Poverty is kind of a big buzzword in Christian circles these days, although it’s usually dressed up with angrier terms like “welfare abuse” or with sexier labels like “social justice.”
A gentleman keeps his eyes above the poverty line, sir!
Now on a very general level it seems that the Bible gives two basic reasons for poverty. First, poverty is sometimes due to personal laziness, sloth, ill-gotten wealth, etc. It’s not that poverty is necessarily a punishment or curse from God, but rather that poverty is the natural result of certain poor personal choices. Second, poverty is sometimes due to oppression from the prevailing power system, as those with money and authority choose to abuse and misuse those under them for their own ends.
Speaking as an historian (did you catch the shameless appeal to some sort of authority there?), it seems that American Christianity, has never done a very good job of keeping this balanced view of Scripture when looking at poverty in its own backyard. Christians have generally focused on one of these Scriptural explanations of poverty to the exclusion of the other.
Some Christians have bought into the lie that everyone who is poor deserves to be poor because they as immoral, lazy, etc. Charity to the poor is somewhat pointless in this view as the problem of poverty is largely a matter of personal morality and work ethic, or rather lack thereof.
Cause of death was determined as “being too lazy to really want to eat.”
Beginning with the Social Gospel, and seemingly reincarnated in the emergent and other “progressive” movements of today, some Christians began to see poverty solely as a systemic issue. Thus, the Christian response to poverty is to “fix to system” — overcome economic inequality, injustice, etc.
“Help! Help! I’m being repressed! Come see the violence inherent in the system!”
The problem is that both perceptions are skewed. Scripture seems to teach that poverty is definitely a systemic issue (since sin itself is a systemic issue), but also that poverty is due to the sinfulness of individuals at times. Indeed, sometimes both factors may be at work within the same person! So why does it matter how we view poverty? I think that only a balanced view of poverty allows us to respond correctly.
My point here is that neither of these figures represents “the poor.” Also, playing with action figures is Biblical …
When we realize that poverty is partially the result of institutionalized injustice and inequality in society, then we know that we have to respond on a social and ultimately systemic scale. However, when we realize that poverty for some (please note that I am saying for “some.” Please don’t jump in here screaming about neo-colonialism. Read. The. “Some.”) is the result of bad choices exacerbated by the systemic nature of poverty, then it requires a little bit different approach than what I am currently hearing thrown around in most Christian circles. It means not only that we have to change the system, but that people must change, as well. Christians must preach the gospel not only as hope to some in poverty, but as repentance to some in poverty, as well. A balanced, “biblical” view of poverty will lead to action that will enfranchise the poor as member’s of a new community, rather than coddle them as mere victims of circumstance or dismiss them as being outside the concern of God.
This cute puppy is supposed to distract you, in case anything I said in the last paragraph made you angry.
Now, I realize that this is far short of a “theology of poverty,” a solution to poverty, or anything of the sort. Hopefully, however, it helps provide some perspective both for those who want to use the Bible to inform their views on things like poverty, as well as for those who have heard Christians talking about poverty and walked away scratching your head (or maybe pulling out your hair).