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Poverty, Race & the American Church

July 29, 2017

 

In America, the link between poverty and race is as old as American society itself.  The cultural values that frame the American identity explicitly influence the ideas, beliefs and activities of most Americans.  For more than 200 years those same cultural values have also tacitly influenced the ideas, beliefs and activities of the American Church.

 

Though historically the church has had a spiritual mandate to be a force against poverty, for the past 75 years many American culture values have completely co-opted the American church and served to link it to the perpetuation of poverty through race, class and cultural bias.  The cultural values in question have many in the American church practicing evangelism and discipleship as if it means teaching people to embrace middle class values, with the goal of realizing the American Dream.


The problem with all this is that the assumptions that underlie many American cultural values largely go un-examined, resulting in unintended negative impacts, particularly on the poor.  For example, Meritocracy - the belief that anyone, through their own intellect, abilities and individual efforts, can overcome any obstacle to achieve success in America.  On its face that seems plausible, even "right" given how rugged individualism is a dominant theme in the American identity narrative and is deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche.  The underlying assumption is that there is (for the most part) a level playing field that all people have access to; and that playing field though challenging, does not prevent any person from playing.  The reality however, is that in America we now have a socioeconomic cast system that structurally prevents those born into the cycle of generational poverty from accessing the resources and opportunities required to be "successful" in America (The Meritocracy Myth (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).   Therefore, when the American church tacitly advances the belief of Meritocracy through its interpretation of the Bible and subsequent teaching and practice, it adds another layer of frustration to those who realize the assumption of a level playing field for those in poverty is false, and furthers the distorted view of God that many poor people have because they have been taught that they do not believe the "right" things in the "right" way, therefore they are not blessed by God.


People born into generational poverty do not have parents who went to college and thus set a family expectation to follow. Their parents do not have the network of relationship that might assure access to opportunities for employment.  People born into generational poverty live in neighborhoods with failing schools that lack the resources to provide the type of education that would equip them for success in the higher wage employment market.  They are surrounded by peers who are faced with the same challenges and thus the same lack of opportunity, which reinforces the feelings of hopelessness.  People born into generational poverty are more vulnerable to the impact of economic downturns and to exploitation in the housing market due to an already limited pool of safe and affordable housing opportunities. People born into generational poverty are often gerrymandered into communities that limit their political power and perpetuate a lack of participation in our political process.

 

Many in the American church have tacitly oriented its practice of faith around a belief in "Meritocracy" even though a core tenant of the Christian faith is a belief in the "unmerited favor" of God and that no effort is required to receive that favor.  While there are exceptions, most people born into poverty, stay in poverty despite any effort they might make; and a disproportionate number of people born into the cycle of generational poverty in America today are racial and ethnic minorities.


Food for Thought...

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