A friend recently sent me an article commenting on Pope Francis and his attitude toward the poor. The view of the author is that Francis’ views is Marxist and betrays the essence of Christianity.
Francis sounded at first like such a breath of fresh air in the face of a rigid and often uncaring and out-of-touch Vatican hierarchy. But I’ve started thinking once again about the Eight Beatitudes and what the Sermon on the Mount really says with its proclamations that the poor are “blessed.”
If “blessed are the poor” means, in modern day language, that celebrity or mega-wealth or a Facebook full of friends are rarely goals worth pursuing in their own right, then I agree.
But that’s not what Christianity has, by and large, been teaching for the last several thousand years. Taking a vow of poverty, for instance, automatically lifted someone to a higher plane of holiness, even if the vow did not remotely entail the imminent danger of being hungry or cold or dispossessed. Apart from that group of well-cared for allegedly poor nuns, monks, and brothers, most of those elevated to the official status of saints were not poor. They were among the Great and the Good, people in positions of power and authority who treated their servants with a certain amount of fairness, or who took up the sword to slay the enemies of Christianity. Or sometimes merely the version of Christianity currently in favour.
So what is essentially “Christian” about being poor?
Well, for starters, the translation of the beatitude about the poor in the Bibles with which I am acquainted does not say “Blessed are the poor,” but “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” It does not bless poverty in the economic sense. It does not suggest that being hungry or living in squalor or unable to obtain an education for lack of funds is intrinsically blessed. Conversely, it does not support the conclusion that people like Donald Trump, among others, who have declared themselves legally bankrupt on occasions are subsequently automatically “blessed.”
It seems to me that, challenging as economic poverty may be, “blessed” is a great deal more difficult to achieve. In some ways, we are all “poor.” We are all incomplete, all needy in different ways, we all need support and help from others. It’s not being “poor” that is blessed. It’s what we do with those challenges presented by our incompleteness.
Do we respond with violence, jealousy, resentment, with passive acceptance or helplessness? Admittedly society is apt to respond to those who respond to their economic poverty with physical violence with a tit-for-tat punishment such as prison sentences and exile. Those whose poverty is not economic are rarely punished with the same vindictive anger by society. Partly because the violence of the well-off is less apt to be overtly physically abusive, and more apt to be manifest in betrayals, and scams. But in either case, neither being rich nor poor or somewhere in-between is, all by itself, “blessed.”
By the same token, “serving the poor” in the economic sense of poverty, is not somehow holier than meeting all the other human needs we have besides those for food and shelter. We need love, we need to feel special, we need guidance too.
And we need to give every bit as much as we need to receive. The overt “giver” is often, in the very act, the true “receiver.”
I suspect that “poor” is much deeper, more complex, and more universal, than either Christianity or Marxism would have us believe.