Thinking Biblically about Poverty, Part 3: Why Shouldn't the Poor Be Poor?

Poverty is a bad thing in the eyes of most people—Christians included. But why do we see poverty that way? How we answer that question influences the kinds of things we do to try to reduce or relieve poverty. The why shapes the where, when and how.

So far in this series, we’ve considered briefly what poverty is (relative vs. absolute) and surveyed the causes of poverty in Scripture. We’ve assumed that poverty is a negative that should be reduced as much as possible wherever it exists.

But not everyone sees it that way. From the days of Benedict of Nursia to today,1 Roman Catholicism has included some who take vows of poverty, and many evangelicals teach that average Christians should increase their relative poverty in order to relieve others’ absolute poverty.2 A few imply that the relatively poor (all of us, compared to those who are richer) should become much more poor so that those who are relatively poorer than we are (“the needy around us”) can become less so.3

But Scripture provides reasons to view poverty as a condition we should avoid in our own lives as well as the lives of others.

A wrong reason

Before we consider some of the best reasons to fight poverty, we need to take one faulty reason off the table. Unfortunately, it may well be the most popular reason in the American mind today. The worst reason to fight poverty is, in a word, inequality.

To illustrate how thoroughly our society has embraced the inequality-is-wrong principle, try this exercise: for a week or two, listen carefully to popular rhetoric about poverty, whether in sermons, books, TV ads, songs, political speeches or even casual conversations. As you listen, ask yourself how much of what you’re hearing makes sense if without the underlying assumption that it’s wrong for some to have a lot while others only have a little.

A substantial amount of popular talk about poverty collapses without the conviction that it’s inherently wrong for some to live in a tiny, shabby apartment while others live in lavish Manhattan penthouses, or wrong for some to have two cars, three TVs and lakeside cottage while others have to use public transportation and almost never get a vacation.

As I write this, even I feel a twinge of, “That’s just not right!”

But why isn’t it? Our unexamined beliefs tend to be the ones that get us in the most trouble. Let’s examine this one.

Equality thinking

The perspective that sees inequality of living conditions and possessions as inherently wrong is a form of egalitarianism, or equalitarianism. This philosophy was born in the 17th century and grew into a comprehensive attitude toward politics, social status, economics and more. Its most influential exponent was probably the 18th century thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau—beginning with the treatise, Of Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right, published in 1762.

Nowadays, popular egalitarianism is a view of human rights. It’s the belief (or perhaps sentiment) that everyone has the right to enjoy the same power and property as everyone else. The feeling is that anything less than equal prosperity—or at least equal access to prosperity with equal ease—is simply unfair, if not morally wrong.4 This conviction is a major component of what many (most?) mean by “social justice.”

But prior to the 18th century, almost no one thought this way. Rather, people believed that both power and property were supposed to be held unequally. Inequality was seen as the natural order of things because the universe is hierarchical, with God at the top and ordered levels of authority and ability beneath Him, ordained by Him. Levels of power and property were assumed to correspond to levels of responsibility and ability.

How times have changed!

But why did they change? Clue: it was not because the leading thinkers of the day (the Enlightenment era) were more firmly committed than their predecessors to bringing every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5)!

So what should Christians believe about equality and inequality? The ideas of equal intrinsic worth and equal right to due process of law are easy to defend from biblical principles. But if we look hard for a biblical view of human society in the thinking of Rousseau and other radicals of his era—we don’t find it. Rather, we find a view of human nature that rejects5 the biblical concept6 of fallen creatures who need the restraints of law and authority to keep society from descending into the self-destructive chaos of lust and violence.

At the very least, Christians must view “inequality is just wrong” thinking with a great deal of suspicion. Though the Bible teaches a spiritual oneness “in Christ” (Gal.3:28), it’s pretty hard to find the idea there that we should all be equally prosperous and powerful.

Better reasons

But if Christians reject equalitarian assumptions, do we have any reason at all to fight poverty? In a nation where almost no one starves to death (except in hospitals—on purpose!) and almost all poverty is relative, should we care if some have minimal medical care, low-quality housing and low-quality education? We should, and Scripture gives us solid reasons to do so. Here are two.

1. We were made to produce

One helpful way to understand poverty is to look at it as a productivity problem. Someone lacks basic necessities because he has nothing to trade for them, and he has nothing to trade for them because he is unable or unwilling to produce something people value enough to trade. In light of the biblical causes of poverty, he may be unable to produce profitably because someone robs him as soon as he produces, or he may be unable because of disease or injury. He may be unable to obtain the resources he needs in order to produce—a true catch twenty-two.

But in nearly all cases, his poverty is a failure to abundantly produce—and as human beings, we were made to produce.

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion…over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image…and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:26–28)

When God made a home for the first man, He made a factory—a food and flower factory, yes, but a factory, nonetheless. That’s what a garden is.

Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. (Gen. 2:15)

Given the repeated creation-blessing “be fruitful and multiply,” we should understand that the tending and keeping was for the purpose of production.

So Christians should fight poverty—even relative poverty—because human beings are supposed to be productive. Poverty always either causes productivity problems or results from them—often both.

2. We are obligated to love

As poverty increases, so does suffering. The correlation may seem insignificant if your starting point is at the high end of the prosperity scale. One less car in the fleet doesn’t hurt the millionaire a whole lot—but it does hurt some. He wouldn’t have bought the car if he didn’t find some pleasure in it.7

As people move further down the poverty scale toward absolute poverty, they find themselves unable to go anywhere, unable to educate their children well, unable to obtain basic medical care and eventually unable to put food on the table or find safe drinking water.

Then the suffering is obvious.

Though well-informed Christians understand that suffering plays a vital role in God’s process of remaking sinners into saints (Rom. 5:3-5), we also understand that we are not supposed to bring suffering on ourselves arbitrarily. And we’re not supposed to wish suffering on other people.

When Jesus saw that the multitude was hungry, He did not tell His disciples, “It’s good for them, guys—builds character!” He fed them (Matt. 15:32).

Since more poverty means more suffering, we ought to fight it simply as a way of “doing unto others” as we would have them do to us.

Conclusion

Inequality in power and possessions is not in itself worth fighting. People have varying abilities and, as a result, varying capacities to produce what is of value to other people. But low productivity and hindered productivity are worth fighting because we were created to produce. And the suffering that comes from lack of ability to produce or trade is worth fighting because we are obligated to love.

These two principles are not the only reasons Christians should work to relieve poverty, though. A third reason is equally important and also speaks to the problems of materialism, greed and consumerism. We’ll explore that reason in the next installment in this series.

Notes

1 For example, http://www.sistersofmercy.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=241&Itemid=252

2 They seldom use those terms, preferring rather to speak of accepting a lower standard of living in order to relieve severe need. E.g., Ron Sider, Rich Christians in Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity, p.202.

3 This is the essence of David Platt’s argument in Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, p.126.

4 The unfairness view usually relies heavily on the idea that the more some have, the less there is for others to have—another idea we need to challenge.

5 Rousseau taught that religion is useful but denied that human beings are sinful. He also taught that what we now call “social institutions” actually cause moral decline among human beings. You can find this in Emile as well as Social Contract and other essays.

6 See Romans 13, and Genesis 9, for example. The last few chapters of Judges are an eloquent (though gruesome) picture of what happens to a society where every man does that which is right in his own eyes.

7 The pleasure may have been in the act of buying it, but in that case, we don’t just have a millionaire. We have a greedy millionaire.

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There are 7 Comments

juitdeflesch's picture

Thank you for these thoughts. As someone who is working and will continue to be working the inner-city, these are helpful points. A biblical response to the poor is essential, and these help to point me in the right direction. Much more could be said. (Part 4,5,6...)?

John Uit de Flesch

Aaron Blumer's picture

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Yes, it's a big topic. This installment was especially hard to write. Too many concepts bouncing around in my head. But working through them here helps me move toward a more coherent whole. I'm thinking it might make a pretty decent book eventually.

I'll tip my hand a little: there is a particular thesis I'm headed toward but I think there are a number of pieces that have to be in place before most people can swallow it. It's just not politically or evangelically correct. But I do think the premises are solid and the conclusion is well supported by them.

R.G.Murray's picture

I worked at an inner city church for a while that had homeless people trying to sleep in the church steps, camp-out in empty sunday school rooms, and in general try to make the church their new "home." When we had to help them along it was generally met with accusations of not being compassionate or acting like Jesus.

One of the more enlightening conversations I had was with a local law enforcement officer right after he finished arresting a drug dealer on the front steps of the church. He pointed out there are generally two types of people who live on the street.

First are people who are "homeless." They tend to be on the street unwillingly. They ended up there for a variety of reasons: an addiction problem, chronic unemployment, mental issues, or some life dominating problem they were not able to overcome. But the chief characteristic of the "homeless" was a general lack of choice about being on the street. (Even if they were on the street due to a pattern of bad decisions).

But according to the officer there was another type of person on the street, a person he called a vagrant. This person tended to be homeless by choice. They were generally engaging in some form of illegal activity and they wanted to live "off the grid." They didn't want a traceable phone number, they didn't want a street address, they didn't want to receive mail or have any way for the police (or other people) to find or track them. But, to look at them they looked very much like the "homeless." In fact, part of the cover for the vagrant was to appear as much like the homeless as possible.

So as we look at the "poor" and the "homeless" we should keep in mind, not everyone who is living on the street is there for the same reason. If we see a sign that someone is willing to "work for food" it is completely legitimate to ask, "Why won't they work for a paycheck? Why won't they pay taxes or get a Social Security Number, or enter into the employment system we spend billions every year creating and maintaining as a society?"

Not all poor are in poverty for the same reason.

The truly homeless need support, resources, and help out of their situation (as challenging as they may be.)

Vagrants need to be arrested.

And Christians need to have God's wisdom in discerning who is who.

Ed Vasicek's picture

This is another fine installment in this series. I have only done minimal thinking about this, so I appreciate learning from your well-thought-out writing. Great stuff!!!

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture

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I have alot of reading to do.
Just came across an interesting bit in When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert. They cite Marvin Olasky to the effect that "evangelical" Christians were really active in poverty relief and social work in general before Liberalism arrived in the U.S. and we all overreacted to the Social Gospel phenomenon in the early 20th century. I'm interested in digging into this to see if it holds up.

I suspect that where there was a good bit of this sort of activity the thinking behind it was quite different from what we're seeing in evangelicalism (and, increasingly, fundamentalism) today.

And I wonder what exactly an "evangelical" is in the early 19th century. Probably the sense is gospel-preaching Protestant. Fair enough.

Aaron Blumer's picture

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Now I have even more to read. Wink
Happy to take a look. I do believe there are several reasons that apply in "their own sin" situations. So will see if we've got any of the same reasons.

Edit: Well, that didn't take long. Very short post. Edwards emphsizes "if they do not continue," which does on one of the "situations" I mentioned. We often have no way of knowing whether we are helping or enabling a self-destructive lifestyle. But there is another reason to at least want to help in these situations. (Often there's no inner struggle at all... this is a bigger problem than whether a transfer of resources occurs).
Happens to be the "third reason" I referred to in "part 3" above. Will get to it soon (I hope) in part 4. In the final analysis it may be the same reason the post you linked mentions, but I'm approaching it a bit differently.

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