Unless you’re Amish you’ve become quite acquainted with Dr. Cosby’s rant on race that he gave several years ago. His remarks broke the agreement we African-American’s made with each other long ago to never air our dirty laundry in public. His breach of confidence ignited a fierce debate within the black community, and set off a chain of emails that could’ve easily been entitled, “I Told You So,” amongst our white brothers and sisters. But I’m not here to talk about race…at least not this time. Instead I want to focus in on his comments regarding poverty. In case you forgot, here’s an excerpt from a speech he gave on May 17th, 2004 in Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall:
“They’re homeless people. All they know how to do is beg. And you give it to them, trying to win their friendship. And what are they good for? When you walk around the neighborhood and you see this stuff, that stuff’s not funny. These people are not funny anymore. And that’s not my brother. And that’s not my sister. They’re faking and they’re dragging me way down. Because the state, the city and all these people have to pick up the tab on them, because they don’t want to accept that they have to study to get an education.”
Specifically, Bill Cosby’s remarks target the urban poor, where he recommends merely exerting more effort through the educational process, and if they simply try hard enough they will make it, just like he did. In many regards, what Dr. Cosby is saying is nothing new. He’s advocating personal responsibility, and here’s where we run into a bit of a problem, because any sociologist will tell you that the issues of poverty are not that neat. In fact, to use sociological lingo, there are at least three avenues that lead to poverty: 1) individualistic; 2) structural and 3) fatalistic. In the first scenario, a person has found themselves in poverty by their own doing- they are primarily to blame due to a bad decision, or a series of bad decisions on their part. This is different from the third option, because here the cause of poverty is not something that the person has done, but rather something that has happened to them, you know just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In a down economy we understand this, where being laid off from a job leads to a chain of events that dead ends someone into poverty. Classic fatalism. The second is really difficult for many middle to upper-middle class to accept, and that is there are certain structure in our society that promote poverty.
If you’ve read enough of my blogs, you know that I never am satisfied with merely a sociological or cultural perspective of things, we must return to the Scriptures and use them as the lens through which we interpret such events and statements as Bill Cosby’s. What would Jesus say here? In Matthew 26:11, Jesus says that we will always have the poor with us. One of the implications of this statement is that poverty is not simple, if it was it could be eradicated, well, simply. Poverty, on a global scale is complex. God knows this, that’s why if you study those passages in the Old Testament where He is giving instructions to Moses on setting up Israel’s government you will come to an interesting conclusion when it comes to how God sees, and therefore chooses to engage poverty. Consider such passages as Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15 where God mandates the care of the poor. This was both a theocratic and governmental decree (since their form of government was not a democracy nor a monarchy at the time, but a theocracy where God rules). In other words, and here’s the key, God chose to combat poverty systemically by establishing a righteous structure. The Lord knew that poverty is not just personal, but structural as well.
Are there plenty of cases in the Scriptures where we see poverty come upon people according to the three fold sociological grid? Absolutely. The story of the unmerciful servant, and how his poor decision placed him back into poverty is an example of the individualist cause of poverty. In the cultures of the Bible when one nation would defeat another, the losing country would have its property and possessions plundered, and in many cases become slaves- the structural. And when we look at the life of Jesus, as he engages paralytics and lepers (amongst a host of others) we encounter the fatalistic- people who fell into poverty through no fault of their own.
Jesus was not as “sophisticated” in his approach to poverty as many of the Christians I encounter. Looking out on the hungry mass of humanity there had to have been many there who were starving because of bad choices on their part, but nonetheless he feeds them, without asking any questions. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that Jesus was anti responsibility- the parable of the wise or shrewd manager debunks that notion. What I am saying is that Jesus was no Monday morning quarterback who was content in joining the “experts,” in diagnosing the problem. He simply rolled up His sleeves and engaged the poor, all the while knowing that He would never eliminate poverty during His tenure on earth.
In Acts chapters two and four we see the church, like Jesus, encountering the poor. And like Jesus we don’t see them holding conferences about the problem, instead we see them getting their hands dirty by offering real solutions. Specifically, they pulled their resources together into a “common purse,” and took care of the needs of those who were among them. Any historian whose specialized in the first couple of centuries of the early church will tell you that even among pagan governments like Rome, these “Galileans,” had an embarrassing reputation of taking better care of society’s poor than the government.
I guess if there’s a point I’m trying to make here it’s that poverty is not simple, but complex, and like Jesus said, we’ll always have the poor with us. So enough with all the conferences and talk and questions about wanting to make the “best investment” of one’s money. Do something. The fear of being taken advantage of actually runs counter to the gospel. Was not Jesus taken advantage of? Statistically speaking it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that there were probably several in the crowd that day who were starving that turned around some time later and petitioned for his crucifixion. But he still feeds them..Isn’t that something.
Back to old Heathcliff Huxtable, or Dr. Cosby as I should call him. He actually has an earned doctorate, where his dissertation centered around Fat Albert, and this is quite interesting. Bill Cosby, Ed.D never finished college, but was given a degree because of “life experience.” I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this degree was conferred on him after he was a celebrated actor in “I Spy”. With this degree in hand he was able to go on and work on a doctorate, and here again we see privilege coming into view. Those who sat on his dissertation panel complained that he rarely went to class, and again chose for a dissertation a television show that he was a part of. In other words, Dr. Cosby is the product of privilege. Take away the fame and who knows where he ends up. Maybe the same street corners that the ghetto poor he so condemned occupy.
Bill Cosby happens to be on the other side of life’s glass window. Anyone in Hollywood will tell you that becoming a well known actor is not so much a testament to talent as it is to just being at the right place at the right time. While this cuts against my calvinistic leanings, I do find it ironic that one of the very tributaries that leads some to poverty, has also lead Dr. Cosby to wealth and prosperity- fatalism.