The Body Politic of the Body of Christ

By Kelly Johnson

In this nation where most citizens identify themselves as Christian, most citizens agree that global poverty is not a political priority. In a recent Economist/ YouGov poll, 71 percent said they would favor cutting foreign aid in order to balance the budget.1

Another study finds American Christians today are surprisingly stingy givers.

“Contemporary American Christians are among the wealthiest of their faith in the world today and probably the most affluent single group of Christians in two thousand years of church history. … And yet, despite all of this, American Christians give away relatively little money to religious and other purposes,” according to Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith in their study of Christian giving.2

“A sizeable number of Christians [at least 20 percent] give no money, literally nothing.”

Once upon a time, emperor Julian “the Apostate” complained that pagans were shamed by Christian generosity to all those in need, Christian and pagan alike.3 Christian generosity, at present, is not exactly making a strong witness to the gospel.

The problem is not that Christian leaders do not talk about poverty. Some very sound church teaching exists, anchoring human dignity in Christology and creation and presenting the economy as a moral rather than merely scientific reality.4 But Christians encounter such teaching, if they encounter it at all, as just talk; it rarely becomes part of their devotion or their habits. I make moral arguments professionally, but I do not kid myself that people’s moral life is determined by such arguments alone. Far more important are those aspects of our lives we take for granted. The world we see everyday sets the terms for our moral action.

In political life, poverty is hardly a topic at all. Our ordinary economic lives have trained us to consider poverty and wealth as matters of purely private responsibility.

In that ordinary way, people learn to talk about social issues in terms set by mainstream politics, through the news reports we listen to, the elections we may or may not vote in, the scandals we gossip about. In the political “ordinary” as defined by two U.S. parties, poverty is hardly a topic at all. Not that no politicians care about poverty. Poverty just doesn’t get the votes. Our ordinary economic lives have trained us to consider poverty and wealth as matters of purely private responsibility. We don’t discuss how much we earn. No one, we feel, whether a beggar at a traffic light or a third world nation, has any right to ask for what we legally hold. Even politically aware Christians, their moral skills shaped by dueling red and blue, talk little about how to address the misery of more than a billion people worldwide. The U.S. political scene is not the place where the church or anyone else can truly turn in order to face the reality of poverty.

A Church Steps Up

What we need, then, are ways of living ordinary Christian lives so that we can see the world more truthfully and encounter the truth of Christianity. And it is possible. A Midwestern church I’ll call Greendale is located in a neighborhood that by the 1970s had become increasingly urban and impoverished. Attempting to cope with these changes, the congregation divided into camps committed to church growth, social action, and charismatic revival. Then, some fifteen years ago, members made an unusual decision. They began to meet together weekly to talk, in an extended way, about being church. They didn’t agree. Some people left. And after all these years, they still don’t always agree. But they keep meeting together to talk. Along the way they came to one shared view: they should love one another and bear with one another for the sake of the Body of Christ.

That commitment has reshaped their ordinary Christianity. Many of them live near the church, and they committed not to improve their properties in a way that would gentrify the area, but to be neighbors to each other. Some of them started up small businesses that would meet local needs. They built a community garden. They improved housing by pooling their personal savings to pay the bills. They became advocates for urban neighborhoods, not because a political ideology dictates it, but because they took the risk of talking about the gospel together.

Greendale’s story is peculiar to its own personalities and circumstances. But they are grappling with a problem crucial to all Christians in the U.S. – not just whether Christians can fix global poverty, but whether the gospel matters at all for our shared lives, our ordinary politics. Their example shows how being the Body of Christ together in ordinary time revives theology and challenges conventional political reality.

Theology in 3-D

The example of Greendale makes certain elements of Christian theology leap into 3-D. Suddenly, Paul’s talk in First Corinthians 11 about “discerning the body” becomes newly disturbing. Paul says that to celebrate Eucharist while some members continue to go hungry is to “despise the church of God.” He continues: “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.” In communities safely isolated from the human bodies of those of other classes and other races (Sunday morning is still the most segregated time of the week in the U.S.), we fail even to notice that we are living with outlandish inequality within the Body of Christ. A worshipping community that deals with its brokenness openly is a place where we can begin to discern the Body of Christ, broken by immigration status, by race, by residence in deeply indebted countries, and so on.6

Nevertheless, angst over such scandals is not what I notice at Greendale. What I notice is joy. I do not mean everyone there is in a good mood all the time. These are hard-working people who do get frustrated. Joy is the fruit of charity. Joy comes from being with Christ where Christ is, and that’s not in safety and comfort. If we lack joy, and my experience is that many Christian congregations in the U.S. do, then we lack charity, which means we lack the presence of the Spirit making us into Christ’s own members. At stake here, for Christians, is something more fundamental than even the injustice of global poverty. Hell is only an extension of that loss of charity.

Church members made an unusual decision. They began to meet together weekly to talk about being church. They didn’t agree. Some people left. But along the way they came to one shared view: they should love one another for the sake of the Body of Christ.

Charity is a troubled term and a troubled practice among Christians today. Charity gets marginalized as the emotional, personal, feminine, churchy part of social action. In fact, though, Christian tradition holds that charity is “the form of the virtues,” that which gives all other virtues coherence and coordination, including justice and prudence. Charity is the core of the everyday hard work of talking with other church members about things that matter. Charity is coping patiently and persistently with people stealing tomatoes from the community garden. Charity is resisting the urge to give up the whole project. It is sharing hard decisions about budgets and even sharing personal debts. That’s charity at work making a new “ordinary” in the Body of Christ. Mutual love has to be the hallmark of the church, not because Christians all like each other, but because God has called them to be a sign of resurrection. No moral arguments alone, certainly no political commentator, could have that kind of effect on people’s ability to engage the realities of poverty.

Holy Poverty

Churchgoers at Greendale talk much less about poverty than about abundance – the abundance of God’s care for them, which should make them joyous and courageous in the face of all that tells them to be afraid. As I see it, their story opens the door onto another misunderstood theological tradition – holy poverty. As we find it in St. Francis of Assisi or in Mother Teresa, holy or voluntary poverty is not a romanticization of misery, not a fantasized way of escaping the rat race. Buying the pearl of great price – relinquishing every lesser good for the sake of companionship with Christ – is part of the daily practice of charity, as prosaic as coping with a neighbor’s kids while she attends a neighborhood meeting, as ordinary as deciding to keep the old car another year in order to give more to repairing a neighbor’s roof.

Those who assume that holiness must be an afterthought in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, to be pursued after we have satisfied desires for food and sex and creative work and good relationships, could learn from holy poverty. We who live in the historically and demographically unlikely situation of enjoying a surfeit of material goods and relative security about our futures become cowards when faced with the price of that pearl. We evade and rationalize. We explain why renunciation of excess would be a bad idea for everyone. We delight in claiming we can “do good and do well,” that economic growth is not a zero-sum game, that improvements in healthcare worldwide are good for everyone – all sidestepping the uncomfortable truth that, in a world of finite resources, improving life for others will mean we have to live with less. As authors Smith and Emerson found when they interviewed people about their habits of giving, many Christians felt uneasy, even guilty about not being more generous. But people were resigned to feeling that way. They could not imagine changing their lives. Skills of generosity have to be learned through everyday practice, where political life is more than majority rule and economic life can be more than strangers cutting deals. The gospel is good news, but not if it’s not lived.

We sidestep the uncomfortable truth that, in a world of finite resources, improving life for others will mean we have to live with less.

Greendale’s is a little story in a world of overwhelming need. But they show what is so missing among Christians – a Christian life where being a member of Christ’s Body defines the ordinary, so that the needs of neighbors are not strange and threatening but a regular part of the day. When the church exists to be the Body of Christ, it makes possible a confrontation with poverty that’s substantial, practical. In that extraordinary ordinary, traditional talk of joy, charity, and poverty makes sense, and we may find the courage and the skills to confront that ancient tenet of Christianity, invoked again by Vatican II: “If you have not fed the starving person, you have killed him.”8

Kelly Johnson, author of The Fear of Beggars: Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics (Eerdmans, 2007), is associ- ate professor of religion at the University of Dayton. Having earned degrees from the University of Notre Dame and Duke University, she also spent several years working at Catholic Worker hospitality houses in Waterbury, CT, and St. Paul, MN, and working with Peace People in Belfast, Northern Ireland.


1 polling. In the survey, foreign aid was easily the most popular item to cut, even though it is less than 1 percent of total the total budget.

Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money (Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 3. According to their figures, the median Christian giver contributed .62 percent of median annual income of Christians to any cause.

3 Julian the Apostate (331-363 CE), Letter to Arsacius.

4 Catholic encyclicals on social teaching provide a substantial theological treatment of modern political and economic life. The most recent contribution is Benedict XVI’s Caritas in veritate (2009).

5 In The Fear of Beggars: Poverty and Stewardship in Christian Ethics (Eerdmans, 2007), I discuss the ways in which anxieties about beggars helped form Christian approaches to property in both classical economic thought and modern appeals to stewardship.

6 This line of thought is indebted to William Cavanaugh, “World in a Wafer: A Geography of the Eucharist as Resistance to Globalization,” Modern Theology (April 1999), p. 193.

7 Smith and Emerson, pp. 108-111, 121.

Gaudium et spes (1965), paragraph 69.