There is much talk about the middle class and the 1 percent in the Presidential campaign, but the word “poor” is almost completely missing from the conversation. This is happening while the portion of the population that is designated as “poor” or “living in poverty” is and has been growing by leaps and bounds for the last 40 years.
Is there no preference for the poor? If ever a question challenged the supposition that the United States is a Christian nation, it is this one? The preference for the poor demonstrated by Jesus, carpenter of Nazareth and itinerant peasant who had no place to lay his head, stood as one of the church’s earliest and most passionate distinctions – a distinction that defined Christians against pagans and proved dramatically attractive to rich and poor alike. (The distinction defined Jews as well, but Jews did not evangelize.)
The Didache is one of the earliest and rarest treasures of Christian literature. It can be described as a manual written to teach converts how to be Christians, and instruct a community on how to be the “church.” The Greek word “didache” is translated “teaching,” but that does not entirely capture its sense or its significance. One cannot simply be taught, as in a classroom, how to create art or how to fight to the death. That is the sort of “teaching” for which the term “didache” was used in the ancient world. Thus it meant something closer to that which involves a mentor’s training of an adept, the process in which an apprentice becomes a skilled authority. This small book provided instructions for the formation of Christian adepts and Christian community. That is, the Didache was written as a community rule of life, a manual for action, and a church order. The community that composed and employed it was, most probably, a small rural community across the Galilean border in Syria, within the sphere of influence of the church in Antioch. It tells us more than any other source about ordinary day-to-day life in a Christian community just as the church is finding its footing and beginning to spread.
The manuscript has two titles: “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” followed on the next line with “The Teaching of the Lord Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations.” The last phrase is significant in that this was a typical Jewish form of reference to the rest of the world. From the very title we are given more than a hint about who is writing the Didache and to whom, in particular, it is being addressed. This is a Jewish Christian community training new converts from the pagan world of the Roman Empire.
The subject matter that pagan converts to the new faith needed to learn, coming as they were without the foundation of Judaism, can be discovered in an outline of the material.
1. The training program, mostly about learning the sort of servanthood Jesus lived and Christians are to follow. (1:1-6:2 – some 44 percent of the book)
2. Norms for baptizing, eating together, having Eucharist, praying, and fasting. (6:3-10:7 – about 24 percent)
3. Regulations for testing various types, or categories, of visitors. (11:1-15:4 — about 22 percent)
4. Closing appeals about the kingdom of God, now and to come. (16:1-8 – 10 percent)
There are many surprising as well as interesting points to be discovered within the instructions, such as the assumption that Eucharistic worship was a full and healthy meal. The feeding of the people, many of whom were poor and hungry, as part of the fundamental act of worship, is worth noting in particular, because of the teaching that was so central in the Didache, and which was needed for those raised, not on the teachings of Judaism, but on the pagan assumption that the blessing of the gods was precisely in the possession of personal wealth, power, privilege, and status. Since the evidence of being blessed was demonstrated in those possessions, it would be something of an insult to the gods to give up what had been given. No doubt, even sincere converts had to be reminded rather steadily (as in Didache 5:2) that, “not being merciful to the poor, not working for him who is oppressed with toil” or “turning away the needy, oppressing the distressed” or being “advocates of the rich, unjust judges of the poor” was “altogether sinful.”
John Dominic Crossan (The Birth of Christianity, p. 367) points out what he calls the pastoral genius of the Didache: “…that it proposed to put into place two novel programs….(1) by demanding of all future Gentiles a systematic training in the basic standards of conduct which the Lord requires of them [1:1-6:2] and (2) by requiring a weekly confession of faults against those basic standards prior to the community Eucharist [14:1-2].”
Crossan prepared his readers for this insight earlier (ibid, pg. 322), that is, the understanding of what has come to be called the Christian “preference for the poor” as central to the good news in Christ: “There is no biblical delusion that the poor and the destitute are personally better and holier than the rich and the powerful. But since the biblical God is a God of peace and righteousness who prefers slaves to oppressors, to be poor or destitute gets you special protection and concern…God is for the destitute and poor not because they are individually good but because their situation is structurally unjust. God is against the rich and powerful not because they are individually evil but because they are systemically evil. The Jewish God has no preferred option for the poor; rather, the Jewish God has a preferred option for justice.” (pg. 322)
In fact, the Didache is most tolerant in the marching orders it issues. The Didache shows the way settled communities of householders began to contain and make more palliative the more radical imperatives of Jesus (and of those itinerant charismatics who were promulgating the most radical interpretations of his message). Crossan says that, “The most radical sayings involving imitation of God’s nonviolent character on earth are carefully integrated into the Didache’s basic chatechism.” But Crossan concludes that, in effect “…one is told to ‘do what you can’ about them.”
As an example of the increased serenity of interpretation offered in the manual we may take baptismal initiation: “Baptize in name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in running water. But if you do not have running water, baptize in other water. And if you are not able to do so in cold water, [then do so] in warm water. But if you do not have either, pour water on the head three times…”
As with other early documents (e.g Luke 6:30, Matthew 5:42, and the Gospel of Thomas 95.) the Didache quotes one of the most radical sayings of Jesus: “Give without return.” And that imperative is placed in a climactic position, and given a careful commentary (Didache 1:5a.) But, the Didache makes it a bit easier to do this by spelling out the role of almsgiving. In effect, the imperative to give without asking for, expecting, or in fact ever getting anything back is tampered down into sharing everything. (ibid pg. 354)
“Redemptive almsgiving as a doctrine functions for the theological benefit of the rich but also for the material benefit of the poor. It was the rich who struggled to gain entry into the kingdom…Almsgiving provides a ransom for sin.” (Roman Garrison, Redemptive Almsgiving in Early Christianity, pp 10-11, 15.) Judaism had laid the foundation for the ethic of Jesus, and it offered the foundation for the church’s ability to make room for wealth. The idea certainly did not come from Greco-Roman paganism. But Judaism had long held that almsgiving can be a way to atone for one’s sins, to gain remission of sins in God’s court of justice. Sharing becomes a blessing, a means for holy living, a potential means of making up for wrongdoing.
Christianity recognized even from the earliest day that almsgivers may desist all too readily from such generosity, since this is left to a matter of choice instead of to an established and inviolate system. By a vote, a democratic people and a whole society, may refuse even to give at all. What is at stake is a violation of the good news declared and called into being by Jesus. For the will to share, and to share effectively, in preference to the poor is a matter of justice, and the failure to do so cannot stand before the court of God.
In the campaign of 2012 there is a real, and truly present, question of whether the American people will share, whether alms will be offered as a sufficient solution to the poverty of others. And to that question, Christian doctrine has an answer: Justice must be done, the poor must be protected, systemic – that is, political – injustice is an insult to God’s holy name and a violation of God’s holy will.
Joe Morris Doss, founder and president of “At the Threshold”, has served parishes in Louisiana and California as an Episcopal priest, and the Diocese of New Jersey as Bishop. Bishop Doss has been involved in civil rights activism since his days as LSU student body president, when he helped integrate the school. He was the founding president of Death Penalty Focus, the founding chair of the National Center for AIDS in San Francisco, and together with Bishop Leo Frade of Southeast Florida, the organizer of a famous rescue mission that freed thousands of pardoned political prisoners from Cuba. Bishop Doss is the author of several books including “Songs of the Mothers” and “Let the Bastards Go”. With his son Andrew Doss, he co-wrote the drama “Earnest”, about the transformation of a death row inmate.