“Poor People” as Other: Changing the Subject to “our” Challenges of and Living with Poverty

[1] Sending Forth (Assisting Minister):“Go in peace; remember the poor.”

The liturgical “Sending Forth” in the congregation where I worship is the point of departure for this discussion of poverty in the US. In a country as large as ours, attitudes, worldviews, even cultural patterns and practices differ from region to region, rendering problematic any generalizations that can be drawn about social groups and related trends. Therefore, much of this examination references patterns of poverty and attitudes typical of the Southeastern US, though in some cases, generalization is possible to patterns in the US overall.

[2] In the 2014 Economic Report of the President, released in March, one section of the report concentrated on poverty rates in the 50 years since Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty,” and the launch of programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, plus the early education equalizing program, Head Start. The short story is that in the 50 years since full and directed governmental attention to alleviating poverty began, little has changed for the most economically vulnerable Americans. In the small town that provided the 1964 “face of poverty,” Inez, of Martin County, KY, longitudinal data reveal generational cycles of poverty, with half of the residents 16 or over relying on governmental programs — food stamps or Social Security, disability or retirement benefits – in some form. In this coal mining town, and with the US looking to cleaner and more sustainable sources of energy, there are not enough jobs to support families in lifestyles that are any different. (1,2)

[3] Christian theologies, and church bodies, have a long standing tradition of caring for neighbors and preaching the gospel as the “good news.” The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), as told by Jesus, invites the moral agent into right human relationships, and challenges the xenophobia of cultural norms in first century Palestine, as well as those of today. The parable defines the neighbor as “one who needs you,” placing the onus on every individual to take another look, to re-view, the “one who needs you,” as a human being, as another member of our re-formed human family constituted by the grace of the narrator of the story. To this, Luther adds, “that is how God’s Word proceeds. It challenges the whole world. It reaches into the mouth of the lords and the princes and of everyone else, denouncing and cursing their whole way of life.” 3 Indeed, the parable of the Good Samaritan calls us, for the sake of the world, into relationship with “those who need us” as our neighbors, overturning conventions, creating and righting relationships, and forging partnerships of “have-nots” with “haves.”

[4] The Great Commission, according to Matthew 28:18-20, similarly makes no cultural, national, or ethnic distinction among those who may hear the good news. Still, it has informed various theologies of sharing the good news, the content of that evangelion, and the meaning of baptism in communities that share a similar confession. As Lutherans, we confess that the “I” of faith is a free gift of God, through the Holy Spirit, and that nothing can stand between our faith and our salvation – the reconciled possibility of complete and grace-filled relationship with God in the whole of creation. The possibility of complete and whole relationships in the re-newed family of God is affirmed as we recall our baptism. It is the hope of the whole creation and the Holy Creator fully reconciled with relationships fully restored. So the Great Commission, too, provides Lutherans with clarity in recognizing the neighbor, and also offers a shared hope for all creation made new in the waters of baptism.

[5] While ELCA social service organizations, such as ELCA Advocacy and ELCA World Hunger focus their efforts on policy changes in hopes of creating a longer term impact on food security issues and poverty both in this country and around the world, the current congregational/community missional model is that of direct relief delivery, such as food pantries, clothes closets, etc. While this may very well provide some immediate, and perhaps, some short term relief, the strategy can also backfire and create just enough relief to negatively impact people whose situations are the most precarious. Additionally, studies such as those done by the Bane (2011), determine that these community direct relief efforts have yielded little impact in reducing poverty or creating positive or enduring sociocultural changes. Collectively, American Christians give billions of dollars to poverty relief efforts, but it is direct humanitarian work, performed by Americans for others, that paints the picture of global engagement that religious Americans hold. Sometimes, business development is a planned part of the strategy for relief, but public institution building during such efforts are almost never part of a plan of attack for poverty around the world or in the country. In the five decades since the declaration of the “war on poverty,” not only has American Christianity made little difference in the lives of our neighbors who need us, but American Christians, are less likely to engage in caring for their neighbors than in previous decades. What is happening and why?

[6] On the sociopolitical left, analysts and ethicists concentrate on the structural conditions, racialized as they are in the South in ways particular to Southern history, as they participate in generationally perpetuated poverty among African Americans, Native Americans, in inner cities and in the rural areas as well. These structural considerations present themselves differently from cultural group to cultural group, and vary by location from city to rural area.

[7] Theologies that inform this sociopolitical view are those that develop their theology from a historico-cultural reading of the law and gospel. They take seriously the social and historical location of Jesus of Nazareth as a first century Jew, filled with post-exilic apocalyptic hope, awaiting an intervention from God, while living in the empire of Rome the worshiped the cult of the emperors. These theologies easily lend themselves to a practical and lived-theology that understands people who live in poverty as neighbors who needs us. God-with-us in Jesus is God’s grace and reconciliation for us in a man who is poor, making the good news, first, good news to the whole of creation, with no exceptions. God’s reconciling work in Jesus is salvific for all of the world, as we live into the story of God’s redeeming work in Jesus, restoring sight to the blind, preaching good news to the previously silenced, ignored, forgotten, and inordinately burdened. The good news is, make no mistake, a proclamation that the Lord’s favor has come (Luke 4:19), and no one who accepts this good news shall be an outsider again. Direct or service organizational ministries to people living in poverty (and their allies), then, is associated with theologies that see Jesus as Christ, with his redeeming and grace-filled work, as inextricably linked to ministry with the neighbors who need us. Stated differently, our faith and salvation is bound up with service with the whole of creation, to all humanity, with no exclusions.

[8] These historically grounded, or liberation, theologies may or may not be associated with the often-called conservative or liberal poles of theological thought about the nature of reality. On the question of the nature of reality, conservative theology understands revelation to take place via a variety of means, including ways that may transcend the physical world (they may be metaphysical), and they may defy human logic. By contrast, the liberal religious thinker argues that the nature of reality is such that it occurs within human history and can be explained by reasoned arguments; thus revelation, to the liberal thinker, can be explained, documented, replicated, and often measured. It is important to note that the conservative/liberal distinction does not necessarily exist in relationship with the historico-cultural reading of the gospel. The salient point here is that the understanding of “good news” to the whole creation is far more dependent upon a given community’s communal reading of the gospel, practice of missiology, and explicit theology than so-called liberal, progressive, or conservative theologies.5

[9] The sociopolitical right looks at patterns of individual behaviors and of cultural factors and worldviews as they contribute to patterns of generational, cyclical poverty. As these analyses often paint a picture of people living in poverty as somehow “different” from the implicit and mostly explicit values of the evaluators, the emerging snapshot can be viewed as “bad,” “inferior,” even “aberrant.” In other words, these analysts proclaim their own patterns of behavior, cultural factors and worldviews as normative, a methodology that automatically invalidates the “difference” in priorities and life-situations developed by people in response to perilous social conditions.

[10] There is merit in this kind of analysis, however. Every community of accountability benefits from interrogating its own patterns of behavior, priorities, and values. Note, however, that these particular communities are interrogating themselves, rather than being subjected to an “outside” normative standard that is, by design, methodologically predisposed to find communities of difference as deviant.6 Elsewhere, I have written about womanist ethics, for instance, as a site of communal ethical deliberation by and for women of color (and allies) whose perspective centers on the intersecting oppressions of race, gender, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation. Ethical deliberation within communities themselves allows communities to understand the social, cultural, and spiritual performances of community members using their own norms, conventions, and values.​

[11] Whether oriented to the left or right, both these sociocultural analyses view people affected by and living with precarious financial circumstances as either helpless victims trapped within webs of social and structural systems (left), or overly gifted for their situations, but accompanied by a host of squandered opportunities and a hopeless inability to free themselves (right).

[12] Using a theological analysis of values (sometimes tacit, but communally agreed-upon priorities and attitudes or performed consensus-driven attitudes or priorities in dominant discursive patterns) embedded in the rhetoric around poverty in the South, I observed two problematic patterns:

Not recognizing our neighbors in need: pathologizing living in poverty

[13] In North Carolina, the “war on poverty” looks more like a state-sponsored “war on (“they” are too expensive) poor people.” Fueled by a 2012 majority of social conservatives in public office, this cohort of lawmakers reversed the 2008 politically purple policies, instituted draconian voter rights changes, and, more important for this discussion, radically reduced funding for unemployment insurance and the very definition of being “unemployed.” Not only did North Carolina lawmakers reduce the number of weeks a worker can receive benefits from 99 (with federal government support) to 19, with the maximum weekly dollar amount slashed roughly 33% from around $350, the lawmakers’ stated priority in enacting these changes was “necessary” to reduce the state’s indebtedness to the federal government. If we read the performance of priorities in the state, we see that lawmakers acted to reduce the state’s debt to the federal government, and this was more important than the state’s falling to 44th of the fifty states in unemployment compensation rate.

[14] North Carolina’s governor, Pat McCrory, publicly celebrated a recorded drop in state unemployment some seven months after the changes above first became law in July 2013. McCrory touted, “We had the ninth most generous umemployment in the country … so people were moving here because of our very generous benefits … but then, of course, we had more debt. More people either got jobs or got off unemployment, or moved back to where they came from.”7 The drop in state unemployment, along with the associated expense to the state, likely also had something to do with the legislature redefining the word, “unemployed.” What is the current definition of unemployed worker? Only individuals who are actively receiving the 19-week unemployment insurance benefit qualify, and count, as unemployed. During week 20, individuals are dropped from the unemployment rolls in the state. What is “suitable employment,” the type of work situation a claimant must accept or forfeit benefits, under the new laws of the state’s Department of Labor? It is defined as any position offered to an unemployed person that meets or exceeds 120% of the current unemployment benefit. Any job that pays an annual salary of $17,000 or more qualifies as suitable employment, even if the work is part-time without benefits.8 This rate is just a little over the 2014 Federal Poverty Level income for a two person household.9 In summary, our neighbors in need of work in North Carolina are not only invisible and silenced past 19 weeks of unemployment, but the legal definitions of “unemployed” and “suitable work” force people into lower paid, less attractive positions with little or no choice in the matter. Combined with across-the-board cuts to funding for K-12 public education, which includes rolling back access to numbers of early intervention pre-K programs, and declining to expand Medicaid, North Carolina has instituted a program that turns the war on poverty into its war on poor people.

Not recognizing our neighbors in need: “The Poor” as wholly other

[15] Representing “the poor” as Other, calls attention to discursive structures that include the (well-intended) Sending Forth at the beginning of this paper, “go in peace – remember the poor.” If our reading of the good news demands we (morally) recognize our neighbors, in the whole of creation, as “those who need us,” our linguistic structures must match our intended outcome. Phrases such as “the poor” are not only not people-first language but, if one acknowledges how powerfully language informs cultural worldviews, they are also problematic as they create separation between neighbors. They transform our creative and communal efforts from subjective solidarity with real people, one another, in our communities, to linguistically lumping real people into “us” and “them.” Such linguistic practices place people living in poverty into “not-me” categories, and there real people are objectified, disembodied, and pushed away from the center of the Tables, Fonts, and Books we hold as central to our faith. This makes our commitments to build communities of neighbors shallow and self-serving. If our communities are not incorporating, embodying, the kind of inclusive language in which there are no Others, relationships are neither genuine nor authentic. This problem is another type of moral shortcoming by failing to create and restore right relationships. Without the type of inclusive language that embodies our desired outcomes, empathy with our neighbors in need becomes flattened into duty.

[16] “Poverty is the worst form of violence,” charged Mohandas Gandhi, and in so doing, he brought attention to how the ancient Upanishadic ethic of ahimsa, “do no harm,” cannot be practiced by anyone who also participates in structures that perpetuate poverty, and thus, violence. Having taken this cue from Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. was en route to a long-planned Poor People’s March (yes, the name needs work) with striking sanitation workers in Memphis at the time he was assassinated. Genuine solidarity, linguistically speaking, sounds like “in solidarity with,” “in conversation with,” etc. It also uses “I” language. Moral action must be connected, psychologically, to “I.” The Four Component Model10 of moral action, developed by Rest and his colleagues, argues that I must examine my personal stories to recognize a moral dilemma as it presents itself before me, examine my personal resources, and that this is correlated with ego strength before I am compelled to act. In other words, the moral actor must recognize the moral dilemma presented to her when my neighbor is in need, and the successful resolution of the dilemma is that the ego moves toward, and outward, to right the relationship inequities in the dilemma. Perhaps this is a psychological way to think through an emotional, empathic, response. One thing is for sure – the “I” must become a stakeholder in communities of solidarity, and it is in community where transformation occurs. Another certainty is that, as stakeholders with others, for the sake of the world, we cannot rely on thinking the community, or the church, or the society will care for “the poor.”


[17] Worship, the Center. The Four Component Model of moral action, again, challenges the moral actor to right relationships when s/he recognizes how and when particular groups of people have been denied access, silenced, or rendered invisible by any oppressive practice or institution.11 Placed in conversation with the (re-)creation of communities of solidarity who recognize their neighbors in need, we must develop (in community) and attend to the culture-creating, relationship affirming language of neighbors, or allies, for the sake of the world. In the center of our life as communities of moral deliberation is our worship, where our words attend to a kind of theo-human-solidarity language necessary for genuine, empathic, intersubjective exchanges that inform righting our relationships. As Lutherans, our liturgies provide resources toward community building and authentic relationships We have only to mine (sometimes contextually tweak) them for the education and faith formation riches they offer us. As Lutherans, we confess that we cannot save ourselves from the grip of sin, part of which is the ongoing human saga of failing to recognize how God works graciously in our human relationships. As such, we are confronted by our failure and emboldened to change.

[18] Relationships are our arms. I began by describing how the congregational model of direct engagement with people impacted by poverty has been largely ineffective, despite the millions of dollars and hours donated for alleviating poverty. At the congregational level, communities could engage, in the language of Gandhi, “experiments in truth,” as new kinds of strategic relationships – taking advantage of and learning from ELCA ecumenical partners and relationships with Jewish and Muslim leaders. Jewish and Muslim communities have done demonstrably better jobs of keeping marginalized peoples at the center of their communities and not falling victim to, in Katie Cannon’s language, “the gaudy accoutrements of the middle class.”12 Cannon’s argument is that, historically, African American communities were more socio-morally conscious and better examples of community solidarity than they currently are. Part of the reason is the geographical scattering of the community; part of the reason, she says, is because of American individualism and middle-class sensibilities of the dominant culture.

[19] In Bane’s study of American Christianity and its impact on global poverty, she asks the question: How can all the dollars and time spent on issues of poverty in this country, and those on global poverty, have a more enduring impact? She suggests that coalitions of congregations consider partnering directly with the US government, such as Health and Human Services, and the US State Department, whose mission statement reads to help build, “a more democratic, secure and prosperous world composed of well-governed states that respond to the needs of their people, reduce widespread poverty, and act responsibly … .”13 Noting that US policy strategies usually follow US interests, Bane argues there is likely little overlap between been government sector work in an area, and “religious sector” efforts. Further, she adds, our Christian efforts to alleviate poverty are good …if only because it increases knowledge and empathy among Americans for the poor. Religious leaders should be praised for and encouraged in doing it. They should work to improve both its quantity and its quality. They should also educate themselves as best they can about the larger context in which they operate.”14 Our Lutheran understanding of community as one of moral deliberation, grounded in scripture and nurtured at the table of salvation, is an ideal place for learning to, and learning how-to, be in solidarity with people living in poverty, for the sake of the world.


1 The White House. “2014 Full Economic Report of the President.” whitehouse.gov. 221, March 2014. Web. http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2014/03/10/2014-economic-report-president (accessed 30 Apr. 2014).

2 Marisol Bello. “No Victory in the War on Poverty in Eastern Kentucky.” USA Today 25 Jan. 2014. Gannett Newspapers. Web. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/01/25/war-on-poverty-50th-anniversary/4326109/ (accessed 26 Apr. 2014).

3 Martin Luther, and John F. Thornton. “Exposition of Matthew 5:43-48.” In Faith and Freedom: An Invitation to the Writings of Martin Luther. (New York: Vintage, 2002) 78-9.

4 Mary Jo Bane. “The Churches, Foreign Policy, and Global Poverty: New Approaches, New Partnerships.” Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) Working Paper. (College Park: University of Maryland, 2011) 1-3.

5 Alan K. Mock. “Congregational Religious Styles and Orientations to Society: Exploring Our Linear Assumptions,” Review of Religious Research 34, no. 1 (1992) 20-33.

6 Andrea Green. “In a Different Room: Toward an African American Woman’s Ethic of Care.” in Race-ing Moral Formation: African American Perspectives on Care and Justice, ed. Vanessa Siddle Walker, 55-71. (New York: Teachers College Press, 2004) 55-71.

7 “Governor: We Cut Unemployment Benefits To Stop People From Moving To North Carolina.” ThinkProgress RSS. (Accessed October 28, 2014.)

8 “NC Department of Commerce – Division of Employment Services.” NC Department of Commerce – Division of Employment Services. (Accessed October 29, 2014.)

9 “Federal Poverty Level 2014 – 2015.” Obamacare Facts. (Accessed October 31, 2014.)

10 Rest, James R. Postconventional Moral Thinking a Neo-Kohlbergian Approach. (Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1999)

11 The NC legal changes to unemployment insurance went into law July 1, 2013. Since that time, an community of moral deliberation, speech, and action has gathered, every Monday, to participate in what they call “Moral Mondays.” See McClain, Dani. “How the Moral Mondays ‘Fusion Coalition’ Is Taking North Carolina Back.” The Nation. (Accessed October 18, 2014). Similar movements have emerged in Georgia over the past year.

12 Cannon, Katie G. Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community. (New York: Continuum, 1995) 6.

13 Bane, “The Churches … and Global Poverty, 10-11.

14 Ibid., 11.​

Andrea Green

Andrea Green is an assistant professor of religious studies in the School of Liberal Arts at Georgia Gwinnett College, and a teacher in the lay theological academy of the Lutheran Theological Center in Atlanta.