Blessed Are the Poor … In Spirit

In his infamous Sermon on the Mount, the Gospel of Matthew records Jesus as saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This is the first beatitude … front and center.

Luke’s gospel records what Jesus said somewhat differently, as “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Luke’s version differs from that of Matthew in three distinct ways:

  • Matthew’s version of the blessing is for those who are “poor of spirit.” Luke has a totally different twist, focusing the blessing on the “poor” in material being. This different nuance pervades Luke as a social gospel – most interested in lifting the poor out of the poverty. Unlike Luke, Matthew is focused on humanity’s spiritual rather than physical condition – a perspective that pervades his entire gospel.
  • Luke’s version of what Jesus speaks is more inter-relational, focused on “you” while Matthew is interested in them and “theirs”.
  • Finally, Luke describes a “kingdom of God” while Matthew depicts a “kingdom of heaven.” For Matthew, the afterlife is about a place – called heaven. For Luke, the kingdom is about “God” and our relationship to the divine.

With the 2016 Republican convention just behind us and the Democratic just ahead, the question posed by this blog is: What does being poor (or poor in spirit) have to do with the 2016 U.S. presidential election? Plenty.

Jesus for Trump?

At first glance, there appears to be little in common between Jesus first beatitude and the behavior of Donald Trump. Mr. Trump is neither poor nor poor in spirit. He flaunts his wealth and exhibits anything but a humble spirit. By the measure of either Matthew or Luke, the Donald would appear to fall short of the kingdom.

But there may be an out. What if, unlike the rich young ruler of the first century AD, Mr. Trump was prepared to sell everything – whether literally or methaphorically – and give it all to the poor? At the GOP convention, he certainly talked a good game. Well, not so much for the truly poor. But rather for the forgotten and shrinking middle. As he declared:

“I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice. I am your voice.”

Is this the real Donald? Or just a part of the act? Does he really care? Or is he just looking to ride the presidency to feather his own nest? Will the forgotten middle become even more invisible if and when Mr. Trump becomes president?

Most likely, we won’t know until and unless the American people take the leap of faith with the Donald into the unknown – unknown perhaps even to him.

Jesus for Hillary?

Even though she has long talked a good game, Hillary Clinton appears to fail by the metrics of either Matthew or Luke. Starting at Wellesley college and extending beyond to roles as wife of a governor and president, then U.S. senator and secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton has lived an adulthood of privilege. She fails the material test and doesn’t do much better on when it comes to humbleness of spirit. She is quoted as saying:

“We need to raise pay, create good-paying jobs, and build an economy that works for everyone—not just those at the top. I’ll cut taxes for the middle class, raise the minimum wage, and ensure the wealthiest pay their fair share.”

Sounds good, but how real? No less than primary opponent Bernie Sanders has repeatedly taken Clinton to task for favoring big business and wealth over the everyday American. As he pithily noted earlier this year:

“I introduced legislation to [prevent banks from being predatory] when Secretary Clinton was busy giving speeches to Goldman Sachs for $225,000 a speech.”

And this is the same Clinton who has also observed that “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” Hardly a helping hand to workers who’ve now been on the short end of the stick for decades.

An Aside

There’s one small additional problem we are only recently beginning to get. The Americans who get the best shake today are the wealthy elites followed by those with the lowest incomes. The wealthy represent modern protective guilds. Those with the lowest incomes are increasingly catered to by the American welfare state – with little incentive to improve their lot on their own.

Which leaves what once was called working class and middle class. Slipping further behind. While perhaps not yet fully financially impoverished, they are clearly emotionally and culturally spent. And anger expressed as a result – as represented by the extremes of Trump and Sanders.

These are the poor in spirit of the early 21st century – with no blessing in sight. 

Does Anyone Really Care?

There is an old Chicago lyric that goes something like: “Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care?” The answer: “If so, I can’t imagine why.”

The pivotal economic questions of this presidential campaign are: What do we do about a growing disparity of American incomes? About leaving more working and previously middle class Americans in the dust?

What we get from the Republican and Democratic candidates is less than reassuring. Trump talks about making America great again; Hillary about raising pay. In both cases, actions speak louder than words. As Jesus would say of the teachers of law in his day:

“… be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

With the election of 2016, it has never been more important to test the rhetoric against past performance and readily understandable proposals for the future. Then vote accordingly. Vote for the candidate demonstrating reasonable knowledge of the issue coupled with articulated solutions and the track record of past performance to match.

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Expect Conflict & Make Peace

Starting in Ferguson and most recently extending to Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Dallas, and back to Baton Rouge, America is in the grips of the seemingly surprising re-emergence of conflict between its African-American communities and the police responsible for protecting these samecommunities. Looking from the vantage point of the Brexit-divided British isles, the Economist magazine on July 16 seems perplexed, stating:

America has problems, but this picture is a caricature of a country that,
on most measures, is more prosperous,
more peaceful and less racist than ever before.

So, what gives? Why is a seemingly post-racial country that has unprecedentedly elected its first African-American president and that experiences greater prosperity than most parts of the world facing renewed racial conflict?

There are plenty of pundits seeking answers from a secular (but confined) perspective. For a few brief moments, consider the alternative divine perspective of the author of both conflict and peace.

Jesus’ Take

During his brief earthly ministry, Jesus comes across as being on both sides of the question. On the one hand, in speaking what are known as the beatitudes to a large audience overlooking the Sea of Galilee, proclaiming:

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.

Sounds like the typical liberal, coddling, approach to human conflict resolution. But that’s not the full story. For on yet another occasion, Jesus forcefully articulates an opposing viewpoint as he rhetorically asks:

Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division.

This Jesus not only expects conflict; he  actively seeks to create division and disunity. Sounds like the Donald.

So, what is the answer? How are we to resolve Jesus’ expectations of conflict coupled with the countervailing exhortation to making peace?

Shortly after making his this seemingly incendiary statement about conflict, Jesus does provide a way out. It’s not a direct answer but a formula. And a formula that is illustrated in legal terms as Jesus throws the resolution right back to those in the middle of seemingly intractable division –  by asking:

Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?
As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate,
try hard to be reconciled on the way,
or your adversary may drag you off to the judge,
and the judge turn you over to the officer,
and the officer throw you into prison.

I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

Jesus answer is one not of paternalistic enabling but of tough love. He expects, even creates, conflict. He then demands that we each take responsibility to work out our differences. Before getting to the courtroom, or rioting and looting, or mercilessly beating and casting aside the perceived enemy.

Jesus tells us what to do, not how. The how is left up to rational, emotional, even in-the-moment, antagonists.

And if we don’t work it out? Well, the consequences of delayed action can be even more dire than the initial conflict itself.

What do the Donald & Hillary Say?

The re-emergence of racial and class conflict represents a somewhat surprising but nonetheless pivotal litmus test for the two presumed nominees in the 2016 run-off for the U.S. presidency. The liberal candidate takes the path of the peacemaker, the enabler – to the point of glossing over the violence and destruction and illegal and anti-social behavior. The newcomer to law-and-order conservatism overplays justice and retribution at the expense of mercy. Left to their own devices, the approach of either candidate runs the risk of deepening rather than rectifying the great tear in America’s social fabric.

For the voter, expectations should rise above business as usual. Vote the candidate that  demonstrates reconciliation on the way to but before further conflagration.


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