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Rigby: Having faith that poor shouldn't mean lesser


The following ran in the April 26, 2012, edition of the Austin American-Statesman. Theology Professor Joerg Rieger provides expertise for this story.

May 7, 2012

By Jim Rigby

In a culture where Christianity is increasingly fused in the public mind with right-wing politics, it's more important than ever for people of faith to question the fundamental fairness of the economic system.
Tonight and Saturday morning, that's what we'll be doing at the Faith in Action: Economic Justice in the Age of Inequality conference at University Methodist Church, 2409 Guadalupe St., and at 5604 Manor Road on Saturday. The locations tell the story: To live out the faith we celebrate in church, we must become part of the community's struggles for justice.
In the United States, many believe that if we surrender responsibility to free markets, an invisible hand will steer us on a steady course. But when economic disparity between rich and poor is at record levels about 20 percent of the population controls 85 percent of the country's wealth, and the top 1 percent has captured the lion's share of increases in income more and more progressive people of faith are challenging the assumption that we can surrender responsibility to any economic system.
Most Americans, religious or not, do not realize that the Bible makes it clear that no one should get rich at others' expense. Collecting interest was called usury and was considered a sin. The Jewish people believed in a time of Jubilee, when economic slaves were freed from debt, the land was allowed to restore itself, and the economic deck was reshuffled. One symbol for that redistribution of the goods was for "the mountains to be made low, and the valleys to be raised." When Jesus began his ministry by declaring "good news to the poor" he was placing his gospel within the context of Jubilee. His wasn't just pie-in-the-sky salvation it was about saving real human beings here and now.
Over the ages, the message of Jesus and the prophets has been privatized. No longer offering a real hope for all people, religions too often promise their followers blessings for themselves and mere charity for the less fortunate. But no great religion has such a condescending view of the poor. As the book of James and the Hebrew prophets make clear, the working poor are not unfortunate, they have been robbed. What the poor deserve is not just charity, but justice.
One does not have to be religious to long for the world Jesus and the prophets described. That vision of the common good is at the heart of all the great religions of the world. It makes sense that compassionate people would gather to explore how we can, through cooperative efforts, ease the plight of the poor — not because we feel sorry for them, but because we owe it to them.
Heeding this call means we must be able to question our basic systems, which two guest speakers will help us do. Gary Dorrien is an Episcopal priest and professor at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University in New York, and Joerg Rieger is a United Methodist minister and professor at Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. Both have written and preached about the centrality of economic justice in the Christian faith. The Workers Defense Project and Cooperation Texas, community groups promoting a more equitable society, will offer hands-on workshops.
Healthy religion empowers people to care for our world. But whether people are religious or not, they are invited to this important conversation about how we treat each other.
Rigby is pastor of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Austin, www.sta