Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor and We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People’s Campaign. Follow her on Twitter at @liztheo.
WN: The message of the article highlighted below resonates with the pulsating prophetic call throughout Scripture, of which the apotheosis is the Incarnation, Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus.
Please also see: Liz Theoharis, Poverty is the Sin, Not Poor People, February 27, 2022. Tom Engelhardt‘s introduction reads:
Meanwhile, as TomDispatch regular and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign Liz Theoharis makes clear today, poor Americans suffered terribly in that same period (and were only blamed for it). Just the other day, for instance, the news came in that another 3.7 million children — yes, you read that figure right! — fell into poverty this January as Congress refused to renew the Child Tax Credit. Give Joe Manchin and all those Trumpist Republicans a little credit for that and then let Theoharis fill you in on our country’s ongoing crisis and why those who are going to suffer the most from it will be blamed the most for it, too. Tom
Liz Theoharis herself writes in the above:
Nonetheless, victim-blaming narratives that divert attention from the social structures and interests that have created ever more poverty in this century continue to serve a political purpose for the defenders of the status quo. In today’s America, consider Joe Manchin, one among many necromancers who have reanimated the corpse of the long-discredited culture of poverty. In the process, they’ve given a veneer of sophistication to hateful rhetoric and acts against the poor, including the nearly half of West Virginians who are today in poverty or one emergency from economic ruin.
The Death-Dealing Culture of the Rich
In America, instead of recognizing the political agency and moral vision of poor people, it’s generally believed that the rich, entrepreneurial, and powerful have the solutions to our social ills. Indeed, as I’ve written previously at TomDispatch, this society has long suffered from a kind of Stockholm syndrome: we look to the rich for answers to the very problems they’re all-too-often responsible for creating and from which, of course, they benefit immeasurably.
Even as Americans begin to question the ever more enormous divide between the rich and the rest of us, the media narrative lionizes the wealthy. For example, contrast the many pieces celebrating the Gates Foundation’s work around global health with its decision early in the pandemic to pressure Oxford University and AstraZeneca to keep exclusive property rights to their Covid-19 vaccine rather than making it widely available for manufacture around the world. That decision and so many more like it by other wealthy individuals, private corporations, and countries played a significant part in creating the vaccine apartheid that continues to divide the Global North and South (and so prepared the groundwork for new variations of the pandemic among the unvaccinated).
A year and half later, bad-faith arguments about inflation and scarcity have been used by Manchin and other “moderate” Democrats to sink the Build Back Better agenda and allow major antipoverty programs like the Child Tax Credit to expire, to the detriment of nearly 75% of its recipients. I say bad faith because you need only look at the $2.1 trillion that America’s billionaires have made during these two pandemic years or the $770 billion Congress had no hesitation allocating for the 2022 Pentagon budget and related expenses to see that such scarcity arguments simply don’t hold water. In reality, the resources are at hand to solve our nation’s most burning crises, if only we had the political will.
And given the already described circumstances, you undoubtedly won’t be surprised to discover that the bottom 90% of Americans hold more than 70% of it, including $1.34 trillion in student debt. In 2016, 24 million American families were living “underwater” (meaning they owed more on their houses than those structures were even worth).
The reality of poverty amid plenty has also grown more widespread and evident because our national priorities have increasingly shifted ever more toward a militarized and toxic war economy. Today, out of every federal discretionary dollar, 53 cents go to our military, while only 15 cents go to anti-poverty programs. This sort of spending has been mirrored in our communities, too, where there has been a tenfold increase in spending on prisons and deportations over the past 40 years. In other words, the criminalization of the poor that began in earnest half a century ago is now in full bloom. To cite one indicative figure that sums this up: since 2000, 95% of the rise in the incarcerated population has been made up of people who can’t afford bail.
Maranatha. Even so come, Lord Jesus.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu
The world lost a great moral leader this Christmas when Archbishop Desmond Tutu passed away at the age of 90. I had the honor of meeting him a few times as a child. I was raised by a family dedicated to doing the work of justice, grounded in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and also sacred texts and traditions. We hosted the archbishop on several occasions when he visited Milwaukee — both before the end of apartheid and after South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed in 1996.
In the wake of one visit, he sent a small postcard that my mom framed and placed on the bookcase near our front door. Every morning before school I would grab my glasses resting on that same bookcase and catch a glimpse of the archbishop’s handwritten note. This wasn’t inadvertent on my mom’s part. It was meant as a visual reminder that, if I was to call myself a Christian — which I did, serving as a Sunday school teacher from the age of 13 and a deacon at 16 — my responsibility was to advocate for policies that welcomed immigrants, freed those held captive by racism and injustice, and lifted the load of poverty.
Given our present context, the timing of his death is all too resonant. Just over a year ago, the world watched as a mob besieged the U.S. Capitol, urged on by still-President Donald Trump and undergirded by decades of white racism and Christian nationalism. January 6th should have reminded us all that far from being a light to all nations, American democracy remains, at best, a remarkably fragile and unfinished project. On the first anniversary of that nightmare, the world is truly in need of moral leaders and defenders of democracy like Tutu.
The archbishop spent his life pointing to what prophets have decried through the ages, warning countries, especially those with much political and economic power, to stop strangling the voices of the poor. Indeed, the counsel of such prophets has always been the same: when injustice is on the rise, there are dark forces waiting to demean, defraud, and degrade human life. Such forces hurt the poor the most but impact everyone. And they often cloak themselves in religious rhetoric, even as they pursue political and economic ends that do anything but match our deepest religious values.
Confronting White Christian Nationalism
“There are very good Christians who are compassionate and caring. And there are very bad Christians. You can say that about Islam, about Hinduism, about any faith. That is why I was saying that it was not the faith per se but the adherent. People will use their religion to justify virtually anything.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Christian nationalism has influenced the course of American politics and policy since the founding of this country, while, in every era, moral movements have had to fight for the Bible and the terrain that goes with it. The January 6th assault on the Capitol, while only the latest expression of such old battlelines, demonstrated the threat of a modern form of Christian nationalism that has carefully built political power in government, the media, the academy, and the military over the past half-century. Today, the social forces committed to it are growing bolder and increasingly able to win mainstream support.
When I refer to “Christian nationalism,” I mean a social force that coalesces around a matrix of interlocking and interrelated values and beliefs. These include at least six key features, though the list that follows is anything but exhaustive:
* First, a highly exclusionary and regressive form of Christianity is the only true and valid religion.
* Second, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity are “the natural order” of the world and must be upheld by public policy (even as Latino Protestants swell the ranks of American evangelicalism and women become important gate-keepers in communities gripped by Christian nationalism).
* Third, militarism and violence, rather than diplomacy and debate, are the correct ways for this country to exert power over other countries (as it is our God-given right to do).
* Fourth, scarcity is an economic reality of life and so we (Americans vs. the world, white people vs. people of color, natural-born citizens vs. immigrants) must compete fiercely and without pity for the greater portion of the resources available.
* Fifth, people already oppressed by systemic violence are actually to blame for the deep social and economic problems of the world — the poor for their poverty, LGBTQIA people for disease and social rupture, documented and undocumented immigrants for being “rapists and murderers” stealing “American” jobs, and so on.
* Sixth, the Bible is the source of moral authority on these (and other) social issues and should be used to justify an extremist agenda, no matter what may actually be contained in the Good Book.Such ideas, by the way, didn’t just spring up overnight. This false narrative has been playing a significant, if not dominant, role in our politics and economics for decades. Since childhood — for an example from my own life — I’ve regularly heard people use the Bible to justify poverty and inequality. They quote passages like “the poor you will always have with you” to argue that poverty is inevitable and can never be ended. Never mind the irony that the Bible has been one of the only forms of the mass media — if you don’t mind my calling it that — which has had anything good to say about the poor (something those in power have tried to cover up since the days of slavery).
. . . what prophets have decried through the ages, warning countries, especially those with much political and economic power, to stop strangling the voices of the poor. Indeed, the counsel of such prophets has always been the same: when injustice is on the rise, there are dark forces waiting to demean, defraud, and degrade human life.
Geographically, the battle for the Bible manifests itself most intensely in the Deep South, although hardly confined to that region, perhaps as a direct inheritance of theological fights dating back to slavery. For example, although there are more churches per capita than in any other state and high rates of attendance, Mississippi also has the highest child poverty rate, the least funding for education and social services for the needy, and ranks lowest in the country when it comes to overall health and wellness. It’s noteworthy that this area is known as both the “Bible Belt” and the “Poverty Belt.”
This is possible, in part, because the Bible has long been used as a tool of domination and division, while Christian theology has generally been politicized to identify poverty as a consequence of sin and individual failure. Thanks to the highly militarized rhetoric that goes with such a version of Christianity, adherents are also called upon to defend the “homeland,” even as their religious doctrine is used to justify violence against the most marginalized in society. These are the currents of white Christian nationalism that have been swelling and spreading for years across the country.
In the Poor People’s Campaign (which I co-chair with Reverend William Barber II), we identify Christian nationalism as a key pillar of injustice in America that provides cover for a host of other ills, including systemic racism, poverty, climate change, and militarism. To combat it, we believe it’s necessary to build a multiracial moral movement that can speak directly to the needs and aspirations of poor and dispossessed Americans and fuse their many struggles into one.
Please click on: The Rise of White Christian Nationalism