The Biblical Basis for the new Poor People’s Campaign

In January, seven of us from the Presbytery of Southern New England attended a retreat with clergy and elders from the two other New England presbyteries and the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis. She’s a New Testament professor and head of the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary. She co- chairs the Poor People’s Campaign with Rev. William Barber, the dynamic North Carolina pastor who built a broadly diverse movement of people called Moral Mondays.

Drs. Theoharis’ and Barber’s work to build a new Poor People’s Campaign revives an effort of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the fall of 1967, Dr. King announced the first Poor People’s Campaign, a project that called poor people to gather in Washington to meet with government officials to demand jobs, a fair minimum wage, and better education for adults and children. Add secure access to adequate health care and this 1967 effort sounds oddly like an agenda for 2018. Fifty years later, the work is unfinished. The new Poor People’s Campaign is planning forty days of actions, some here in Connecticut.

For too many, the economic situation in this country is dire. In 2013, the World Bank found 3.2 million Americans living on $1.90 a day. That’s the Bank’s definition of extreme poverty. Angus Deaton is an emeritus Princeton professor of economics and a Nobel laureate. He points out that there are necessities of life in rich, cold, urban and individualistic countries that are less needed in more tropical poor countries. While the Bank makes some adjustment for these considerations, Deaton suggests $4 a day as a more realistic figure for extreme poverty in countries like ours. This adjustment means 5.3 million Americans are absolutely poor by global standards. That number is larger than in Sierra Leone (3.2 million) or Nepal (2.5 million). There are many more devastating statistics on the Poor People’s Campaign website.

At the winter retreat, much of our time was focused on the Biblical basis for poverty work, specifically asking what we are to make of Matthew 26. That’s where we find Jesus chillin’ at the leper Lazarus’ place. He reminds the disciples of his imminent crucifixion. Meanwhile, the chief priests and elders are conspiring to kill him. An unnamed woman enters and anoints Jesus with costly oil from an alabaster jar. This angers the disciples who think it a waste of money. Then Jesus tells them, “‘Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial.”

Were the disciples wrong? Was this economically responsible? Are we free to ignore the poor because they’ll “always be with us?” These are a few of the many questions we must ask as we try to understand Jesus. For many Christians this passage justifies worrying about personal salvation while ignoring the communal needs around them. Is that what Jesus meant? The disciples knew the dominant scriptural theme of God’s fundamental care for the poor. They would have remembered Deuteronomy 15, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’” There is no divine blessing without caring. The woman’s mitzvah is also the anointing of the chosen one.

Dr. King’s assassination in April of 1968 prevented him from bringing his prophetic moral message of mutual care and equality to Washington in person. But people of faith carried on the work, and on Mother’s Day 1968, Coretta Scott King led thousands of women in one of the first mass women’s marches.

The current Poor People’s Campaign is a forty day effort, ending with a mobilization on June 23. This will involve a variety of witness, including marches, demonstrations and civil disobedience. It’s forty days to resist the powers and structures that keep people in poverty. Starting on Mother’s Day, May 13th, it will be a season of organizing. As the website reads: “The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is uniting tens of thousands of people across the country to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation’s distorted morality.”

We are working to bring Rev. Theoharis to First Presbyterian Church so we can hear about this effort to re-frame and re-energize a movement based in scripture and our sense of moral duty and common sense. We’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, check the Poor People’s Campaign website3    and start thinking about your response to Jesus’ focus on the ongoing needs of the poor. The question is, “Are we ready to participate?” Are we ready, as Dr. King encouraged us, to stand up, to sit down, to risk arrest, to be counted, and to pray with our feet?

–Ralph Jones