Paradigms of Poverty

Posted: December 31, 2011 in Compassion

The church is that community that contains all the (God given) resources necessary to combat poverty. It is the structure that gives a literal body to the mission of Jesus in our fallen world.  Defining poverty as simply a lack of material goods does an injustice to the poverty of spirit within the poor.  There is foundationally a broken down system that has cultivated broken spirits within the paradigm of both the person in need and those of us who think ourselves as having enough resources.  We fail to see the root of poverty being fed by the very charitable programs we design to alleviate said poverty. 


Now, I know there is much debate just within the first paragraph.  Let’s look at my statements one at a time.  First, Jesus said we would always have the poor among us (Matthew 26:11). So, I am not saying we will eradicate poverty.  But we do have God given resources including talent and material goods to combat the needs around us.


Let’s define poverty.  Most people would say it is a lack of material resources to care for the basic needs of a person.  While I can agree with that definition, I believe it to be profoundly incomplete!  Poverty is one of those conditions created and defined by our culture.  In theUSA, poverty is established by the income or financial wealth of a household. The scale used most often is published and managed by the USDA and the Census Bureau.  The USDA data of course is tied directly to the material goods and money related to our food supply in theUnited States.  The Census Bureau determines how a person’s income relates to the median income in our country.


Understandably, there is a cultural application to our theology. Our local and regional resources and financial systems shape, and are expressions of how our theology is applied. However, if we remove our cultural practices and understandings, can our theology remain true?  The more I read theologians outside our cultural arena, the more I understand that pure theology is an understanding that can be applied in any culture, any country, any financial system. It may look different in various places yet it remains pure. For too long, we have allowed our culture to determine how we confront need.  Rather, we should allow our theology to shape how we approach people in need. One is an intangible idea, the other is relational, with humanity at it’s core.


There is a lot of chatter lately about relational religion.  I like this.  I appreciate that people are made for relationship. We can say that God created us for relationship both with himself, with creation and with other humans.  The creation story teaches us the value of these relationships.  God told Adam to tend the garden, long before the fall. (Compassion, justice and the Christian Life, by Lupton.)  God created man to work and to relate to the world around him.  In that relationship, we see God’s love expressed to humankind through the creation that feeds and sustains them.


We live in a fallen world. Did poverty enter in when Adam felt like hiding from God or did it enter Adam’s life when he had to cultivate food by the sweat of his brow?  What is the greater poverty?


Bryant Myers, Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development, lays out a framework for relationships on four levels that are important to a person’s sense of wellness.  A lack of this sense of wellness opens a void or an empty place (poverty).  The four relational areas are: God, self, others and creation.   These are practiced and expressed via religious systems, economic systems, social systems and political systems.  These are our cultural expressions of how we understand our world and our relationship to God and the created world.  Our limited understanding of poverty as a lack of material resources excludes the poverty of relationships, the poverty of spiritual wellness, and the poverty of a sense of value in oneself.


At this point, I learn from Mother Teresa. She learned from the Holy Scriptures all mankind is made in the image of God.  Scripture does not define that image to only be inherent in believers exclusively!  All people, every single one, bears God’s image.  She also read the words of Christ that “as often as you have done it (ministered to the needs of) to the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.”  I think the only understanding of that passage is a literal one.  For Mother Teresa, that meant if she wanted to posses more of Christ and offer more of herself to Jesus, she must walk and work and love (genuinely) the poorest of the poor.  Her theology determined her approach to serving the poor because she wanted more of the Christ she was in love with.  She served the poor as though each one was the Savior himself.


So how do we design our programs that serve those we call “poor”?  Does handing someone a three day supply of groceries really address their poverty?  How will that help them provide their own food after your supply is consumed? How do we address the fact that well over half the households we give charity to will continue to be in need beyond our ability to provide material goods that meet their basic needs? 


We must begin to rethink how we offer compassion and charity.  We must practice compassion in a way that preserves the dignity, the image of God within people and gives them a way to work and participate in the solutions to their poverty.  Because we have done it “this way” for generations, does not mean it is the correct way!  How can our theology shape the way we approach someone in need?  Will it make them our special project of the day or will it disciple them into a redemptive relationship?


Let’s continue to rethink and design programs that are measured by their redemptive value rather than simply filling a belly for a night.  Both are needed, full stomachs enable ears to hear and hearts that are open.


~Continuing the conversation,



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