Being Poor Isn’t Really So Bad…and other Hallmark Cards
May 26, 2017
“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.” -Luke 6:25
I have a sick and twisted fascinating with sympathy cards. Or, more specifically, with the sick and twisted theology frequently on display within sympathy cards. Cliches like “Tears bring rainbows!”, “Your departed loved one is now a star in the sky!”, or “Everything happens for a reason!” fascinate me for hours in the Hallmark store, and when I manage to find a sympathy card that I don’t want to rip to shreds, I buy many copies at a time.
It is with this hobby in mind that I notice that the Beatitudes are decidedly un-pastoral–at least in a modern, Hallmarkian sense. When speaking to the poor, or the meek, and addressing their plight, Jesus doesn’t attempt to explain it away. He doesn’t try to tell them that being poor really isn’t so bad; he tells them that one day, they won’t be poor anymore. And conversely, when he addresses those currently full, he tells them that one day, they will be hungry. The underlying idea is that being poor is bad. Full stop. Being hungry is also bad. And it is bad because when you are poor, and when you are hungry, you suffer. Jesus doesn’t try to explain it away, or spiritualize it into something else. He doesn’t pull any opium-of-the-masses-magic on this. In the scheme of the Beatitudes, there are negatives in this world, and there are positives. Being hungry is definitely a negative.
It is a weird, privileged, preoccupation we have with spiritualizing these lines into something else. Perhaps because we, as (mostly) middle-class, comfortable, and powerful Christians in this country don’t have a whole lot of direct experience with actually being poor, or hungry for very long. The situations Jesus describes are a good deal removed from most of our daily lives, and so, in order to relate, we flip some things around, because, after all, we want to be included in the good stuff too!
However, the danger we run with that theological rearranging is that we end up excusing some really awful circumstances that are in our control to change. When we spiritualize poverty, that obfuscates actual poverty. When we construct ‘hunger’ as ‘wanting spiritual nourishment’, that prevents us from addressing those who are actually without food. In our bid to be included, we may trample those who need care the most.
(PSA: if you’re looking for some amazing sympathy cards, might I recommend these from Emily McDowell? Some of the language is adult, but the theology is on point.)
Megan Castellan is our writer this week. She serves as Assistant Rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri, and diocesan youth coordinator for the Metro Kansas City area. Her ongoing adventures and strong opinions are chronicled in her blog Red Shoes, Funny Shirt and on Twitter @revlucymeg. In her spare time, she enjoys singing, playing with yarn, throwing jellybeans at politicians she disagrees with on TV, and cheering on KC-based sportsball teams.
Thank you for this – I so agree with you. I did go to the your link for cards – just what I need right now. Thank you
Thanks for your reflections this week Megan! I always enjoy your writing, and you always say something that I need to hear.
Rev. Megan, your essays just keep getting better and better! Today’s message is right on track for our current religious and political situation. Wish I could send it to every person in Congress, the Cabinet and the WH. And to keep reminding myself, I have printed it and put it on my desk, as I need it as much as anyone else. Thank you!
George E. Hilty
Thanks for the profound insight. We–and our surrounding culture–often resort to Pharisee style and try to whitewash the bad, the unpleasant and the ugly [Matt. 23:27]. No whitewashing poverty or hunger or persecution or crime (by defining deviancy down).
This is great (and so are the cards!).
I’ve been acquainted with Emily McDowell cards for some time. They are perfect! Though most of the folks I send cards to prefer sweetness and light.