“The poor you will always have with you,” is the proof-text I heard a conservative political commentator use this week. He had a series of pies on a table in front of him and proceeded to illustrate how those who work harder should get bigger pieces of the pie and those who work less get smaller ones. “It’s simple,” he said. “There isn’t enough to go around if everybody expects to be given the same amount as I have, we’d run out of pieces of pie. After all, ‘the poor you will always have with you.’”
This defeatist type of theology will keep the poorest of the poor subjugated to the powerbrokers of the West indefinitely. There are many Christians, particularly Evangelicals (I’m in that camp) who believe that the world is rapidly going to hell-in-a-hand-basket, that the creation is evil, and that things will only get worse. This framework is driven and reinforced by the notion that history has to play out this way before the return of Christ, in fact, (as the rationale goes) we may actually hasten his coming by encouraging the crisis rather than mitigating it (i.e. the recent rise of the genre of Christian horror/fiction via the Left Behind series, the desire of more than a few for a full blown war in the Middle East, and the apathy toward care for creation).
However, if God is at work in the world and has not abandoned us (or more likely, has not abandoned those on the planet who have been abandoned by us), and if the missio Dei, the “mission of God,” is to bless all nations through his people, then our call must be to engage the culture and be a kingdom people.
This is why Bono’s message in the New York Times this week is so important. His Op-Ed piece, "M.D.G.'s for Beginners... and Finishers," is a wonderful, brief primer on the Millennium Development Goals project. As the superpowers descend on the United Nations this week for a summit, Bono reminds us of two things: much has been accomplished and there is good reason to celebrate, and, we are behind in meeting these goals – there’s lots of work to be done and everyone must participate.
These are common themes of Bono’s these days. If you caught one of the recent U2 concerts on the 360 Tour (they’ll swing back through America next summer), you would have participated in a grand celebration of grace and life and heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu offer his deepest and humblest “thank you” for all that’s been done for the continent of Africa. “Because our voices were heard millions more of our brothers and sisters are alive thanks to the miracle of AIDS drugs and malaria drugs. Ahhhh!” (See my earlier post for his full speech, and the video is a must-see.)
Bono is also careful to root his message of hope and action in scripture (not in proof-texts, but in good solid biblical texts). In an often repeated speech at the 2006 National Prayer Breakfast he reached back into Leviticus to remind us that God’s year of Jubilee was a 50-year cycle of forgiveness, debt-relief and restitution. Bono went on in that speech to rightly demonstrate the importance of this theme for Jesus’ own ministry. Jesus’ first message was a proclamation of the Lord’s favor, the year of Jubilee (Luke 4).
As Christians we have the remarkable privilege, as well as heavy burden, of ministering the kingdom – the whole kingdom – of God to the whole world, not in a patronizing, colonizing way, but in a way that reaches out, touches and shares life with those who have been abandoned and disenfranchised. If that conservative commentator who so flippantly quoted scripture would have checked the gospel of Mark more closely he would have found the rest of the verse helpful: “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them…” (Mark 14:7).