Thinking Biblically about Poverty, Part 2: Why are the Poor Poor?


If the cultural indicators are to be believed, the plight of world’s poor has become a topic of great interest in the west and America in particular. Advertising by non-profits abounds, rivaled only by the conspicuous relief efforts of major corporations. Even our fashion trends reveal a fascination with poverty.1 Wealthy celebrities and middle income Americans alike pay extra money for clothes that appear to already be worn out. Young pastors sport bed-head hairdos2 and preach in outfits carefully engineered to look like they’ve been slept in for a couple of days. Faux poverty is in.

So do we Americans want to relieve poverty or just imitate it? One thing is clear: we do not really understand it, and evangelicals seem to be about as confused as the general population. Efforts to help can only go so far if we’re unclear about poverty’s true nature and causes, so we need a deeper understanding.

Part 1 of this series focused on the question, What is poverty? That essay stopped well short of fully answering its title question but emphasized the importance of distinguishing between relative poverty and absolute poverty. Here we’ll focus on another question. But since this question is so intertwined with the first, we’ll chip away a bit more at the “what” along with the “why.”

Why, then, are the poor poor? Or, more precisely, what causes the poor to be poor?3

A biblical survey

Scripture reveals a great deal about the causes of poverty. A brief survey is possible here. I’ll group the causes of poverty under three headings, disaster, oppression and character, then draw some concluding observations.

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Thinking Biblically about Poverty, Part 1: What is Poverty?

poor boy

Why are the poor poor?

It seems few are asking this question anymore—just when we need most to be asking it, just when interest in helping the poor has apparently reached an all time high.

I don’t recall ever hearing and seeing so many radio and TV ads for charitable causes, donation displays at retailers’ cash registers, or businesses prominently displaying how they’re helping the needy (or how they’re saving the world from environmental catastrophe—or both).

Evangelicals seem to be giving poverty more attention as well—in increasingly passionate terms and from quarters not historically known for that emphasis. Witness this observation from Southern Baptist, David Platt:

Meanwhile, the poor man is outside our gate. And he is hungry…. We certainly wouldn’t ignore our kids while we sang songs and entertained ourselves, but we are content with ignoring other parents’ kids. Many of them are our spiritual brothers and sisters in developing nations. They are suffering from malnutrition, deformed bodies and brains, and preventable diseases. At most, we are throwing our scraps to them while we indulge in our pleasures here….

This is not what the people of God do. Regardless of what we say or sing or study on Sunday morning, rich people who neglect the poor are not the people of God. (Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, p.115)

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Random Thoughts on the Year Ahead

Please consider this post as being intentionally below our usual front page standards. “Intentionally,” because we’re coming off of a holiday and I haven’t completely taken my heels off my desk yet.

What I aim to do here is share some pretty much random thoughts on the year past and the one head from a SharperIron point of view.

The year past

Over all, twenty-ten was not a bad year for SI. Site traffic was down about 3% compared to the year before, but from October 1 on, was higher than the year before by a significant and increasing margin. November increased over October and December increased over November. It’s hard to tell yet whether that represents a trend. But I’m encouraged by the fact that we began 2010 with traffic levels below those of 2009 and finished the year well above them.

Of course, site traffic is kind of like church attendance. It’s just the easiest factor to look at to gauge how you’re doing—not necessarily the most meaningful one.

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“The Poor” - Helping without Hurting

Bryan Chappell of Covenant Seminary asks the question: “How can a local church make a difference, and how do individual Christians meaningfully reflect Christ’s grace when the disparities of wealth and power in our world are so great?”1 As our leadership team begins to lay the groundwork for church planting in Philadelphia, we have had to try to wrestle with this question in a practical way rather than the typical way of theorizing from the relative safety and comfort of middle-class suburbs and seminary classrooms. Located in a transitional urban neighborhood where urban blight meets white flight, we are confronted by challenges regarding our biblical responsibility to the poor. We are not experts in urban ministry and poverty alleviation. We recognize the complexity of the causes of poverty and confess the failure of many Christians, including ourselves, to address and to engage this issue. Some people are born into poverty through no fault of their own and find themselves trapped in an inescapable and infernal cycle. Others fall into poverty as a result of calamity including natural disasters, unemployment, health problems, or traumatic experiences. No easy solutions are forthcoming. Our response must be rooted in the Bible as we seek to lay a theological foundation for our engagement in dealing with societal problems which in reality are spiritual problems.

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