The value “4%” has popped up twice on my radar in the past couple of weeks, and I’m concerned about it. It goes to the heart of my faith, and presents a great challenge to me.
According to recent political polls, only 4% of the voting public rank poverty, hunger, and homelessness as their top political concerns. That means that 96% of us think there is something more important than the poor. From my perspective, that’s disturbing.
Then I ran across another factoid: only 4% of us think government doesn’t do enough for the poor. About 96% of us think government’s role is “about right” to “far too much”. In fact, 24% of us think government assistance to the poor is the reason why they are poor. From my perspective, that’s harsh.
In a way, this attitude towards the poor is in keeping with science. I ran across a Princeton University neuroscience study that indicates that when we see the poor, the poor do not register in our brains as “human”. Experiments indicate that the areas in our brains that light up when we see photos of “regular people” do not light up when we see pictures of poor people. Instead, the areas that light up are the same as the ones that light up when we see garbage.
The poor as garbage? For a guy like me who preaches about the poor, the weak, the sick, and the stranger as often as I can, this makes for a tough crowd.
It makes me wonder: just how Christian is our nation? I’ve had some great experiences with members of the faith community who truly go out of their way to help feed the hungry and assist the poor, so I admit that the 4% number is hard for me to swallow. But when several polls and research programs all point to the same conclusions, I’ve got to take the 4% number seriously. Jesus said that “the least” are his brothers and sisters, and what we do for them we do for him. And only 4% of us think that’s important?
What to do? Rolling over and playing dead is not an option, if we are going to be true to our baptismal vows. It seems that we need to show people how concern for the poor is at the core of the Gospel – as the slogan goes in the Diocese of Missouri, “Deep in faith, deep in humanity”. If people are not personally involved in the condition of the poor, they may be “confused” about the faith they embrace.
We need to start thinking of hunger and poverty ministry as spiritual practice, not just charity. Charity is good, but I think we miss a major aspect of the Christian life if we miss the traditional practice of Christian Hospitality. The practice of Hospitality has little to do with running the front desk of a motel, but rather a spiritual practice of welcoming the poor and the stranger into the faith community, even if they are just passing through. Hospitality as a way of life has been central to the Christian community sine the book of Acts, and the primary charism of many religious communities and orders. Hospitality should not be the concern of 4% of us, but rather 100% of us.