Dear Friends: To be poor in spirit is not the same as to be poor materially or socially. Even so, material wealth and social authority tend to obstruct our view of the long arc of history that bends towards a world of justice and kindness. Although anyone is capable of recognizing justice and kindness as fundamental purposes of humanity – even persons with wealth and authority – all too often, wealth and authority masquerade as justice and kindness themselves, a tricky sort of bait-and-switch that distracts us from keeping our eyes on the road.
If we’re moving along at a pace that feels safe and comfortable, it’s easy to believe that we’re going in the direction we were always meant to go, easy to deny the possibility that we might be lost. The poor-in-spirit ask for directions constantly. The magnanimous-in-spirit leap to the head of the line and show the way.
This is not to say that the poor-in-spirit have no clue about which way to go. The true inheritors of life on earth are the ones who take their directions from the Word of Life. A person whose head is ringing with the echoing demands of their own wealth and authority will find it hard to hear the signal amid all the noise.
And then, when we’re traveling down a different road, one that denies us wealth and authority, one that denies us our fair share of the bounty of this world – when we’re traveling down the road of the disinherited – on this road, too, we will find ourselves plagued by the demands of wealth and authority. Here, however, those demands are unleashed by an external, privileged elite. The great African American theologian Howard Thurman named the resulting torments as “fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited” (Jesus and the Disinherited, 1949). On this road, the Word gives assurance to the poor-in-spirit that nothing but God needs be feared. “The awareness that a man is a child of the God of religion, [the God] who is at one and the same time the God of life, creates a profound faith in life that nothing can destroy.” Upheld by such faith and listening deeply, we are instructed: “Love your enemy. Take the initiative in seeking ways by which you can have the experience of a common sharing of mutual worth and value. It may be hazardous, but you must do it.” (Thurman, 1949)
The roads of the privileged and the disinherited are often intertwined, and the same Word of Life gives direction to the poor-in-spirit on all roads. To those who are privileged, who seek to peer through the blinding fog of wealth and authority, traveling in the company of the disinherited is a blessing, offering gifts of unfamiliar vision. To those who are disinherited, who dream of a world where they might live in safety and dignity, traveling with the privileged is a calculated risk, increasing the odds for a shift in the balance of wealth and authority on earth, so that every person might live beneath their own vine and fig tree, in peace and unafraid.
Friends know well the directions that George Fox gave us: “Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them . . .” (1656) On this tiny planet, all countries live right across the street. All nations participate in our city councils and county commissions. All sorts of people march with their causes into the streets, into the media, into the courts. In all these places – and in offices, hospitals, classrooms, grocery stores, lunch counters, and the rest – Fox would have us walk cheerfully, and be a blessing to others, and let them be a blessing to us. To be poor in spirit is to ask for directions. To ask for directions is to be willing to travel someplace new. Let us go there cheerfully, Friends.