Christians must agree on a holistic definition of poverty that includes relational and spiritual elements.
This month's editorial theme is poverty and opportunity, and throughout the coming weeks we will feature several pieces from our Editorial Team on the topic.
The Great Recession is behind us, but the worst may be yet to come: New data suggests that the American dream is becoming increasingly difficult to attain. In other words, economic hardship abounds. According to the Associated Press, nearly 80 percent of Americans are struggling to stay afloat even though the economy has begun to recover from the recession that began in 2008. William Julius Wilson, a Harvard University professor whose expertise includes joblessness and urban poverty, told the AP that Americans must begin to understand “‘that many of the nation's biggest disparities, from education and life expectancy to poverty, are increasingly due to economic class position.’”
But is the problem of poverty really that simple, a lack of opportunity given to those in the lowest economic class? It depends on how you define the terms “poverty” and “opportunity,” as well as the terms “justice” and “charity”—all of which require multi-dimensional definitions if we hope to build a constructive conversation around the problem of poverty. Throughout the next two months at Shared Justice, we’ll be fostering that conversation; to do so, though, we first must return to the basics and refine the questions. In other words, the question is: What are the right definitions?
Answer: “Right” definitions don’t necessarily exist, but some are better than others.
Though poverty does have decidedly economic and material components, it also includes that which are relational and spiritual. After all, a public justice perspective rooted in Scripture suggests that poverty is much more complex than economics alone. Instead it recognizes that a host of institutions, including the church, families, businesses and more, each have distinct roles and responsibilities and so must work together towards a solution.
Poverty stems all the way back to Genesis, to the Creation and Fall of mankind when sin entered the world. That’s why, as Christianity Today editor Mark Galli wrote last year,
"It is a stretch to suggest we can end any sort of poverty. I asked a number of Christian economists about this, and all agreed: No, we can't. When I asked why, every one of them said, "Original sin." Until the coming of the kingdom of God, greed, sloth, oppression, corruption, and the like—all of which breed poverty—will persist."
That would be cause for despair if it were the end of the story. Luckily, the fall of man led to a beautiful redemption—one that began with Christ’s atoning sacrifice and is still playing itself out today.
"...a public justice perspective rooted in Scripture suggests that poverty is much more complex than economics alone."
Does that mean that Christians ought to give up, knowing that our efforts ultimately will be futile until the end of the creation-fall-redemption narrative? Of course not. The best solutions for alleviating poverty, if not eradicating it, will involve collaborations among institutions that can address poverty in many different ways. World Vision president Rich Stearns says that poverty is a “complex puzzle with multiple inter-related causes.” As a result, the best solutions (and indeed, there are many) will “help a community address their challenges on multiple fronts: food, water, health, education, economic development, gender, child development and even leadership and governance.”
Broken relationships lie at the root of all of these things, so solving poverty demands that we meet more than just material needs—and that isn’t easy. Generally Christians today have engaged in one-way giving and service amounting to little more than charity in the end, which is only part of our calling. And the result? Christians and the church have been relatively ineffective at providing lasting opportunities for the poor to overcome their situations.
But what does opportunity look like beyond favorable economic circumstances—and how can Christians contribute to it? The church too often contributes to the absence of shalom, or complete peace in the world, focusing solely on direct services in addressing poverty and neglecting its teaching function. The church (and, more broadly, the Church throughout history) possesses authority to teach and instruct believers in how to live fully in right relationship with God and others. You could say that the church has the vision of what a fully restored, fully just, world might look like. Preaching and teaching from this vision is crucial if we are to have Christians in policy, in tax law, in environmental sustainability, in education, who know and seek that vision. While Christ certainly calls the church to provide direct services to the poor—feed the hungry, care for the sick, clothe the naked—the church also must become a better teacher so that individual believers are better equipped in their vocations to live into a vision of justice and full flourishing and to fulfill their political responsibilities to pursue public justice.
If we view poverty holistically—as we will throughout the coming weeks—then our role as believers becomes a little more manageable. Though we are called to address the multi-dimensional problem of poverty, we are not called to solve it; as Galli reminds us, neither should we expect to do so. Careful reflection may help us determine more nuanced approaches to alleviating poverty. But it goes without saying that those in the church who would seek to advance alternative proposals for poverty alleviation would do well to offer them with a great measure of humility.
God sovereignly provides unique institutions to address all the different aspects of human thriving. As a result, churches can focus their efforts on their unique calling to guide people into restored relationships with God. Moreover, local churches often are well-situated for identifying which of their poorer neighbors’ needs have been neglected. Once those needs are identified, Christians can help discern which institutions—including governmental agencies, religious groups, health centers, legal clinics, community groups, and para-church ministries—are best suited to serve those specific needs. Most importantly, the broader church can help foster cooperation between these institutions to do so.
Beyond this, our work as Christians extends beyond church walls when we reach out to foster healthy friendships with neighbors—many of whom may be lacking healthy social connections. These efforts encourage the healing of broken relationships that perpetuate poverty. Whatever other directions we take in seeking to alleviate poverty, we must never abandon our primary task: attesting to Scripture’s fuller vision of flourishing that encompasses the wholeness of our humanity in right relationship with God.
- The Editorial Team