We are going to see a revival in this country; and it’s going to be led by rich people. –Michael Novak
Years ago, on a flight back from Chicago I was seated next a voluptuous young woman. She was excited, having appeared the day before on one of those Oprah-type shows titled “They’re all natural.” The topic du jour was the shape and size of her breasts. The next day it was mothers who had lost sons in military conflicts. The next day was successful single transsexuals in the workplace. Then cocaine addicts confessionals. The next day, criminals who lack self-esteem because of love deprivation.
Welcome to the trivialization of tragedy.
The irony is that many well-meaning people of faith contribute to the dumbing down of disaster. I think the culprit is partly due to how we imagine Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount; especially what he means by “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs’ is the kingdom of God.” Too many people believe Jesus imputes some sort of goodness or good fortune to those trapped in tragic circumstances. But that’s a trivialization of tragedy.
The good news regarding the kingdom of God is not that the poor are fortunate – rather it is that the kingdom of God reaches all the way down to those who are invisible in society. There is nothing inherently virtuous about being destitute. Ask a genuinely poor person. White suburban evangelicals often exclaim “We’re all poor in spirit.” Obviously we’ve never gone days without a decent meal or slept shivering on a heating grate. This trivializes poverty… and what Jesus meant in the Beatitudes.
While there is a grain of truth that all of us are “poor in spirit,” there is a mountain of misunderstanding. Maturity in the kingdom is not a race to the bottom. Look at the rest of the “blessed.” Do we really believe there is good fortune in being persecuted? Do any of us long to be reviled, beaten, or jailed? It’s naïve to imply there’s nobility in persecution. We’ve obviously never been cleaned out nor had the crap kicked out of us.
Trivialization extends to stories about inner city churches experiencing better worship because they’re poor. Follow the logic here. If this is so, the new heavens and new earth ought to be one sprawling, blighted landscape. If white, upper middle class suburban believers really believed inner city brothers and sisters have an advantage in worshipping God, wouldn’t we all be selling our homes and moving into the urban core? I live between Annapolis and Baltimore. The only white folk I know who are relocating downtown are moving to Federal Hill. Nice digs. How about Sandtown instead? Glorifying grave situations is too easy for white men like me. It’s a bit too convenient.
The biblical picture of good fortune and blessedness is not poverty of spirit but satiated sheep. “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” When do sheep lie down? When they are full, fat, and happy. This is the picture of true spirituality. Its prosperity; not poverty.
I’m not siding with those whacky “name it and claim it” evangelists and their health-and-wealth gospel. No, I’m talking about a proper view of wealth, affluence, and maturity that is over two-thousand years old and rooted in an ancient faith tradition that takes poverty seriously. It doesn’t trivialize tragedy. Want to know more about this? We’ll take it up next week in Part Two.