Sunday, October 14, 2007

the growing disparity between rich and poor, and a connectional church

The Gospel

Jesus told a story about an anonymous rich man and a poor man named Lazarus (Luke 16. 19-31). . The two are interdependent, although they live in different worlds. As the story unfolds, the poor man dies first, followed by the rich man. This is the "moment of dreadful equity”, Walter Brueggemann argues; “the rich and poor are very different in life, very alike in death.” A reversal takes place, the first is now last, the last first. The poor man sits next to father Abraham at the table; the rich man finds himself in the place of the dead. And there is no getting from one side to the other.

The rich man recognizes this, and seeks to salvage something out of his experience. "Send someone to warn my brothers, so that they won't end up like me!" Abraham replies, "They have the law and the prophets, they should listen to them." And then the rich man responds, "Maybe if someone rises from the dead they'll listen." Abraham's response: "If they won't listen to Moses and the prophets, they won't listen to someone who rises from the dead."

The teaching of Jesus contains a simple, difficult, necessary word, but if we will listen for it, there is also good news. How we are judged has to do with our treatment of the poor. There is absolutely no ambiguity. We, the rich, have received our reward; the poor will be blessed (Luke 7. 20ff.). The law and the prophets have prepared us for it, if we will listen. And in this teaching of Jesus we are confronted with the matter yet again.

The most powerful image in this story is of a great chasm (16.26) that separates the rich and the poor. Our calling, as a connectional people, shaped by the gospel, is to bridge the chasm, strengthening the chasm between rich and poor. How is the disparity between rich and poor addressed? At the level of practice, members of local churches seek to respond faithfully to the teaching of Jesus: the homeless are welcomed as guests, immigrants without access to health care are seen by physicians, church leaders are advocates for affordable housing, an HIV/Aids Clinic is established in a place of great need. I have witnessed these everyday acts of ordinary Christians, and in them the chasm has been lessened, to some degree. Of course there are additional and needed responses: some are at the level of public policy (the Millennium Development Goals, for example, which have been an important emphasis in the Anglican Church), while others are expressed through denominational initiatives (Africa University, Nothing But Nets, Shalom Zones, etc.) or non-governmental organizations (like the Gates Foundation, Oxfam or the Carter Center).

There is good news in the teaching of Jesus. In this life we can cross the chasm that separates us from the poor. In the life to come we cannot, but in this life we can make that connection. The fundamental lesson for us is that there are no surprises in this story (see the commentary of Fred Craddock). Many of the teachings of Jesus---the good Samaritan in Luke 10, the prodigal son in Luke 15, the dishonest steward earlier in Luke 16, the Pharisee and the tax collector to come in Luke 18---many of these passages have surprises for us. But here there are no surprises. We have been warned. Yet most of us recoil in listening to any word of judgment. The story implies a judgment, and the preparation for that judgment is how we listen to the scripture. Jesus stands squarely in the tradition of the law and the prophets when he tells the story of a rich man and a poor man, and the chasm between them.

The law and the prophets are there to warn us. There are no surprises. For some reason, Jesus knew, we don't want to hear about the poor. This remains true today. I think of the difficulty our annual conference had in making the Bishop’s Initiative on Children and Poverty our priority, when forces on the political right and left insisted that sexuality be the primary topic of discussion. I wonder about the possibility of global poverty (or a global health fund) being the focus of the 2008 General Conference. Could a critical mass of faithful men and women discover one another and the political will and cunning to bring this into perspective (note the number of biblical passages related to wealth and poverty in contrast to those that speak directly to sexual behavior)?

This is a connectional issue, for we are called to listen to the poor, in this life and in the life to come. Why? Because, the gospel reminds us, our salvation is connected with the well being of the poor. John Wesley commented, "Oh that God would stir up the hearts of all those who believe themselves his children, to evidence it by showing mercy to the poor." The gap between rich and poor is not only economic and sociological; it is biblical and spiritual. At her most faithful, the church grasps this truth. As people, we are at our best when there is a connection. And yet it is not all about what we have to give to others, especially the poor. Surely the poor have something to give to the rich: maybe even our salvation? The poor are not only beneficiaries of grace; Wesley knew that they are often channels of God's grace toward us! And yet, we dare not “spiritualize” the matter too quickly. There is a global crisis that threatens the very fabric of our connection and our communion, and at its foundation is an experience of poverty that differentiates life and death, blessing and curse.

The Disparity

The rising global disparity between rich and poor is well documented. According to WorldWatch (, “The global economy has grown sevenfold since 1950. Meanwhile, the disparity in per capita gross domestic product between the 20 richest and 20 poorest nations more than doubled between 1960 and 1995”. In addition, “the United States has the most unequal distribution of income, with over 30 percent of income in the hands of the richest 10 percent and only 1.8 percent going to the poorest 10 percent”. The Wall Street Journal reported on October 12, 2007, that “the income gap between the wealthiest and poorest Americans grew to its widest level since the 1920s…Citing Internal Revenue Service data, the Journal reported that the wealthiest 1 percent of all Americans earned 21.2 percent of all the nation's income in 2005, up from the previous high of 20.8 percent in 2000” (accessed at

The economist Jeffrey Sachs paints a “global family portrait”, in which some nations are in extreme poverty (such as Bolivia in South America, Haiti in the Caribbean, and much of sub-Saharan Africa), while others are in moderate poverty (for example South Africa, Paraguay, and Armenia). Over the past years twenty years extreme poverty has decreased in East and South Asia, while it has actually increased in sub-Saharan Africa. Extreme Poverty is evident, according to Sachs, “when households cannot meet basic needs for survival”, while moderate poverty “generally refers to conditions of life in which basic needs are met, but just barely” (The End of Poverty, 20). Sachs’ analysis is summarized as follows: we see an almost unimaginable divide between the richest and poorest parts of the world, with all the gradations in between”(ibid.). The economists, it would seem, are warning us of a great chasm in this life, separating the rich and the poor.

The Connection

Humanity is increasingly interdependent. The shoes I am wearing were made in Indonesia. The shirt I have on, Malaysia, the suit, Costa Rica. The coffee I drank this morning, it says Colombian coffee, but it was made in Concord, North Carolina. Who knows? Regardless, we are interdependent. What happens in one place affects everyone else. Perhaps you are familiar with an interesting term: “the butterfly effect”. It is traced to the scientific idea, developed by Edward Lorenz, that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in a distant part of the world, say Brazil, can have a profound effect on weather systems in another part of the world, in this case, a tornado in Texas. Early in the morning, as I begin to wake up, I am listening to public radio, and a part of what I hear is how the financial markets did in Asia while I was sleeping. The numbers will have an effect on financial markets in the United States. And so it goes.

We are interdependent. Christians grasp this. We are members of the one body of Christ. “When one suffers”, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “we all suffer. When one rejoices, we all rejoice” (1 Corinthians 12). In the words of the poet John Donne, “no man is an island”. We are connected to each other.

Of course, this interdependence, in the form of globalization is not so simple. It carries with in the imposition of cultural presuppositions and values by western cultures on non-western cultures, of the global north upon the global south. The economic disparities play themselves out in the use of social forms of power, and the Christian Church (and United Methodism) is not immune from this outcome. When the disparities are between brothers and sisters in Christ, the relationship is threatened. Recall the experience of the early Christians, recorded in 1 Corinthians 11, and the partaking of communion in the midst of the hungry as an act of self-condemnation.

And yet, because of past or present abuses we cannot withdraw from the world beyond us, or live in isolation from partner churches in other regions. Jews and Christians have always sensed a deep connection in the very creation of each person in the image of God (Genesis 1). The command to the disciples was to go into all the world (Matthew 28). We are connected to each other in gifts of creation and salvation. The Wesleyan tradition is rooted in the ethos expressed in the statement of John Wesley: “the world is my parish”. By our essence, we are indeed a “catholic movement” (“Worldwide Ministry Through The United Methodist Church, Spring, 2007, p. 2), called to the proclamation of the gospel that must be unhindered (ibid., p. 3; as with the conclusion of the Acts of the Apostles).


In the past a missionary went to a foreign country and gave a report about the culture there. But now, in a local church, members might be doing business in a given week in Argentina and China, students might be traveling in Chile and Japan, and mission groups might serve to Cambodia and Haiti, and members might be natives of Liberia, the Philippines, and Mexico. We are interdependent. We are connected. All of this will only increase. A part of the reason is the movement of goods and services, and the speed of technology. But something else is happening: immigration.

Immigration is the hot issue, but immigration is nothing new. There are a number of biblical passages about immigration, although you will not hear Lou Dobbs of CNN refer to many of them: Exodus 23; Leviticus 19; Numbers 9. Listen to these words: “When a stranger comes into your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who comes to you shall be a native among you, and you shall love him as yourself. For you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19. 33-34).

How do we respond to strangers? There are parables all around us. In the Charlotte District (United Methodist) a number of churches serve immigrant communities: Agua De Vida, which is Hispanic; the Cambodian Mission that meets at First Methodist; the Hmong church; the Ghana Mission; the Montagnard community at Covenant UMC; the Korean Ministry at St. Francis; and this only touches the surface. In our congregation one of our ChristCare groups has an ongoing relationship with the Hmong Church; the Christian Discovery Class and one of our pastors has had an ongoing relationship with the pastor of Agua de Vida; and the Men’s Fellowship has an emerging fellowship with the Montagnard community that worships at Covenant United Methodist Church.

If we once felt a calling to take the gospel into the world, it is accurate to say that the world is now coming to us. A young man from Haiti attends community college in Charlotte. I have learned that there are over 6000 international students at Central Piedmont Community College and University of North Carolina at Charlotte. When my wife had surgery in the spring, every one of her nurses was an immigrant from the continent of Africa. Who are these strangers among us? And how should we respond to them? Immigration is changing our culture, but immigration is nothing new. One of my favorite Psalms is 137: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion”. It is a moving statement about what it is like to be far from home, to be disoriented and dislocated. It grasps the reality of what it must be like to be a stranger in a strange land. When people who are not “like us” begin to mix with us, something happens. This is a challenge for us personally, and for us as a church.

A diverse group of laity and clergy from the Charlotte District of the United Methodist Church participated in a training event a couple of years ago entitled “Crossroads Charlotte”. It painted different scenarios of Charlotte in the year 2015. One scenario was given the name “Fortress Charlotte”. In this outcome fear and crime were high, economic gains had decreased, the races were separated, and the communities all lived behind their fortresses. A more hopeful outcome was entitled “Eye to Eye”, in which people came to see and know and help each other in their differences. What will Charlotte look like in 2015? I don’t know. But the world around us is changing. Both interdependence and immigration have something to do with our future as a church.

Strategic Interventions

What is true locally is also true globally. And so the question becomes: How might a denomination envision its future? As a fortress (with federated or separated conferences)? Or as a more organic union in which persons see one another eye-to-eye, face to face? A denomination responds to the growing disparity between rich and poor in a number of ways:

  • By participation in ecumenical councils, particular those focusing on social and economic justice, insuring that distinct voices are heard, including ones that express theological diversity and varying economic schools of thought
  • Through the influence of public poverty, carried out in as non-partisan a manner as possible.
  • Through alignment with movements such as One ( and Make Poverty History (
  • Through the continued support of the General Board of Global Ministries, and endowments within it, such as “Encounter With Christ In Latin America”.
  • Through the affirmation of autonomous Methodist churches that have raised up indigenous leadership.
  • Through congregational partnerships in immersion educational and missional initiatives, such as “Volunteers in Mission”.

I list a number of possibilities with the plea that we not see these in competition with each other; indeed, these are channels through which the grace of God is flowing between rich and poor, north and south. I am often present in ecclesiastical gatherings in which one or more of these are critiqued or dismissed, and yet I am also aware that a synergy can develop between them.

How can (or should) the church respond to the growing disparity between rich and poor on our planet? I have attempted in this brief paper to write from the perspective of the local church; my bias is due to this social location, but I am also aware than when I participate in denominational gatherings there are often few voices speaking from the pastorate. I am grateful for this opportunity, and when I refer to a particular setting, it is with the conviction that there are many local churches addressing this issue, and a number of laity within these congregations who work with the disparities between rich and poor on a daily basis.

Most recently, our congregation has focused on two initiatives: Africa University and a long-term medical clinic in northern Haiti. Christianity is exploding on the continent of Africa. The AIDS pandemic there may be “the greatest humanitarian disaster of all time” ( ). Africa University, founded in 1992, is a United Methodist institution in Zimbabwe that trains students in healthcare, theology, agriculture, and conflict resolution. Our leaders, in consultation with the Africa University staff, determined a need for two faculty houses, and this is one of the current priorities of our Africa University Team, which is chaired by an African-American woman who serves as college vice-president in our city (and is a candidate for ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church).

Providence has also been involved in a mission in northern Haiti for twenty-seven years. As a part of a recent capital campaign, three sons gave the funds in memory of their father to establish an HIV /AIDS clinic (a request of the Methodist Church of Haiti). A physician stepped forward with a willingness to work on a very part-time basis there, and his salary, which is subsistence by U.S. standards, has been covered the past two years by our World Communion Sunday offering.

Africa University and the Haiti HIV/AIDS clinic are connectional ministries. They are missions with people who can never repay us. They are opportunities for us, in this life, to lessen the chasm that separates us from the poor. And they are parables of a church that hears the cries of the poor, concrete responses to the God who demands justice and compassion (Micah 6. 8). If we live between the counterpoint of lament and hope, these are of course inadequate, from a human point of view. And yet they are a gospel-shaped response to the disparity that threatens connection. Perhaps the risen One, who calls us into the one body, is finally our judge and our hope.

In the meantime, the rich man lays in torment, wanting to get this message to his brothers, this message that we are judged by our relationship to the poor that we can connect with them that we can cross that chasm. "How can we get this message to them?" he wonders. And then it occurs to him: "What if someone rose from the dead with this message?" They would listen then, if someone rose from the dead they would listen, if someone rose from the dead, we would listen. Wouldn't we listen, if someone rose from the dead to tell us?


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