We close the Minnesota chapter of the “Advocating on the Road” blog series with this reflection by Kate Gaskill, ELCA Washington Office. 

“We are all beggars.  This is true.”    – Martin Luther

In 1546, a dying Martin Luther scribbled this sentence on a piece of paper.  It turned out to be one of the final missives Luther would physically write himself.  The man who transformed Christianity and altered the course of world history with his pen ended his career and life with these words.

“We are all beggars.”

In the final days of Luther’s eventful (and often controversial) life, he united all people by saying that before God we are all sinful, in need of God’s grace. Theologians debate the intent and meaning behind this heavily studied statement, but  it is interesting to note that  Luther made this point of common need by identifying all of us as beggars.  He aligned us all as  poor, as outcasts.

Alone we are all beggars in the eyes of God, yet the risen Christ justifies us, lifts us from “beggar” to “child”, from “outcast” to “beloved.”  Through Christ, we are free to live joyfully in God’s grace—and we are free to serve… free to tear down the walls of poverty and inequality that divide our society.  “For he is our peace,” reads Ephesians 2:14, “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

It seems so often through our rhetoric and public policy, we distance ourselves from the beggar and we often reinforce walls.  How reluctant are we to unify with all people, and especially the person who is in need?  We often seek to do the very opposite of what Luther acknowledged  on his deathbed.  We don’t want to be thought of as lowly, poor, or in need of help.

Today people who use government assistance—no matter how temporary—are often vilified.  We’ve all heard the rhetoric, and sometimes it even comes from our elected officials.  Parents who rely on state and federal hunger programs for meals are often deemed “lazy.”  Families who must transition to government assisted housing are part of the “problem.”  Children who rely on programs, like the Minnesota Family Investment Program—or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) “threaten” our nation’s financial solvency.

Therefore, life-saving programs are cut.  Proven effective ways of aiding direct need and creating self-sufficiency are abandoned.  We don’t seem to see the people behind policies… or if we do, we immediately separate ourselves from them.  “They are different than me”, we might say, “They are a beggar.”  We build a wall between ourselves and the others.

But Luther reminds us that in the eyes of God, “We are all beggars.”  How can we separate ourselves from this commonality?  Regardless of socioeconomic status, race, or gender, we are alike in our need for forgiveness and grace—given to us through Christ.  And because of our freedom in Christ, how can we reject Christ’s example of breaking down the divisions between us and our neighbors?

Governments, at their best, can help tear down walls between people. They can be a gift that enables nations to live peacefully with one another and help cycle people out of poverty.  Government programs can aid immediate need all over the world, and government policies can help shatter cycles of homelessness, conflict, and hunger.  But this good government requires participation and direct advocacy from constituents.  It requires action from ELCA members—and our partners—to speak out for just government that serves the common good.

As Christians in the United States, we have unique opportunities to speak out for policies—like the Minnesota Family Investment Program, or SNAP and WIC—that help restore lives.  We also have the duty to reject harmful rhetoric that vilifies, and may even dehumanize, those living in poverty.  We are called to align ourselves with the beggar.

“We are all beggars.  This is true.”