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Sunday, February 19, 2006

 

"Poverty is no shame for those who have not. Poverty is a shame to those who have"

“Poverty is no shame to those who have not. Poverty is a shame to those who have” This comment is true both in light of Biblical teaching and in the light of poverty in our world today. This essay will seek to explore how poverty is a shame to those who have, both from biblical teaching and from the present causes of poverty. It is not enough to diagnose the causes of poverty as being shameful for those who have. The continuing state of poverty in our world today is perhaps a greater shame, because today we are better informed and perhaps better able to deal with poverty than at any time in the past. The lack of widespread positive action is perhaps the greatest shame for those who have. This essay will look at the Biblical teaching on poverty and explore the Biblical understanding of justice. This essay will also explore the causes of poverty in our world today, showing that they are no different to the Biblical picture. Finally this essay will conclude by showing how these causes all show that poverty is no shame to the poor, it is a shame to those who have.

“Poverty is perhaps the greatest threat to faith in a just and loving God.” How does poverty fit with the idea of a loving God? This is an issue that the Biblical writers grappled with. God does not miraculously intervene in the situation of the Biblical poor. Does this mean that God does not care for the poor? In Deuteronomy 10:18 we are told that God defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow and loves the alien. But verse 19 shows us how God plans to intervene in the situation of the poor, ‘you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.’ In the Biblical narrative we are presented with a God who cares for the poor, he doesn’t wish to leave them to be poor. But rather than miraculous intervention, God expects his people to intervene in the situation of the poor.

The Biblical narrative is full of God directing his people to care for the poor. In the Torah, God speaks through the statutes of the Israelite people, directing them to look out for and care for the poor in their community. Leviticus 25: 35 they are told ‘if one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you.” In Deuteronomy 15:7–8 they are told not to be tight fisted to the poor, but ‘rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs.’ In the Psalms God’s people are told that, ‘the wicked borrow and do not repay, but the righteous give generously.’ (Psalm 37:21) God speaks through the prophets, telling the Israelites to remember the poor amongst them and not to take advantage of them.

Justice is a key theme in the Biblical narrative. As Steve Bradbury writes, “Biblical justice is a restorative function – affirmative action on behalf of the powerless to restore their proper (meaning God-ordained) position in human society.” The picture of justice that is presented in the Scriptures is a restoration of what has been lost. The poor are without, so justice is to restore to them. As Stephen Mott and Ronald Sider state, “frequently, God commands those with resources to treat their poor fellow Israelites with the same liberality that God showed them at the Exodus, in the wilderness, and in giving them their own land” God continually encourages his people to look after the poor, to practice justice and restore them. As Mott so eloquently states, “in Scripture, the people of God are commanded to execute justice because God, after whom they in grace and love pattern their lives, executes justice. Since God has a special regard for the weak and helpless, a corresponding quality is to be found in the lives of God’s people.”

One facet of the Biblical narrative is that the poor lack and it is the responsibility of God’s people to act justly and give to those who do not have. This is the medicinal response to poverty, the restoration to those who do not have. But the Scriptures also speak of the causes of poverty. Proverbs 13:23 says that ‘a poor man’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away.’ Psalm 10 speaks of the wicked man who thrives on injustice, robbing the poor and boasting of his evil deeds. Psalm 94 calls for God to avenge the poor and give the wicked what they deserve. They crush God’s people, they slay the widow and the alien, all because they say that the Lord does not see what they are doing. It is not only the Hebrew Bible that sheds light on the oppression of the poor. James 5 warns the rich of the misery that is to come to them. It warns them that the cries of those they have mistreated have reached the ears of God. These passages show the shame that is upon those who have, because not only have they failed to help those who are poor, they have actively mistreated people and oppressed them so that they have become poor. The Biblical narrative reinforces that poverty is not shameful for those who do not have. The shame falls upon those who actively work to gain for themselves at the expense of others, especially by mistreating them.

The causes of poverty that the Biblical narrative presents are no different to the causes of poverty today. Poverty can be seen as a break down of community. As Mott writes, “Community membership means the ability to share fully within one’s capacity and potential in each essential aspect of community.” Poverty is not just a material state, it is the inability of members to add to the life of the community. In the twenty first century we live within a global community and so the definition of poverty must be extended to those who are not able to fully share within the global community. The causes of poverty have not changed from Biblical times. Some people become poor through environmental factors, drought, disease and death, others become poor through their own doing, laziness, lack of preparation for hardship and others become poor because of oppression by other people.

Those whose poverty is no fault of their own cannot be put into a position of shame. It is not shameful to lack when what you had has been taken from you. For those who would wish to lay blame on those who are poor through their own doing, which needs to be qualified by saying that it is the vast minority, they must first look to themselves. The Biblical narrative points out that it is the responsibility of those who have to share with those who do not have. It does not say that we must ask them why they are poor, just that we should help them. The Scripture does not allow for a debate on the ‘deserving poor’, whatever that may mean.

How do we, as those who have, respond to the issue of poverty? Bono puts this question in a way that is so succinct, yet so uncomfortable that I will quote it in full:

fifteen thousand Africans dying each and every day of preventable, treatable diseases … for lack of drugs that we take for granted. This statistic alone makes a fool of the idea many of us hold on to very tightly: the idea of equality. What is happening in African mocks our pieties, doubts our concern, and questions our commitment to that whole concept. Because if we’re honest, there’s no way we could conclude that such mass death day after day would ever be allowed to happen anywhere else … Deep down, if we really accept that their lives – African lives – are equal to ours, we would all be doing more to put the fire out. It’s an uncomfortable truth.

Bono’s question cuts right to our core. As he says it is an uncomfortable truth. In the face of such overwhelming poverty how do those who have respond? The lack of adequate response shows the shame of poverty. The shame of poverty does not lie with the African dying of a preventable disease. The shame of poverty lies with the person who has the means to prevent that disease, but does nothing to prevent it. Or perhaps even worse, acknowledges the problem and only gives a token response to prevention. That is where the shame of poverty lies. Bono continues to ask the hard questions by stating, “We can be the generation that no longer accepts that an accident of latitude determines whether a child lives or dies- but will we be that generation? Will we in the West realize our potential or will we sleep in the comfort of our affluence with apathy and indifference murmuring softly in our ears?”

Bono’s questions come in the forward to Jeffery Sachs’ book “The end of poverty” where Sachs, an economist, shows that poverty can be ended by 2025. He says that our generation has the ability to eradicate poverty. Our generation is able to, in our lifetime, live out the image presented in the Biblical narrative. He states that, “the wealth of the rich world, the power of today’s vast storehouses of knowledge, and the declining fraction of the world that needs help to escape from poverty all make the end of poverty a realistic possibility by the year 2025.” The shame of poverty comes if those who have refuse to make this possibility a reality.

So far this essay has focused on the material issues of poverty. Whilst it has looked at the Biblical narrative, it has looked at the material issues raised therein. This however is an incomplete view of poverty. As Bryant Myers points out perhaps the greatest blind spot in relation to poverty in the West today is,

the belief … that the spiritual and physical domains of life are separate and unrelated … The result is a tragic pair of reductions. First, poverty is reduced to a merely material condition having to do with the absence of things like money, water, food, housing and the lack of just social systems, also materially defined and understood. Second, development is reduce correspondingly to a material series of responses designed to overcome these needs.

Perhaps the lack of a spiritual understanding of poverty is a reason for a lack of adequate response to poverty in the Western world. For Christians the spiritual dimension goes further. God’s preference towards the poor is displayed in the Biblical narrative, he cares for those who are oppressed and who lack. Tim Chester believes that because of this, this is where we find God. He states, “God gives us an opportunity to know him more through the poor. We lose out when we do not read the word of God with the poor of the world. We must see the poor not as objects of charity, but as people from whom we can learn.”

Poverty is no shame for those who do not have. This essay has shown that poverty is not shameful for the poor. God cares for the poor, he intercedes on their behalf and he has instituted means of caring for them. There can be no shame for those who do not have, because God does not wish for anyone to be poor. God has shown the way to eradicate poverty. God’s justice is that those who become poor will be looked after by those who have, it is their responsibility to share what they have. The shame of poverty is when those who have refuse to share with those who do not have. It is shameful not to share and it is even more shameful to take advantage of and oppress people. The Biblical narrative also highlights and speaks strongly against the oppression of people. The shame of poverty does not lie with those who lack, rather it lies with those who have.


Bibliography

Bono, “Foreword”. The End of Poverty, London: Penguin. 2005

Bradbury, Steve. Micah Mandate Lecture. Whitley College, November 2005

Bradbury, Steve. The Message of Micah then and now. Unpublished paper. 2005

Chester, Tim. “Justice, Mercy & Humility: Integral Mission and the Poor” Cumbria: Paternoster Press, 2002

Mallone, Adrian. Essay Topic, Micah Mandate timetable handout,
Whitley College, 2005

Mott, Stephen. Biblical Ethics and Social Change.

Mott, Stephen & Ronald Sider, “Economic Justice: A Biblical paradigm.” Transformation 17.2 (Apr – Jun 2000)

Myers, Bryant. Walking with the Poor, New York: Orbis. 1999

Sachs, Jeffrey. The End of Poverty, London: Penguin. 2005

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