Poverty and Religiosity as Bridges to Other Faiths
Rev. Joe Kramer
[About a year ago I helped to co-author a journal article and I think it is relevant in the fact that it can help us to get a grasp on what fulfilling the “Great Commission.” I hope you enjoy it. – Rev. Joe Kramer]
Matthew 28:19-20 says, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” This passage is often called the great commission. But what does it look like? What challenges and what wisdom can we draw from the scriptures as it relates to the global Southern Churches? This essay will look at four distinct areas that will be able to help in attempting to answer these questions. They are Intense Social Stratification, Omnipresence of Poverty, The Transience of Life, and Philosophical Detachment.
Intense Social Stratification
Social stratification is the tendency of humans to create hierarchies among groups of people, based on factors such as race, religion or financial status. The nature of these hierarchies varies from society to society, and there is a tendency toward conflict between the groups, as they vie for scarce resources, which are usually allocated to the majority group. People in the majority groups are more likely to be, in this day and age, tourists or others who are free to move about as they wish due to their financial resources, while the minority groups are either immobile or forced to move. In addition, persons in the lower strata of society are more likely to live close to areas with disease vectors, such as swine or bird flu, and do not have the advantages of vaccine or resources to combat diseases (Ritzer, 2010).
There are biblical passages which have become the focus of many Christians who are victimized by social stratification in the global South, offering a different outlook on their disadvantaged position, and help with positivity, hope and encouragement. James states: “The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower” (1:9-10, New International Version). Further, it states: “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5). Christians who are able to understand their position on earth as a blessing in the eyes of God are likely to be able to evangelize successfully amongst the disadvantaged from other religious communities who do not have these teachings to help strengthen them in their daily struggles.
The global South continues to experience rapid social change as foreign interests invade long-standing economies and at times are destructive to cultural norms and ideals. People who seek to change their social standing may be tempted to join in the change, but most continue to be victims of their society’s uneven wealth distribution. Ecclesiastes is a book which is useful for Christians who are attempting to reach across cultures in a manner that is helpful to those who are disadvantaged due to their social standing, teaching how the gathering of riches is more of a burden than a help: “To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:26).
This book represents to many the burden of the rich and how attempting to maintain the norm of society is a useless waste of time, as death ends this struggle and whatever has been accumulated is thereafter owned by somebody else (Jenkins, 2006).
The Book of Proverbs also helps those who are victims of society’s hierarchies. It provides a common sense approach to life, with a simple and easily understood good and evil: “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (14:31). The Book of Proverbs is likened to the oral traditions of Africans, and this helps with finding relevance in Christianity. The concerns found in Proverbs are part of the human existence in societies of the global South and can contain alternative theological presentations which expand traditional Old Testament theologies to meet some of the challenges experienced by these individuals (Kimilike, 2008).
Omnipresence of Poverty
As we move forward, Christianity has been viewed as a poor man’s religion. Is this the way of life God intended for His group of believers? In understanding who God is, He represents everything that is opposite of the world though the presence of poverty seems to be a hard pill to swallow for most Christians, and even harder for those who are witnessed outside of Christianity, because they see with the physical eyes and not the heart. The presence of poverty is a persistent bug that in some cases prevents the conversion of new believers. While the average Christian in the world is a poor person by the standards of the white world of North America and Western Europe (Jenkins, 2006), the global south through Scripture still maintains a faith of prosperity and wealth.
In the book of James he seeks to respect the poor and impoverished group by them like the rich and wealthy (James 2:1-6). When one is poor, poverty is there and standing around the corner eagerly waiting is oppression. As a whole it is hard for American Christians to grasp the real meaning behind Scripture in its entirety as poverty is not something that plagues the global North in the same way that it plagues the global South forfeiting the relevance of God’s Word (Jenkins, 2006).
Within the wisdom literatures of the Old Testament, King Solomon states “the poor is hated by his neighbor. But those who love the rich are many” (Prov. 14:20). From the kingship, how could Solomon understand the poor? He never waddled in such an oppressive state. Only the second part of the verse would seem to be a liberating fact for the wealthy. Again, Solomon ponders over the advancements in life and how it is meaningless when it comes to the poor and the rich. “Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to take warning” (Eccl. 4:13). Better to be a country that is engulfed in poverty that heeds the warnings of the Lord than a prosperous one who abides by its own law with disregard of Scripture—this is the fundamentalism of the global South versus the liberal views of the North America and Western European churches.
The Bible is the Word of God that should alleviate ways not to live. However, the liberal approach tends to bend Scripture to incoherent measures of society. The presence of poverty is consistent in the lives of Christians which unknowingly makes it the focal point for the nonbelievers which in return tend to dilute the true efforts of Christianity which is to spread the gospel and present salvation.
The Transience of Life
The Biblical Wisdom literature covers a variety of situations in life like attitudes, our way of life, motivational Scriptures, and Scriptures with promise. It also covers the results of bad attitudes and disobedience to the parents and diseases. In this paper on the transience of life in the global south, it relates the beginning of Christianity, situations; the instability of Christianity, but at the same time can help reach out to others people of different faiths.
Transience of life is a state or quality of life, and how fleeting it is. As human beings we are subject to metabolic and reproductive changes, as well as, having the power to adapt to our environment through changes that originate internally. It is also the passing with times, or being ephemeral, and is therefore a time which is temporary or is short lived (dictionary.com).
In the beginning, Christianity was in the eastern countries, and had great centers, impressive churches, and Monasteries, located in Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. However, division occurred and the council of Nicene in 325 A.D. declared the doctrine of Christ’s divinity. Then over the centuries, the mainstream churches became divided over the person of Christ. The Catholic or Orthodox triumph in the Roman Empire saying Christ had two natures (2008).
Nestorius and his followers accepted the two natures, but did not believe the Virgin Mary should be called the mother of God, so they were cast out at Ephesus in 431 A.D. The Easterners and Egyptians said there was only one nature for Christ, and the divine was more powerful than the human, and became known as Monophysites (Copts or Coptic), but in 451 A.D. the Ecumenical council at Chalcedon declared they were heretical. This left the Orthodox in command of the empire, and the mainstream church. The next two centuries those newly defined as heretics were excluded and persecuted (Jenkins, 2008).
African and Asian alone would have outnumbered the Orthodox, but overtime some of the religions died, while other faiths are few in numbers. Manichaean’s once had adherents from France to China, but no longer exists in any organized or functional form, nor is the faith that was once in Mexico and Central America five hundred years ago. Christianity on several occasions was destroyed in regions that once flourished (Jenkins, 2008).
The changes today in the Global South, tells us Christians are once again under persecution and torture, and many are dying for who they believe in, but many are also accepting the gospel. The churches are operating, whether it is a Church house or an underground church, or government approved church. The African, Asians and the Latin American churches are growing in spite of persecution and there is a few who enforce the laws mentioned by Paul (McAlister, 2011).
There are a few Christians whose African and Asian leaders have denounced the U.S. churches, for abandoning the principles of the Bible, but at the same time are immersed in traditions that are also against the written Word. The same people are under severe distress of sicknesses and diseases that are wiping them out. Large tsunamis are known to kill thousands, but those that die daily in Africa of HIV, hunger, and malaria, is of no concern. There are many dying in wars, landslides, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions; some still do not accept Christ as their Savior (Jenkins, 2006).
In conclusion, the transient of life is happening over and over again, but the situation continues. Each time the people are reminded of their roots. Transient of life is brief, and only for a little time. These churches are more culturally diverse in the global south than it is in the North or West.
Jenkins discusses specific ways in which poverty and religion are combined to ultimately become the essential bridges that allow connectivity and communication between other faiths or non-Christian beliefs and conservative- believing Christians of the global south. Two parallels may readily be drawn; first, the people are almost all poor and second, all of them apparently exercise some loyalty to their religious experience. Simply, since all people of this region experience the same or a similar social economy, it is only reasonable to assume that their religious practice, although different, should seek to address the issues regarding comfort and relief. Kent sees the Books of Wisdom as a particular bridge that assists in reducing the differences that separate these people because these books address a common sitz en leben or setting in life experience of the people living in these areas.
With respect to philosophical detachment, Jenkins notes that the Book of James “praises detachment and self-control” [Jenkins, 2006, P 88]. Knowing the philosophy of what detachment essentially means conveys much understanding as to why he argues this book to be a “catholic or universal epistle”[ibid 88]. Detachment literally means “non-attachment or the state in which a person overcomes his or her attachment to things, people or concepts of the world and thus attains a heightened perspective” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detachment]. This characterization or goal is commonly the chief goal of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Jainism, and others; they all share this common theme. After quickly reviewing the structure of James, one not only better sees their commonality and is able to better comprehend why James has been so widely adopted in the global south by these diverse groups. Six divisions; trials and true religion, 1:2-27;partiality and vital faith, 2:1-26;speech and divine wisdom,3:1-12;conflict and submission,4:1-17; money and patient endurance, 5:1-8 and the way back to living by faith, 5:19-20 address the two common bonds of focus; poverty and sincere religious devotion [Constable, 2009, P2]. Jenkins further states additional reasons such as; James “contains little that would offend Muslims”; “it offers common ground for interreligious dialogue” [Jenkins, 2006, P 88]. More importantly, he concludes, “James makes it clear that evil stems from within the individual…that misdirected passions and desires must be combatted, and finally that intemperate speech gives rise to many conflicts. [ibid, P 88]. Thus, James, fulfills its purpose to “encourage those to whom it is addressed to bear their trials patiently, and on the other hand to warn them against certain errors of doctrine and practice” [Constable, 2009, P2]. In this manner, certainly a bridge is erected to connect both the gap that segregates religious diversity and their common theme to comfort an impoverished people.
If the global Southern churches keep this in mind and continue to seek God’s wisdom they can make disciples out of the other religions. Will it be easy? Absolutely not, but it is going to be something they must do with trepidation, wisdom from God’s word and prayer. As they labor in humility and wisdom God will give them the increase of disciples they seek.
Constable, T. L. (2008). Notes on James. : .
Dictionary.com unabridged (n.d.). Transience. Retrieved September 20, 2011, from dictionary.reference.com/browse/transience
Jenkins, P. (2006). The New Faces of Christianity: Believing in the Bible in the Global South. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Jenkins, P. (2008). The lost history of Christianity (1 ed.). NewYork, NY: Harper-Collins Publishers.
Kimilike, P. L. (2008). Poverty in the Book of Proverbs: An African Transfomational Hermeneutic of Proverbs on Poverty. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc..
McAlister, M. (2011). Human Rights: Politics of Persecution. Washington, DC: Middle East Research.
Ritzer, G. (2010). Globalization: A Basice Text.. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons.
Wikipedia (n.d.). Detachment. Retrieved October 8, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detachment