The Poor Will Be With You Always – Abolition and the Gospel, Part 4
July 8, 2020 – David R. Weiss
NOTE: In this series of posts (see here and here and here*) I’m NOT offering a detailed explanation of how police abolition would work—there are others who can do that far better than me. Rather I’m presenting a series of images to help white Christians in particular hear in these calls to Defund or Abolish the Police some surprising echoes of biblical themes … and to encourage us to consider whether God is doing a new thing once again today.
* “Come This Wilderness,” June 8; “Throwing Jesus Off a Cliff,” June 30; “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” July 4
They are among the most careless words Jesus utters: “The poor will be with you always.” Careless, because the poor have paid so dearly for them over the years.
The scene takes place in a house not far from Jerusalem and not long before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. It’s one of only a handful of incidents recorded in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 14:3-9 || Matthew 26:6-13; with a variation in Luke 7:36-50) and also in the John’s Gospel (John 12:1-8). The details shift a bit from one telling to the next, but in each case a woman anoints Jesus (either his head or his feet) with nard, a very costly ointment. And it doesn’t sit well. Some of those present (Matthew specifies Jesus’ disciples; John singles out Judas) complain that that this jar of ointment—worth as much as $20,000!—could’ve been sold and the money used to aid the poor.
Seemingly unaware that his mic is live, Jesus retorts, “Dude(s), for Christ’ sake, in a few days I’ll be dead! Not to be too blunt, but she’s sort of just anointing my body for burial. And besides, the poor will be with you always.” (Okay, that’s paraphrased, but only a bit—and the comment about the poor is exactly what he said.)
Yesterday (July 7, 2020), the Movement for Black Lives unveiled their “Breathe Act,” a proposed set of sweeping federal legislation that would change how we think about policing and prisons, community safety and wellbeing, accountability for the system, and self-determination for Black communities. Although the bill stops short of seeking to abolish police and prisons, the first of its four sections does aim to “defund the police and divest from incarceration” at levels that many of us—especially those who are white—will find, frankly, impossible.
Our common sense tells us—and Jesus confirms it—that the poor (and the police and prisons) will be with us always. That’s just the way it is. And to think otherwise is dangerously utopian. Or is it? Why are we so quick to read Jesus’ words in a way that reassures us that we don’t really need to alter our lives or this world in response to his message? If we listen to almost everything else he says, it pretty much asks us to turn our lives upside down (which might well flip the world as well).
Is it any surprise, after 400-plus years of having armed patrols organized to terrorize them, that visionary black leaders want to imagine—no, they want to legislate—a world where that state-organized terror no longer exists. And our best response is to say, “But that’s just the way it is”?!
In her poem, “Home,” Somali poet Warsan Shire writes these haunting words about refugees:
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark …
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land …
Is it possible that we who find a world without police so unthinkable … is it possible that we have never known what it like to live—daily!—in the mouth of a shark? Or on land so dangerous—daily!—that even a rickety boat on the water seems safer?
I want to go further than this (and I will in another essay). Because abolition is NOT simply about the erasure of uniformed terror. It is also and ultimately about the wellbeing of communities, as the other three sections of the Breathe Act attend to. (Though again, to be clear, the Breathe Act is NOT an abolition bill. I reference it because it was just introduced, and it does seek sweeping and—to many of us—unimaginable changes.) But perhaps the alarm we feel at the prospect of life on the far side of police is bound up with an uneasy intuition of how much the relative comfort of our lives hinges on systems (including policing) that maintain the grinding discomfort of other lives.
Although it is those who die at the hands of police whose names we come to know, as Derecka Purnell writes in The Atlantic,  “most victims of police violence survive. No hashtags or protests or fires for the wounded, assaulted, and intimidated.” Most of the time, police simply “manage inequality by keeping the dispossessed from the owners, the Black from the white, the homeless from the housed, the beggars from the employed.”
And because most of us are white, employed, housed, owners, it’s easier for us to blame police dysfunction on bad apples rather than an altogether bad system. Purnell observes, “Perhaps there are bad apples. But even the best apples surveil, arrest, and detain millions of people every year whose primary ‘crime’ is that they are poor or homeless, or have a disability. Cops escalate violence disproportionately against people with disabilities and in mental-health crises, even the ones who call 911 for help. The police officers who are doing the ‘right thing’ maintain the systems of inequality and ableism in black communities. The right thing is wrong.”
So maybe Jesus knew his mic was live, and maybe the disciples heard a biting sting in his remark that we tend (prefer?) to miss today. The novelist-essayist Kurt Vonnegut remarked that he was weary of hearing ‘good’ Christians excuse the ongoing suffering of poverty by citing Jesus’ words that “the poor will be with you always.” He countered—with uncanny insight for someone who wasn’t even a self-identified Christian—that Jesus was responding to Judas’ feigned concern for the poor (which is exactly how John presents it). For Vonnegut, then, the passage “says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor.” In words fringed with prophetic sarcasm, Jesus is saying to Judas—and to the rest of us: “So as long as you fail—daily!—to see me in the least of these around you, your world will always include poor.”
The persistence of poverty—and policing and prisons (the overwhelming majority of those who are policed and imprisoned are also poor)—doesn’t reflect God’s priorities; it reflects ours. And when Jesus says, in a word of bitter commentary on the smallness of our imagination, “The poor—and the police, and the prisons—will be with you always,” he isn’t confirming our world, he’s calling us to change it. Abolitionists are on that same page. We should be, too.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.
 Both Mark and John say the ointment could have been sold for 300 denarii, and one denarius was equal to one day’s wage for a general laborer. Today a minimum wage worker, working a 10-hour day, earns $75, and 300 times that equals $22,500. Of course, it’s impossible to accurately compare wage values across differing time periods, cultures, and standards of living. But another passage (Mark 6:30-44) suggests that 200 denarii could buy enough food to feed five thousand persons. The point is, this was one pricey flask of nard.
 I’m not here to discuss the bill; I only mean to challenge our (white people’s) knee-jerk reaction to it as unrealistic. You can find the bill summary here (www.breatheact.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/The-BREATHE-Act-PDF_FINAL3-1.pdf); and news story here (www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/7/7/1958803/-What-is-The-BREATHE-Act-This-bill-decenters-incarceration-and-puts-funds-in-communities) and here (www.apnews.com/68ae4df39c5fdc5038fc3b764b1a8217).
 I’m following the Columbia Journalism Review in choosing to capitalize Black but not white as a racial designation. www.cjr.org/analysis/capital-b-black-styleguide.php
 Kurt Vonnegut, “Palm Sunday Sermon” in Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (1981).