Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: poverty

The Nameless Crowd

     I recently gave a talk about global economics and Christianity. It’s a pretty simple topic to go on, really. All you need to do is show how mind-bogglingly screwed up the distribution of wealth and resources is, then point to the bucketful of prophets and apostles who say that if we aren’t fixing it we’re working against God’s will. I’ve given talks like this a few times in different churches.

     But something slapped me in the face this time.

     I was reading up on the story Jesus told about Dives and Lazarus. You’ve heard the story. Lazarus was a beggar who lived outside of Dives’ house. He was destitute, homeless and covered in painful sores. Dogs used to lick them. The he died. Jesus says that after he died he got carried by angels to a nice place. Then Dives died. His place wasn’t nearly so nice. Jesus suggests guilt on Dives because of Lazarus. Not necessarily because it was Dives who caused Lazarus’ destitution, but because he didn’t give a damn.

     The neatest thing, though, is that Dives didn’t really have a name. If you read the story itself, it just calls him ‘The Rich Man’. Dives is just Latin for rich man. Meanwhile the dying beggar, covered in disease, is called Lazarus. Jesus gives this character the name of one of his best buddies.

     The wealthy, influential and, likely, well-admired hard-working dude is nameless. He’s a nobody. A stat on a page. Just the rich guy.

     The beggar, dying in the streets, ignored and forgotten in his suffering, has a name. A beloved name. A name that people like Jesus care about. Suddenly, in the midst of his horrible circumstance, Jesus gives that character dignity, while subtly taking it away from the one we would have thought was important.

     If you’re reading this blog, I’d wager that you are rich. At least in the top ten percent of wage-earners in the world. And since you have the Internet, you probably know about the suffering that goes on in the world, just like the unnamed rich man did. He did nothing about it, and lost his dignity and importance.

The rich man was guilty because he ignored the poor man’s plight, did nothing about his destitution, failed to use his affluence to relieve the poor man’s need, and acquiesced in a situation of gross economic inequality which had dehumanized Lazarus and which he could have remedied. The pariah dogs who licked the poor man’s wounds showed more compassion towards him that the rich man. Dives went to hell not because he had exploited Lazarus, but because of his scandalous indifference and apathy.
– John Stott – Issues Facing Christians Today

Why I Occupy Toronto

     I was at the Occupy Toronto protest these last two days. I’ll be there a lot as the weeks go on because I think it’s an important movement.

     A lot of folks are dismissive of it. Some are downright hostile. I hear some of the arguments repeated.

     I’m told that, since I live in a wealthy country, it’s hypocritical to protest greed. Our poor, some say, are on par with the rich in many countries. I’ve heard Occupy rhetoric compared to Nazi propaganda. I’ve heard the movement dismissed as a bunch of whiny middle-class white folks who wish they could be upper-class white folks.

     All this is nothing more than a complete misunderstanding of what the Occupy movement is all about.

  • We don’t want wealth. And we don’t hate the rich, either. Our problem is with the corporate-dominated system that has created global economic inequality. Real people are starving and social mobility is a myth for many in Canada and around the world.
  • We want to start dialogue and draw people’s attention to some very pressing issues. Globally, the top 1% are using corporate power to influence governments for their own benefit. Policies are put into place that keeps the poor down and boosts the wealthy up. The few are using power in a way that abuses the many.
  • We’ve been called vague and leaderless. I suppose that’s justified because we are wildly different people. We are liberals and conservatives, libertarians and communists – all united in the realization that our current, corporately-run system is perpetuating a system of global economics that is destroying lives and pushing developing countries and the lower classes down.
  • We don’t have all the answers. We are a voice that is trying to inform people of the problem. We don’t mind if people scoff and dismiss us. We don’t mind the insulting cartoons and the people calling us lazy fools and greedy hippies. We don’t have all the answers, because our movement is about starting dialogue and asking questions. Answers will come once enough people come together and see that the problem is not that the poor don’t work hard enough or anything else so impossibly simplistic.
  • While it’s true that Canada has not been hit as hard by the recession as many other nations, there are still economic problems in our own borders. Since the 1980s, the top 20% wealthiest Canadians enjoyed a 16.4% increase in median earnings while the bottom 20% had a 20.6% drop. Nearly 5% of Canadians live at ‘Basic Needs Poverty.’ And these are, globally, good numbers.
  • The global system of corporate greed mixed with politics is against the messages of love and justice of God (Is. 10:1-3, Ez. 16:49ff).

     Now, I bet a lot of you will be disagreeing with me. I bet a lot of you are still convinced that our movement is disruptive, angry and somehow Nazi and Communist at the same time. I want to invite you, instead of posting angry things on the Internet, to come on down to St. James park and visit us. Grab some free, home-made soup and a coffee and chill in our library tent. Strike up a conversation with a stranger and ask why they are there. And ask another, too, because we’re a diverse crowd and three different people will give you three different answers. Don’t take the media’s word for what’s going on down here and don’t take mine, either. Take the time to understand us and why we’re here.

     There are three things you can do in regards to the Occupy movement, as it spreads across the world. You could ignore it, and just see what happens. You could speak out against it, calling the poor lazy and the wealthy hard-worker job creators. Or you could join the talk. Listen to us and we’ll listen to you. Because, odds are, you’re the 99%, too. And your voice is important.

New Testament Gathering Principles

    Dr. Zaius, you silly orangutan.

Three monkeys

     I preach sometimes. I grew up in a nifty restorationist denomination that was formed in an attempt to get back to ‘New Testament Gathering Principles’. The founders figured that the organized church had drifted pretty far from the pattern of being Christ’s body that he had originally laid down. Sounds good, eh?

     I decided to preach on New Testament gathering principles last week. If you drop by in one of the churches from my denomination there’s a chance you’ll hear a sermon with this title. It’s pretty popular. I can’t count how many of them I heard growing up. Usually they’re about how we need to say ‘assembly’ instead of ‘church’ or how women aren’t allowed to talk or lead or go around without doilies on their head. I wanted to get a bit closer to the core in my sermon, though. Here’s some gathering principles I shared:

  • Famous for Love – John 13:34-35; 15:12. A quick Google search shows that the top four adjectives for describing evangelicals are ‘Insane,’ ‘Crazy,’ ‘Dangerous,’ and ‘Scary.’ Jesus said that people would know we were with him if we were famous for love.
  • Devoted to the Apostle’s Teaching – Acts 2:42. What did they teach? The same stuff that Jesus taught. Love. More love. Lots of love. The kind of love that leads you to die for strangers and enemies. Devoted to that.
  • Community – Acts 2:44-46; 4:32. No, not the wildly funny TV show. Living with such a sense of unity that we share everything we have. No private property. Like having a wildly big family. Most churches are clubs that meet on Sunday. The pattern was a community of people who lived and loved together all the time.
  • Productive, Risky Social Action – Acts 4:34. People quote Jesus in saying that the poor will always be with us as an excuse not to help eliminate poverty. It’s a good thing Jesus is still alive, otherwise I think he’d be turning over in his grave to hear such talk. The first followers eliminated poverty amongst their circles. It was risky, but it worked. Good pattern.
  • Making Disciples – Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:47. Not converts. Jesus never tried to get the Samaritan woman to convert to Judaism. His call was never convert. It was follow. Repent. Walk. Move. He didn’t come so that our theological statements could be more logically consistent than a Muslim’s. He came to reproduce.

     My people left the Anglican church because their leaders were more concerned with robes and ceremonies than they were with the things that Jesus said. I hope that we can always be moving in a restorationist direction, or else we’ll find ourselves, like Dr. Zaius, pushing truth away because it comes in a different box than we’re used to

Fire and Brimstone

I can picture the preacher. Black suit. Dark tie. Stony face. He stands there atop the platform, takes the glass in his strong hand and drinks. He puts the glass back down and looks over the crowd, waiting and expectant. He takes a breath, raises his hand and begins to preach.

“This land,” he says, voice already at a yell, “is hanging over the pit of hellfire! This land, this evil, abominable culture we have found ourselves in, is against God in the most perverted ways imagined. Only the great and unfathomable mercies of Jehovah have held the fire and brimstone from consuming this country as it consumed Sodom and her whoredom so long ago. But do not presume on the mercies of God! There is a limit! A limit of the deviant sin that God will be willing to put up with. I tell you, brothers and sisters, if this land will not repent of its grave iniquity, it will be consumed just like that city of old that has become a byword for sin so heinous I can hardly bring myself to give it utterance.

“What? Are there those among you who think that our country and culture is not so bad? Worldly! Deceived! Sons and daughters of a liberal, post-Christian age! Can you not see? Have you not heard what the Lord has done to those nations that have turned to the sins that our culture and politicians are embracing? God points the finger at the political parties who have allowed this sin, most horrid, to become accepted, nay, applauded. God points the finger to the citizens who do not care or raise their voices against the sin of Sodom that has become so popular. God points the finger even at the Church, his whore bride, who plays the part of Sodom with more and more liberty now than ever. Never before has the Church been more like Sodom than today! And you think God does not hear? You think God does not see? Shame! Shame and judgement! The judgement of God shall fall upon us all soon, for the philosophy and practices of Sodom are with us, unchanged by time.”

He pauses to take a breath, I think. Another sip of water. And then he opens his Bible and, in a soft voice, reads.

“Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

Insidious

The pope was in Portugal a little while ago to give his traditional Mass at Fatima’s Sanctuary. While giving his speech he denounced homosexual marriage and said that it was one of “today’s most insidious and dangerous threats to the common good.”

Does that get you thinking? It gets me thinking. Here’s what I started thinking:

What are today’s greatest threats to the common good?

Here’s the list I brainstormed:

  • Nuclear Proliferation. There are about 22,000 nuclear warheads in the world. Apparently it would only take 500-600 warheads to kill every human on the planet. That’s too bad, eh? And now that wild countries like North Korea, Iran and Pakistan are getting their hands on the things, it seems pretty stressful. It’s a good thing Obama is taking steps to get rid of them, but it still feels like a threat to the common good to have these thing laying around, eh?
  • Extreme Global Poverty. I think I’ve mentioned this one before. 53% of all deaths in the world are hunger-related. That’s 35 million or so. I figure anything that accounts for more than half of all deaths is a hefty threat, don’t you? This is even more threatening than nuclear proliferation, I think. At least the nukes aren’t killing us yet. Hunger is.
  • Religious Violence. 85 people died a few days ago in Pakistan because they prayed in the wrong kind of mosque. I search for words to use against the sorts of people who choose violence to solve religious disagreements. I found the words, but I imagine I’d lose a lot of my audience if I actually used them. They are not nice words.
  • Malice. Ah, malice. That deep, enigmatic urge that drives man to hurt man. Can you imagine what the world would be like without it? I bet it’d be pretty good. Think of all the things that would go away! Violence, passive-agressive stuff, spite, all gone! Malice may be just about the worst urge a person can have. Would you call it a threat to the common good? I should hope so.
  • War. Armed, violent conflict between nations. The only sure outcome of war is dead people. And since war is always on a national level, it’s usually a lot of dead people. And whenever something leads to a lot of dead people, I consider it a threat to the common good, don’t you?
  • Ignorance. Great evil is often born out of ignorance. Some of the textbooks at the school I taught at in Pakistan said that 9/11 was pulled off by Israel in an attempt to get the US to destroy the Muslim world. This, of course, is breeding a new generation of young people who consider the West to be an implacable enemy. This gives birth to Taliban. This sucks.
  • I look at this list, coming just off the top of my ill-informed head, and I find a desire to ask one question of the Pope: “Amid these insidious and dangerous threats to the common good, where does homosexual marriage fit?”