A Feature Review of
Christ Among the Classes: The Rich, the Poor, and the Mission of the Church
Paul D. Gregory
Christ Among the Classes is a treatise on class in relation to the life of Jesus and the modern church. The book is divided into three distinct parts. First, Tizon provides the reader with a significant summary of the concept of class. The author then describes the ways in which class is depicted in the life and teachings of Jesus. Last, Tizon describes six steps that individuals and churches can take to reject the negative effects of classism. DISCLAIMER: This book will not be an easy pill to swallow for many, as it challenges many notions that non-poor Christians and their churches hold about who Jesus spent the majority of his time with, what He had to say about the poor and rich, and how the aforementioned steps can reduce the effects of classism.
Tizon defines class as a “collective prejudice formed into a system of inequality based on socioeconomic stratification” (xxii). The author reminds the reader that a person’s class is often used to legitimize maltreatment toward them. For example, some within society, including many Christian churches, associate laziness with being poor, explaining that all one has to do to be successful (or obtain the “American Dream”) is to work hard. The assumption here is that poor people aren’t working hard enough. The author states that these embedded notions of class result in Christians (and their churches) making statements like “God helps those who help themselves” or worse yet, misusing Bible verses such as Galatians 6:7 that states “‘you reap whatever you sow’” (xxv).
Tizon highlights how the Bible shows that the overwhelming majority of Jesus’s life and ministry among the classes was focused around humble beginnings and the poor and outcast. From his parents’ humble status, to his simple birth and the lowly shepherds who were invited to attend, the Bible characterizes Jesus’s birth as a simple peasant beginning.
Chapter two demonstrates how Jesus associated with mostly poor, powerless, and socially outcast individuals like John the Baptist, the twelve disciples (Tizon refers to them as “a band of ‘misfits’”), female disciples, and riff-raff such as tax collectors, prostitutes, the demon-possessed, disabled, and quarantined. Tizon is quick to point out that not all of these individuals were poor peasantry, but the individuals who possessed means “…under Jesus’s leadership…redirected their wealth away from selfish gain and towards the aims of the gospel to serve the lost and the least” (19). And last, Tizon reminds the reader that Jesus’s ministry of healing focused almost entirely on “The sick, the blind, the crippled, the lepers, the demon-possessed…the bottom of the social ladder” (20). Taken as a whole, Tizon agrees with Gustavo Gutiérrez that “The entire Bible, beginning with the story of Cain and Abel, mirrors God’s predilection for the weak and abused of human history” (21).
In chapter three, Tizon addresses how Jesus’s interactions with the rich and his teachings about wealth demonstrate his critical position on class divides. Tizon reviews two stories (temptations from Satan and Jesus cleansing the temple) from the Bible to demonstrate Jesus’s stance against absolute power, corruption, and greed. He then reviews Jesus’s teachings (sheep and goats, the rich man, and Lazarus) that are critical not only of the wealthy class, but also of one’s failure to act against continued class oppression. Tizon ends the chapter contemplating whether Jesus condemns wealth and especially all of the wealthy class. To answer this question, he reviews the story of the rich young ruler and Zacchaeus, proposing that Jesus’s love for us surpasses class distinctions. Tizon does suggest, however, that for those who possess wealth, walking the way of Jeus will require “…a significant, painful relinquishing of wealth and therefore power and position; it will ultimately take walking away from membership in the exclusive club of the elite and walking toward the radical way of Christ” (45).
In Part Two (Church Among the Classes) of the book, Tizon suggests methods in which churches can assess the existence of classism within its structures and six movements that can be used to achieve what he terms a “justice-oriented life” (49). These six movements are: (1) awakening to compassion; (2) self-gain to generosity; (3) accumulation to simplicity; (4) proprietary rights to hospitality; (5) savior complex to friendship; and (6) safety to solidarity. What follows is a summary of these six movements.
Movement one (awakening to compassion) is a call to wake up from our obsession with success by any means. Tizon states that for most of us the awakening process “…involves not just waking up to human need but also waking up from our blissful indifference” (52). To begin to address any issue as a problem, we must first come to realize that the issue is a problem.
Movement two (self-gain to generosity) provides a way for each of us (as well as our churches) to truly become generous. And the roadmap to generosity lies in simultaneously acknowledging the plight of the poor around the world and accepting that we are wealthy (in comparison to most others around the world).
Movement three (accumulation to simplicity) flows naturally from generosity, as Tizon states that “… it strikes me as inadequate to be generous in our giving but continue to live unchanged in relative or even opulent luxury” (72). The extent of our generosity then seems proportional to the level of simplicity in our lives. True generosity should increase the degree of simplifying our own lives through questions such as, “How much is enough? Does our lifestyle reflect a genuine concern for the poor of the world? How can we lessen the gap between our lifestyle and the lifestyle of those whom God has called us to love and serve? How do we live agilely so that when the Spirit bids us, “Go,” we can?” (72)
Movement four (proprietary rights to hospitality) calls for Christians to practice radical hospitality over proprietary rights with their possessions. Tizon makes clear that there is nothing wrong with owning things as long as that ownership doesn’t take the form of “…absolute ownership, from which proprietary rights emerge…” (96). A mindset of absolute ownership fails to recognize the fact that we are merely stewards of all God has created and entrusted to us. Tizon proposes instead of absolute ownership, we should practice biblical ownership, which refers to a dual relationship: “…God entrusting us with the world’s full range of resources, and us trusting God to guide our use of those resources for the sake of the gospel” (96). Practicing radical hospitality then translates to being stewards of our possessions as a benefit to God and others. Radical hospitality means our possessions (cars, homes, etc.) should benefit us as well as our community, especially those less fortunate than us.
Movement five (savior complex to friendship) calls for exchanging the savior complex for genuine relationship. Tizon suggests that doing away with the savior complex opens the possibility for a rich interaction that offers benefits for both the rich and the poor. The author reminds the reader that the rich have much to learn from these interactions, including the realization that our similarities outweigh class differences.
Movement six (safety to solidarity) presents the most significant challenge, as the author asks the reader to extend their relationship with the poor from friendship to solidarity. Tizon proposes that while many Christians’ relationships with the poor can be described as friendships, they resemble what he terms as a “gospel of comfort” (124) characterized by a strategy “…that guarantees security, comfort, and privilege…” (122). A relationship built in solidarity is practiced in one’s everyday life (it is real). It is a relationship with demonstrated actions (not merely “lip service”) between two people. A relationship built in solidarity is also holistic in that it delves into “…every aspect of life among the poor—spiritual, psycho emotional, physical, economic, social, and environmental” (126). Coming to terms with our own privilege allows us to offer real assistance to the multi-dimensional aspects of poverty. Such a commitment is genuine, risky, and certainly not for the faint of heart.
In the end, Tizon proposes that classism, driven by greed for the accumulation and maintenance of wealth, is the greatest evil. He calls for the church to “…identify, confront, repudiate and dismantle classism to be faithful to its mission in the world” (161). As stated at the beginning of this review, this book will be a hard pill to swallow for most. Some may disagree with the level of evil the author attributes to classism. And although some readers may agree with Tizon’s critique of classism, they will fail to complete these movements toward a more just society out of fear of losing their status in society (Tizon admits as much). That withstanding, this book is an important read for non-poor Christians, as it prods and pokes at some strongly-held beliefs about power, wealth, and privilege. Completion of any one of these movements by non-poor Christians will be an improvement.
Paul D. Gregory is associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin - Whitewater. His interests include correctional treatment, especially meditation. He is a certified meditation instructor and has taught meditation classes to criminal justice populations and at a local yoga studio in Wisconsin. Paul also enjoys hiking and camping.
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