Kingdom Come (Undone): When the Most Christian States Are Also The Poorest (Matthew 13:31-33,44-52)
By Joe Wiinikka-Lydon
Alabama, where I live, was just placed dead last among states for livability, according to a recent CNBC article.
"Worst" and "best" lists, almost a cottage industry on social media these days, are the cheap candy of critical inquiry. They give us a quick sugar high laced with self-satisfaction, before we move on to the next post, the next meme.
What worries me about this list, however, is that it points to uncomfortable truths. About one in four people in Alabama live in poverty, compared to the national average of 13.5%. In cities such as Birmingham, where I live, the poverty rate reaches 37.4%, the brunt of which is born by communities and persons of color. This makes Alabama the fourth poorest state in the country with the fourth highest child poverty rate. It is a state where every county except one has a child food insecurity rate above the national average of 20%. And if you are Latino or African American, a third of your community will be poor, compared to a little over 13% for white communities, state wide.
At the same time, Alabama is tied with Mississippi as the "most religious" state in the country, according to the Pew Research Center. Having lived in both the Northeast and the Southeast, the prevalence of churches and billboards in Alabama, admonishing passersby to repent or accept Jesus, is sometimes overwhelming. My first month in Birmingham, I was asked by a blood technician taking my blood if I had found my home church yet, even though I had not mentioned religion at all. What is more overwhelming, however, is the realization that the most religious states - a comparison that is based on questions such as church attendance, identity, and prayer frequency - more often than not coincide with the poorest states, the states with lower life expectancy, and the states where it is more dangerous to be transgender, gay, black, brown, among others.
How can this be? If you ask Christians in a state like Alabama, which I have, you will hear that Christianity is the solution to most of life's problems. It is a religion of peace, a religion of love. How can there be such suffering if, as Romans 8:27 argues, "the Spirit intercedes for God's people in accordance with the will of God?"
This is a question that, for a Christian, should muddy the spiritual waters. Is it despite the prominence of Christianity or partly because of it that states like Alabama are struggling? There is no quick answer to this, nor should there be. It should weigh on a Christian soul and pull one's attention back to question the prominent theologies or our time. If Christianity can thrive yet the people starve, how Christ-like are our Christian communities?
A friend who grew up in Alabama told me one day that she would never move back to the state. When I asked her why, she responded, "It's a state that does not invest in its people." That is a damning response. Truly, what else is there for a Christian to invest in than their community, than in other people? With New Testament emphases on "the least of us" and Paul's argument that love, that care for others, is the greatest of Christian virtues, a people that do not invest of their own time, energy, and wealth in their neighbors are living a life that is Christian in name only. They are like the wolf in sheep's clothing, only this time, the wolf has forgotten it is a wolf and believes itself to be the sheep.
If the Christian project is the Kingdom of Heaven, what then is the status of that project in the United States? The Kingdom of Heaven or of God is a constant theme throughout the New Testament, and in the Gospel of Matthew alone "Kingdom of Heaven" is used over 30 times. Jesus describes the Kingdom of Heaven in six different metaphors for this week's lectionary reading in Matthew. It is a term that has been understood in various ways, as signaling the imminent parousia and return of Jesus, to the true life that is after life, to the promise of the social gospel, where the Kingdom can be created here on earth in this lifetime.
What makes it so open to interpretation is the use of parable, of story, in presenting the topic. In one of the more famous set of parables, Jesus is said to have referred to the Kingdom of Heaven as a "mustard seed" that grows enormous to support birds and other life. It is also leaven or yeast used to increase the size of bread. What on earth does it mean to call the Kingdom of Heaven a "mustard seed," which for the farmer back in the day was a weed? Why is the Kingdom the leaven and not the bread? Why is it the seed and not the tree?
The answer is that, despite those who argue that the Bible is a literal document, the use of parables undermines a literal interpretation and, instead, insists that the reader think about what was written. It invites dispute, contemplation, disagreement. If Jesus spoke these words, then he had a twisted sense of humor. He must have, looking at the faces of those who listened, now confused, now unsure. Yet, if community is built on dialogue and argument, what better way to nurture community over time, to plant community's seed if you will, than to give it images that will only compel the community to revisit its beliefs every generation, even every day.
What seeds are we in Alabama planting? What seeds are we planting in the United States, in the world? "Leaven" is often taken to be positive in Matthew, but in other parts of the Bible, it has a negative shade. The leaven must saturate the dough, becoming the animating ingredient that shapes the bread that we will one day eat. The parable is a good one, because it is open as to its meaning. Is the leaven supporting a rich, healthy meal, or is it undermining our future?
The mustard seed creates an ecosystem, where other life, such as birds, find a place to live and flourish. What was a weed becomes the biggest plant in the garden and the best able to nurture life. Out of wrong decisions and a twisted history, there can be hope and growth. This is a key gospel message: love, hope, and life. But this side of Eden, the ground must be tilled. We must discern the best seeds to plant. And if we do not ready the ground, then who will?
Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon is a teacher and writer focusing on religious and philosophical ethics. His work looks at virtue ethics, moral injury and violence, and how selves are formed through violence. Formerly an assistant professor at Birmingham-Southern College, Joe has taught at Sewanee: The University of the South and Denison University. He is currently a researcher at the new Center for Ethics as Study of Human Value at the University of Pardubice, a European Union funded project that looks at ethics as a way to better understand human identity and how philosophy and ethics may help address major social and political challenges. Outside of the academy, he has worked with SURJ-Birmingham, AL, and is currently lending a hand to start the "Across the Threshold" Project, a vehicle to help white individuals come to terms with racism and white supremacy through the use of shared story and narrative.
1. Why is the Kingdom described not as a city, an empire, or even a kingdom in Matthew 13:31-33 but a seed, or yeast? What does this suggest?
2. How can you take that image of a seed and use it practically to engage issues of poverty, inequality, and violence in your community?
3. What seeds do you plant daily? At harvest, do they help bring the world closer to peace or are they weeds that imperil the garden? How can you turn those weeds into life-giving trees?
For Further Reading:
1. Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race
2. Martin Luther King, "Address on Racial Injustice, Poverty, and War"
3. Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed
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