Beyond Brokerage

This is an amazing passage from Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. There’s so much to glean from this little section of the book, but please read it all if you can. Allow it to shape you as it shaped (and challenged my socks off!) me when I read it yesterday.

Beyond Brokerage

Layers of insulation separate the rich and the poor from truly encountering one another. There are the obvious layers like picket fences and SUVs, and there are the more subtle ones like charity. Tithes, tax-exempt donations, and short-term mission trips, while they accomplish some good, can also function as outlets that allow us to appease our consciences and still remain at a safe distance from the poor. Take this poignant example you may have caught wind of: it was revealed that Kathie Lee garments, which have earned Wal-Mart over $300 million in sales annually, were being produced in Honduran sweatshops. These girls, as young as thirteen, worked fifteen-hour shifts under the watch of armed guards and received thirty-one cents an hour. But the great irony is that the garments they were making for Kathie Lee were sold under a label that promised that “a portion of the proceeds from the sale of this garment will be donated to various children’s charities.” More recently, Kathie Lee has been an advocate for workers’ rights. Charity can be a dangerous insulator.

It is much more comfortable to depersonalize the poor so we don’t feel responsible for the catastrophic human failure that results in someone sleeping on the street while people have spare bedrooms in their homes. We can volunteer in a social program or distribute excess food and clothing through organizations and never have to open up our homes, our beds, our dinner tables. When we get to heaven, we will be separated into those sheep and goats Jesus talks about in Matthew 25 based on how we cared for the least among us. I’m just not convinced that Jesus is going to say, “When I was hungry, you gave a check to the United Way and they fed me,” or, “When I was naked, you donated clothes to the Salvation Army and they clothed me.” Jesus is not seeking distant acts of charity. He seeks concrete acts of love: “you fed me…you visited me in prison…you welcomed me into your home…you clothed me.”

With new government funds and faith-based initiatives, the social-work model can easily entangle the church in the efficiency of brokering services and resources in a web of “clients” and “providers” and struggling to retain God’s vision of rebirth, in which we are all family. Faith-based nonprofits can too easily be the mirror image of secular organizations, maintaining the same hierarchies of power and separation between rich and poor. They can too easily merely facilitate the exchange of goods and services, putting plenty of professionals in the middle to guarantee that the rich do not have to face the poor and that power does not shift. Rich and poor are kept in separate worlds, and inequality is carefully managed but not dismantled.

When the church becomes a place of brokerage rather than an organic community, she ceases to be alive. She ceases to be something we are, the living bride of Christ. The church becomes a distribution center, a place where the poor come to get stuff and the rich come to dump stuff. Both go away satisfied (the rich feel good, the poor get clothed and fed), but no one leaves transformed. No radical new community is formed. And Jesus did not set up a program but modeled a way of living that incarnated the reign of God, a community in which people are reconciled and our debts are forgiven just as we forgive our debtors (all economic words). That reign did not spread through organizational establishments or structural systems. It spread like a disease — through touch, through breath, through life. It spread through people infected by love.

Often wealthy folks ask me what they can do for the Simple Way [the neo-monastic Christian community of which Claiborne is a part]. I could ask them for a few thousand dollars, but that would be too easy for both of us. Instead, I ask them to come visit. Writing a check makes us feel good and can fool us into thinking that we have loved the poor. But seeing the squat houses and tent cities and hungry children will transform our lives. Then we will be stirred to imagine the economics of rebirth and to hunger for the end of poverty.

Almost every time we talk with affluent folks about God’s will to end poverty, someone says, “But didn’t Jesus say, ‘the poor will always be with you’?” Many of the people who whip out this verse have grown quite insulated and distant from the poor and feel defensive. I usually gently ask, “Where are the poor? Are the poor among us?” The answer is usually a clear negatory. As we study the Scriptures, we see how many texts we have misread, contextualized, and exegeted to hear what we want to. Like this one about the poor being among us, which Jesus says in the home of a leper and after a poor marginalized woman anoints his feet with perfume. The poor were all around him. Far from saying in defeat that we should not worry about the poor, since they will always be among us, Jesus is pointing the church to her true identity — she is to live close to those who suffer. The poor will always be among us, because the empire will always produce poor people, and they will find a home in the church, a citizenship in the kingdom of God, where the “hungry are filled with good things and the rich sent away empty.”

I heard that Gandhi, when people asked him if he was a Christian, would often reply, “Ask the poor. They will tell you who the Christians are.”

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