In this season many of us go to services to sing one of the familiar Christmas carols:
O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant …
Yea, Lord, we greet thee ... poor and in the manger.
We may sing these lines with gusto, candlelight in our eyes; but we can easily overlook the grim reality that the baby Jesus was born “poor and in a manger.”
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Lest we get blinded by holiday sentimentality, we need to be clear that the baby we welcome at Christmas is so poor he has no place to lay his head – except in a borrowed food trough in a smelly stable. Affordable housing was not available for Joseph and Mary, so their baby was born poor, in a virtual homeless shelter.
I’ve recently returned from a week’s sojourn in a monastery, a quiet place where I gathered four times a day to sing Psalms with the monks. Words from those Psalms can leap off the page and sear my heart. At one of the services I was jolted by Psalm 10: “Lord, why do you stand afar off … the poor are devoured by the pride of the wicked. The poor are caught in the schemes others have made.” (Psalm 10:1-2) Those words hit me like a punch in the stomach.
The Psalm says that the poor live in distress because of the schemes (policies, practices, attitudes) others have made. In other words, many of God’s children, like the baby Jesus, live in “forced poverty.” They are made poor by “schemes” devised consciously or unconsciously by people in power – “the wicked,” the Psalmist calls them.
Who are the wicked today? Those of us who live with considerable privilege may not think of ourselves as “wicked,” but by our inaction, complacency, or judgmentalism, we can participate in wicked actions that keep our neighbors in poverty. We middle-class folks can saunter along, pursuing our safety and success, “our heart’s desires,” as the Psalmist calls it. In this process, we’re part of a system that keeps people like Jesus in the barns of poverty.
Much of our current poverty is racialized, forced on people of color. We have too long been blind to the racial inequity that has been deliberately and systematically designed to benefit white economic prosperity while shutting out people of color from financial health.
Lest we forget, Jesus was a person of color, a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew. He came with a message of hope for those “with their backs against the wall,” as Howard Thurman calls the poor, the disinherited, and dispossessed.
We have too many of our Durham neighbors with their backs against the wall. While Durham is prosperous and thriving for many, we still have drastic disparities in income, health, and housing. We have a 28 percent child poverty rate, which is shameful, deplorable, and unacceptable.
We may not think of ourselves as “wicked” (the Psalmist’s word), but our complacency allows a wicked system to continue. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel said many times, “Some may be guilty, but all are responsible.”
Across our state and nation, we are now seeing an assault on the poor – our state refusing to expand Medicaid, our U.S. senators voting for a tax plan that rewards the rich at the expense of the poor.
What kind of people do we want to be? We belong to each other across all lines of race, class, privilege and poverty.
If we don’t like it that the Bible calls us “wicked,” then let us throw off that label and work alongside our neighbors – “being with,” two words derived from the word Emmanuel, meaning “God with us.” Being with our neighbors doesn’t mean we go to “fix” them; rather, we walk in solidarity in the quest for living wage jobs, housing, education, and healthcare. In the process of genuine relationships, we aspiring allies get changed.
That’s why in our REAL Durham initiative, anchored in East Durham, we follow this statement: “If you’ve come here to help me, forget it. But if your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” (Aborigines origin)
In this holy season it’s time to resolve to “be with” our neighbors – aligning ourselves with the baby Jesus, “poor and in a manger.”
The Rev. Mel Williams is the coordinator of End Poverty Durham and an advisory board member of REAL Durham.