Archive for July, 2009

What Poverty Is and Isn’t

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

It’s become fashionable in local conservative circles to talk about the “relative poverty” found in the United States, compared to the real poverty that abounds in Third World nations. And it’s true, generally, that the poor in America are better off than the poor in, say, Indonesia or Malawi.

But while this is a tidy way of ignoring the plight of the disadvantaged around us (without necessarily involving oneself, it seems, in that of those “over there”), it misses a key point, one that I preached about in my very first sermon years ago: Poverty is not simply a lack of money, or having less money than the other guy, or even having less money in a village in Pakistan and more money in a city in Pennsylvania. While it may fly in the face of conservatives’ observations that some of our nation’s “poor” have satellite TV and cars and thus are not “poor,” and presumably not worthy of Christian concern, poverty boils down to three components, only one of which is money. Poverty is a lack of power, a lack of education, and only with these a lack of money.

Being poor in a socioeconomic sense is much like being one of the “poor in spirit” Jesus refers to in the Beatitudes; both are a condition that those living on a dollar a day overseas and those who, as one local sage observed, live in the United States in houses, trailers, and apartments littered with junk toys and old vehicles — the overweight, unkempt among us, he observes, who smell funny and who have bad teeth — experience. I don’t deny that it is easier to be poor in the U.S. than it is to be poor in Soweto; my argument is that dismissing America’s poor because they sometimes accrue worthless crap and lack what some define as classical Christian refinement is a dismissiveness borne of contempt, not a grasp of society, economics, and politics.

Poverty, economic and spiritual, is an unchanging state in which one lacks power, education, and currency — something with which to trade on the market. We are “poor in spirit” because we lack the power to change our spiritual condition; we are utterly without power, in and of ourselves, to effect any kind of change at all to the reality of our separation from God. Likewise, the poor are poor because they lack the power — political, social power — to change theirs. Theirs are not the voices listened to in the corridors of power; theirs are not the needs considered within those halls. Most certainly, the faces of their children and their elderly, sick, and disabled don’t register in those halls.

We are “poor in spirit” because, in addition to power, we lack education. We don’t know what we need to know, and Who we need to know, to be saved from our sin and be reconciled to a Holy God. Without the proclamation and reception of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are left with a knowledge gap as wide as the chasm between us and God. There’s a Way, but it’s not known to those who need it. And the poor, in the U.S. and abroad, are poor in a socio-economic sense because they lack education, the skills and facts necessary to lift themselves from poverty — and that lack of education is a direct result, a confirmation of, their lack of political and social power. It is for this reason that most of the world’s poor are women and children; whatever doors to education and power might squeak open, or be forced open, for men in poverty, remain locked to women burdened not only by poverty, but by patriarchy and the abuse, degradation, and isolation it perpetuates.

Finally, we are poor in spirit, Jesus says, because we have nothing with which to trade in the marketplace of sin and salvation. Our most pious efforts are like dirty rags. We have no “goodness” to offer, no innate virtue or character with which to purchase redemption; our purchasing power in light of our sinfulness is even less than my ability to buy a latte with bottlecaps. The poor among us, in an economic and social sense, are poor in the same way — the financial resources the “not-poor” have are not trickled down in sufficient measure to the destitute, who often attempt, nonetheless, to assuage their misery, and indulge their children, by buying stuff. I’ve worked with the poor for some two decades. I know that when you can’t give your kids a college fund, health insurance, and annual vacations to the lake, you decide that fifty bucks a month for cable TV so they can enjoy the programs their classmates do seems reasonable. But cable TV, junk cars, and cheap furnishings represent, good or bad, the efforts of some poor Americans to remedy the day-to-day misery of their situations, to appear on the outside to be a tiny bit “more” than they feel they are on the inside. Sinful pride? Maybe. But it’s no more sinful on the part of the poor, and a whole lot more understandable, than middle-class America’s ravenous hunger for 2009 Dodge Compensator trucks and 50-inch hi-def TVs.

The entrenchment of poverty requires a devilish trifecta of political and social impotence, a lack of education, and then, along with those, insufficient funds to remedy the situation. And poverty is rarely a temporary thing; the elements that render it temporary are the factors that, in the negative, define poverty — being broke is the state most of us are in until the fruit of our education and social power is harvested. Yes, poor people lack much money — but not all people who lack money at a given period are truly poor. Being broke isn’t the same thing as being poor.

Jeff and I were broke during the first few years of our marriage, but we weren’t suffering through poverty. We ate lots of beans, rice, pasta and ramen, but that was our starting point, not our destiny — and through no virtue or strength on our part. This is a sinful world and a fallen country; that we, Jeff and Keely, benefit from it proves the point. Jeff was secure, healthy, literate, and had avenues open to him that enabled him to start a business; I had a college degree, a skill, a voice, and a career. Our days of financial stress were, we knew, only temporary. The reality for us was that while our first house cost $9,000 (yes, nine thousand!) and was as run-down as you’d imagine, the world is simply geared toward us — white, literate citizens with some education and a political voice.

Yes, God has blessed us tremendously, and with those blessings, we’re called — all of us — to recognize that the holy grace of God and the unholy “grace” of sinful society, both examples of unmerited favor, have set us on a path that often runs through being broke, but never, or very rarely, leads to being poor. Because God has blessed so many of us with material prosperity, through his lovingkindness, and because this same God superintends a world that sinfully showers privilege on us through our legal citizenship, our color, our access to nutrition, the arts, health care, and education, it’s imperative for Christian America to recognize both examples of unmerited favor and use what we have to help others.

Every heart has its own story; every life has its peculiar blessings and particular hurts. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, we can wander through life ignoring — or, worse, chasing away — the poor, lodging our miserly virtue in questioning “Are there no poorhouses? Are there no prisons?” We wince at Scrooge’s hard-heartedness and rejoice in his redemption, while witnessing now a great “Christian” movement that grills the poor, finds them unworthy of aid, and publishes lengthy treatises that seek justification of their indifference by asking “Have they not cars? Have they not cable? Are their yards not full of worthless crap?”

There was repentance on Scrooge’s part. As for our local Reformed Reconstructionists, only the Spirit knows, and I pray he’s not grieved further.

Celebrating Nieces!

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

I drove to scenic Vantage, Washington, to pick up my niece, whose parents live, as most of Jeff’s family does, in Snohomish County. Diana is going to be with us for almost a week, and so my blogging might be a bit slowed.

I’ve raised two sons, and I’m a little out of my element with girls. But in God’s wisdom, I have two nieces, both 12, both absolutely wonderful, beautiful, creative, confident, and sharp as a pretty, petal-pink tack. Diana is a wonder to be around, and I so look forward to what has become our once-a-year week together, having her here with her beloved Uncle Jeff, cousins Anthony and Jonah, and assorted four-footed family members who seem fascinated by such beauty and such an array of pink stuff. My other niece, Lauren, lives in Arizona. I don’t get to see her much at all, but we’re very close; she knows her Tia Keely is pretty much crazy about her. For a woman who lives in a very masculine house, it’s a pleasure to indulge in, and simply indulge, these two girls.

Diana is an amazing soccer player who qualified for the “A”-12 team when she was only 11, and while I don’t know a thing about soccer — kickball was my thing, and Diana assures me that kids still play it — I find myself grinning that this beautiful young girl can evidently kick circles around the other kids, and do so, I know, with great competitiveness and great sportsmanship. She’s tearing through my old Nancy Drew collection, loves math, and does a terrific job tolerating her rowdy 8- and 9-year-old brothers, who I absolutely think are the two coolest elementary school-aged little guys in the universe. I sense some Transformers toys and tool sets in my future.

I so wish Lauren and Diana could meet. I can’t think of two girls I’d rather pass this world on to. They’ll grow up knowing how to cook and clean, because they’ll know how to take care of themselves, but those things, like knowing how to change a tire or fix a toilet, won’t be their life’s work. They’ll undoubtedly become moms, and wonderful moms, but while that might be their life’s work, it won’t be their careers. Diana might become a teacher; Lauren thinks she wants to be a vet. There are some children and some pets who, in about 20 years, are going to be awfully blessed.

I’m awfully blessed now, though, to have not only been granted the privilege of mothering my sons, but of being Tia Keely to such amazing nieces. Even if I’m currently awash in a sea of pink.

Bringing It Back To . . . Well, Me.

Friday, July 24th, 2009

It’s been quiet a week for memorable trips down Wilson Lane, and I’d like to switch focus here for a bit — at least for as long as it takes me to read something either offensive or ignorant on Blog and Mablog.

So I thought I’d toss out a few random opinions and even a few little-known bits of trivia about myself . . .

I am not a Libertarian. In fact, I think that many of our local Libertarians are, unlike my son, “Libertarians” who rest in that particular philosophy because in it they find abundant comfort in their disregard for the poor, a disregard that manifests as a Christian mandate to stand against any non-military taxation from the State. Nonetheless, I’ve learned that not all Libertarian economic thought is malicious in both origin and intent. I lean strongly toward a democratic social safety net provided by government for the interest of the poor; in fact, how something affects “the least of these” is the lens through which I view any socio-political issue. Poverty and the socio-economic structures that ensure it is, to me, the defining problem of this age, a problem that begins when good Christians are fed “Biblical” exegesis that excuses them from considering the righteousness of Christ toward the poor, manifested in governmental policy, as a legitimate exercise of power. For me, it’s all about caring for the poor, and I believe Christians are called to expect from the State attitudes and actions that aid them.

Put another way, if the Church spent as much energy in advocating for and serving the poor, through taxes as well as their own efforts, as it does in scouring the Old Testament for proof-texts that government is evil and the poor always complicit in their poverty, we would have the kind of revival here and abroad that truly shows the light of Christ working within us. But a cottage industry of “Christian” works promoting blame, insouciance, comfort and entitlement has sprung up, books and speeches and ministries that assure affluent believers that the poor are to be judged, feared, and ultimately ignored. In the name of Christ, of course.

I find it interesting that so many believers who strive for secular government to reflect “Christian” values and morals in public policy suddenly decide that those policies, funded through taxation and funneled to the underprivileged, are suddenly un-Godly, even idolatrous. To be blunt, I think God will judge the United States, and the Church within its borders, for our disregard for poor people — a disregard that strangely never makes it to the big leagues of social sins conservatives decry. Yes, God is troubled by pornography, abortion, and the breakdown of the family. He’s also provoked to judgment when little children are living on the streets with a mother who finds that once the Church has closed its doors on her, it continues too often to rush to the halls of government to slam shut those doors as well.

“The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus said. But that’s a sad assessment of sinful, fallen social structures — not an assurance that gives his Church a pass on giving them a hand. Until the affluent, privileged and comfortable believers who claim his name realize that, the witness of the Gospel will be like styrofoam offered to a hungry man — pretty, white, and pure-looking, but toxic, empty, and utterly useless in aiding him before it crumbles and drifts away.

And, as promised, here’s some fun facts about Keely: I can throw a football in a perfect spiral, I once rode my bicycle 135 miles from Tucson to Phoenix, I’m a member of the NAACP and a regular supporter of the United Farmworkers (UFW), I’m in love with my one-year-old Chihuahua-Poodle mix, and I would happily eat Indian or Thai food every day of my life. Yeah, I’m “all about the blog,” but I promise not to discuss the Kirk if I’m ever invited to a posh cocktail party.

I’d just have to find my formal Birkenstocks.

Turning Green

Friday, July 24th, 2009

Regarding Wilson’s contempt for “going green” and the “built-green” description of the housing development he’s part of (it’s also right down from his deck; he overlooks it from on high, perhaps in more ways than one), here’s what he said in Blog and Mablog this week:

Doug Wilson, July 18, 2009: “First, why is it that I regard a Christian’s baptismal vows, which renounce the devil and all his works, to include a rejection of being green, going green, or thinking green? Is it because I don’t like the color? Is it because my motto is “Earth first! We’ll pave the other planets later”? Not a bit of it. Scripture begins with a garden, and it ends with (green) garden city. Not only am I okay with this, but I regard it as every Christian’s duty to live in a manner consistent with that overarching vision. So why do I gag on “green”?.

You can read my post below. If the hypocrisy doesn’t gag you, then perhaps you’ve not had enough coffee just yet.

The Pot Calling The Kettle Green

Friday, July 24th, 2009

An eagle-eyed friend sent me this little bit o’ trivia regarding Doug Wilson’s oft-stated and profound disdain for the idea of “going green” and a local real estate adventure of his. She writes:

“Someone should call Wilson on the carpet about his green comments.

See the link below for advertisement for the development he is currently a part of:

http://www.keyprop.biz/default.asp?PageID=134

“Our built green homes are 30-40% more efficient than homes built to standard codes.”

Seems he pooh pooh’s the use of “green” terminology unless he himself is using it to sell something . . .”

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Another is the perfectly reasonable possibility that his business associates in the development snuck “green” right past him, and he’s gonna jump in the F-150 right away to tell them how pitiful their “stewardship” efforts are and how idolatrous they are in attempting to placate godless environmentalists.

That HAS to be it. Because if it isn’t, he’s a hypocrite. And that wouldn’t be good at all.

The Poor — Smelly, Overweight, and With Bad Teeth — You’ll Always Have With You

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

I’ll do the young writer of this comment, cut and pasted from Blog and Mablog, a favor and not use his name. His blithe dismissal of the “relative poor” he saw is either a product of youthful arrogance, or a product of the steady diet of Doug Wilson’s profundity regarding poverty, for which he assumes the Proverbs about being lazy to be sufficient analysis:

“In regards to the last comment on absolute/relative poverty… In 2006 and 2007 I door-knocked probably over 10,000 homes in Spokane/CdA, Dallas Metroplex, and Sacramento. From the very rich (10,000 sq-ft homes, 500k+ salaries) to the very poor. And… in my experience… the very poor actually are just the very grungy – they have tons of stuff. Often, their houses are fuller than the very rich. I came across a handful who might fit (the) bill… at least in appearances. But they tended to have teeth rotted away from meth.

Most of the ‘poor’ neighborhoods were characterized by homes and yards piled with consumerism. And I do mean literally piled. That’s how you knew it was a ‘poor’ neighborhood – the last 5 years’ models of big-wheels were piled in yards, and inside the houses there were literal mounds of clothes unwashed, quick food piles in the kitchen, and several tvs.

On the other hand, the ‘middle class’ and particularly the ‘poor’ looked a lot more like they lived behind a local Walmart dumpster that kept tipping last years unsold goods down into their house, sprinkled with this year’s hottest items. The ‘poorer’ the neighborhood, the more each kids bedroom was a maze of stuff. Cheap toys, lots of them, with a gameboy/nintendo/Ps2/X-Box . . . nearly mandatory when their credit was bad. TVs are truly ubiquitous. And low-income housing people typically had tvs at least 35-40 inches, HD, etc. (Btw poorer neighborhoods were the best to sell in – they like monthly payments).

And, unfortunately, the ‘heavier’ these people were, the more their houses smelled of the great unwashed. Makes me wonder if that’s partly why they don’t always have jobs. Overall, the ‘poor’ among us have the most ‘stuff’… eat the most food, and I tend to think if we added up all their purchases for themselves, their kids, their homes – all those got-to-have items – it adds up to more in the end than the ‘wealthy’ spend on their consumer goods in the home (ignoring costs of automobiles, which is where the wealthy put their money).”

The GOP must love guys like this.

It looks like this particular “grasshopper” has learned well at the feet of his master, but God help us all if our theology of economic justice turns on our dismissiveness toward overweight people with bad teeth, big TVs, and bigger thighs. Let us hope that this young Covenant gentleman never aspires to a Cabinet position in the government for which Wilson, et al, hold such disdain. My remedy: Before coming to the Communion Table or digging in to his next Sabbath feast, our young Kirker should ask the Lord to sweep the filth of contempt and smugness from his relatively affluent, privileged heart.

Unfortunately, if he stays with Wilson and the Kirk as the Spirit does his work in him, it’ll be to an empty room when he testifies to it, and a very lonely life when he begins to live it.

What Passes For Pastoral Wisdom In Moscow

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Over the last few days, Doug Wilson’s Blog and Mablog has been especially full of ugliness, inviting even more rhetorical refuse of varying degrees and flavors in the always-packed “comments” section.

Remember as you read below that this is what unbelievers in Moscow have thrown at them as necessary conclusions reached from a Spirit-led understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ — and, if you’re like me, reach for a tissue.

Wilson’s on a tear about government social services, asserting that Christians who receive any help — Social Security, Medicaid, student loans, etc. — “won’t be at the vanguard” of Christian dominion in society, a pretty scathing charge coming from someone fully vested in a Reconstructionist takeover of the world and its institutions. He helpfully suggests that receiving government services is akin to receiving stolen property, prompting one commentator to, chillingly, ask why the Church shouldn’t excommunicate or discipline congregants who do receive social services from the State. Somewhere, Atlas shrugs.

Wilson presents an in-depth analysis of the government “theft” and societal idolatry represented by, say, government nutrition programs for poor women and their (presumably non-Covenant)children. Public schools are included in his critique — a system of organized theft and other wickedness, Wilson opines, that no believer should be a part of. The guilt is head-spinning, the selfishness and arrogance jaw-dropping. Wilson expends a great deal of energy finding Scriptural support that relieves him from the responsibility to do what other Christians do eagerly — recognize that government action is a necessary component in helping the poor, first to survive and then to escape poverty. His contempt for the poor and for government, not to mention his selfish exegesis of the Word, has rarely been more in evidence. For shame.

Before that, he lauded America’s young people for recognizing that homosexuality is a sin, a Spiritual renewal symbolized by adolescent use of “gay” as an epithet — as in, “Hey, dude! You dropped the lacrosse stick! You’re so gay!” Where most of us look for evidence of a spiritual awakening in our youth by seeking . . . oh, I don’t know, maybe a reduction in alcohol use, a drop in sexual activity, an increase in volunteerism . . . Moscow’s most well-known pastor cites hateful trash-talk as evidence that Jesus is making inroads with teenaged America. Wilson recognizes that playground epithets like “that’s so gay!” don’t necessarily mean “that’s so like the erotic relationship between two men,” but is an effective, and spiritually aware, means of calling sin out.

Presumably, those young men who sometimes beat the shit out of some guy they perceive to be gay are even further along in their Christian walks than those who just scream “faggot!”, and I wonder if, after they leave prison, they’ll be recruited for Greyfriars’ Hall, where CREC pastors are nurtured in the peculiar morality that is Wilsonism. For shame.

And, finally, Wilson manages to inject his pastoral disdain into something that the rest of the world seems to happily consider a no-brainer — “going green,” or making simple decisions to reduce the amount of pollution in the world. Once again, he uses his tortured hermeneutic to shower contempt on not simply the radical fringe of the environmentalist movement, but even on those of us who recognize that as stewards of the creation, we ought to try as much and as often as we can not to trash it. To the rest of the world, our decision to carry reusable shopping bags is not quite enough; to Wilson, it’s just silly.

It’s about time that the Church participate in caring for creation; Christians have been rightly condemned for too often disregarding the stewardship mandate in favor of a “use it up quick, He’s coming!” mentality. Now that most of evangelicalism sees the benefit, spiritual and ecological, to conservation and reduced consumption, here comes Moscow’s Bishop of Bluster to nip that one in the bud — and then yanking out the roots and shredding them, and those tended the plant, as well. For shame.

Next up: An insightful commentary on poverty from a Wilson student who once sold security systems in a low-income neighborhood in California. By “insightful,” I don’t mean that it sheds light or offers much perspective on poverty. It does mean that you’ll get a peek into what a heart nurtured by Wilson looks like. And it’s ugly.

A Quick Read Of Infinite Value

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

Most readers of Prevailing Winds, and anyone, pretty much, who’s ever been stuck in line with me at Safeway, knows I am not a Calvinist. Not a three-point, not a four-point, and not an any-point admirer of the TULIP, the acronym representing the five points of John Calvin’s doctrine of soteriology, or how God saves human beings.

(As a refresher, those points are Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints, and they don’t mean what most Christians think they mean. They must be read and understood as Calvin, Augustine, and contemporary Reformed scholars put them forth, and I find them utterly incompatible not with just my idea of God’s saving work, but with the Scripture’s testimony thereof. I’m not Arminian, either — but that’s another post).

A brief but comprehensive book on Calvinism is George Bryson’s “The Five Points of Calvinism: Weighed and Found Wanting.” I think his work here is brilliant, and I recommend it to every believer. Especially my Reformed readers, many of whom, I imagine, understand the Five Points in ways amenable to evangelicalism, but not as Calvin, et al, intended. I’m happy to loan out one of my copies.

The book’s analysis of the Five Points is lauded by a Reformed scholar who insists that Bryson has correctly represented the essence of Calvinism, even if the reviewer disagrees with his application. Readers who grapple with “Weighed and Found Wanting” can be assured that Bryson has allowed Calvinists to define Calvinism, and it speaks well of his work that a staunch Calvinist, obviously opposed to his rejection of the Five Points, nevertheless lauds his accuracy in representing them.

The reviewer, by the way, is a local Reformed pastor — a guy named Doug Wilson. You may have heard of him.

"So What?" Well . . .

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

In last week’s discussion of imprecatory prayer — praying, as did David in the Psalms, that God would curse, smite, or kill one’s enemies — I relayed the words of the martyr, Stephen, and of our Lord Jesus as they were facing death at the hands of their enemies. I wrote that it is their example, not David’s, that the Christian is to follow in the face of oppression or opposition.

As Stephen was being stoned by the Sanhedrin, he prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” And Christ, crucified by the Romans at the behest of the religious, implored the Father to “forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The response from one Covenant critic and defender of the Christian’s right to what I called “the death prayer”?

“So what?”

Well, I suppose that’s slightly more respectful than “neener, neener, neener,” and quite a bit more insightful than “I’m rubber, you’re glue . . .,” but it struck me as, well, a little disappointing. On the other hand, it reveals much, and, I think, makes the point remarkably well:

An insistence on hearkening back to the warring King David for Godly examples of how to face one’s “enemies,” instead of looking to the Savior, results in not only a gross disregard for Scripture, but an even grosser disregard for righteousness.

And so what? It is, after all, only the Gospel of reconciliation at issue. Clearly, that’s just not a big deal to those who see the world with the jaded eye that comes from doing battle in the flesh, not in the Spirit.

THAT is a very big deal.

Scroll On Down, Please

Saturday, July 18th, 2009

A post I wrote on July 16 and held in “edit” form now appears before the July 17 and 18 posts, so scroll down for my responses to a Christ Church critic who uses his real name, with my thanks.