A few weeks ago Rachel sparked a lively conversation on Facebook. She posted a link to an article by Michael Moore on capitalism and poverty and religion. In response to that conversation, I put some thoughts together about poverty and wanted to post it here on the blog and see if there are any takers to continue the discussion.
1. So, what causes poverty? or Who or what is responsible?
There is a book by Michael Landon called Sweating it Out: What the “Experts” say Causes Poverty, where he looks at the various explanations for poverty. He sees ten of them, but names 4 as the most common reasons cited. He puts them in a quadrant. With two axes representing differing answers to two fundamental questions: (1) is the cause of poverty primarily a way of thinking or a way of acting, and (2) is the cause of poverty located in the poor themselves, or in the society as a whole? So, depending on the answer to these questions, the reason for poverty could be due to
A. Culture of Poverty (Individuals think “poorly”),
B. Economic Ethos (Economic system keeps people thinking “poorly”),
C. Personal Irresponsibility (Individual makes “poor” choices),
or D. Structural Sin (Economic system is unjust).
Now, if this were a multiple choice test, I would like to choose E. “All of the above.” My hunch is that where poverty happens it is usually due to a mixture of these factors. Certainly some people are in a state of poverty mostly due to personal irresponsibility and only a little bit due to structural sin, but others may be in poverty through no fault of their own, they were just born under a failed system and suffer for it. This grid is helpful for me because it reminds me that there are a number of factors in play contributing to poverty.
Maybe we could think of this Jack Bauer-style. A person is bound to a chair about to be interrogated. His ankles have a cable tie that binds his feet to the chair. His hands are tied behind his back with rope. He’s got duck-tape over his mouth and a bandana over his eyes. If we come in and try to liberate him by removing the duck-tape, cable tie and bandana is he better off? Yeah, a little. Is he free? No, not yet. To really address poverty we need to help remove all the barriers: internal and external, personal and structural. Now, we all know that some people don’t want to be free. But that doesn’t mean we are going to say that no one wants to be free.
2. What does God have to say about poverty?
I’ve been thinking about the book of Amos lately. Here was an unlikely prophet – a poor southerner (from Judah), a hick farmer/shepherd who went to the wealthy in the industrialized north (Israel) to share a warning from the Lord. In his most scathing and memorable rebuke he refers to the wealthy women of Israel as the “Cows of Bashan” lounging on their couches asking their husbands to fetch them something else to drink. Whew! What strikes me about this passage is that these women were not doing anything to directly oppress the poor. They went to church…er… temple to worship, they went shopping, but they were probably not out in the field beating slaves or forcing others to carry heavy loads. But, the interesting thing is that even though they were not directly responsible for the economic suffering of others – Amos and God held them accountable. So, what does that mean for us? Huge question.
Another part of this discussion is wealth distribution. We’ve been talking about this in these posts. Rachel may be more optimistic about the government’s ability to redistribute wealth than I am. No matter what we think, though, about the government’s ability to redistribute wealth effectively, it is clear that God has thought a lot about wealth distribution and redistribution. The idea of Jubilee (Leviticus 25) was a central piece of the economic system of ancient Israel. Every 50 years, land that was sold was to be given back to the original owners. God even said that when you sell the land, you need to consider the number of years remaining until the jubilee into your accounting practices. Now, we don’t know if Israel actually practiced this, but it is clear that God wanted to put some checks and balances into place to keep people who experienced a bad crop or a famine or an irresponsible family member from putting them in a situation where the oppressive boot of poverty will be forever on their neck. God told them to clear the books every 50 years in order to not oppress those who fell on hard times.
Now, I’m not saying I think the government could do this well, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he chooses to use imperfect systems to bring about some ideas of his own. He’s done this in the past. In his own day, Habakkuk complained at God for using the pagan Babylonians to accomplish His purposes. He said, “How could You, a just God, use unjust systems and powers like these?” (ABH paraphrase 1:1-4). God replies, “Watch and be amazed, I am going to do something that you wouldn’t believe even if you were told” (ABH paraphrase 1:5). Now, I’m not saying that God wants the US gov’t to redistribute wealth – that would be an ugly and painful process to say the least – but I wouldn’t put it past God to do that, if he feels like “something’s gotta give.” At the end of Habakkuk, we read that in the midst of the confusion of God using unjust systems to bring about justice Habakkuk confesses that he will rejoice in the Lord and be joyful to God his Savior. “The Sovereign Lord is my strength, he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on to the heights” (NIV 3:19). No matter what our Sovereign King is up to and what kind of instruments he chooses to use for his purposes and how it affects us, we will still be able to stand.
3. What should Jesus followers do about poverty? And more specifically, as citizens of a democracy, what responsibilities do we have?
I think that we should use whatever gifts, resources, and talents we have to release those in bondage. I’m thinking about those four causes of poverty: internal and external, personal and structural. On a personal level (external), we can loan or give money to the poor to help them get out from under debt (Jesus said we should do that). On a personal level (internal) we can teach our friends that are poor how to effectively manage money (if we ourselves are good at that ). It is right that Jesus said that “the poor will always be with us.” Sometimes we use that statement as a reason not to do anything, but I think that in the context of that passage (Mark 14), Jesus was saying, “It’s okay to lavish worship on me now, because you’ll still have time to take care of the poor…I want them to always be with you.” Unfortunately my perception is that in our fractured society it has become easier and easier to isolate ourselves from the poor – they are not really with us anymore. We don’t know very many poor people and that makes it difficult for us to help on a personal level.
Okay so here is what I think about what to do about poverty on a structural level. I think if we are to take seriously our task to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” then if/when we vote, we need to “look not only to our own interests but also to the interests of others.” So, as we do research and weigh out how to vote on a complex issue like health care, etc., we need to figure out what would really help our neighbor. When Jesus talked about who our neighbor was he told a story about a Samaritan and a Jew – enemies who didn’t give each other the time of day. So, if Jesus really defines who my neighbor is, then I have to vote with a whole host of people in mind including those of different socio-economic statuses and zip codes (even our neighbors outside of the US!).
Ultimately, though I’m personally agnostic about our ability to bring about big, macro-level structural change through “political” means (this is where Rachel and I might differ I think). I’ve been reading a book called The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done so much Ill and So Little Good. It is actually a pretty boring book, but the main point is that big, top down structural solutions to huge economic problems… don’t work. Instead we need to focus on local, small, effective solutions. As more and more local solutions start working and changing things for the better, the big, macro level system will have to change to accommodate it. So, on a practical level, if we work to release people from as many of the four barriers on a personal level (duct tape, rope, cable tie and bandana…) and pray that God will work out the macro stuff, I think he will do it.
Okay…any thoughts or responses?
Am I just copping out by saying that there is not much we can do to bring about structural or macro level change?