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"I Cannot Eat Your Prayers": How Student Debt Changed One Woman's Mind on "Christian Charity"

From an evangelical home to over $100,000 in student loans and healthcare debt, one writer faces the ways in which even progressive Christianity comes up short.

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The premise of this book? It sets up a debate between Tea Party dominionist D.C. Innes, and  Sojourners staffer Lisa Sharon Harper. There’s a presumption that both offer legitimate points of view, and that we can—and should—come together in unity because “we all love Jesus.”

Tony Campolo has also rejected ideological disagreement and vigorous debate in favor of “unity” talk. In a June interview, he rejected talk of restructuring institutions to change unjust balances of power. Instead,  he suggested that justice could be achieved through “love.”

Notwithstanding the fact that “love” is perhaps the vaguest, most unhelpful political prescription  of all time, this kind of thinking removes any analysis of power from the conversation. It falsely presumes that we all enter the conversation on equal footing. Indeed, everyone is so busy preaching “unity” and “loving one another” that there is never any interrogation of privilege or power. It’s a bit different out in mainstream society, but the message is clear: Love your oppressors. “Love” rhetoric is less pronounced in secular society, but we are accustomed to being silenced because we have a “mean tone.” We’re asked to speak more respectfully so that we can earn a hearing. We’re taught to submit to our oppressors. We’re being  angry and irrational, and it’s our job to make everyone comfortable.

The way they spoke of poverty at Wild Goose, all of the big name speakers—Wallis, Campolo, Shane Claiborne, Richard Rohr, Brian McLaren—you know, the guys who neglect “the gays” and “the women” because they “care” so deeply for the poor, have, among other things, never heard of intersectionality. They simply do not grasp the fact that it’s not possible to differentiate poverty from femaleness or blackness or queerness or illness. All of these things can make us more vulnerable to poverty. (And I would note that Wallis’s  support for the Stupak Amendment is no way to “care” for poor women.) Thus, as theologian Adam Kotsko recently noted, this “ third way is effectively right wing.”

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Here’s what I wish I’d had the presence of mind to say to the people at Wild Goose this summer: You speak of poverty as if it is something “outside,” something “other.” It is never “us.” “We” are upwardly mobile, well-educated people who grew up in the suburbs.

You insist on praying for people like me, but you haven’t the slightest idea that I walk among you. I have conversations with you. I hold my own in arguments. I call you out on your bullshit. I am unlucky, but I don’t think “downtrodden” describes me very well. I’m not downtrodden. I’m pissed off. So, no, I do not want your prayers. I do not want an invitation to your church, and I’m not interested in discussing “the poor” as if they are some kind of abstract concept. The things you had to say—the things you’ve built your careers on—are irrelevant in the face of actual poverty. It was shameless, the way you paraded a few token “poor people” around for kicks.

If it makes you feel better, go ahead and dismiss me as “bitter.” That’s the evangelical Christian’s favorite insult. Do it.

I am not bitter. I am outraged. I want “fellowship” with people who are outraged  with me and who  practice solidarity by showing up when it matters and advocating for real economic justice. I want you to use your clout and influence to help shut down predatory lenders like Sallie Mae and Citibank. When I say, “fuck your prayers,” I say it with teeth.