by Joshua Kingsley
“Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms?”
“What are kingdoms without justice? They’re just gangs of bandits.”
― Augustine of Hippo, City of God
Let me be clear: Poverty kills. That is what makes it different from simplicity. Simplicity is strength, a gift from God. Simplicity is our call as a church and as Christians. Poverty means not having the barest minimum to maintain a healthy body and soul. In the US, 45 million people live below our poverty threshold, one that is already extremely low ($11,300 for a single person over 65). According to UNICEF, the US has the second highest rate of children living in poverty in the developed world. I am 33 now. I grew up as one of those children. Here’s a taste of what it’s like…
We moved a lot, between states because my father was always looking for work. I attended 14 schools between kindergarten and 7th grade. With a family of 6 we sometimes had to live in cheap motel rooms, RVs, or sleep in our 1976 Jeep Wagoner. Although my household was drugs/alcohol free we always were in parts of town where violent predators lived and worked. My parents’ anxiety was always high. They hit us. It always was done in the moment and both the reaction of adults past their breaking point and a preparation for the painful and harsh world they felt was waiting for us in adulthood. Since I was always the new kid at school, and looked/smelled/sounded poor, the kids there hit me too. I quit going to school in 7th grade and never graduated high school.
That is poverty. We were poor because people profited from my father’s labor. They were greedy. Cities and towns were constructed to keep the poor segregated. The system is designed for people like me to ‘drop off the radar’. It is designed by the collection of choices made by people. The more powerful the people, the more powerful their choices. Sometimes they are made with good intentions. Sometimes they are corrupt. In my experience, they are usually made from a blind perspective that has no relationship to the people affected.
One night as a ten-year-old, I was reading the story of Solomon’s God-as-genie moment where God grants him one wish and he wishes for wisdom. I tried to make the same deal with God that night. I dropped out of school in the 7th grade and God honored our deal. I self-schooled as a teenager, was admitted to the state university on a strict probation and began climbing up the social ladder. As a former educator and now Episcopal priest with two master’s degrees I reflect on this deal with God, my ticket to a different life. An eternal life.
At our baptism we renounce Satan and forces of wickedness (BCP, 302) while promising to resist evil (BCP 304). What is evil in our world if not structures of racism, classism, and sexism and the choices that maintain those structures?
At our baptism we promise to proclaim that news that was so good to me as a child: that as a poor person, I am blessed by God in a way others can’t and won’t experience, and that there’s a Kingdom here, now, where I am equal and have control over my body and my life. It is by that last promise, striving for justice and peace for all people, that we fulfill the previous ones.
Look at these baptismal verbs: proclaim and strive. These are not light, easy actions. Baptism is an ontological lifestyle that demands the commitment of one’s body and spirit. In return, it gives freedom from these structures of our society that hurts us all.
Our Episcopal Church has an active and essential role to play in society. We must be more than a voice, more than a presence. We are called to strive. We are called to proclaim. Like Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, and the countless others, we are called to free those oppressed in the slavery of an economy and culture that treats human labor like a commodity.
The trailer parks and housing projects of this country are full of beautiful minds and hearts. Those minds and hearts hold the keys to some of our darkest challenges of war and environmental destruction we face. If they are not set free now, when? If they are not set free by us, then who? We have a baptismal obligation to organize, deepen and act.
image:The front of Right 2 Dream Too, the urban campground in Downtown Portland. Kate Black/OPB