From “Scapegoats: The Gospel Through the Eyes of Victims” by Jennifer Garcia Bashaw
The early Christians set an inspiring example as they continued Jesus’ ministry to the poor and disenfranchised; throughout the Roman Empire, they were known for their identification with the poor. An anonymous letter that details the qualities of Christians during the second century helps us understand the values of the early church: “They love everyone, yet are persecuted by all. They are poor, and yet make many rich. They lack everything, and yet have plenty of all things. They are dishonoured, and yet gain glory through dishonor.”
Even into the fourth century, Romans recognized that the moral character of the Christians included their care for the poor. When the emperor Julian launched a campaign to institute pagan charities in 362 CE, it was in response to the ongoing efforts of the Christians. Julian complained about this charity in a letter to a pagan priest: “I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galileans [Christians] observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence…The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.” Charity toward the poor would continue to be a value of Christians through every century and almost all faith traditions. Identification with the poor, however, and the effort to challenge the systems and structures that created poverty would not.
Once the church became involved with the pursuit of politics and power – starting in the era of Constantine – the majority of Christians would become distanced from Jesus’ radical call to identify with the poor and seek justice for them at personal cost. This reality would manifest in a split personality for the church. On the one hand, Christian institutions and individuals did much to try to meet the needs of the poor by providing temporary relief and supporting long-term solutions for shelter, health, and food. On the other hand, the church became complicit in the oppression of the poor by participating in, condoning, or ignoring social systems that trapped people in poverty. They also propagated harmful interpretations of Scripture and ideologies that further marginalized the poor.