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.
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.
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.
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.
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.