Ending poverty is possible. We have more than enough resources. The poverty of 140 million in the United States and of billions worldwide is not an accident or the result of individual failure. It is the historical victory of specific economic and political structures that benefit from creating and sustaining poverty. Like most, if not all, sacred texts, the Christian Bible is full of resources and lessons to support both a vision and plan of action to end poverty. Indeed, these resources have been taken up and clarified through the struggles of the poor throughout history. However, the Bible has also been twisted into one of the most effective ideological weapons against the poor. These destructive interpretations have been used to cultivate an acceptance and complacency toward poverty. “The poor will be with you always,” is perhaps one of the most commonly cited passages to support the inevitability of poverty and reinforce a belief that charity is the best we can do to respond.
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis’s book, Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor, is a powerful refutation of these distorted biblical interpretations and forms of being Christian. Theoharis asserts, that far from accepting poverty, “when Jesus quotes this phrase [‘the poor will be with you always’], he isn’t condoning poverty, he is reminding us that God hates poverty and has commanded us to end poverty by forgiving debts, by outlawing slavery, and by restructuring society around the needs of the poor.”
Theoharis’s work is built on deep biblical scholarship and decades of organizing with the poor to build a movement to end poverty. Rev. Theoharis is currently co-chair, along with Rev. William Barber II, of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. This campaign represents tens of thousands of people across forty-two states in the United States. Together they are building up the power of poor people through sustained and coordinated nonviolent civil disobedience, grassroots organizing, research, education, and artistic, cultural, and religious expression.
The publication of Always With Us? has contributed greatly to this campaign and movement. It is helping to unsettle and reverse deep ideological understandings about poverty, religion, and the possibility for a more just society. The Syndicate symposium allows us to build on and deepen the potential impact this book has on shifting narratives around poverty in the United States and beyond. The scholars and activists who have engaged with Theoharis’s book through the symposium have helped open a lively conversation around the books’ ideas and implications. Their reflections, critiques, and insights contribute to a much needed discussion and debate about how we can begin to break through decades if not centuries of destructive ideology around poverty, the Bible, Christian practice, and the role of religions more broadly in guiding and being guided by the struggle for social change.