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From Critique to Creativity

Does God care about the poor or does God side with the poor?

From Critique to Creativity

Days before his assassination, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a March 1968 mass meeting at Memphis' Mason Temple to support striking sanitation workers. (Photo by Memphis Press-Scimitar; from the Civil Rights Digital Library at the University of Georgia; licensed under Creative Commons 2.5)

Maybe the answer is just yes. Maybe it's both. But I am thinking about the difference between these two statements, the first a sentiment and the second a predicament, and the value of a binary choice as people of faith come up against the shameful reality that “the rich get richer, the poor are getting poorer,” as John Lydon sings.

What's prompting this reflection is the new Poor People's Campaign, the national effort started by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago and now revived by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis. According to the New York Times, the ministers and their allies “hope to mount large protests on 40 consecutive days … in at least 25 state capitals and other locations, with crowds in the tens of thousands courting arrest.”

I believe in the power of protest. The civil rights movement changed America because people put their lives on the line. These new protests will take up the unfinished work of 50 years ago by critiquing an unjust economic system, an appraisal upon which the real value of our nation depends.

Yet above the critique we need creativity. This is the shift Dr. King began to make in his thinking and action at the end of his life as he called attention to the struggle of Memphis' sanitation workers. Had he lived longer he would have advocated for job creation, for community enterprise, for black enterprise; he would have preached about impact investing; he would have raised up young leaders as entrepreneurs.

A practical theologian, King would have reached back into the black experience of “labor” and “property” and “ownership” to secure a new word of hope. His hermeneutic would have generated possibility even as it exposed structural inequality.

A biblical preacher, King would have returned to an ancient text to lay hold of the most contemporary question: “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” His homiletic would have confronted the fear that leaves us doubting our resources to create. He would have asked, as the Spirit of God asked a doubting Moses, “What's that in your hand?”

It is not empty conjecture to conclude that on the other side of Memphis, King would have observed the continuing plight of oppressed people and felt compelled to “get his hands dirty” in commerce, much like his predecessor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the Rev. Dr. Vernon Johns, who did what others deemed unseemly or shameful for a pastor when he stepped from the pulpit to sell produce from the back of a truck because he sought to provoke his members to economic justice.

Given the stakes we face 50 years after Memphis, I believe King would have provoked people of faith to make some binary choices.

Advocate for living wages or create the jobs that pay living wages?

Push for policies that protect the environment or create the new technologies that reduce carbon emissions?

Critique the unjust systems that trap people in poverty or create the enterprises that build wealth in the broken places?

The binaries are an embarrassment for the progressive movement that 50 years after Memphis obtains the security of the status quo and the acclaim of righteousness without risk as the poor cry out for another way. 

The binaries are an intellectual affront to those who reason against “either/or” for “both/and” while knowing full well they choose policy over practice because the former preaches, keeps the purse strings open, and keeps them as players in halls of power. 

Faith calls for conscious choice, decision determines direction, and our world, as King wrote in his letter from the Birmingham jail, is “in dire need of creative extremists.”

So my reflection continues. I wonder: What is the most foolish choice people of faith can make about economics? I ask this recalling that the Christian scripture says, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” So what's the most foolish choice we can make?

That God cares about the poor? Or that God sides with the poor?

That God calls the privileged to give up privilege for the poor? Or that God calls the privileged to use privilege alongside the poor?

That God calls people of faith to call the government to righteousness for the sake of the poor? Or that God calls people of faith to risk an arrangement with the government to create another way the government cannot risk to see?

The choices are troubling, the questions unsettling. And one more may be most uncomfortable: Do we yet feel enough shame to move from critique to creativity?