I first heard of Joerg Rieger from Brian McLaren and had an opportunity to meet the German-born Methodist professor a few months ago in New Orleans. Most theologians discuss ideas as if they strictly rational constructs with little relation to the hope, fear and ambition of everyday life; Rieger places ideas in historical context. He is also one of the few theologians I have encountered who appreciates the profound relationship between theology and economics.
While charity and advocacy are widely discussed, there is a growing sense that deep solidarity may be the more appropriate response of faith communities to poverty.
Poverty is real and growing. In many places in the United States between 20 and 30 percent of the children experience “food insecurity,” which means that they do not have enough to eat. Unemployment and underemployment are rampant, and even many working people are no longer able to make ends meet. The average wage of workers at Wal-Mart — the world’s largest private employer — falls significantly below the poverty level. As the Wal-Mart model of employment is copied elsewhere, even mid-level jobs are losing full-time status and benefits.
In this climate, religious charity provides some much-needed assistance. Soup kitchens, food pantries, and clothes closets face a higher demand than ever before, and many religious communities support these efforts. Unfortunately, this kind of charity fails to address the underlying problems. Worse yet, by not addressing the root causes, the problems are covered up and in some cases intensified. Typical efforts to provide charity might be compared to a doctor who tries to cure the symptoms of a disease without addressing its cause. For good reasons, key figures of faith from Moses to Jesus did not limit their ministry to charity. (more…)