Go to Home page Go to Past Issues Subscribe Go to Links

July, 2006

Spirit of the Revolution: Poverty and Empire

By Liz Theoharis
Immigrant workers and supporters demanding their rights in Atlanta in May.
Immigrant workers and supporters demanding their rights in Atlanta in May.

New Testament scholars interested in the historical Jesus have asserted that Jesus was a sage, in the tradition of Hellenistic and Jewish sages of his day. Some propose that Jesus was a revolutionary with a social program and a leader of a grassroots movement of peasants and other oppressed people. One particularly known scholar, Marcus Borg, combines the role of Jesus as teacher with Jesus being a social justice activist/prophet and a healer. He proposes that rather than the founder of a revolutionary movement, Jesus served to catalyze a movement.

The focus of Jesus's social program and movement building was on other poor peasants like him. However, many people choose to ignore Jesus's economic situation and the economic situation of the majority of people surrounding him. Others explain his poverty and homelessness by claiming that Jesus chose a "homeless lifestyle." But in Matthew and Luke, Jesus's parents do not have sufficient stature or resources to be able to find a place to stay for his birth. Through all the Gospels (as well as Acts, Paul's letters, and Revelation) Jesus and the Jesus movement are concerned with the poor and disfranchised. In fact, in a study of the content of the Bible, Jim Wallis of Call to Renewal and Sojourners Magazine found that in some books of the Bible one in every four verses is concerned with poverty and poor people. Willie Baptist, co-coordinator of the University of the Poor, says that the Bible is possibly the only widely read book where the poor are consecrated.

Reflecting on the impact of the stereotypes of poor people developed over the last decades, poor people building a movement to end poverty in the US have focused on the passage in Luke 9:58, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." When homelessness started growing rapidly and changing in nature in the late 1980s, people did not know what to do with entire families, many of them working, living on the streets. Since that time, particularly as a result of the welfare cuts and downsizing, homelessness has continued to grow. It is comforting to think of an all-knowing God who in the form of Jesus refers to his own homelessness and the homelessness of others before homelessness, as we know it now, even existed. It is even more comforting and in fact, important, to view Jesus as a poor person.

Studying the poverty of the historical Jesus is a powerful counter to the many people who are skeptical of the role poor people can play as organizers and intellectuals. The concept of the underclass to characterize poor Americans has developed as poverty has worsened. This focus on the behavior and faults of the poor has affected how our congregations and religious institutions relate to the rural and urban poor. Many consider poor people at fault for their poverty and refuse to lend support or credibility to their struggles and issues. In fact, much of the villainization of poor people helped to bring about the 1996 Welfare Reform Legislation as well as other major cuts to social programs over the last decades.

The model of an historical Jesus, a poor peasant himself, but who was an organic intellectual striving to solve the problems of society and wake people is a necessary counter to the villainization of poor people. This principle defies much of the media and social service system's portrayal of the poor. The voices of the poor are not usually listened to, let alone followed for strategy and organization. When poor people are political and organized it is usually covered up. The names of their organizations rarely appear in the paper or other forms of media. And most people's reaction to a movement led by poor people is that they are incapable of such a responsibility, such organization and leadership. This principle also defies many messages circulating around poor communities. Many poor people are isolated in their poverty. Coming together with other people faced with similar struggles, and learning that poverty is not their individual problem but a huge system of control, helps them to break their isolation and become committed to leading this struggle. Jesus the poor peasant intellectual is a powerful inspiration to this movement.

Liz Theoharis is the co-coordinator of the University of the Poor, the educational arm of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, and a doctoral student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

This article originated in the People's Tribune
PO Box 3524, Chicago, IL 60654, 773-486-3551, info@peoplestribune.org.
Feel free to reproduce unless marked as copyrighted.
Please include this message with reproductions of the article.