. To be short, “YES!”. The work of the Gospel, the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of a person who has submitted themselves to Jesus Christ of Nazareth as Lord and Savior, is the only work that can bring new life and set people free. Our sin is a very big problem and we desperately need to be reconciled to God, our Father, through His Son, so that we might live the new creation life of His Spirit. I agree that our efforts at “service” is in vain without the work of the Holy Spirit changing peoples hearts. This will involve what may be called “evangelism” – a verbal proclamation of the facts of the Gospel. I don’t mean “proclamation” as standing on a pedestal and shouting through a list of facts in a matter of seconds. I just mean that our service, our actions, our lifestyles, need to be explained in words that people can hear and understand. So, good job David French. However, the rest of the post… not so much.

French begins the post with this statement:

It is past time to admit a very hard truth: America’s poverty problem is also a depravity problem.

…because obviously rich people don’t sin ;).  Now, I know he doesn’t mean to say that poverty = depravity, or the other way around. Obviously, we are all depraved and we live in all sorts of socio-economic categories. Does depravity, or sin, cause poverty? Sure. I would say poverty is a result of all kinds of evil in our world, both personal and structural. We are all depraved and our bad decisions will sometimes result in our own poverty and sometimes in the poverty of others (even though we tend to put all the blame for poverty on the individual). So, I guess I just don’t get the point of making this statement at all. We’re all depraved and that is a problem. Some of us are poor and that is problem. Therefore, the poverty problem, just like EVERY OTHER PROBLEM in the world, is a depravity problem.

He goes on to say that

Simply put, any anti-poverty efforts not aimed at getting kids to complete an education, get married, and stay married are a waste of time.

After this statement, he quotes from a post by Walter Russell Mead, who discusses the findings of a recent sociological study that show a significant decline in church attendance amongst the poor and less-educated. He then goes on to describe how church attendance teaches middle-class values, which he believes, as shown in his statement above, will lift the poor out of poverty. He summarizes by saying,

Providing material support without contributing to cultural change is an exercise in futility and is often harmful.  And the key to culture is Christ.

In short, the poor need Jesus but have never been culturally more distant from Him.

He then makes the points that Justin Taylor re-posted, the ones that I agree with. But, let’s just stop right here because this summary is preposterous to me. The poor are culturally distant from Christ? Really? The same Christ who identifies Himself with the naked, the hungry, the sick, and the prisoner in Matthew 25? French has got this all wrong. First, as stated above, yes – the poor need Jesus, just like the rich and everyone in between. Second, the poor are not culturally distant from Christ. The Church is culturally distant from Christ and hence they are culturally distant from the poor. No, I don’t believe that the poor have some sort of special, all access, one way pass to relationship with Christ that is given to them because they are poor that would somehow allow them to bypass coming to Christ apart from the witness of His Body, the Church. However, I don’t think you can claim that the culture of poverty is somehow distant from Christ, at least not any more distant than any other type of culture. Also, I’m not exactly sure what he means, or who he is drawing from, when he says, “The key to culture is Christ”. I’m not quite well read enough to pick up on the coded language (H. Richard Niebuhr maybe??).

French seems to be implying that the poor need to learn middle-class values – education, marriage, and family life – in order to lift themselves out of poverty. He then seems to make the argument that believing the Gospel and seeking Christ in discipleship will teach these middle-class values. His logic goes like this:

  1. Poverty is caused by depravity
  2. The Gospel is the only cure for depravity
  3. Any anti-poverty effort that does not include middle-class values is worthless
  4. Accepting the Gospel must include the adoption of middle-class values if you don’t want to be poor

Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but this seems so dumb on so many levels.

First, the statistical evidence he claims for this argument is pretty… simplistic. He basically says that its a fact that people who lead middle class lives are very rarely poor. Really? That’s like saying the people who live in a pineapple under the sea are rarely dry. Of course the middle class people aren’t poor – they are middle class. Second, I’m pretty sure there are married people who have lots of children that are poor. Also, there are plenty of rich and middle class people who are divorced and have very unhealthy family relationships. Finally, Christ stands over against ALL culture. Middle class culture is not excluded. The extent to which the Church has adopted middle class culture as its own is testament to the extent of its slavery to and idolatry of middle class culture. Surely, we are worshiping other gods.  Yes, the poor need Christ, but that does not mean they need middle-class values.

Christ challenges us all, in the same way, with the same challenge. I think if we, the Church, want to help the poor, we must invest our whole lives, as a community, in their lives. The Gospel is not a commodity that can be exchanged. It is a life to be embodied together. We must invite the poor into that life. We must find ways to live together. What we don’t need is a Church that is so enslaved to middle-class culture that is sees no other viable lifestyle outside of that culture.

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One comment on “Are the poor culturally distant from Christ?

  1. Amanda Y says:

    I really enjoyed reading that. I even laughed out loud about the pineapple under the sea :)

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