“Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” – James 2:5
I used to interpret those words as follows: God has given faith to the poor as a gift. Because their life is hard and they need some extra help to endure their struggles, God has provided an extra dose of faith to those who need it most. God promised that their life would be better in the hereafter. As a seminarian and potential pastor, I could help those poor people by teaching them faith. It sounded kind, but now I wonder if it’s misguided.
“Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” – Matthew 25:40
I went to seminary in a time when “missional church” and “reign of God” were popular phrases in theological discussions about the church. These words of Jesus were a favorite of my classmates and mine. We debated whether or not “members of my family” were limited to those who called themselves Christian, but we never debated the role of “the least.” They were always there to be served, but now I wonder if they are the source of my salvation.
As I learn about the way that Christian colonists encountered a world new to them and identified those they met as non-religious or sub-human, as they stole land and broke down bodies, I wonder how much of my thinking was in them. Was faith a gift that they had to impart to others rather than one they could receive from them? Were “the least” those who were deficient and in need of service rather than those who might impart salvation?
James, not only recognizing the gift that belongs to the poor, questions the favoritism shown to the rich. He has astounded by the deference shown to those “with gold rings and fine clothes” even though it is “the rich who oppress you” and “drag you into court.” Likewise, Jesus knows that it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. And yet, we know who walks through the halls of power and who sit on the seats of privilege.
Latin American theologian Jon Sobrino considered the world of the poor to be “a mediation of the truth and absoluteness of God” and sees a “partiality of divine revelation” among the least of these. Carroll Watkins Ali wrote in Survival & Liberation, “Faith articulated in the womanist tradition speaks in terms of God as identified with the ‘least,’ as a divine cosufferer, and ‘God is able.’" Gustavo Gutierrez asks, “How is it possible to tell the poor, who are forced to live in conditions that embody a denial of love, that God loves them?”
Maybe the church doesn’t need to tell the poor anything. Maybe the church needs to listen. Isn’t the mission of the church, then, to learn from the poor? Isn’t the reign of God revealed by “the least of these who are members of my family” because they know best how to bring the earth into alignment with heaven? Doesn’t all of this mean that the poor are not deficient but rather possess something of God that we do not? As I continue to wonder what it might mean to decolonize Reformed theology and practice, these are the sorts of questions that roll through my heart and mind.
James W. Perkinson wrote in White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity, “Christian superiority reinforced by metaphysical supremacy was re-reinforced by Calvinist indelibility. In this kind of ‘sign economy,’ white supremacy achieved its most virulent ideological articulation, as the inheritor of an absolute essence with absolute destiny…a Calvinist notion of predestination that sought eternal confirmations in surface significations (like success in business or skin-color in race).” Those of us who have inherited this theological tradition have a special responsibility to repair the harm done in its name. To be clear, it’s not about serving the poor or even empowering the poor to take positions of leadership. It’s about recognizing the wealth that God has already given to the poor and the way that Jesus identifies with the least of these and seeking to receive our salvation from them.
As Joseph Drexler-Dreis writes in Decolonial Love, “Decolonizing is thus a fundamentally different project than ‘opening’ particular disciplines or ‘diversifying’ Western thought systems; the goal in projects of decolonization is to transcend Western thought systems. This requires a different eschatological imagination. Decolonization, rather than inclusion, becomes the desired end.” Who better to teach the world a different eschatological imagination than those who are rich in faith?
St. Croix Reformed Church
US Virgin Islands
Peter is currently pursuing a Doctor of Ministry at Claremont School of Theology and exploring what it might mean to decolonize Reformed theology and practice.