Mercy and Justice, Defined

English: The Poor helping the poor
English: The Poor helping the poor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


In a recent interview with Theresa Riley of “Moyers & Company, Joel Berg, of NYC’s  Coalition Against Hunger said that 50 million Americans live in “food insecure” households. That means, simply, that many Americans just do not have enough to eat. Berg made the point that in this, the wealthiest country in the world, such a number is morally unacceptable.  People are “rationing food and skipping meals,” and the most adversely affected by this dire situation are children.  (


Riley asked Berg what could be done about it, and Berg responded that Congress could pass legislation to give people a “living wage,” i.e., enough money to actually survive and live with some dignity. Berg said that the situation costs America $167.5 billion a year. That’s a staggering figure. Berg explained that hunger causes a plethora of problems, adding to health care costs in this nation, and ultimately has a negative impact of America’s economy overall. He said:  “Food insecure children experience a broad range of problems that affect their health, development, well-being and school performance. Poorly nourished children have lower school test scores and require far more long-term health care spending. Hunger also reduces the productivity of workers, which reduces their earnings, which, in turn, reduces their ability to purchase nutritious food for their children. In this vicious cycle, malnourished children do not do as well in school, are more likely to drop out, and are less likely to go to college than children who are properly nourished. Consequently, malnourished children earn less as adults and are less able to help America build a 21st-century high-skills economy. In order for the nation to build the best public education system in the world, bring down health care costs, and rebuild our economy, we simply must end hunger”


The entire interview was sobering and depressing. We do not want to see what is real in our world; it is much more comfortable and easy to reside in myth. If we do not see hunger, or the effects of hunger in our own country, amongst American citizens, it is easy not to think about it or to understand how dire a condition it is. Riley’s report, coupled with a documentary shown on HBO recently, American Winter, have made me think about, again, the difference between mercy and justice.


To give the poor and the needy food and clothing is showing mercy. Religious and non-religious people find it relatively easy to help people in this way. It is always gratifying but a bit troubling to see the outpouring of mercy gifts during the Christmas season. I have always wondered why the need to give seems so important only during that season, when in fact, hunger and poverty know no seasons. One of the major problems for poor children is that they do not eat well during the summer; the food that their parents are able to afford is often that which is least healthy, and so obesity, or the possibility of obesity, is much higher for those children …but the thought that some children in our country cannot and do not eat well in summer is sickening.  To give the poor the food they need, however skewed it seems that we think most about them only during the holidays, amounts to giving or showing mercy.


The more difficult work, however, is the work of justice. Berg said that the way to curb hunger in this country would be for Congress to pass a living wage. Berg said that the President and Congress ought to concentrate not only on creating wealth on Wall Street, but on making it possible for people to make a living wage; he also said the Congress should also move positively on President Obama’s request for the minimum wage to be raised to nine dollars, and then “index it to inflation.” (


That seems simple enough, and it seems humane. It also seems economically wise, as hunger causes so many other problems that adversely affect the American economy. And yet, lawmakers in general seem hesitant to pass legislation that would let people have a living wage or get some decent money for the work they do. That sort of legislation only comes through the voices and actions of the people; getting Congress to hear the cries and see the needs of the poor and act on them is what constitutes justice work.


Power concedes nothing without a struggle, noted Frederick Douglass. When justice is being sought, there is always a struggle. One need only to look at the current fight for justice being waged by the LGBT community on marriage, or look back to struggles for basic rights waged by women and by African- Americans. Unfortunately, it appears that wanting one’s “country back” is equal to having a country where the scales are not in balance. Apparently, that, to many, is how America is supposed to be.


But the God of us all would not agree, not if the holy books of all religions are to be believed. The God in the Christian Bible,  Yahweh in the Hebrew scriptures, demanded justice, and grew angry when such justice was not forthcoming.


Once, a member of my congregation said to me, “Why are you preaching about the poor? There are supposed to be poor people. The Bible says it.” She was referring to a statement in the Bible where Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you.” Are we to draw from that that God wants us not to worry or fret about the poor? I think not.


Susan Thistlewaite, a professor at the Chicago Theological School, author of Occupy the Bible,  and a regular contributor to The Washington Post, urged a group of us in a recent presentation she gave, to read the parables from the bottom up, from the perspective of the poor and not the wealthy. The outcome of doing that was personally very revealing.


We are not eager to do that, however. The bulk of us are not eager to seek justice, though the Hebrew Scriptures soundly advises us to do so. Justice work is difficult. It has to be so powerful that stony minds can be penetrated, and the needs of others can be put in front of political aspirations. The current struggle for gun control is a justice issue; what is being sought is not the prohibition of Americans to own guns, but, rather, a limitation on the kinds of guns that can be purchased, and the size of magazine clips as well. All that the gun control movement is trying to do is make it more difficult for anyone to shoot up an office or school full of people. That is justice work.


People don’t want justice for others, however, or maybe it is more accurate to say they don’t want to put the work into it. Justice work is hard and tedious; the fights against justice are just as focused as are the fights for justice. One who fights for justice has to be in it for the long haul.


It would be nice if the Congress would really think about the vast numbers of Americans struggling and pass a living wage and raise the minimum wage. But unless there are soldiers on the fields fighting for that, it “aint’ gonna happen.”


And so, the wealthiest nation in the world will continue to engage in seasonal mercy offerings. That’s good, but mercy without accompanying justice can come off as efforts in futility, because in spite of the good-intentioned mercy, the root of the problem is being ignored by those who could make a more long-standing difference.


A candid observation …


Who Cares for the Poor?

It is very hard to understand why any politician would be opposed to paying people a living wage – meaning, a wage that would allow them to live with dignity as opposed to living as virtual slaves to an unfair economic system.


It is clear that capitalism and democracy are not one in the same thing;  apparently, if  Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson had a face-to-face conversation, they would lock horns on principle: capitalism does not pretend to want to, or to be about, providing a level playing field for all people, as democracy purports to be about.


But to be against helping people get paid what their work contribution is really worth seems immoral. Actually, allowing poverty, or ignoring it, seems to be immoral too, especially in such a wealthy and religious nation.  It seems like more and more, people are just a beggar’s cup away from abject poverty.


The growing gap between rich and poor, the shrinking of the middle class, is not just an American problem. In China, reports Rob Schmitz, “the number of people …who still live on less than two dollars a day is equal to the entire population of the United States.”  ( Ironically, the very poor sit on a street named “The Street of Eternal Happiness.” The well to do most often walk past the beggars; the sense of disdain is hardly unnoticeable.


There is nothing “happy,” though, about being poor. There is nothing “happy” about having to choose between food and medicine, or between diapers or milk for the baby who needs the diaper. Many families cannot afford diapers; hence in some places diaper banks have been created. Many elderly do not have enough to eat. And many adults are working their buns off with hardly anything to show for it except extreme fatigue and deepening depression.


There seems to be such an insensitivity to the poor. In China, Kang Xiaoguang, Professor of Regional Economics and Politics, actually said, publicly, “Although there are hundreds of millions of workers and peasants, they don’t count. You can ignore them. You can also rob and exploit them. It’s not a problem. The most important thing is to get the powerful on your side.”


While Xiaoguang’s statement is harsh and insensitive, it is hard to believe that he is not saying out loud what many people feel.  When President Obama said, in his 2013 State of the Union Address, that he wanted Congress to approve a hike in the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour, he apparently caught Republicans and some Democrats off-guard.  The president said, “Today, a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $14,500 a year. Even with the tax relief we’ve put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line. That’s wrong. That’s why, since the last time this Congress raised the minimum wage, 19 states have chosen to bump theirs even higher. Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty, and raise the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour.”


Those who are criticizing big government are not impressed with the president’s suggestion, nor are they apt to seriously consider it, and those who stay far enough from the poor to see the misery in which they live are not likely to “encourage” their state and federal lawmakers by threatening to withdraw support for them if they don’t raise the minimum wage.


If you do not see poverty, it is easy to minimize it and the suffering it causes.


Before the 2008 election, CNN anchor Lou Dobbs said, over and over, that America was losing its middle class.  He seemed not to get a lot of support, and I don’t remember what his solution was to the problem, but the fact is, Dobbs correctly called that there would be a crisis of the middle class, which has come to be.


The state and federal jobs which allowed so many people to reach middle class are shrinking, as are the manufacturing jobs. There are jobs available, but many of them require technical training which the vast majority of people do not have.


“Find a way to go to school and get some training,” those who are insensitive would say, not understanding that the working poor don’t have a penny to spend and would probably not qualify for a student loan. The working poor often cannot take a day off, or refuse to take a day off, even when they’re sick, because they cannot afford to miss a day’s wages. Their families suffer, as do they, in all areas of life.


Marco Rubio, who delivered the GOP rebuttal to President Obama’s speech, said, “I don’t think a minimum wage law works.” Addressing and raising the minimum wage would threaten the creation of jobs, those who oppose big government would say, but what kind of jobs? Probably more that are wont to pay workers what their work is worth.


It is no secret that wealth often accrues on the backs of the poor, with the poor getting little benefit. But there is something inherently wrong in that. There is something wrong with a system that allows the wealthy to make and hoard more money they can ever use, while those whose labor made them rich can barely make ends meet.


Professor Susan Thistlewaite, in her book, Occupy the Bible, encourages a moral and religious response to the issue of poverty. She spends a lot of time addressing the debt students are in who took out loans to go to college. Too many of them are not only struggling financially, but they are struggling emotionally as well. To not be able to find a job, or to get a job which does not pay a living wage, is demeaning. Many former students are committing suicide, she writes.


Thistlewaite encourages the religious of our society to read the Bible and interpret it from the perspective of those who struggle with poverty and financial hardship. The struggling don’t have trouble doing that; the wealthy would probably toss it off as Liberal dribble.


But there is no “dribble” in the fact that in this nation there is an oligarchy, not a democracy. There are too many people struggling to obtain the bare necessities for themselves and their families. The Republicans have criticized President Obama for the fact that more people receive food stamps than in the previous administration, but without help, how are the poor and working poor supposed to make it?  To require and expect them to work for the increase of profits for the wealthy and then to give them pittance in return …just does not seem right.


In fact, it seems that in doing that, the wealthy and powers that be are merely ignoring the poor.


The pervasiveness of poverty is not new; the society in which Jesus lived was as imbalanced economically as are the societies of China and Haiti and our own nation. But what is troubling is that it feels like it’s getting easier and easier for the wealthy to act like the poor and working poor don’t exist, that they are whiners and takers, like …they don’t matter.


Perhaps if nationally there could be a shift or an outpouring of programs that teach the poor how to compete in our global economy the picture could and would change. The poor don’t want to be poor; many of them are stuck and don’t know how to get out. Some would rather die than take government assistance. They don’t want a hand out. They want a way up and out of their economic misery. Poverty causes people to live in despair and depression; suicide is not all that uncommon for those who have simply given up hope of their lives ever getting better. There is a lot of domestic abuse amongst the poor, and children end up being ignored and neglected, which causes a host of social problems. It doesn’t make sense to ignore and/or ignore the poor. Poverty ends up costing money …but then, those who are investing in private prisons, the so-called Prison Industrial Complex, would not care about that because their wealth is built upon the backs of the hopeless and despairing.


Capitalism (Photo credit: Juliano Mattos)


You have to have eyes to see that, though, ears to hear it, and a heart to receive it. That, apparently, is what is missing in our great nation.


A candid observation …


What Does the Bible Say, Really?

There are some things we just don’t think about.

Susan Thistlewaite, Chicago Theological Seminary professor, author and scholar, gives some sobering information in her latest book, Occupy the Bible. She says that we ought to read the Bible from the perspective of the homeless, the hungry, the economically stressed.

It was from their perspective that Jesus formed his ministry, she says …and the Bible says.

In a workshop she gave, she said, “Student debt is approaching one trillion dollars. That’s more than credit card debt and if the trend continues, in a few years, student debt will be higher than the national debt. We need to read the Bible from that perspective.”

Students are stressed out and depressed. They have gone to school and gotten degrees, only to find that they are not able to get work, or enough money to pay their student loans.”Students are stressed out and depressed,” Thistlewaite said. “Some are committing suicide.”

There are a lot of reasons for the economic state of this nation, but greed is a big one, posits Thistlewaite. Greed has led banks and other financial institutions, including those which dole out student loans, to go haywire, thinking not about the people who are getting the loans they are giving out but instead by the profit they will make off people who are really trying to make an honest living.

Jesus was a revolutionary, primarily because he challenged the Roman government. He didn’t get into trouble because he taught people to love; he got in trouble because he challenged the status quo. He got into trouble because he taught people that the kingdom in which they should seek comfort was the heavenly kingdom, where there was fairness and equality amongst people,  not the earthly kingdom, headed by the Romans, which led people into economic despair and support economic inequality.

“Theology begins where pain is,” says Thistlewaite. And clearly, there is pain amongst the people who are working and still cannot make ends meet. That group includes students, but also the so-called “working poor,” who, in spite of working sometimes two and three jobs, are still struggling to keep their heads above water. The economic state of our nation is slowly wiping out the middle class, and, observes Thistlewaite, there can be no democracy without a middle class.

Our economic dilemma is made all the worse as the issue is argued using the Bible as justification for both liberal and conservative positions. Thistlewaite says that “the Right thinks the Bible supports free market capitalism.” The Left, conversely, uses the Bible to support an economy which supports equal distribution of wealth. Parables, like found in the Book of Matthew 25:14-30, where a wealthy landowner gave three different “slaves” (translated from the Greek “doulos”) rewarded the two who multiplied money given to them, and cast out the one who hid the money given to him, invite two different interpretations, one from the Left, one from the Right. Who, in that parable and others, is doing the will of God, asks Thistlewaite.

One Bible. Two desperately different interpretations …and the odd men out are the struggling, working poor.

We don’t want to think about the state of our economy or what God really demands. It is totally inconceivable to me that anyone would think that God supports poverty or the abject and real suffering that is endured by the working poor, just as it is inconceivable to me that a good God would support racism or sexism or militarism. I grew up believing that a good God wanted all people to be taken care of, that God wanted economic and social justice for all people. Is that naive?

Neither the Hebrew Scriptures nor the New Testament, naiveté notwithstanding, seem to support misery, with a very few people being very comfortable at the expense of many poor people suffering. People got into big trouble with God in the Bible for not being hospitable, not taking care of widows and the poor. God didn’t change, did He/She?

There are some things we don’t want to think about it, but we need to. Bottom line, there’s too much suffering caused by economic distress, in this, the wealthiest nation in the world.

A candid observation …

Visit Thistlewaite’s website at