As a middle class American girl growing up in rural Baptist churches, I learned that the Kingdom of God means heaven, and that heaven is like the gated communities we have here on earth (except even richer… and with endless church services).
Everybody who makes it into this heaven gets their very own mansion. Heavy-duty pearly gates block the entrance so the undeserving poor won’t sneak in and chip off chunks of the golden streets to cap their teeth. When we get to this heaven, we can sleep easy at night, knowing that we and our stuff are safe and sound.
I always felt too guilty to say that this heaven sounded gaudy, stuffy, boring, and lonely. One person, one mansion? Couldn’t we at least share a mansion between a few of us? I hoped there would be time between church services for me to lounge in the grass by the Crystal Sea and talk to my grandmother, or Jesus, or Mary Magdalene. I hoped the golden streets hadn’t already paved over all the grass.
Though I was taught that the kingdom of heaven was a long way off, I also learned that those who live right will be financially blessed by God here on earth and that those who don’t will struggle. God “helps those who help themselves.”
Those who felt they were doing right but were still struggling could at least claim persecution by the devil, bandaging their shame with the notion that they’d be living in a mansion in the sweet by and by. They were different, somehow, from the rest of the poor who were getting what they deserved. The hope of Christians looked a lot like the American dream: Work hard enough, be good enough, and you’ll be rich someday.
As I began to explore the scriptures for myself, some interesting contradictions to these notions started to surface. What about all of the scriptures in which Jesus sides with the poor? He goes so far as to say that it’s the poor who are blessed, and he does not say “one day, if you act nice enough, you will earn the kingdom of God, because when you die I will let you through the gates to heaven.”
Jesus says: “… yours IS the kingdom of God.”
It’s as if Jesus were saying that the poor in Palestine who could barely feed themselves were already living in God’s kingdom. Those whom I had heard condemned, Jesus was calling blessed. What’s more, Jesus said, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
How can hunger and want be a blessing? How could the kingdom of God be one of such scarcity?
Julia Dinsmore is a writer who tackles American poverty from the trenches. She does not offer a top-down analysis of poverty, but a testimony. In her book, My Name is Child of God, Not ‘Those People’: A First Person Look at Poverty, Julia describes the poverty she experienced in her early days as a single parent.
The community of my survival was, by and large, a diverse network of welfare moms and dads engaged in activities of daily living that keep parents busy. Sharing was the unspoken bylaw, and practicing generosity, the dues for belonging to our unorganized, highly functioning patchwork quilt of mutual assistance. When a family of six showed up to your door at mealtime, there was no need for uncomfortable conversation about how hungry the children were. We didn’t have forms to fill out or make people provide proof of their income, how and what they had spent it on, or the identity of their national origin. The Irish have a custom called “setting the extra plate” at the table, as one never knows when Jesus will be coming for dinner. I have been blessed by experiences of living with lack, for poverty was the table on which the extra plate could be placed…regularly.
When we envision the Kingdom of Heaven as a gated community in which each nuclear family has abundance, we cut ourselves off from the blessings of God. The kingdom of heaven is an upside down kind of kingdom where the last are first and the first are last.
For too long, American efforts to “help the poor” have involved programs designed to judge the worth of the poor (citizen? felony record? working enough hours?) and to give a little bit of extra help to those who work hard enough and follow the rules—to those, in other words, we judge worthy of having a chance at the American dream. Tragically, our programs even tend to disrupt the kind of sharing Julia describes above. Those who share their couch with a family member experiencing homelessness are in danger of losing their housing benefits.
And Christian charity programs are often no different. Last year, after a group of churches in my community delivered food boxes at Christmas to people experiencing poverty, the discussion centered upon how many of those people had Xboxes, smart phones, and flat screen TVs in their homes. If those people can afford such luxuries, do they really deserve our charity? Never mind that none of us delivering those boxes has any question about the justice of our owning those things while our neighbors are hungry.
It’s time that we who follow Jesus listen to what he has to say about poverty. If we want to be blessed, we need to learn how to live from the poor. We Christians with more than enough who desire to live in the upside down kingdom of God must bring ourselves up to the level of “the poor” and stop trying to bring them down to our level. If everyone lived in the way Julia describes life in “the community of her survival, ” with our gates slung open and our tables filled with good things for others to share without question, wouldn’t we experience a heavenly kingdom so much more beautiful and so much less lonely than the American dream version of heaven?
Isn’t there more room for Jesus at the crowded table of a neighborhood potluck than in a sterile, well-furnished dining room of a single-family mansion?
Maybe that’s why Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven” (Luke 6:20).