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Fighting Poverty: The Jesus We Serve, or Deserve?

Posted: 03/09/11 11:00 AM ET

Every era, every decade, gets the Jesus it wants, even the Jesus it deserves.

During the Cold War, a lurid apocalyptic Lamb of God haunted baby-boomer imaginations. During the '90s, a culture-war Christ busily decreed against gay rights and Murphy Brown. In the last decade, a Da Vinci Messiah flattered a society's nameless yearnings for alternative spiritualities and ecclesiastical whodunits.

Each time, a distorted version of Christ served political convenience, distracting from the biblical Jesus' difficult teachings about discipleship and compassion. Each time, the noisy reception for a retail Redeemer distracted from real-world deteriorations on the ground -- costly far-flung wars, lopsided concentrations of power, alarming gaps between rich and poor.

Which Jesus strides among us now? There's reason to hope that the sheer scale of difficulties today is stirring ethical defiance and moral clarity. Amid intolerable daily overloads of data and debt, beyond the fiscal debates twitchy with anger and impotence, there's reason to think the real-life Jesus of Matthew 25 is afoot again.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, Jesus declared: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. ... Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me."

Across 2,000 years, that mandate has given people of faith courage to ease the burden of poor people and humanize public life so that society does not disdain "the least of these." Our concentration has always been fitful and fatigued, too often bullied by political rhetoric or out-shouted by corporate power.

Nevertheless, an unusual synergy of concern is mounting right now. Initiatives are underway to ensure that the grinding ordeal of poverty is not forgotten during this time of political scrimmaging over federal debt reductions and fiscal priorities.

A group of progressive evangelicals, for instance, is asking, "What Would Jesus Cut?" -- an effort to save social programs crucial to vulnerable people. The global relief organization Church World Service, working in some 80 countries, is promoting a "Making Poverty History" campaign, which embraces the Millennium Development Goals' aim to eliminate extreme poverty by 2015. Bread for the World hosts a national "Gathering 2011: Changing the Politics of Hunger" in Washington, D.C., in June. Catholic Charities USA is readying for its Poverty Summit in Fort Worth in September.

Each in its own way is taking the Jesus of the gospels as a daily touchstone. Each is resisting a peevish, poisonous cultural mood, years in the making and reinforced daily, that sneers at any remaining instincts for the common good.

Today (March 9), Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, marks the launch of an effort by Yale Divinity School to catch that spirit and advance momentum.

"Mobilizing Faith, Fighting Poverty" will focus on the six-week period of Lent, inviting all people of good will to keep issues of poverty before them in their own spiritual and political lives. This can mean practical, daily steps, simple or ambitious ones -- supporting a local poverty-fighting organization, donating to a global relief agency, advocating for legislation, supplying anti-malaria bed nets, getting familiar with the Millennium Development Goals.

A "Mobilizing Faith, Fighting Poverty" Facebook site has been created for sharing ideas and promoting pragmatic solutions. Daily postings during Lent will sharpen focus on jobs, inequality, lifestyle choices and other fronts against poverty. A companion website gathers organizational resources, ways to get involved, avenues of activism.

Tonight, a "Mobilizing Faith, Fighting Poverty" launch event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., drawing anti-poverty practitioners, elected officials and religious leaders, will identify policy challenges and signs of hope.

From every angle the question of poverty is nearly impossible to get right. The American temptation is to blame the poor for their woes, or turn "the poor" into an ideological abstraction for inducing guilt. The easiest temptation of all is to feel overwhelmed by poverty's pain and persistence. Yet thousands -- millions -- of people are fighting for solutions, putting them into motion, wasting no time on the indulgence of defeatism.

Keeping poverty in the public eye and in my own orbit of feeling and action is a test of gospel resilience. Mysteriously, stubbornly, Jesus kept poor people on his horizon. He did not avert his eyes. Even in that irradiating sequence of Easter events, the Resurrection appearances, he kept it simple and kept it real: he told his disciples -- three times -- to "feed my lambs."

The body of Christ is a mystical idea, but it is also practical: the body of Christ is each human body carrying forward the Word of God on earth. Belief is a matter of embodiment, getting the body moving in certain directions, keeping the witness of Jesus in the foreground, despite every obstacle and contradiction.

Through the political fog and the internet cloud, there's a chance to face up to this moment of need, without averting the eyes. A cloud of witnesses might yet shine through.

Ray Waddle is editor of Reflections, the theological magazine of Yale Divinity School.