On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
The question of the law teacher in Luke 10 should resonate with us; most people (whether followers of Christ or not) are prepared to “love our neighbor”, as long as we get to define the object in this phrase.
Aren’t we fulfilling God’s command if we love our immediate family, our coworkers and the other parents from our child’s basketball team?
Jesus’ plans for us are more expansive. In responding to the law teacher, he tells the story of the Good Samaritan, making it clear that the term “neighbor” is defined as broadly as possible, encompassing all who cross our path but especially those with the greatest needs.
God’s Great Love for the “Quartet of the Vulnerable”
To the law teacher, steeped in the Scriptures, Jesus’ response shouldn’t come as a surprise, for it is consistent with the heart of God as revealed throughout the Old Testament. We serve a God who “secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy (Ps. 140:12).” He “raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap (1 Sam. 2:8).” He “stands at the right hand of the needy one (Ps. 109:31).” Isaiah says of the coming Messiah that “with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth (Is. 11:4).”
Surveying the passages about God’s concern for the poor in the Book of Psalms, British writer and pastor John Stott concluded, “No other god is like him. For it is not primarily the wealthy and the famous with whom he delights to fraternize. What is characteristic of him is to champion the poor, to rescue them from their misery, and to transform paupers into princes.” There should be no doubt regarding our God’s identification with the poor and needy; indeed, in the incarnation, he became poor.
In one of the many Old Testament passages that reveal God’s heart for the disadvantaged, the prophet Zechariah tells the people, “This is what the Lord Almighty says: Administer true justice, show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the immigrant or the poor (Zech. 7:10-11).” In his book Generous Justice, Tim Keller calls these four groups – widows, the fatherless, immigrants and the poor –the “quartet of the vulnerable”. Keller points to our responsibility as Christians to mirror God’s active concern: “Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice… God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. This is what is means to ‘do justice.’’
The Marginalized in Chattanooga
So who are those with the least power in our society? According to 2010 census data, 15% of the population or 50,000 people in Hamilton County fall below the federal poverty level. Poverty in our city tends to be concentrated; according to a Brookings Institute report last year, there were nine “extreme-poverty” census tracts in Chattanooga in 2009 – neighborhoods in which over 40% of people live below the poverty line. (This figure is up from four neighborhoods in 2000.) Unsurprisingly, these same neighborhoods have the highest crime rates: the rate of aggravated assault was highest in Downtown (which includes Westside), Ridgedale/Oak Grove/Clifton Hills, Amnicola/East Chattanooga, South Chattanooga and Bushtown/Highland Park.
The poor in our area are disproportionately black. In Hamilton County, 28% of African-Americans live below the poverty level, compared to 11% of whites, according to the 2010 census data. A 2008 report by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies found that the infant mortality rate among American-Americans in Hamilton County is nearly four times the rate among white people. African-Americans are also more likely to be victims of crime than whites: In 2009, black people constituted 20% of Hamilton County’s population, but fully 31% of crime victims were black. Black people in our city tend to be poorer, less healthy and more vulnerable to crime than white people.
Why Do We Fall Short?
We’ve seen that God is a “refuge for the needy in his distress (Is. 25:4)”; we’ve heard the call of God to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute (Prov. 31:8)”; and we’ve established that urgent needs are right at our doorstep. So why don’t we as a church in Chattanooga take up the cause of the disadvantaged? Certainly there are some notable exceptions, but on the whole we are at best inconsistent in our love for the marginalized. What are the obstacles?
We let race and class separate us. In his book Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development, John Perkins writes, “Race has divided us so efficiently into separate churches, neighborhoods, relationships and agendas, that there is hardly the opportunity for the whole church to attack the problem of urban poverty.” Indeed, racial separation is more pronounced in Chattanooga than in most places: according to the 2008 Ochs Center report, “Residential segregation in the Chattanooga Metropolitan Statistical Area is greater than in the nation as a whole or in the South.”
For some, especially in Generations X and Y, race may be less significant a factor than socioeconomic class, but either one can form an impregnable barrier that separates us from the concerns of Chattanooga’s inner city. It’s not that we’re all a bunch of racists and classists, it just that we’re far too comfortable with the neat division of our society along racial and socioeconomic lines.
We’re looking for a quick fix that doesn’t exist. As Americans, we are used to instant results. Whether it’s losing weight, learning a language or quitting smoking, we tend to start into any endeavor with an expectation that we can successfully complete it in a matter of weeks. We often carry this quick-fix mentality with us into ministering to the disadvantaged. John Perkins writes, “The subtle temptation to address the surface needs is quite understandable. The neighborhood can be successfully cleaned up in a weekend, but tackling the problem of how to instill pride in a community and how to have ownership of it takes a long-term commitment.” In many ways, our failure to meet the needs of the disadvantaged in our community is a symptom of a short attention span.
We’re too busy assigning blame. For affluent suburbanites, it’s all too easy for us to excuse ourselves from the plight of our urban neighbors by telling ourselves that they themselves are solely responsible for their plight. In other words: “Those folks in the inner city are just reaping the fruits of their own degeneracy.” To quote Tim Keller, “We all want to help kind-hearted, upright people, whose poverty came upon them through no foolishness or contribution of their own, and who will respond to our aid with gratitude and joy. However, almost no one like that exists.”
Keller goes on to cite the great American preacher Jonathan Edwards, who in 1733 preached a sermon entitled “The Duty of Charity to the Poor”. Edwards took issue with the Christian who would disdain a person who ended up in poverty through his or her own vices and failings: “Christ hath loved us, pitied us, and greatly laid out himself to relieve us from that want and misery which we brought on ourselves by our own folly and wickedness.” In other words, given our own status as pardoned sinners, when did someone else’s sin ever excuse us from loving him or her? Following Edwards’ logic, should we not show the same grace and love we have received to the single mom whose options have been severely limited by bad choices made in her teenage years?
Rising Up to Answer the Call of God
Can we move beyond our separation by race and class, our short attention spans, and our readiness to assign blame? With the proper motivation and the power of the Holy Spirit at work in our hearts, we absolutely can. Here are four powerful reasons to take up the concerns of our distressed neighbors:
God commands us to do so. The God who identifies with the marginalized commands us to do the same: “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow (Is. 1:17).” What’s more, there’s evidence that embracing the concerns of those in need draws us nearer to God. “Whoever is kind to the needy honors God (Pr. 14:31)”; conversely “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered (Pr. 21:13).”
We are uniquely enriched through relationship with the poor. We are told that the one who has regard for the weak is blessed (Ps. 41:1). Perhaps this blessing comes in part through the rewards of the relationship itself. Audiences were won over by the compassion and quiet resolve of Michael Oher, as portrayed by Quinton Aaron in the 2009 film The Blind Side, and it was evident that the affluent Tuohy family (who took him in when he was homeless) received far more than they gave. Clearly, we can learn a great deal from our fellow believers who have struggled with material needs: “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him (James 2:5)?”
Our witness to the world is on the line. In today’s popular media, Christians are portrayed as moralizing and hypocritical, with little regard for their fellow man. The church’s response to the urban poor has the power to astound unbelievers and bring them face-to-face with a God who “secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy (Ps. 140:12)”. As John Perkins has said, “The plight of the urban poor is a problem that belongs to all, and the church’s witness and credibility are inextricably tied to this plight.”
The problems that plague our inner city cannot be contained to our inner city. In a January 28 article Times Free Press article entitled “Hamilton County Suburbs Brace for Gang Activity”, Ansley Haman chronicles how concern is growing among parents as “Sheriff’s deputies are finding validated gang members in places such as Middle Valley, Hixson and Soddy-Daisy.” According to a 2010 Ochs Center report, “The City of Chattanooga had the 11th highest crime rate in the nation among cities with populations of 100,000 or more.” Crime threatens to weigh down the city’s reputation, impair tourism and impact the decisions of employers considering a business presence in Chattanooga. If residents of the Chattanooga area continue to ignore the woes of our urban core, we will all pay a price.
We as the people of God in Chattanooga can answer our Lord’s call and bring hope to hurting people in our city. To quote John Perkins once again, “Nothing other than the community of God’s people is capable of affirming the dignity of the urban poor and enabling them to meet their own need.” We as a church have all the requisite resources at our disposal: the power of the Holy Spirit, the love of Christ and the community of believers. All that remains is for us to obey the commands of God and collectively take up the concerns of our disadvantaged neighbors.