Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor —- a new book by Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, reviewed by Jim Vrettos

The Rev. Dr. William Barber of the Forward Together Moral Movement and Repairers of the Breach Movement often refers in his sermons to “standing at the gap and speaking a truth that has a moral focus — not merely a democratic version, a republican, or a liberal version, but a moral focus of what our government ought to be.“   As he puts it, “it’s time for people of faith to come out of the sanctuary and preach in the public square”. .. it’s time to uphold  higher ground moral values, preaching as King did, that “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”

Increasingly, major voices on the progressive left have directed their attention toward taking these spiritual values seriously, advocating their use in their academic and political critiques.

Michelle Alexander, for example, author of the award winning The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2014) works to spread awareness about the crisis of mass incarceration Americans into a full-scale movement that embraces the possibility of redemption and forgiveness.  To win the battle against mass incarceration, Alexander insists that people of faith must wake up to the realities of systemic racism in our country, but also “need to be willing to tell this truth in our churches and places of worship.”

Raising consciousness won’t be enough, Alexander argues.  “We’re going to have to be willing to get to work,”…”and in my view that means being willing to build an underground railroad for people released from prison— an underground railroad for people who are trying to make a genuine break for real freedom… opening our homes, opening our hearts, opening our places of worship, opening our schools to people returning from prison who need help finding work, getting an education, finding housing, perhaps even getting access to food.”

The psychiatrist James Gilligan, in his more than thirty years of work with the most violent of our citizens in our prison systems, has called for an end to punishment in the prisons and establishment of therapeutic training hospitals in its place for violent inmates –almost all of whom have suffered unimaginable abuse, humiliation, shame and disrespect that that has left them as essentially “dead souls,” devoid of deep feelings of spiritual self-esteem and love.

He argues, as Alexander does, that no human soul is beyond redemption and points to an economic and cultural system in America that produces the highest rates of economic inequality in the developed world that correlates with America having the highest rates of behavioral and structural violence in that contemporary industrialized world.

It’s within this contemporary cultural context that an inspiring and brilliant new book has been introduced into the public debate of poverty, justice and morality.  Written by Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, the co-founder and co-director of the Kairos Center and Poverty Initiative respectively at Union Theological Center, it’s aptly named for our time— Always with Us?  What Jesus Really Said About the Poor.

For Tikkun followers and others, the “Good News” is that Theoharis has done a meticulous documentation of Jesus’ teachings and actions around poverty, wealth, and power, especially in Matthew’s Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 26:11), which show him to be the “New Moses” —- a social movement leader with a revolutionary economic program who brings new instruction and understanding of law and justice to a people in need of healing, dignity and freedom.

Those familiar with the Poverty and Justice Bible where over 2,000 verses are highlighted to illustrate the heart and love the Bible illustrates for the poor and oppressed will find Theoharis’s work a welcome and helpful addition, particularly as she draws an absolute and necessary connection of faith and scripture to concrete commitment to justice for the poor.

Her focus in this book began, as she reveals, during a childhood in which it seemed she heard every week or so that “the poor you will always have with you” (Matt 26:11) – parallels in Mark 14:7 and John 12:8.   These biblical references were interpreted to mean that people should view poverty as inevitable, a phenomenon that can never be ended, and that work toward ending poverty was futile.

That experience probably replicates the religious education of countless millions of others in the country and around the world.    She rejected the inevitability-of-poverty argument as incorrect and spent many years as a scholar trying to understand why and how it’s incorrect.  The fortunate result for her readers has been Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor.

As one reads and “experiences” the book, it’s also crucial to understand several important premises central to Rev. Theoharis’s work that made the issue of poverty the central focus of her adult life.   First, she was raised to understand that faith must be linked to practicing social justice.  Secondly, that focus took the form of advocating and helping to organize poor people who for decades were already working to organize themselves in social movements across racial and other dividing lines into a broad social movement—globally and in America.  Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly in understanding the book, her work is guided by the desire to understand and share poor people‘s biblical and theological interpretations to shed light on models of organized poor people partnering with religious communities to abolish poverty.

The book is no less than a call for a liberation theology for the United States in the twenty-first century —- justice is the poor leading a movement to end poverty once and for all.   The concrete form through which she is working to help bring this about is the revival of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign in which he called for poor people of every race to unite in order to end what he called “the tripartite evils of society” — poverty, racism and militarism.

King’s dream, of course, was never fully realized as a result of his assassination a few months after his December 4th 1967 speech calling for the campaign.   It’s this backdrop of passion and dedication to revive and relaunch that campaign that should inform readers of the book.

Always With Us? begins with audaciously pointing out the need to rethink the role of the church in the world and challenge some of the most widely held misinterpretations of the Bible and the poor.   Starting with the premise that poor people’s biblical and theological interpretations have not been significantly respected and how the poor constitute some of the least-recognized theologians in the twenty-first century, Theoharis innovatively intertwines these past biblical characterizations with historical and contemporary struggles of the poor.

Using many of the sources that Christian tradition and the Bible use, she returns to the biblical text itself and to the lived reality of the poor during Jesus’s time —then brilliantly points to the grassroots organizations of today and their experience as poor people and their direct, conscious and collective actions to secure housing, health care, justice, jobs and food for all.

From these sources, poverty scholars who grapple with issues of sin and salvation should assert and understand that “poverty is a sin, being poor isn’t.”  It’s not enough to affirm that God loves the poor, but it’s the collective responsibility of Christians and all people of faith and conscience to eliminate poverty.  Poverty is not an individual problem but a systemic or structural problem — a systemic sin.

Why these arguments have had such difficulty in being accepted throughout history by church and the secular public should boggle and challenge the reader’s mind for answers.  It should drive us to try and understand the social, political, economic and spiritual forces that explain the centuries upon centuries of profound misery and pain suffered by countless millions of people under economic systems that have kept them poor.

Theorharis, for her part, sheds light on these distortions through showing how the arguments have been taken out of context and cynically politicized to justify theories about the inevitability of poverty and to provide religious sanction for the dispossession of the majority for the benefit of the few.   Throughout the book she points to scripture and what the Bible really said to make her arguments that refute the distortions and clear up what seems to be contradictions.

In the Hebrew Scriptures she looks at the prophetic commandments and teachings that state the existence of poverty is against the will of God.   Deut. 15:4-11, one of the most liberating “Jubilee” passages in the Hebrew Bible, comes from the second giving of God’s law to the people and states that there will be no needy people if the children of God follow the commandments that God has given them.

The character and sayings of the Biblical Jesus about poverty is widely and dramatically represented in the book, as one would expect.  Jesus’s statement “the poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me“ presents the prophetic Jesus as being poor, a savior of the poor who is also poor, and shows that his disciples were poor as well.

The foundation of the movement to materialize God’s reign on earth is not the rich, not the usual philanthropist or “change-makers,” but the poor.   God is not only aligned with the poor but is, in fact, present in (and of) the poor —a savior of the poor who is also poor.

Theoharis’ book can stand on its own as a scholarly treatise providing references to Biblical citations and verses on poverty and the topic of the poor and what Jesus said about them.   It’s also a ground-breaking work reminiscent of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States — a biblical hermeneutic of the poor as epistemological, political and moral agents of change in our society.

The forward is written by Rev. William Barber —founder of the Repairers of the Breach Movement and Co-Chair with Rev. Theoharis of the New Poor People’s Campaign.    In that sense,  the book acts as an intellectual  guide, handbook and manual for what may prove to be the most decisive attempt and movement in human history that will once and for all eradicate poverty from the face of the earth.

The stakes could not be higher.   Rev. Barber puts it this way.  ”If you think this is just a left-versus-right movement, you’re missing the point.  This is about the moral center.  This is about our humanity.”

`Theoharis knows this too and her book is persuasive in stating that poverty is the defining issue of our day—indeed, it has been throughout human history.   She is equally persuasive in her belief that we are called to join and support a necessary and growing social movement to end poverty, led by the poor.  She expects to struggle for many years to achieve the vision and invites all to join in the movement.

This is what the Bible and her faith demands.   Jesus’s message and hers is one of Tikkun Olam.

If you agree, come join her and read her invaluable book!    It will help give you the intellectual foundation, moral and spiritual strength for the struggle ahead —a struggle that probably will take on Biblical proportions.

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Jim Vrettos is a sociologist and criminologist who has taught at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Yeshiva University over the past twenty five years.  He co-authored the critically acclaimed text The Elementary Forms of Statistical Reason and was involved in an October 21, 2017 Harlem civil disobedience action and subsequent trial protesting the stop–and–frisk polices of the New York  Police Department.


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