He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
- Luke 1:52-53 (NIV)
When you’re Pope, everything you say and do carries great significance. If Pope Francis didn’t know that, his first year wearing the Fisherman’s Ring must have been a revelation so far.
Last month, in a meeting with UN officials about economic redevelopment for poverty-stricken nations, Pope Francis endorsed “the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the state, as well as indispensable cooperation between the private sector and civil society.” Some commentators understood Francis’ statement to be supportive of “forced redistribution” of wealth from the rich to the poor. The reaction was interesting. Francis was accused of becoming a “robe-wearing politician” and “exceeding his authority.” Less moderate online commenters accused him of being the S-word - a Socialist. Many pointed out what they perceive as the hypocrisy of the leader of the Catholic church calling for the redistribution of wealth. The general consensus seemed to be that Francis should stick to theology and stop meddling in economics.
That’s a lot of heat for suggesting that if a lot of those who have a lot could give a little something to those who have less, this poverty thing might not be so much of a problem.
Keep in mind, Francis has no authority to set UN policy. He has no authority over the appointed leaders of any country. No one, least of all Francis, is under any illusions that his words on this particular occasion can be used to determine a course of action for dealing with poverty. He simply said what we all know on some level to be true: that those who have, particularly Christians who have, are given with those blessings an obligation to help those who have not.
Statements like that make those who think politically crazy. That’s where the reaction comes from. It bothers many of us in the Western world to imagine having to share what we’ve earned through our hard work with those who, in our thinking, haven’t worked as hard. In Western culture, poverty is a character flaw. We tell ourselves that people are poor because they’ve made bad choices, or don’t want to work hard. We’re uncomfortable sharing what we have with others partially because we doubt that someone in need is really trying very hard.
But that’s just the thing, isn’t it? Jesus challenges what’s comfortable. He asks those who would follow him to give sacrificially, as he did. He calls those who would follow him to think differently about “our” money and the hard work that it rewards. For Jesus, net earnings or Gross National Product are not the way to keep score. He reminds us that trying to serve both God and wealth is a losing proposition. He calls us simply to give to those who ask of us. He reminds us that the Kingdom he inaugurated is one in which rulers are brought down and replaced by those in humble circumstances, in which the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty. “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” are his haunting words for those of us who live in affluence and think that somehow our hard work exempts us from sharing with those who go without.
So Pope Francis is a socialist for reminding us of these things, for daring to suggest that believers allow theology to influence economic choices. As though Jesus cares at all for Socialism or Capitalism or whatever other “ism” you could toss out there. It’s a peculiarly American form of Christianity that paints Jesus in red state colors, complete with NRA button and American flag lapel pin.
The argument is sometimes made that the poor aren’t poor because the rich are rich. Well, yes and no. The accumulation of wealth by some may not create poverty. But it can allow it to continue. In the end, those who argue against Francis’ statements make the same mistake they accuse him of: they accuse him of believing wrongly that governments can address poverty by forcibly redistributing wealth, while apparently believing that all government has to do to address poverty is to ensure that rich people can keep more of their money, which they’ll then turn into jobs and capital. But they leave out something crucial: those who would follow Jesus are called to be generous.
As generous as he is to us.
“Though he was rich, for our sakes he became poor,” the Bible tells us, “so that [we] through his poverty might become rich.” That’s a theological statement, to be sure, but also an economic one, because Paul’s point in writing it is to convince the church to give generously to the poor. It always works one way or the other: either our theology will influence our economics, or our economics will influence our theology. If we don’t listen to Jesus in the way we go about making and using money, we will pretty soon have a Lord who approves of our accumulation of more and more, at the expense of the Lazaruses laid at our gates.
I have no need or inclination to defend Francis. I admire his concern for the poor and his humility and lack of pretension, but I don’t acknowledge his authority any further than he is found to be a credible witness to the power of the gospel. What I want to argue against is the convenient theology to which his critics would like him to confine himself. Good theology is never isolated from reality. If our theology doesn’t lead us to speak against economic practices that help the wealthy accumulate more and more at the expense of the poor, then it’s useless theology. It’s certainly not Jesus’ theology.
Jesus identified so completely with the poor and marginalized that he claimed that no one who can ignore them is ready for his return. That’s about as simple and to the point as theology gets. If our theology lets us sidestep Jesus’ words, then it’s no good to us or to anyone else.
Francis’ words shouldn’t be used to segregate him in a theological ghetto. Neither, as Christians, should we read them as advocating “forced redistribution.” Rather, we should be reminded that followers of Jesus should never have to be forced to share with the poor. That we should give freely, generously, and gratefully.
Just as he has given to us.