If God is so rich, why are there so many poor?

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A sermon I preached at Briercrest College chapel, September 18, 2012

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If God is so rich, why are there so many poor? September 18, 2012 – College Chapel

I begin this morning with a confession. I grew up in a time and place where, frankly, I was pretty sheltered from the reality of poverty in our world. It’s not that I grew up in a privileged, rich family. My dad was a farmer who had to work a second job just to make ends meet. That said, I never remembered a day when Mom and Dad said, “Sorry, kids, no supper tonight because we ran out of food today.” So though we didn’t have a lot of cash, we never went hungry. I usually had something new to wear to school in the fall, we always got Christmas and birthday presents, and Mom and Dad always gave their tithe to the Church and to missions. I don’t think anyone would have confused us with the poor but neither would anyone have mistaken us as rich.

Fast-forward to the mid-90’s. While attending a conference in San Francisco, I had opportunity to walk around the streets in the downtown core. I was struck by all the panhandlers and their creative signs designed to empty my pockets of spare change. (My favorite was the guy who had a sign that read, “Spare some change for a beer?” as he shrugged his shoulders and said, “No use lyin’!”) Oh, sure, I had seen panhandlers before, but I had never seen whole streets full of them, many of whom were living in cardboard boxes…or less. So by then, I thought I had seen poverty. I think it was then that I finally began to ponder the question of why it was there were so many poor people and how it is that God allows that.

Eight months ago, I was privileged to spend a week together with a dozen or so students from Briercrest in the little country of Ecuador, South America. I had gone, along with Myra Daughtery and a couple of the leaders from Compassion Canada, to learn about children’s development ministry first-hand.

Ecuador is an amazingly beautiful country, but it is also a country where there are many, many poor people. We visited some of the little brick houses in which these people lived, sometimes with 10 or 12 people (and sometimes a few chickens or other animals to boot) living in a house barely the size of my own living room. Surely, I thought, I had now seen some of the poorest people in the world! So I asked Aaron Gonyou (who, by the way, I can be proud to say, was a former student of mine way back in the first class I taught in Briercrest in 1993) if he could rank the villages we were visiting on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the “best” of the poor and 1 being the utterly destitute. I knew that Aaron had seen poverty the world over, and that even though we probably weren’t seeing the world’s poorest yet, I was hoping that he would say something like these people rated a 4 or 5 on the poverty scale. You can imagine how my heart fell when Aaron said, “Oh, these are about 7’s or 8’s!” And so, even now, I feel like I know so little about what poverty is really all about, or what it is really like to live in such desperate situations.

When I was growing up in rural Alberta, we used to sign a chorus named, “He owns the Cattle on a Thousand Hills.” It goes like this:

He owns the cattle on a thousand hills
The wealth in every mine,
He owns the rivers and the rocks and rills,
The sun and stars that shine,
Wonderful riches more than tongue can tell
He is my Father so they’re mine as well
He owns the cattle on a thousand hills
I know that He will care for me.

It hadn’t occurred to me why those in our church liked that song so much, but it makes sense now, especially since I married the daughter of a cattle farmer! To say that God owns the cattle on thousand hills is a pretty impressive and poetically compelling way for farmers to grasp that God is rich beyond our wildest imaginations. As for me, that song gave me warm comfort that God would take care of everything that I needed, even though in reality, I didn’t ever feel like I was in deep need. But there is something utterly true about that song, isn’t there? God is the Creator of everything and as Creator, owns all that there is. So, I don’t have to worry; God will provide. But as I gained gradual first-hand introduction to poverty, I am now sometimes left wondering: If God is so wildly rich, why are there so many who are so utterly poor?

So now I have a second confession to make. The fact is, the more I have contemplated this question, the more the answers I would have been satisfied with before seem to fall flat.

As a theologian, as I read Scripture I tend to move quickly to the fall of humanity into sin as giving some important insight into this problem. Consequently, it is easy for me to say that it is because of human sin and evil that there are so many poor people in the world. There are so many poor people in the world because there is so much sin and evil in the world. Right?

Now make sure you hear me correctly: I am fairly confident sin and evil has at least SOMETHING to do with poverty. There’s little doubt in my mind that a good portion, if not the entire problem of poverty, stems back to the first sin of Adam and Eve, a sin which could be characterized as a failure to live in gratitude for that which God has already given. In fact, Karl Barth argued that pride was not the first sin, as many have argued, but ingratitude. And where there is ingratitude—thanklessness—there the sin of greed is close behind. And where there is greed, poverty is not far off, as one group of people hoards more than they need, leaving another group with not enough. And so, in that respect, we shouldn’t be surprised if God takes the question we’ve put to him and turns it straight back to us. We ask, “God, if you are so rich, why are there so many poor people?” and it is as if Jesus says right back to us, “Yes, indeed, why ARE there so many poor people?” It causes me to swallow hard to think that God is in fact waiting for me to answer my own question…

But despite the truth that the Fall is at the root of poverty, I am not yet convinced that even an appeal to sin and evil settles the question. Maybe there is more to it. As I reflect on some other scriptures, I think there just may be. For just a few moments, turn with me to James 2:1-7. Let me suggest that we need to take two things away from this passage.

First of all, notice this: James doesn’t actually deal with the question as I have posed it. In our politically correct ways of looking at things, we have been taught to see inequity between rich and poor as a good occasion to shout, “Injustice!” But here James seems oblivious to what we see as obvious. Indeed, James doesn’t seem to take it as odd at all that a rich man might come into the Christian assembly and unlike so many Christians today, he certainly doesn’t berate the rich man for being rich. On the contrary, he lets everyone else have it for how they treat the rich man. He chastises the church—which would have likely been predominantly made up of poor people—for caving in to what the rest of society already believes: That the rich are somehow better than the rest and to be given a place of deference, even in the midst of the Church. So James doesn’t see injustice as the existence of the rich over against the poor; rather, James calls it unjust—discriminatory!—when the church behaves as if the rich are those who have been especially blessed by God and need to be honored above everyone else. Such thoughts, he says, are the thoughts of self-appointed judges who perpetuate the world’s view of riches.

So what then, IS the answer to our question: If God is so rich, then why are there so many poor? Well, unfortunately, James refuses to give us an answer—at least not in the way that we might hope. Fortunately, he does go on to tell us something quite significant. In verse 5 we hear the following: “Listen my dear brothers: 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 to those who love him?”

As I prepared this message, it was here that I got smacked between the eyes with something I am still struggling to understand.It seems to me that as long as we keep asking, Why are there so many poor people? we still assume that being poor is something inherently bad, inherently evil. That shouldn’t surprise us, of course, because that is the economic gospel we are taught over and over again in our Western world: Salvation comes to those with thick wallets, and damnation has already come to those who have no wallet at all. As long as I assume that the poor are at a spiritual disadvantage, it is unlikely that I will ever understand that they may have a kind of advantage that I do not have. And the advantage the poor have, if they have one at all, is simply this: Those with nothing have everything to gain in Christ; but those with everything fear little else but losing that which they already have.

Of course, it would be an entirely inappropriate exegetical and theological leap to conclude from this that rich people are in every way barred from the kingdom of God. Jesus never says that rich people will be barred from heaven, but he does point out just how hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. And here, I think, James picks up on that very point that Jesus makes: For some reason, people who are poor by the standards of the world are the very ones who are able, much more easily than the rich, to be full—to be rich—in faith. Is it any surprise, then, that it is the economically poor of the world who are, in droves, entering through the doors of the Kingdom, while droves of the rich stand by in our comforts, or worse yet, are dragging the poor into courts and throwing them into the jails (v. 6-7)? It is these poor who we have discriminated against, James says, thinking that somehow they have little to teach us and that we have something to teach them. I’m just starting to see how very wrong we are!

Last January in Ecuador, I met a giant of the faith. This giant physically measured a towering 4½ feet in height and was chronologically a ripe old 15 years in age. But spiritually, I estimated her to be about 10 feet tall and an elder in the faith. Her name is Nelly and I had a chance to meet her with some of her family in their home together with some of your fellow Briercrest students. As Nelly talked to us through a translator, we heard her tell us not so much that she was grateful for the help that Compassion Canada was giving (which she was grateful for!) but moreso for the fact that through Compassion and the Church she attended, she had been introduced to Jesus and His Word—and that this was the most important thing for her, the greatest treasure she had!

I think it was here that I finally began to understand what James meant: God has chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith. Nelly was so rich that I began to feel spiritually impoverished in her presence. I have so much yet to learn. I went to see poor people, but discovered just how poor I am yet in my own faith. Who, then, is the rich and who, then, is the poor?

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A fabulous definition of sin…and grace

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Barth isn’t generally known for saying something with an economy of words. But this sentence on the nature of sin seems to get it just right:

[S]in is that interchanging of God and man, that exalting of men to divinity or depressing of God to humanity, by which we seek to justify and fortify and establish ourselves.

Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th ed., 190.

As for grace:

Grace is the act of God by which the new man shall be and is, and by which also he is free from sin. Our negative, known, human existence, so little conformed to Jesus, is filled with hope by the positive and secret power of the resurrection.

Romans, 197.

The Point of a “Non-dialectical dialectic”

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Those somewhat familiar with the secondary literature on Karl Barth know that at least since the mid-1990’s (and especially in the English speaking world since the publication of Bruce McCormack’s ground-breaking work) he is commonly understood as exhibiting a “thoroughgoing dialectical theology.” Now, for those who may scratch their heads at what exactly a “dialectic” is, I would suggest that the two poles of a magnet provide a good analogy.  That is, there is no magnet without both a North pole and a South pole. You cannot ask, “Which pole is more important–North or South?” (Well, I suppose you can ask it, but sometimes there are wrong questions!) This is because you can’t reduce a magnet to either pole; its nature as a magnet depends upon upholding the reality of these supposedly ‘opposite’ ends. (I would say that another a good example of a dialectic is the nature of humanity, which consists of both male and female; you can’t reduce humanity beyond this irreducible minimum of the male and female gender. Human is to be male and female, different yet indivisibly one.)

The more you read Karl Barth, the more you see this “dialecticism” at work throughout his thought, and one is in danger of misinterpreting Barth if one fails to see how consistently Barth upholds two sides, two perspectives, two poles, etc. on many given issues. Consequently, works like the “pre-McCormack” book by Charles Waldrop (Karl Barth’s Christology: Its Basic Alexandrian Character) ultimately fail to convince because of a failure to see Barth’s thorough going dialecticism. (Waldrop asks whether Barth’s Christology is more Antiochene or more Alexandrian in character, and concludes in favour of the Alexandrian. But as Hunsinger points out, “When Barth’s theology has been classified as other than Chalcedonian, it is alleged that he succumbs to one or another of [the Antiochene or Alexandrian] extremes.” (Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace, 134))

But as “predictable” as Barth’s dialecticism may be, there are times when Barth concsiously seems to be grasping to find other ways to speak of these “double elements.” An example of this occurs in CD IV.3.2. Barth points out that traditional scholastic discussions distinguished  between vocation (or more accurately, “calling”) as “internal vs. external,” “mediate vs. immediate,” or “once-for-all vs. continuous.” He then goes on to say that these distinctions, while perhaps helpful to an extent, cannot be allowed to be separated in the unity of vocation as a unified, single work of God. To speak of an external calling isolated from an internal is empty; to speak of a mediate calling apart from immediate sets up an extra level of mediation apart from the one mediator. But especially when it comes to the “once-for-all” vs. the “continuous” aspects of calling, Barth is adamant that both are true. Yes, there is a time in the life history of a human in which he or she is awakened from the slumber of death, and yet it is also true that this awakening continues throughout that person’s life. Both are true, and denial of either element, or favoring one over the other, leads one down an errant path. Yet, as Barth says, “To call them paradoxical or dialectical does not help to clarify them” (CD IV.3.2, 520). It is as if, Barth says, that we are dealing with a case of “non-dialectical dialectic” (which, come to think of it, is an unusual kind of dialectic in itself!).

But why is this “dialectic” non-dialectical? It is because, Barth says, vocation–calling–has to do not with our experience of being called, but with the One who calls.  Yes, it is true that we can differentiate and “put into tension” (as we are so apt to say) the once-for-all moment in time of our calling in our history with the ongoing process of being called again and again in our lives. But this differentiation, Barth says, is no tension at all. It is not a “dialectic” nor a “paradox.” This is because vocation is, first and foremost, about the one who calls more than the one who is called: “The living Lord Jesus Christ in the power of His Word and therefore in His Holy Spirit is the Subject who acts in this event” (CD IV.3.2, 519) And, as Barth concludes,

Whether or not we call these statements paradoxical and dialectical, this whole mode of calling . . . is obviously necessary once we consider, and do not cease to consider, that we are concerned with the vocation which is nothing other than the function and work of Jesus Christ in His prophetic office” (CD IV.3.2, 520).

So what is  Barth trying to say when he refuses to call this “dialectic” a “dialectic”? What is the point of a “non-dialectical dialectic”? I think there are two things (of course!) that Barth can help us  to understand:

1) Endless focus upon theological tensions may be an indicator that we have become overly anthropocentric in our outlook. In other words, just because something seems to us as humans to be a tension, a paradox, a dialectic, does not mean that it actually is. In essence, for Barth to point to the limits of dialecticism is to point to our own anthropological limits. Our perception and comprehension of an issue can never be the arbiter for what is ontologically true.

2) But anthropological limits need not be understood simply as something “fallen” or coming about as a result of sin. After all, it is not that we fail to see the “sides” of the issue; indeed, we have often graciously been given revelational glimpses into both sides of an issue, and for that we can be grateful. Rather, it is that we simply cannot grasp the two sides of a dialectic in a single moment of knowing or comprehension. And I contend that we need not blame sin for this limitedness, but simply that we have not been designed, from the beginning, to be able to uphold a dialectic in a non-dialectical way! Nor will we ever be able to do it, even in the eschaton! In other words, our anthropological inability to uphold what appears to be two apparently contradictory (dialectical) ideas together in unity is by no means proof that one must decide for one side or the other.  On the contrary, our inability to uphold a dialectic non-dialectically speaks to our built-in Created need to be reminded, again and again, that our limits have less to do with fallenness or evil, but more to do with what God has created us to be: creatures who are not to live in accordance to our own understanding, but rather creatures who are created to trust and lean upon God’s Word (Cf. Prov. 3:5-6). Eve fell, in other words, when she tried to reconcile how fruit, which was beautiful to the eye, (Gen. 3:6) could be something that God had said was not to be eaten. How can both of these be true?! But of course, both were true, even though Eve couldn’t comprehend the unity of their truth. Thus,  Eve’s failure was to allow one “side” (the beauty of the fruit) of the dialectic to overturn the other (the prohibition to eat of the fruit). Likewise, our failure is not in our inability to overcome the “dialectic”; indeed, we are not created to overcome it in the first place. Rather, we fail when we refuse to allow the dialectic to be an instrument by which we are turned toward, and worship and rely upon, the One in whom Truth is fully unified.

Novelists and theologians

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For the Flannery O’Connor fans in our midst, there is a new online article about her over at The Atlantic. It’s worth checking out, especially the last half.

I loved O’Connor’s observation about the challenge a Christian novelist faces: 

[T]he novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural.

In other words, sin and brokenness will only be seen as such when pushed to the limits of their inherent absurdity. After all, sin and brokeness are essentially irrational and ugly, going against the grain of God’s rational and beautiful creation of shalom. In this regard, O’Connor’s genius is found in her ability to portray sin, which is so “normal” to us, in ways that we see it in all its ugliness, irrationality and abnormality. (By the way, I think this is also what makes The Simpsons, at least the earlier seasons, work so well–the show managed to unveil the truth about many of our modern day sacred and secular ideological cows for what they were–silly, absurd, and irrational…but I digress!)

Furthermore, O’Neill, the author of the article, suggests that what made O’Connor “so wickedly good” was her ability to help readers see sin and brokenness as absurd against the presence and reality of God’s involvement in the world. But this aptitude was due precisely to what I would call O’Connor’s “mystagogical realism.” As O’Neill puts it,

O’Connor declared her-self a realist, albeit one pushing “toward the limits of mystery.” Mystery, in her mind, was concerned with “the ultimate reaches of reality,” which is to say, the agency of the divine in human affairs.  

In some respects, the theologian has a similar problem to the novelist, though he faces it in the inverse. For a theologian, contrary to the O’Connorian type of novelist, has the task of being a “mystagogue” (i.e., a purveyor of mystery) who pushes divine mystery toward the limits of rationality. That is to say, the theologian must be constantly aware that there is no true mystery which finally leaves rationality behind. As GK Chesterton so ably, aptly and astutely explained it,

Whenever you hear much of things being unutterable and indefinable and impalpable and unnamable and subtly indescribable, then elevate your aristocratic nose towards heaven and snuff up the smell of decay. It is perfectly true that there is something in all good things that is beyond all speech or figure of speech. But it is also true that there is in all good things a perpetual desire for expression and concrete embodiment; and though the attempt to embody it is always inadequate, the attempt is always made. If the idea does not seek to be the word, the chances are that it is an evil idea. If the word is not made flesh it is a bad word.  [From GKC’s article entitled, Mystagogue]

 So, taking a cue from O’Connor’s observation’s about the challenges for the Christian novelist, I suggest the challenge for the theologian is this:

The theologian with worldly concerns will find in God’s self-revelation perfections which are self-evidently captivating to him, and his problem will be to make these divine perfections appear concretely captivating and real to an audience which is used to seeing them as utterly abstract, unnatural, and unreal.

In other words, conversely to the O’Connorian novelist who is compelled to witness to the mystery present in the outer reaches of reality, the Christian theologian is compelled to witness to the reality of the inward reach of mystery–the mystery which is none other than the wholly other God made real flesh to us in Jesus Christ.

Cut-out Cops

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I fully expect that readers of Theommentary are an upright, law-abiding bunch of citizens. But speaking from a purely hypothetical perspective, would you be deterred from committing a crime in the presence of a cut-out cop–a life-sized cardboard replica of a police officer strategically located at gas stations, drugstores, or ATM machines?  Police administrators in the UK think so. In fact, they have spent over £20,000 (I’m guessing that’s about $40,000 CDN) to produce these fake cops. Frankly, my first reaction is: Just how dumb do they think people are? Or is there really something to it? Is there something deliciously subliminal or subconscious at work here? Is even the hope of an initial deterrance for crime intrinsically worth something?

From a theological perspective, I would say that people are rather resilient in their sin. Granted, the initial impression from even a perceivedpresence of the “law” might in fact cause the would-be criminal to think twice before snitching that Snickers, or sneaking off from the self-serve station without shelling out. But I’d bet it will be only be temporary reaction. Indeed, as Paul says in Roman 1:30, sinners are adept at “inventing ways of doing evil”–like stealing a cut-out cop for a neato rec-room prop.

So let’s do a little theological exercise here: Let’s suppose you were on the committee trying to decide whether spending a few thousand bucks to place fake cops in strategic places. What theological or ethical reasoning might you use to help persuade the rest of the committee one way or the other? Better yet, try to convince me that such a tactic is really a good use of tax payers’ money…