Not too long ago, those of us at the Simple Way were about to speak to a congregation. The person doing the introduction said, “These folks are a voice for the voiceless.” And something inside me hurt. I gently corrected them. Everyone has a voice. I know many amazing people who have used the old “voice for the voiceless” line (Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, even the book of Proverbs). But it just felt strange. Perhaps we are too quick to assume folks cannot speak for themselves.
We are not a voice for the voiceless. The truth is that there is a lot of noise out there drowning out quiet voices, and many people have stopped listening to the cries of their neighbors. Lots of folks have put there hands over their ears to drown out the suffering. Institutions have distanced themselves from the disturbing cries. When Paul writes in Romans 8 that the entire creation is groaning for its liberation, he goes on to say that “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly (v. 23). This is the chorus of the generations of seemingly voiceless people we have joined.
And God has a special ear for their groaning regardless of who is listening.
It is a beautiful thing when folks in poverty are no longer just a missions project but become genuine friends and family with whom we laugh, cry, dream, and struggle. one of the verses I have grown to love is the one where Jesus is preparing to leave the disciples and says, “I no longer call you servants….Instead I have called you friends” (John 15:15). Servanthood is a fine place to begin, but gradually we love toward mutual love, genuine relationships. Someday, perhaps we can even say those words that Ruth said to Naomi after years of partnership: “where you go I will go and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God will be my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried” (Ruth 1:16-17)
And that’s when things get messy. When people begin moving beyond charity and toward justice and solidarity with the poor and oppressed, as Jesus did, they get in trouble. Once we are actually friend with folks in struggle, we start to ask why people are poor, which is never as popular as giving to charity. One of my friends has a shirt marked with the words of late Catholic bishop Dom Helder Camara, “When I fed the hungry, they called me a saint. When I asked why people are hungry, they called me a communist.” Charity wins awards and applause, but joining the poor gets you killed. People do not get crucified for charity. People are crucified for living out a love that disrupts the social order, that calls forth a new world. People are not crucified for helping poor people. People are crucified for joining them. Pg 127 – 129
He later writes this…
Almost every time we talk with affluent folks about God’s will to end poverty, someone says, “But didn’t Jesus say, ‘The poor will always be with you’?” Many of the people who whip out this verse have grown quite insulated and distant from the poor and feel defensive. I usually ask, “Where are the poor? Are the poor among us?” The answer is a clear negatory. As we study the Scriptures, we see how many texts we have misread, contextualized, and exegeted to hear what we want to. Like this one about the poor being among us, which Jesus says in the home of a leper and after a poor marginalized women anoints his feet with perfume. The poor were all around him. Far from saying in defeat that we should not worry about the poor, since they will always be among us. Jesus is point the church to her true identity — she is to live close to those who suffer. The poor will always be among us, because the empire will always produce poor people, and they will find home in the church, a citzenship in the kingdom of God, where the “hungry are filled with good things and the rich sent away empty.”
I heard that Gandhi , when people asked him if he was a Christian, would often reply, “Ask the poor. They will tell who the Christians are.” Pg 159-161
I have been reflecting on what he wrote lately in the context of what do I want to do with the rest of my life. A couple of weeks ago I had to weigh a career offer that would have provided a tremendous amont of security to me and my family. It would have required moving and the end of my involvement at the Church of the Exiles. As I thought through my options, I realized that the last year of working and living amongst the poor has really changed me. Security and money may be worth something but as Clairborne writes, it also comes with a cost to living in conflict with a large part of Scriptures which I never hear as part of the discussion in most local churches.