Is Christian Scholarship accountable to the Poor? There is a good chance that many of us have never seriously considered this question. It is worth asking ourselves why this is the case: why does it seem unnatural or unusual to connect the Academy with the Poor?
Perhaps, we could argue, the roots of this go back to an ‘Industrial’ or ‘Scientific’ mentality that compartmentalizes all the various aspects of life, in order to study each in isolation from the others. After all, this mentality is part of what gave birth to the Academy as we know it, and it continues to be reflected in the Christian Academy as it exists today – we have divisions between ‘theology’ and ‘ethics’, divisions between research-oriented students and ministry-oriented students, and so on. Now, granted, this division of labor has resulted in a great deal of productivity, but it is worth exploring some of the other results.
One of the worst results has been the divide that has grown up between theory and practice. This divide is now so deeply established that, for the most part, we don’t even think to connect our research to our lives as we live them. Thus, for example, I could write an A paper on Pauline notions of cruciformity, but the chances are that I won’t make much of a meaningful connection between my paper and my life. Perhaps I’ll think about giving a little more money away to charity afterwards; perhaps I’ll try to be more patient with my partner. Either way, both responses, although decent enough, are quite superficial and are a far cry from allowing our lives to be fundamentally challenged and reoriented by our research. Sadly, I suspect that this superficial approach is how most of us tend to connect our scholarship to our living. We just aren’t accustomed, or trained, to make deeper connections.
Another of the results of this compartmentalization of life, is that we are not accustomed to thinking of the Academy in conjunction with any other social body. In general, the Academy is seen as a self-justifying institution, accountable only to itself. Therefore, when confronted with this question, the general scholar will most likely respond that he or she is not accountable to anyone or anything, other than the rigors of his or her own discipline.
Of course, Christian scholars will likely give a significantly modified response to this question. It is widely recognized that Christian scholarship is accountable to its Lord – Jesus Christ – and it is also often (but not always) recognized that Christian scholarship is accountable to the Church and her mission within the world.
Unfortunately, for many there is still a great divide between our understandings of Jesus and the Church, and the Poor. Thus, when confronted with the question at hand, a good many of us might respond: “I know I am accountable to Jesus, and I reckon I could be accountable to the Church, but why would I be accountable to the Poor?”
Now, before I go any further allow me to define some terms. By the term “Christian scholarship,” I am referring to the work done by professional researchers, writers, and teachers, as well as the work done by students who aspire to these things, within institutions of higher education. This is fairly straight forward.
Defining “the Poor” requires more care. There are two extremes that I want to avoid. First, I want to reject a too narrow, overly material, definition of “the Poor” – one that limits the term to the economically disadvantaged. Second, I want to reject a too broad, overly spiritual, definition of “the Poor” – one that allows people like you and I to call ourselves “Poor” because we’re (supposedly) “poor in Spirit”. Properly understood, poverty is experienced in the economic-material, socio-political, and religious-spiritual dimensions of a person’s life. Thus, the cornerstone of poverty is economic-material – signaled by the absence of income or possessions, often due to the loss of one’s economic base (say one’s kinship group, one’s capital, one’s health, or one’s means of “making a living”) – but this is both the cause and result of the loss of socio-political status, and the experiences of marginality, social vulnerability, and openness to exploitation. Furthermore, this is often aggravated by religious-spiritual dynamics which heighten the isolation and oppression of the poor, because it labels them as ‘sinners’ and treats them as outcasts bound for damnation.
Of course, there are always degrees of poverty, but the male and transgendered sex workers whom I have gotten to know in recent years, illustrate this combination of things quite well. They suffer from economic-material poverty – being homeless, and lacking an economic base due to abandonment, addictions, mental health issues, and other illnesses like HIV and Hepatitis – they suffer from socio-political exploitation, marginality, and vulnerability – being required to sell their bodies for sex in order to make money, they are targeted and beaten by pimps, johns and police officers (in equal measure), and are almost entirely invisible within society at large – and, finally, they are ostracized by the Church – in this regard, it is telling that, in the ten year history of a particular drop-in that focuses on male and transgendered sex workers, I am the first Christian to volunteer there.
Thus, when I ask: “Is Christian scholarship accountable to the poor?” I am thinking of these sex workers and others like them, not just within our own city, but around the world. Does our research, writing, teaching, and living as Christians necessarily have something to do with these people?
The Christian Option For and With The Poor
I believe that it does, and here are the steps that lead me to this conclusion.
The first step is taken when we begin to overcome the fracturing of the Christian life. As Christians, we should be seeking to live integrated lives, wherein all areas of our lives are subjected to the lordship of Jesus. We need to begin to bring the scattered pieces back together.
In this regard, it is helpful to reimagine our Christian academic efforts as the pursuit of wisdom, and not simply the gathering of knowledge. The gathering of knowledge is the accumulation of information (theories, perceptions, discoveries, etc.), but wisdom, understood biblically, is something different. In the bible, a person is said to be wise when that person lives according to the will of God (which suggests that this person also knows what the will of God is). Thus, although knowledge may be something we carry around in our minds, wisdom is something we do with our lives.
The implication of this is that we must surmount the divide between theory and practice, because Scripture tells us that right thinking can only be found in connection with right living. So, to return to the example of my hypothetical A paper on Pauline notions of cruciformity, I would argue that the fact that I got an A on the paper does not accurately reflect whether or not I have actually understood that topic at hand. Rather, how much I understand the topic of cruciformity is directly related to how much my own life becomes cruciform, and has little or nothing to do with the grade I received.
Furthermore, because the Christian life is focused on how we live as Christians, we must go one step further and say that theory must be practice-oriented. It is not enough to say that theory and practice exist in a symbiotic relationship; we must also give practice the place of privilege. This is not to say that there is no place for theory but, for as long as we exist on this side of the new creation of all things, theory must be placed in the service of practice. In this regard, I find myself in agreement with Latin American liberation theologians who define theology as “critical reflection on praxis.”
The second step leading us to the question under discussion today is this: as we begin to piece our fragmented lives back together into some sort of “Christian” whole wherein theory serves practice, we discover that there are certain priorities and demands that apply to all Christians, at all times, in all places.
To begin with, let us recall that there are certain foundational confessions and beliefs that unite, and define, all Christians, at all times, in all places. Notably, the confession of the Lordship of Jesus and the belief that salvation is found in him. To this we could probably add other confessions and beliefs, but the point is that all of us would argue that these confessions are, or at least should be, common to all Christians.
I would like us to expand our thinking in this regard, and argue that there are also certain practices and priorities that are, or should be, common to all Christians, at all times, in all places. Indeed, affirming common confessions, or beliefs, while denying common practices, is, perhaps, one of the more insidious symptoms of the divide between theory and practice.
Therefore, I would like to argue that the preferential option for, and with, the poor is one such common Christian practice. I believe that this preferential option is one of the definitive characteristics of the Christian God, as that God is revealed in history and in Scripture. This preferential option is central to the identity and mission of God. Consequently, it is also central to the identity and mission of the people who claim to follow this God. This is one of the inescapable threads running through, and uniting, the entire biblical narrative. From Ex 2 to Deut 15, to Is 25, Mic 6, Lk 4, Acts 2, Phil 2, James 1, 1 Jn 3, Rev 18 – and a whole host of other passages – we are inescapably confronted with the call to prioritize the poor.
Hence, we arrive at the question confronting us today. The call to prioritize the poor means that we are accountable to the poor – not just as scholars, but as Christians in any profession. Is Christian scholarship accountable to the poor? Yes, it is; because all Christians, as Christians, are accountable to the poor.
Accountable to Christ, Accountable to the Poor
Now I reckon that this conclusion is unsettling to most of us – it certainly was to me – so let me try to support it in two further ways. Many Christians would probably agree with me in my earlier assertion that Christian scholarship is accountable to Christ and to the Church. Now I would like to take that a step further and argue that being accountable to Christ means being accountable to the poor, and, being accountable to the Church also means being accountable to the poor. Thus, I hope to demonstrate the intimate and inextricable connection of the poor to both Christ and the Church.
Let us begin with Christ. Matthew 18.20 has been used as one of the foundational verses supporting the notion of the real, sacramental presence of Christ found within the Church. However, what has often been neglected in discussions of Christ’s presence is that an equally strong statement is made regarding the poor in Mt 25.40, 45, when the king in this parable says that whatever is done to “the least of these” is done to the king. Of course, the king in the parable represents Christ and the implication is that whatever we do (or do not do) to the poor is also done (or not done) to Christ. What is interesting is that the union implied between Christ and the poor is even deeper than the union implied between Christ and the Church in Mt 18. While Christ incorporates the Church into his company in Mt 18, he goes one step further and fully incorporates himself into the poor in Mt 25. This reading, then, is further verified by the actual words and deeds performed by Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus becomes one of the poor, he shares their life and their death, and in doing so, he becomes fully identified with them.
In fact, Mt 25, along with further research and my own experiences with and amongst the poor, have convinced me that, just like the Church, the poor are a nation of priests administering God’s presence to the world. There are at least four ways in which the poor perform this duty.
First of all, the poor reveal to us, in history, the bleeding and suffering of God due to the brokenness of creation. The cry of the poor is, simultaneously, God’s cry. The wounds of the poor are, simultaneously, God’s wounds. Hence, the poor are a sacramental and eucharistic presence of the broken body and spilled blood of Christ within history.
Secondly, the poor, like Christ, bear the burden of our sins. They pay the price for our greed, and they bear the burden of our self-indulgent lives. In doing so, they reveal the falsehoods that structure our society, they make manifest the perverse results of our ideologies, and they expose the hypocrisy in our piety. In this regard, the poor are the sacramental presence of Christ known as Truth and Light.
Thirdly, by choosing to respond to us nonviolently – by refusing to harm or rob us, even though we have played a role in taking their food, their clothes, their health, and their loved ones – the poor demonstrate an “amazing grace” towards us. In this regard, the poor are a sacrament of God’s grace in Christ that calls us to conversion.
Finally, returning once again to Mt 25, and building on the point just mentioned, the poor are also a sacramental presence of Christ as Judge. Note well: if we will be judged on the basis of our actions towards the poor, then surely in the work we do – scholarly or otherwise – we are already accountable to the poor.
Consequently, in light of all these things, I must conclude that being accountable to Christ means, at the same time, being accountable to the poor.
Accountable to the Church, Accountable to the Poor
Of course, the most immediate and obvious objection to my desire to connect Christ and the poor in this way is that there are many amongst the poor who do not confess Jesus as Lord. In fact, some amongst the poor would deny the lordship of Jesus, so how can we maintain that they are, at the same time, a priestly people and the sacramental presence of the one whom they deny?
The answer to this question is found when we are honest about ourselves. Are not the poor, like us, simul justus et peccator? Do we not, by living self-indulgent lives, deny Christ in our actions, even though we confess Christ with our lips? Yet, do we not, at the same time as we confess this sin, still affirm the sacramental presence of Christ within the Church? We do. Thus, if our sin is that we confess Jesus as Lord while maintaining lifestyles that serve the Lords of Sin and Death, then the poor sin by not recognizing the lordship of Jesus (although this is largely because we make Jesus so unlikeable). However, in God’s grace, both parties are still identified with Christ.
This, then, leads to my next assertion: being accountable to the Church means being accountable to the poor. Our previous conclusion regarding Christ’s incorporation of himself into the poor, should lead to the further conclusion that the poor are members of the body of Christ. Again, the biblical narrative confirms this idea.
Let us begin by referring to 2 Ki 24. After we read about the fall of Jerusalem, and learn that the king, the nobles, the officers, the fighting men as well as “all the craftsmen and artisans” are led into exile, the narrator concludes: “Only the poorest people of the land were left.” The poor are not led into exile. Of course, on the one hand, it makes sense that Nebuchadnezzar wouldn’t take the poorest members, since he would have little to gain from them. However, on the other hand, the reader also knows that exile is what happens when God abandons his people to the consequences of their sins. Exile occurs when God says, as he does in Hos 1, “those who were my people, are my people no longer.” Therefore, the ongoing presence of the poorest members in the promised land, means that they have been spared from this punishment. This is not because the poor are any more righteous than others; rather, in this passage, that which permits a person to escape from God’s wrath is poverty. And who are those spared God’s wrath? God’s people.
Fast forward, then, to the arrival of Jesus and his embodied proclamation of the end of exile and the forgiveness of sins. What is intriguing about this is that Jesus simply proclaims the forgiveness of the poor as a fait accompli. The poor are regularly said to be forgiven, even though they do not come to Jesus asking for, or expecting, forgiveness (cf. Mt 9/Mk 2/Lk 5; Lk 7; Jn 8). Jesus’ harsh words, wherein he withholds the proclamation of forgiveness and makes it conditional, are reserved for the wealthy and the well-established – people like you and I. This fits well with our reading of 2 Ki 24. Jesus’ proclamation of forgiveness for the poor is unconditional because the poor were never sent into exile in the first place. The poor were never rejected by God, they were only rejected by other members of their society.
In light of these things, I would assert that our contemporary understandings of church are far too narrow, and reflect a tragic divide between the confessing members of Christ’s body – people like you and I – and the crucified members of Christ’s body – the poor. Therefore, to unite the body of Christ, the confessing members are call to cruciformity, and the crucified members are called to confession. Indeed, apart from this unity, I believe that the body of Christ is sick unto death. In this regard, I would refer us to 1 Cor 11. Here we see a church that is practicing eucharistic table fellowship in such a way that the poor are excluded and marginalized. The result of this is that some members in the Church are growing sick and dying. Although many have been puzzled by this passage, this result should not surprise us. For, on the one hand, when the poor are abandoned, they are abandoned to die of things like malnutrition, starvation, and otherwise treatable illnesses. On the other hand, when the rich abandon the poor in this way, they are acting as subjects of Sin and Death – so it is not surprising that Death would come to claim some of his subjects.
Therefore, although St. Cyprian was correct when he stated extra ecclesiam nulla salus, Jon Sobrino is certainly correct to argue that this necessarily means, extra pauperum nulla salus. The result of this, is that when we say that Christian scholarship is accountable to the Church, we are also saying that Christian scholarship is accountable to the poor.
So, my response to the question under discussion today is a threefold “yes.” First, Christian scholarship is accountable to the poor because the preferential option for the poor is central to the identity and mission of all Christians. Second, Christians scholarship is accountable to the poor because this is one of the necessary implications of our accountability to Christ. Third, Christian scholarship is accountable to the poor because this is also one of the necessary implications of our accountability to the Church.
Author Bio: Dan Oudshoorn lives in downtown Vancouver where he journeys alongside people who are sexually exploited in his neighbourhood. He is a graduate student at Regent College.