Prophetic Priorities for the Poor and Democratic Duty Dichotomies: A Spin Off

One area for me that makes the discussion concerning Christian responsibility for the poor more of a complex one, is the reality that we do not live under Caesar and the Roman Empire, but rather in imperial America we have a democracy, which means we (everyone not just politicians) in some form take the place of Caesar (as the government). This means that we are accountable for the policies and laws of the land as individuals, in as much as our small voice, vote, and communal activity has influence. And it is clear that laws and policies can systemically have favorable or adverse consequences on the lives of poor people (and everyone else).  How does this play into the discussion of Christian responsibility for the poor? As Christians, as has already been stated, we are responsible to sacrifice, serve, and find solidarity with the poor as a part of our faithful witness. This responsibility is not to be a dichotomy in our lives where aspects of us are concerned for the poor and other aspects are not, rather it is a holistic totality of our being. By this I mean that we must consider our spending habits, our social circles, our speech/deed enactments, our exposure, and the various means that we have accessible to us as Christians to impact the lives of those who are socio-economically disenfranchised. One of the means available to us, as I began to discuss, is that of democratic influence. Certainly none of us are Caesar, and therefore we cannot snap and get whatever we want to be manifested. However, that does not remove the responsibility for us to do what we can faithfully. That is where the prophetic tradition and the Anabaptist tradition have been extremely helpful for me, given the reality that most Christians traditions have not been holistic in their response to those most marginalized, and likewise most Christian individuals politically are puppets for our imperial political parties, having nothing else to add other than their particular political parties ideology (of course with their Christianity-ism slant).

The prophetic tradition, evident in the likes of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and Martin Luther King understood (even without democratic opportunity) that as Christians they have a responsibility to impact the fallen broken social order that they are a part of through a violent clash of ethics, values, and theological vision. It was their faith that shaped and motivated them to seek political change inspired by God’s revolutionary Kingdom.

On the other hand, the Anabaptist community is one of the few Christian communities in America that have continually been holistic in its understanding of our responsibility to the poor. They give generously, serve continually, and they even teach to sacrifice luxuries and comforts so they are able to give as a basic tenet of Christian faith and identity. Sacrifice and service (for the poor rather than one’s own church’s institution) is rarely one of the ABC’s of most church’s teachings.

In America, the closest thing to modeling the life and teachings of Jesus, as it relates to ministry to, for, and with the poor is seen clearest in my opinion when we do not get excited about which tradition has the best doctrine and systemic theology, but rather when we are ecstatic about traditions that have faithful theological vision and are obedient in embodying this divine narrative concretely in their communities and contexts.

The thing that is great about the gospel is that it is comprehensive. It is about Newness; New life, New Humanity, New Jerusalem, and New Creation.   The gospel is that Jesus came and ushered in a new social order in the midst of our old, decaying, and fallen social order. And in Christ, we can be a part of and experience this divine renewal of all things right now. So yes, as the Church it is our responsibility to be salt and light and our responsibility to care for the poor, which means we must be faithfully bearing witness and making a difference in all spheres of our influence, including our democratic system through prophetic  stance.  So sacrifice, give, share, vote, speak out, and stand alongside the poor as the active implementation of God’s gospel is rehearsed in your lives.

Published by Drew G. I. Hart, PhD

Drew G. I. Hart is a theology professor in the Biblical & Religious Studies department at Messiah College with ten years of pastoral experience. Hart majored in Biblical Studies at Messiah College as an undergraduate student, he attained his M.Div. with an urban concentration from Missio Seminary in Philadelphia, and he received his Ph.D. in theology and ethics from Lutheran Theological Seminary-Philadelphia. Drew was born and raised in Norristown, Pa and has lived extensively in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, PA as well. Dr. Hart’s dissertation research explored how Christian discipleship, as framed by Black theologies and contemporary Anabaptist theologies, gesture the Church towards untangling the forces of white supremacy and the inertia of western Christendom which have plagued its witness in society for too long. As two traditions that emerged from the underside of violent and oppressive western Christian societies, he found Black theology and Anabaptism each repeatedly turning to the particularity of Jesus in the gospel narratives. From that arises an ethic of solidarity with the oppressed and pursuing liberation in Black theology and an ethic of radical peacemaking and ecclesial nonconformity in the Anabaptist tradition. Each challenge the violent and oppressive logics of mainstream western Christianity and salvage the call to follow the way of Christ. Together in dialogue they deepen our analysis of the churches failures and the need for Jesus-shaped repentance. His work beyond teaching and writing has included pastoring in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, working for an inner-city afterschool program for black and brown middle school boys, delivering lectures and leading anti-racism workshops, collaborating with local faith-based organizers and activists in his city, and doing a broad range of public theology. He is also a co-leader for a local Harrisburg faith-based relational network called FREE Together which has collaborated with POWER Interfaith, MILPA, the Shut Down Berks Detention Center movement, and a little with the Poor People’s Campaign. Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew Hart, has received great reviews by Publisher’s Weekly and Englewood Review of Books. Endorsing this resource, Shane Claiborne said, “This book is a gift from the heart of one of the sharpest young theologians in the United States. Hold it carefully, and allow it to transform you--and our blood-stained streets.” As a text, Trouble I’ve Seen utilizes personal and everyday stories, Jesus-shaped theological ethics, and anti-racism frameworks to transform the church’s understanding and social witness. Trouble I’ve Seen focuses on white supremacy as an overarching framework for understanding racism, with careful attention to its systemic and socializing dimensions. However, unlike sociology textbooks on the subject Dr. Hart also considers the subversive vocation of Jesus and the nonviolent yet revolutionary implications his life ought to have for his followers today. His newest book project is entitled Who Will Be a Witness?: Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance and will be published September 1, 2020. Who Will Be A Witness? invites the church to liberate its centuries long captivity to supremacist practices, and to expand its restricted political imagination in view of Jesus’ messianic reign. The book guides disciples of Jesus into joining God’s delivering presence through scriptural reasoning, historical reflection, practical theology for congregational life, social change theory, and the Christian call to love our neighbor. It is written for congregations, leaders, and students that understand that pursuing God’s justice goes way beyond waiting around for electoral seasons to come around. It is about the ongoing vocation of the Church right now, at the grassroots level, seeking after the wellbeing of their neighbors through faithful, strategic, and concrete action. Drew recently joined the Inverse Podcast team serving as a cohost along with Australian peace activist Jarrod Mckenna. Together they interview interesting people and explore how scripture can turn our ethical imagination and the violent and unjust systems of our world upside-down, which contrasts with interpreting the Bible as a tool for the status quo. Dr. Drew Hart was the recipient of bcmPEACE’s 2017 Peacemaker Award, a 2019 W.E.B. Dubois Award from a Disciples of Christ congregation, and in October 2019, Dr. Hart was chosen as Elizabethtown College’s 2019 Peace Fellow. Each award recognized him for his local and national justice work and public theology. You can find Drew Hart on Twitter and Facebook, or you can catch him as he travels and speaks regularly across the country to colleges, conferences, and churches. Drew and Renee, and their three boys (Micah, Dietrich, and Vincent) live in Harrisburg, PA and attend Harrisburg First Church of the Brethren.

4 thoughts on “Prophetic Priorities for the Poor and Democratic Duty Dichotomies: A Spin Off

  1. Drew, well said. I am in agreement. As you said because we live in a republic, there are some inferred or implied responsibilities for the Christian and you have so eloquently pointed these out. We should vote, keep abreast of the issues, work for just and righteous laws and hold our elected officials accountable which includes critiquing positions and policies as you addressed in your previous post concerning Mitt Romney. All of this is to be tempered with prayer and respect as the apostle Paul illustrates in I Tim. 2:1-4. So there is no question that we must both be involved in the political square and tangibly address the need as we have opportunity. The complexity for me is the state of our republic. Because of the corruptive effect lobbying is having upon our government (amongst other things) it is becoming increasingly more difficult to produce favorable effects on the plight of the poor through governmental policy. So even though we have a voice through our vote it is not speaking as loudly as the voice of the people and corporations that have the most money. Our government is looking more and more like ancient Rome. What do we do in this case? Also another area that I would like your opinion is: “What are Christians to do in those areas where there is no democracy but rather a dictatorship?” Are Christians to rise up and overthrow the dictator? I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the “Arab Spring”.

    1. Good questions. I definitely agree that the democracy has been over seized because of money in politics, resulting in a few wealthy individuals and corporations practically determining our electoral process through their unlimited donations. I wish I had some great answer on how to respond best as a Christian, but I have no great inspiration on such things. All I can to is point to the prophetic Christian tradition and believe that the path forward relates to prophetic witness to the nation concerning idolatry and injustice. Jesus’ example is perfect. While we do not see any direct clash between Jesus and Caesar himself, Jesus certainly has a lot to say about the corruption of wealth and calling everyone (Jew and Gentile) from it. Scholars have also noted a fair share of political critique in the synoptic gospels that make sense when we understand both context and historical discourse that had been taking place, often we miss these critiques without such background. Still, this is all so far talking about prophetic critique as God’s mouthpiece.
      I think, Jesus’ interaction with the Establishment in Jerusalem (echoes of Jeremiah 7) do demonstrate that at times, as the body of Christ must make judgement against centralized power through resistance. But this must not be done by whim, but prayerfully rooted in theological vision and imagination and cognitively founded in God’s story and narrative, here and now in our 21st Century world. Therefore, I believe resistance is necessary at times, but that it must be a “lamb’s war” that is faithful to the calling of bearing one’s cross rather than the same violent tactics of our fallen and broken world. So I think Birmingham, 1963, is a great illustration of such possibilities.
      I don’t think that we have the right to overthrow a government just because it is run by a dictator. The more important question for me is, is the government actually governing. Does it provide order and administer justice. Those are the responsibilities of government. If an individual is nothing more than an oppressive tyrant that produces chaos, they are not “government” in my eyes and one is needed. I would see a response in this case as more constructive than destructive, more about forming a true government, rather than replacing one. This option is not about agreeing or disagreeing with particular tax policies, but a very serious indictment on an individual or group’s complete failure to live up to their vocation.
      Let me know if I didn’t answer your question sufficiently. Those are my thoughts, what are yours?

      1. Drew,
        I am in agreement with you concerning civil disobedience. Your point about the difference between disagreeing over tax polices versus an individual’s complete failure to live up to there vocation highlights the way I make my stance on various issues known. I believe that the church has a responsibility to address those areas where it is very clear that a government position is in direct conflict with God’s position on the matter. We have the Word of God for consultation on such matters and we would do well to use it and stand by it. However there are some issues, though while very troubling to me, I would say that the church would be wise not to take a public or official stance because we run the risk of damaging our prophetic witness. Many times we as Christians simply do not have the expertise nor the necessary information to make a thorough declaration. So for me to answer the question I/we would need to take each issue individually. I won’t take the time to go over each one here, but one current issue that is one my mind is our approach with Iran. Again I think this is one of those issues where we simply do not have enough information to take an educated position. My opinion, (which I would not express beyond this forum in any official capacity) based on the information that I have seems to be in direct opposition to our administration. I must admit I am very surprised that President Obama is taking a hard line approach here. I am not necessarily a pacifist but I certainly lean toward making peace versus war. So I am concerned why many professing Christians, with perhaps the same information that I have, insist that we should pursue military action. I am perplexed as to how one could come to that conclusion.

      2. You are right on point! I think that the only explanation of such “perplexing” christian approaches, is the reality that Christians have taken Jesus out of the equation, and instead have chosen self-interest and self-preservation in replace of a cross-shaped perspective.

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