Religious Leader Perspective: Justice and Poverty

By Christine Warlowski, St James

Justice is such a formational part of nearly every world religion. In Christian scripture (and most other religions), the demand is clear that we take care of the vulnerable among us – the poor, the widow (left defenseless without a husband) and the orphan. The prophets through to Jesus tell us in no uncertain terms that worship without care for those in need is not worship at all.

In Catholicism, my chosen faith, the body of teachings include what is called Catholic Social Teaching. This is the doctrinal and faith teachings about how a society should be organized, and how Christians should behave in a society. 

One of the primary principles in this body of work is called “Preferential Option for the Poor”. This means every political or economic or social policy needs to take the poor into consideration, and give the needs of the poor more weight than the needs of the wealthy. 

Yet in this country, poverty is politicized. Many people in my faith tradition believe the answer to poverty is charity, and do not see the systemic issues that cause poverty in the first place. Those systemic issues – affordable housing, decent paying jobs, child care, health care, transportation, and so on – take a back seat to profit margins and stock options. 

Many in this country believe in the concept of the “deserving poor” and argue for work requirements for aid. Yet Scripture never talks about the deserving poor, it just talks about the poor. The prophets never say only pay attention to the widows and orphans who are working and trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps (or sandals in those days). The prophets only focus on those who are on the outskirts, those who are vulnerable, and those who are in need.

We are made in the likeness and image of God. We are all beloved of God. All of us. Not just the rich. Not just the middle class. Not just the ones who got themselves out of poverty. All of us. We all have an inherent dignity that poverty erodes. Making poverty a political football makes a mockery of human dignity. 

We have too many people in this country who are in need. People who do not have enough food to eat, who do not have a roof over their heads, who cannot pay for healthcare. People who can’t get a job or an apartment because of mistakes in their background. People who have fulltime jobs but are living paycheck to paycheck, one disaster away from having no food or shelter. While Wall Street grows richer, those without enough grow poorer. 

To me, it is unconscionable that we have such poverty in our country.  

Most major religious teach love of neighbor and caring for the vulnerable. Yet we honor money more than we do other human beings. We not only do not give the poor preference when it comes to policy making, we often ignore their needs, or put policies in place to make it harder for them. 

We can do better. We are called to be better. When will we wake up and see our society is only as strong as the weakest among us? When will we recognize that human dignity requires the basic necessities for all humans?