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Written by Jim Jordal   
Tuesday, 10 April 2007

MISTAKEN VIEWS HINDER CHRISTIAN EFFORTS AGAINST POVERTY

By Jim Jordal

I think it’s becoming ever more clear that human effort alone will not solve the problem of poverty and its attendant ills. Because of our biases, fears, or vested interests we seem unable to grasp anything as large or as threatening as massive poverty and its negative social outcomes. And so we seize upon panaceas and wishful thinking in our desperation to "do something" about the problem.

One error often made in our frantic attempts to determine the causes of poverty is "single causation" thinking. This view attributes poverty to one factor only--unemployment, low wages, laziness, addictions, poor education, familial influence, excessive population growth, wrong-headed values, lack of natural resources, geographical location, type of government, political party in power, oppression by the rich, poor judgment, and so on.

Identifying a single cause for any social problem is emotionally satisfying because it allows us to avoid serious thinking about the issue. We can identify the culprits, assess blame for their "evil" acts, and rest in smug conviction that if those "bad" people would only change their behavior the problem would go away.

But such limited thinking blinds us to the reality that most human problems have many causes often interlocked in such a way that dealing with one will only bring others to the forefront. For example, as we humanely attempt to reduce the often horrendous infant mortality rates in parts of the developing world, we then bring more people into lives filled with destitution and want. So, along with medical care, we also must help economies and infrastructures to grow in ways that will accommodate the increased populations.

But this we often fail to do.

Another major error in our thinking is that poverty is so massive, so pervasive, and so "natural" that it can never be solved, but only ameliorated. If almost half the world's people are so poor that they exist on $2 per day or less, and their own governments are powerless to deal with the situation, then what other than dribbles of charity can we possibly do to help?

Christians quote Jesus' statement that "you have the poor with you always" to express this position of resignation before the awful scope of the problem. After all, if Jesus said poverty would be with us always, who are we to question this truth? But perhaps we misinterpret what Jesus meant. If He was speaking about the permanent existence of poverty as a human condition, then it truly will always be with us. But this interpretation places Him in direct conflict with His oft-quoted comments concerning the conquering of poverty and suffering in His coming earthly kingdom. So He must have been speaking in a rhetorical sense that while the poor with whom the disciples were concerned were always there, He would not be. Thus the woman's gift (in the episode) of expensive ointment was better used as a memorial to His death than as a gift to the poor.

Additionally, Jesus certainly knew that poverty was a temporary condition resulting from the nation's refusal to obey the Old Testament Jubilee prescriptions set forth by God to abolish poverty. Once God's law gains ascendancy poverty can and will disappear, as Jesus well knew.

But perhaps our worst error as Christians dealing with poverty is to define "gospel" as having to do only with personal salvation, thereby limiting the deliverance purchased by Jesus' death and resurrection to those few souls who accept Him as Savior. This constricted, one-dimensional view leads us to ignore social issues such as poverty because we think they are not gospel. But the term "gospel" means good news, and refers not only to deliverance from sin, but to release from bondage of all types, including that of poverty, oppression, injustice, and every other form of exploitation by which humans prey on each other.

And if we do address the issue of poverty we limit out efforts to charity and small support efforts for the unfortunate of society. We assign to radicals and malcontents the business of advocating against those persons, laws, and institutions creating and perpetuating poverty. However, the task of advocating for justice belongs to all Christians. We cannot truly fulfill the call of Christ without it.

NOTE: It comes to my attention that some readers on occasion use these columns as subjects for private Bible study or group discussion. It might therefore be helpful if I included some questions at the end of those columns best lending themselves to meaningful meditation or group discussion. I'll do this whenever I think it useful.

Some discussion and application questions for today:

* What is your view on whether or not poverty can be solved? In the U.S.? Worldwide?

* What prejudices or fears limit your willingness to take risks as a Christian?

* Do these fears of prejudices limit your understanding of poverty? How?

* With what major causes of poverty have you had personal experience?

* According to Leviticus 25, how would Jubilee principles if applied affect poverty in the U.S.?

* What differences exist between you and the poor sitting on the rooftops in New Orleans?

* What is your definition of gospel?