Transforming Poverty by Reconsidering Our Citizenship


The power of our communities lies in the ideals of our common humanity. To continue to live in separate villages whose cohesiveness is ephemeral at best, or in gated communities of homogeneity, will only enhance everyone's poverty.

Christ's teachings lay out for us a covenant of community based on our essential common identity as beloved children of God. In Christ there is no preference for any particular nation-state over another, as the definition of "neighbor" in the parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates. So we must learn to answer the question "What, and to whom, are the obligations of the Christian citizen?"

When one accepts Christ as Lord and Savior, one swears allegiance to a non-political, non-economic and non-divisive essence. To claim God's particular blessing on any one nation based on its material or political success is not consistent with Christ's call to be in the world but not of it nor with his descriptions of the nature of the kingdom of God.

To me, this means that we have the task of transforming our systems and culture in ways that build the capacity for all of humanity to explore the fullness of their identity as children of God, with unique gifts and claims on their lives.

Falling victim to either the religious left or the religious right causes us to miss the centrality of the call of Christ to a covenant of community in which loving our neighbor as ourselves means being sure that no one class of people usurps economic, social, political or environmental resources at the expense of the dignity and interests of others, whether known or unknown.

The church as the body of Christ is the instrument that can absorb our differences and make us whole, if our faith allows us to see our interdependencies, not only as people to people, but as people to God's creation, the earth. Viewed in this way, the body of Christ has the potential to bind all, heal all, and require of us the courage to stand against oppression in all its sizes, forms, and agenda.

As challenging a concept as it may be to our established assumptions and comfort zones, we need to learn to seek surprising glimpses of the essence of Christ's way, truth and light in unexpected people and places and to expand our identification of where and what the kingdom is. It's the cry of the children of poverty worldwide that helps us to realize that God's call on us is to make sure that the village can be raised around the needs of those children—all God's children.

To do this, we may need to follow Christ's example of inverting our conceptions of importance, status and power. In the Beatitudes, Christ presents radical inversions of our assumptions about how God's blessings may be present in our lives and the lives of those around us. If we follow this revelatory way of thinking, we view the role of our elected officials, for example, quite differently.

At one of our Community Learning Centers recently, our U.S. senator's staff requested that the senator give a press conference announcing new housing legislation at the center, with our residents invited as well as the media. Rather than leap at this opportunity to use the senator to highlight what we are doing "for the poor," we agreed on the condition that the senator give half an hour of his time, without media present, to be interviewed by some of our children as a part of an international podcast community that they were developing in the computer lab. He graciously agreed, and we had an opportunity for our children to learn that their elected officials are approachable human beings like themselves, with challenges, frustrations and their own history.

One separation between the community of poverty and the institutions that should serve them was eroded, if not broken down. By not viewing our senator as too important to ask for this opportunity, or our children as not significant enough to deserve it, we strengthened the bonds within the body of Christ and the kingdom as a whole.

The gift of grace requires of us that we not attempt to grasp it and hoard it for an exclusive association called a church, a denomination, or even one faith. Christ asked us to extend the gift of his example and his life, given for our redemption, to all of God's precious family.

Carmen Porco is president and CEO of Public Housing, American Baptist Housing Ministries in Wisconsin. Reprinted with permission from The Christian Citizen, published by National Ministries, American Baptist Churches USA.

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Tags: Carmen Porco, Church, Discipleship, Politics, Poor, Poverty