Social Movements and Theological Education

By Liz Theoharis

On Friday, April 20th, 2012, Poverty Initiative Coordinator, Liz Theoharis, shared the following presentation at Union’s 175th Anniversary Gala Celebration Symposium on a panel that included Dr. Gary Dorrien and Virginia Worden.

My first real introduction to Union Theological Seminary was the culmination of the “March of the Americas”, a 300 mile march from Washington DC to New York, of poor and homeless families from across the US, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean, coming from over a dozen countries, speaking 11 languages (including American Sign Language and several indigenous languages), and representing some of the oldest, largest and most sophisticated social movements from the Western Hemisphere and beyond. I was one of the main organizers of this march that was aimed at gaining attention from people in US and globally to the scourge of poverty and misery and bringing together leaders of social movements who had improved the lives of thousands and even millions in their countries who were suffering from hunger, homelessness, joblessness and poverty to learn from each other.

That march was in October 1999 and Union was one of the only institutions, particularly religious institutions, willing to house, feed, and welcome this rag tag group of 300+ social movement leaders here in New York. That’s where I met folks like Su Pak, Joe Hough, Janet Walton, and my doctoral advisor Brigitte Kahl. Union faculty, staff and students cooked a meal for us, planned a Halloween party for our kids, and offered us place to have strategic dialogues and religious rituals throughout these hallowed halls. My most indelible memories of this space, James Chapel (still now after spending 10 years studying, working, teaching, organizing here at Union), is hearing a poor mother from Paraguay say that what we could do here to help the poor in her country was to build a movement of the poor in the US, hearing a homeless mother from Philadelphia emphasizing that we need to end poverty and asking if we were to just cut poverty in half which of her two children would remain poor, and witnessing hundreds of the world’s poorest people commit themselves to not just improving their lives but the lives of those around them.

Union demonstrated on that day that this institution believed in not just talking the talk but walking the walk; that our religious leaders needed to be on the side of the poor who were organizing and marching and calling for an end to poverty.

So naturally when I realized my call to work with the poor to end poverty was a religious call, where else should I attend but Union Theological Seminary. When I arrived at Union in September 2001 for my masters of divinity, I found a faculty who was interested in scholarship that was towards supporting a social movement in this country, I met students who were engaged in all kinds of social justice ministry, but mostly I joined an alumni network of many of the most powerful religious voices and actors on the pressing needs of our day.

I co-founded the Poverty Initiative in 2004 with the mission to raise up religious and community leaders dedicated to build a social movement to end poverty, led by the poor. The Poverty Initiative has continued to grow and thrive because of the support of Union’s administration including a very supportive Board of Trustees, because of the engagement of the majority of staff, faculty and students in our programs, because of the donations of time and money from many people in this room, and hand in hand with grassroots anti-poverty organizations who are waging struggles and securing victories for low-wage workers, homeless people, uninsured families, children who can’t afford the education they deserve, and parents who see the American Dream being ripped away from them.

This afternoon we want to engage in a conversation about the goals and vision of the Poverty Initiative. We want to explore many of the key principles that guide the work of ending poverty. We want to even engage in some biblical and theological reflection about the morals and values that undergird a social movement to end poverty.

But first let us watch this slideshow to show you a bit more of what the Poverty Initiative is and does. [Watch video]

This afternoon we want to explore a few of the guiding principles of the Poverty Initiative – principles that are central to any conversation on Social Movements and Theological Education – the title of this afternoon’s session. There are four principles I want us to consider: 1. Poverty is the defining issue of our day; 2. We are called to end poverty not simply manage, reduce and ameliorate poverty; 3. We need to build a social movement to end poverty and that those most impacted – the poor – need to lead that movement and 4. How the concept of human rights and a deep faith that God hates poverty undergirds our work. We often say that religious leaders and institutions are the moral standard bearers of a movement to end poverty.

In order to explore these principles I am going to draw from the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Holy Bible. These two inspired sources serve as the theoretical and theological framework for the Poverty Initiative’s work.

On your chairs this afternoon there were three quotes that I will reference in our discussion. The first comes from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hear these words now:

‘The dispossessed of this nation — the poor, both white and Negro — live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize…against the injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty. There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life…” (November-December, 1967)

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” (April 1967)

The Bible passage I have selected is also on your handout. Let’s read Matthew 26:6-13.

6 Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. 8 But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, Why this waste? 9 For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor. 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.

In our story in Matthew, an unnamed woman appears at Simon’s (the sick ones) house with a jar of expensive ointment. Right there from the beginning poverty is central to this passage. Simon is a leper, an outcast. And Simon lives in Bethany, which means the house of the poor in Hebrew.

All of the gospels have this anointing story and place it in the Passion narrative before the betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection. I want to suggest that it is actually the turning point in the Gospel, the place where Jesus is put on such a collision course with the Roman Empire by his anointing and with Judas and disciples for his relationship to money. This collision course leads directly to his betrayal, crucifixion and then resurrection. I will return there in a little while.

In our text in Matthew 26, the woman comes and pours the very expensive ointment onto Jesus’ head. Now nowhere else in the Gospel of Matthew is Jesus anointed. Only the unnamed woman does this. The Hebrew word for anointed is Messiah. The Greek word for anointed is Christ. So, where Jesus is made Christ and considered Messiah, is actually in our passage in Matthew 26. I want to suggest that there are multiple meanings of the anointing that happens in this passage. Jesus is anointed on his head with a special anointing ointment for kings – the same process that David and the other kings in the Hebrew Bible are brought through. It seems that Jesus is set up as an alternative king to Caesar when he’s anointed in this passage. He is also anointed for his burial. The unnamed woman is the first person to recognize that Jesus is going to die and wants to ensure that his body is anointed for his burial.

But this story is not simply about anointing Jesus. When the woman anoints Jesus, she is chided by the disciples for doing so. They accuse her of destroying this very expensive and valuable ointment. They say that if instead they had sold that ointment, they could have earned a lot of money and they could have made a very big donation with that money to the poor. Now John’s version of this story is special here. The one who criticizes the woman in John is Judas. And it reads that Judas says this not because he cares about the poor but because he’s the treasurer and regularly steals from the Jesus movements coffers. Judas uses the poor as an excuse to make money for himself.

But if don’t focus on Judas and John’s version of the story but rather look at the disciples’ concerns in Matthew, these disciples seem to be asserting a common way we still follow to address poverty. You earn money or come upon nice things in some other way and then use that money to donate to the poor. But in this story, Jesus doesn’t praise the disciples for their idea of addressing poverty and he stops Judas from being able to add money to his own pockets, he praises the woman for her alleged waste of the ointment. And then to make matters worse, Jesus then says this classic line, “The poor are with you always but you will not always have me”. Oh no. For someone who’s concerned about meeting the needs of the poor, this sounds pretty bad. This sounds like Jesus is justifying poverty.

For nearly two decades, I have helped build a social movement to end poverty. And on nearly a weekly basis, I have heard, ”The poor will always be with you,” used to explain the futility of doing anti-poverty work because many claim that poverty is inevitable and can never be ended. It is used to excuse the inaction of churches in the face of growing poverty; it is used to justify the proliferation of charity programs rather than the development of a social movement; and it is used to claim that poor people are sinners and estranged from God rather than that poverty is a sin that could be ended and is God’s will that we end it.

However I want to assert another interpretation of this passage. If we explore this story deeper, we can actually see that this passage says exactly the opposite of how it has been traditionally interpreted. Matthew 26 is actually one of the strongest statements against poverty in the Bible. Jesus’ response to the disciples and praise of the woman with the line “the poor are with you always” echoes or actually quotes Deuteronomy 15 – one of the most liberating “Jubilee” passages in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 15 explains that if people follow God’s commandments there will be no poverty. In fact, this passage lays out the Sabbath and Jubilee prescriptions that are given so that the people of God know what to do to ensure that there is no poverty – that God’s bounty is enjoyed by all. It concludes that because people do not follow what God has laid out – “since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth” or “the poor you always have with you”, it is our duty to God to “open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor.”

So this passage that is about God’s plan to ensure that no one is poor is referenced by Jesus in his line “the poor are with you always”. Although we don’t have this whole passage readily available in our minds, Jesus’ disciples would have. So when Jesus said this line to his followers, they would have understood his reference to Deuteronomy 15 and would have known that God had another program for addressing poverty. Rather than selling something valuable and donating the money to the poor, the people of God were supposed to be organizing their society to enact the Jubilee. The woman anointed Jesus as king of an empire that had Jubilee and Sabbath at the center. What God demands of God’s followers is justice not charity.

This interpretation of Matthew 26 in light of Deuteronomy 15 is consistent with and actually frames the biblical teachings on poverty. The main theme of many of Jesus’ teachings and his ministry in general is caring for the poor and ending poverty. Jim Wallis from Sojourners Magazine has written that “in the Old Testament, the suffering of the poor was the second most prominent theme… in the NT we found that one out of every 16 verses was about the poor. In the Gospels, it was one out of every ten, in Luke, one of every seven, and in James, one of every five verses.”

There are passages like Matthew 25 where Jesus reminds us that what we do to the least of these, we do unto him. There is the story in Exodus 16 of the manna that God sends from heaven when the Israelites are living in the wilderness after escaping from slavery. The prophets all emphasize our duty to care for the widow, the orphan, those in need. There is the community of goods in Acts 2 and 4 that tells us that the early Christians had no needy people among them because they shared and cared for each other. Or even the Apostle Paul following his revelation of Jesus started a collection for the poor of Jerusalem that he discusses in Romans, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians.

One of my favorites and the reason I named my son, Luke, is Luke 4 where Jesus reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and announces that he has come to fulfill this passage – to proclaim release to the captives, to bring good news to the poor, to let the oppressed go free. That passage in Luke 4 is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It’s the first place where he really shows what he’s made of, what his life on earth is about.

Poverty was severe in Jesus’ day. It is severe today and growing. There are 45 million people without health insurance in the United States. There are millions of people who are homeless in our wealthy nation, yet the vast majority of those homeless people work and the average age of a homeless person in the US is 9 years old. Poverty shortens the lives of many – hundreds of people freeze to death each year and over 18,000 people die for lack of medical care. Even our front line battle troops serving in Afganistan right now make so little money that some their families qualify for food stamps and subsidized housing.

Then since the economic crisis began, things are getting worse. We have the highest unemployment rate in decades, 10,000 homes are foreclosed each day, the number of hungry people is growing rapidly. More and more people from cities, small towns, rural areas and suburbs are falling into poverty and economic insecurity.

It seems at times like these that ending poverty is very far away. But from our work in the Poverty Initiative, I have learned the ending poverty is possible.

I would suggest that we should read Matthew 26 side by side with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Willie Baptist, Poverty Initiative Scholar in Residence, who is with us this afternoon and should be recognized for his important role in the Poverty Initiative and for his 40 years of organizing and educating amongst the poor, asserts that this quote about the beggar is King’s response and interpretation of the story of the anointing woman. He states that Jesus critiques the disciples for their suggestion of selling the ointment and giving the money to the poor and considers it like “flinging a coin to a beggar.” Baptist continues that the woman’s act of anointing – recognizing and honoring – Jesus is a celebration of someone whose words and actions stand for the restructuring the “edifice which produces beggars.”

Let’s spend a little more time on the quote from Rev. Dr. King. In the last year of his life, King called for a Poor People’s Campaign. He suggested that poor people from across the country needed to get together and organize for an end to poverty. King was killed while working on the Poor People’s Campaign. His vision of a Freedom Church of the Poor and a social movement lead by poor and homeless people was not realized in his lifetime.

We in the Poverty Initiative have taken up Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s mantle. We are working to re-ignite King’s Poor People’s Campaign and build a social movement to end poverty. Our mission to develop, network, and support religious and community leaders through our Poverty Scholars Program, our Fellows Program, our Religious Outreach work, our Resource Center are all part of building a social movement. We believe that those most impacted by poverty – the poor and economically insecure – must lead and are leading this movement to end poverty.

We have the great honor of working with poor people who are leading their organizations and this budding movement – groups like the Vermont Workers Center who last spring won universal health care for all Vermonters; the Coalition of Immokalee Workers who have won wage increases and more dignified working conditions for farmworkers in Florida; Domestic Workers United who passed their Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York State last year winning protections for domestic workers that we’ve never had before in this country. We work with the Philadelphia Student Union, poor high school students who have stopped the closing of high schools and have pleaded “fund our schools not our prisons” and the Border Network for Human Rights who resisted Arizona style anti-immigrant legislation in the state of Texas. These organizations and dozens more that are a part of the Poverty Initiative’s network are coming together across race, gender, religion, geography, issue area to build a social movement.

We are still just at the beginning. Just like all social movements start in church basements and living room parlors, perhaps rooms a lot plainer and uglier than this one we’re in – this movement is still growing. You still can join us at the ground floor. We are building a solid foundation for lasting change in this country and world. We are doing God’s work of ending poverty and building a social movement that could “save the soul of America” like Dr. King suggested.

So let me return to our passage from Matthew. When we juxtapose Matthew 26 and Martin Luther King, it helps bring forth a new reading of this passage and the bible through the lens of the Jubilee. We are able to implode an interpretation of this passage that suggests the poverty is inevitable and instead insist that poverty should and could be ended: indeed, this is God’s will. We begin to see Jesus as God, the Son of God, and the leader of a spiritual renewal movement that is concerned with ending poverty. The fact that Jesus is anointed as king and prophet in this passage further emphasizes the fact that God’s kingdom is an alternative one to the Empire. The rules and norms of God’s kingdom are set by the Jubilee. There is no poverty in God’s empire; there is no exclusion. All of God’s children are valued and all life is affirmed.

We see why Jesus is therefore crucified. Rather than conforming to a world that dehumanizes and impoverishes, Jesus through his words and deeds is a challenge to Empire. We maybe even see why Jesus is betrayed by Judas – he won’t continue to let others profit from the misery and poverty of others.

And this brings us to the Easter story here. Jesus is betrayed and crucified because of his relationship to the poor and his stance that God’s kingdom should be here on earth. It’s one where debts are forgiven, mouths are fed, community is built. But the story doesn’t end with Jesus’ death. He is raised from the dead and called to bring God’s reign to earth. In Matthew, Jesus’ resurrection is coupled with the resurrection of many others – in Matthew, the tombs break open and many of the past and present prophets and leaders of the Jesus movement are brought back to life alongside Jesus. I find the resurrection of the saints very moving in Matthew’s Gospel. I think it emphasizes that many are needed to bring God’s reign of abundance here on earth. Ending poverty, building a movement, uniting people takes a lot of work and lots of hands, hearts and minds.

I am deeply moved to be honored at Union’s 175th Anniversary. But if the Poverty Initiative is about building a movement of hundreds, thousands, millions, I don’t represent the Poverty Initiative alone. There are too many leaders, heroes, saints who have built the Poverty Initiative and committed themselves to building a movement. I want us to recognize some of those people who are in this room with us today.

Can I have the Poverty Initiative staff, volunteers Fellows and Poverty Scholars please stand? Will you remain standing? Can I have Union faculty who have worked with the Poverty Initiative please stand? Will Union staff, administration, and trustees who have worked with the Poverty Initiative please stand? Will alumni, donors, supporters and other friends of the Poverty Initiative please stand?

There are other important saints who are not in the room with us this afternoon, especially many of our Poverty Scholars – all 300 of them – from organizations including the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the United Workers, the Media Mobilizing Project, Domestic Workers United, Picture the Homeless, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Vermont Workers Center, the Chicago Anti-Eviction Committee, May Day New Orleans, Poughkeepsie Farm Project, the Border Network for Human Rights, ROC-NY, POWER-WA, Sisters of the Road and over 100 more anti-poverty ministries and organizations.

In this room I see the beginning of a movement. A social movement needs everyone.