On August 3, 2017, the Washington Post published an article stating that the majority of Christians (presumably self-professed) believe poverty is “the result of individual failings” or blame “lack of effort.” Compared to 29% of non-Christians in the survey conducted with Kaiser Foundation, 46% of all Christians and 53% of white evangelical Protestants said lack of effort is the cause of poverty.
In press releases indicting Christians on the subject, at least two truths are ignored. First is all the good that Christians do—and have historically always done–in leading the charge to address and redress poverty.
Second is that in addition to meeting immediate needs, a biblical perspective includes helping the poor to nurture their God-given gifts and opportunities to better their circumstances. It’s simply obeying the mandate of Matthew 12:31 to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Working With the Stuff of Creation
The Christian response to poverty must begin with the whole person, rooted in a biblical understanding of creation. Dr. Art Lindsley, vice president of theological initiatives at the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics, spoke with the American Family Association (AFA) Journal about how the Christian worldview informs issues such as poverty.
“People are made in God’s image to use their creativity to develop the potential of creation,” he said. “Only God created something out of nothing, but we are called to create something out of something—to take the stuff of creation and use our creativity with respect to it.”
Work is valuable not just as a means of creating wealth or satisfying one’s needs. Work unleashes the worthy and important contributions that every person is created to make for the good of society and personal well-being.
An Empty Heart
“Poverty is not just a lack of money or a lack of food,” Lindsley added. “Poverty is often associated with a lack of hope. In the book For the Least of These, Peter Greer with Hope International tells about asking various poor people in Rwanda what poverty felt like or how they experienced it. Some of the things mentioned were: Poverty is an empty heart. Not knowing your abilities and strengths. Not being able to make progress. Isolation. No hope or belief in yourself. Broken relationships. Not knowing God. … Only one item on the list was about not having enough money or enough to eat.”
In Love Your Neighbor, IFWE’s Kathryn Feliciano writes, “To put it simply, poverty is a lack of options.”
“Poverty creates a depression of the human spirit that desperately needs to be addressed—as well as providing food and drink and that kind of thing,” Lindsley told AFAJ. “That is where a belief in creation, and the worth and dignity of people, relate to the idea of work. People need to be free to use their gifts that God has given them to move forward in life. When people are not able to do that, it causes real problems.”
Two Kinds of Poor
Granted, the compassionate Christian must discern that poverty arises from various causes.
“There are the unrighteous poor; a lot of passages in Proverbs speak on laziness and the sluggard,” Lindsley said. “But there are also the righteous poor. People may be poor because of violence, corruption, high taxes, or too many government regulations—people who are poor through no fault of their own. And that needs to be acknowledged fully.”
There will always be the widowed, the orphaned, the disabled, the handicapped, and the elderly—and so there will always be need for Christian charity for those who truly are limited by their circumstances as to what they can contribute to their own livelihood. But there will never be cause to neglect the acknowledgment and nourishment of each person’s human dignity, even if we desire to simply put food in their mouths.
Just as there is more than one cause for poverty, there are many ways to address it. The Chalmers Center (chalmers.org) says that while the symptoms of poverty may involve lack of food, clothing, or shelter, there are three different levels at which to respond to poverty:
Relief—offer immediate aid for those truly unable to help themselves, as in a natural disaster, medical emergency, or personal trauma.
Rehabilitation—help people return to pre-crisis conditions of their lives.
Development—assist people working to improve their lives beyond previous experience, recognizing the full potential of their gifts and abilities.
Unfortunately, many approaches to alleviating poverty take the form of relief and end there. A model that ought to be temporary for emergency situations has become the fixed strategy even when, in the long term, it may prove more crippling than helpful.
“You can be doing a good thing and have good intentions,” Lindsley added, “but actually hurt people and hurt a long-term solution by doing a temporary good.”
Aid sometimes flows too freely and frequently in areas where development or rehabilitation would be best. When people in poverty are inundated with free lunches, free clothing, free construction, and other needs that could be accomplished—at least partially—through their own skill and ingenuity, industry suffers, the free market is disrupted, and enterprise becomes unnecessary. Then, the opportunities for people to prosper through their own strengths may be overlooked, and they can be overwhelmed.
“There is a principle in ethics called subsidiarity, which is the idea that groups that are most local are best to address poverty,” Lindsley said. “You want to give when there are urgent situations, but you don’t want to encourage dependency. Instead, you’re looking to the creativity of people and bringing them to specific solutions coming from business or nonprofit[s] to help address concerns.”
The Church at Work
Interestingly, about a week prior to the Washington Post article cited above, Barna research pointed out that much of the American public is unaware of all that churches offer to their communities. While the majority may have noticed churches feeding the homeless and clothing the poor, less than a quarter of those surveyed had heard of church members working to offer after-school programs, aid new mothers, tutor school kids, teach English to immigrants, or teach job skills.
Notably, while a few of these activities fit traditional charity models by providing momentary relief for immediate needs, most of them are more in the developmental compartment—building blocks paving the way to a better future. Assisting with job skills, tutoring, or after-school child care works alongside people so they can better utilize and draw upon their own abilities and resources. Instead of remaining in a place where they need handouts, they can build a ladder to climb out of poverty.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the November 2017 edition of AFA Journal (“Helping Without Hurting”) and is reprinted with permission.
Read more about “helping without hurting” in Love Your Neighbor: Restoring Dignity, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty.
Want to help spread the word about how to help without hurting? Support IFWE today.