When I started thinking about this blog, I thought that I would call it the Christian response to poverty. I was thinking from my own frame of reference and that it would be important to approach it from that angle. The idea of the content of this particular blog was inspired by a meeting my wife had with two old school friends. The friends were talking about cats and dogs and children and then complaining bitterly about their lack of money. Education is frightfully expensive, you know and their kids are in the phase of higher education at the moment. Now we all know that lack of money is relevant. When my wife brought the perspective of a small house of ten people where only one of two worked as an example of lack of money, there was not a spontaneous acceptance of bigger need there. No the response was rather: it is their own fault that they are in the position that they are in.
So whose fault is it that there is poverty? Who is responsible for that and how should we react to poverty as human beings (or as christians)?
There are certain myths that we need to address when we talk about poverty.
a) Poor people are poor because they are lazy or stupid
I am sure that you will also find lazy people, but read the following observation from Mark Lutz, “Poor people work incredibly hard, under harsh conditions, frequently seven days a week. With no welfare programs and no social networks, if they don’t work, they don’t eat. That’s reality.”
b) Poor people want handouts.
When you receive a handout your dignity is likely to get a further dent. It is better to work for an income and then to use that to buy whatever you need. Certain human beings (and christians in particular) will keep on giving handouts and this makes for greater dependence. The poor should start to refuse handouts and the givers should stop handouts and rather focus on getting employement and opportunities to those in need. Of course that is far more challenging than just a handout.
It is different when a person is hungry and cannot survie without food or is it? Is it better to give the few rands or dollars worth of food or is it better to offer the person a little job to earn that money?
In the Bible the instruction to farmers is not to harvest everything, but to leave some on the fields for the poor to go an collect. They still had to do something to collect the proceeds. Today in our society there are not as many farmers left as the day when the Bible was written. We need to find a new system where a portion of the “harvest” could be left for the poor to collect. This is an area where a cyber entrepreneur could give a solution like getting .1% (or whatever figure) of money flowing into a bank account to a fund that could fund “responsible” loans.
There are over 4000 children dying from hunger every day and more than 20 000 people. There is enough food available in the world for these people. the challenge is to get the food where it is needed.
c) We should first care for the poor in our country.
In America 95% of money for poverty relief was spent in America and only 5% outside (2009) America. I understand that governments need to focus on the areas where their voters are. The truth though is that the christians (and human beings) in those governments need to push for more need elsewhere. The lack in other areas of the world makes it easy for people to say that the “christians” (used in the widest sense here) do not care for the poor. In a sense the 911 bombing in the USA may well be the result of this approach world wide. The poverty and in some cases abject poverty is preparing the ground for extremists to indoctrinate young, clever (but poor) minds to attempt to restore the balance in the world by terrorism like what happened in 911. So for some instances we could argue self preservation to be able to get more aid outside my own country.
d) Jesus said that we will always have extreme poverty around (Mark 14:7)
“You will always have poor people with you, and any time you want to, you can help them. But you will not always have me”, does not talk about extreme poverty. Jesus talks here about the fact that He will not be around always and that there would be many more opportunities for the inner crowd to do good unto them (the criticism was leveled against the lady who used an expensive perfume for Jesus that could have been sold and the money given to the poor).
It is possible to eradicate extreme poverty and to make a huge dent in poverty if not completely eradicate it. Of course we need to define what poverty is, but the point is that we need to address it and that we cannot take one verse quoted out of context to say that we should do nothing about poverty.
e) Jesus was concerned about spiritual poverty only.
You cannot make sure that a person follows Jesus and then not have any concern if he goes to be hungry at night. No person should go to bed hungry, especially not children. If you look at the history and actions of Jesus as reflected in the Bible it is clear that this is not the case. Spiritual poverty is a huge concern , but it does not stop there. Poverty must be addressed and Jesus and in fact the whole bible points to that. There are unfortunately rich christians who are spiritually poor (or arrogant!).
I heard a classical story how a person equated the lives and actions of some christians to the following practical example. Two christians sit at a table enjoying a meal and the one is blind. He is looking (!) for the salt, but does not know where it is as his friend has used it and did not return it to the centre of the table where it was when they started with the meal. So he asks his friend, “please pass me the salt”. The friend is quiet for a few seconds and then he responds, “my brother, I will pray for you”, and he does not pass him the salt. All of us will view this person as cruel and not a brother at all, but we often do this in the real world out there. Now I do not say that we should give anything to anybody that asks us, but what I do say is that we as christians should be open enough to hear God speak to us about the situation of our brothers. Then if there is need of food for now, we should provide, but more than that … we need to find a solution to get rid of poverty.
f) It is the government’s responsibility so I do not have to do anything.
Yes, governments need to address the problem of poverty and we should use our influence as much as possible to see this happen in our community, country, continent and the world at large. As a human being we need to address this issue wherever we get confronted with that on a personal level.
g) All people have equal opportunities to move from poverty to prosperity
There are cerain systems or laws in place that prevent people from escaping from the poverty trap. In certain cases it is not possible for a person to get a loan to acquire e.g. a low cost property. The sad aspect is that the rental of three low cost properties could in fact repay the loans on four low cost properties and provide a pension for the “poor’ investor when the loans have been repaid. In the first instanc ethe person needs the knowledge of this priciniple, but then of course also access to the finance. Now the legislation preventing this is purely unjust. While we fight the legislation (In South Africa for example) a christian who could get access to finance may step forward to help put this structure in place for a certain individual. Of course it is not easy and there are more risks associated with this, but is this not what a christian brother should and could do.
Then of course if you have middle class or rich parents it does make it easier for you to get better education with hopefully better opportunities to generate an income. As christians we need to find a way to assist each other. It does not help if the divide between rich and poor grows every year.
So now that we have looked at some of the myths, what is the human response to poverty?
1. Address unjust or illegal systems or legislation.
2. Look at the other causes of poverty and address that
3. Find creative solutions to get provision to the poor
4. Lend a hand (or a loan) where you can (but give in such a way that you make a person independent and not dependent).
5. Give food or provisions where this is needed
6. Give to organisations making a difference
7. Give to education (but link this to a person if you can) or assit with education
8. As a christian you need to be open to experience the Father’s heart for the poor and to listen the the guidance of the Holy Spirit
So poverty is an opportunity to make God’s heart and love visible. To be part of this is to experience God in a totally different way. You do not want to deprive yourself of this on this earth.