We can’t seem to make it go away.
If you are reading this on a computer or tablet or smartphone—that you personally own—material poverty is not the defining force of your life. You might be part of the 71% of humanity that lives on less than $10 a day, but you are certainly not living in abject poverty; in most developing countries this would mean less than $2.50 a day—sadly the reality for over 3 billion people.
For many people, the thought of a world where children die every day because of malnutrition, or suffer the indignity of digging through a dump to survive, has stirred a profound sense of compassion. This collective compassion—working through the non-profit, political, business, religious, educational, development, and media worlds—has had real impact: over the past 30 years, the number of human beings living in extreme poverty has dropped from about 36% of the earth’s population in 1990 to below 10% in 2015. But even though we’ve made major strides in poverty alleviation, we still have a lot of work to do.
Poverty isn’t part of God’s plan.
Christians believe that poverty isn’t God’s ultimate desire for anyone and that we are all part of God’s plan to reverse the devastating impact of poverty. This core belief has resulted in Christians having a significant effect on reducing poverty throughout history.
This has continued even into our time, with initiatives like Jubilee 2000. Jubilee 2000 called for $90 billion of the debt owed by the world’s poorest nations to be forgiven. Begun in England by a retired professor and his diplomat friend, Jubilee 2000 grew to be a voice that reached every corridor of influence in the world (except, oddly, most of the American media). U2’s lead singer Bono was its most recognizable pitchman.
The idea of jubilee comes from an old biblical concept—that every 50 years, all debts should be forgiven and people were to be released from the crushing burden of owing what they could never possibly repay.
If you’ve amassed student loan or credit card debt over the years, you can well imagine what that kind of forgiveness would mean to you and your family. You are also likely aware of how the interest burden of loans like this can keep you stuck for years, or even for life.
Multiply that on a global scale, and we begin to understand the stubborn hold of poverty in the 21st century: how does a developing nation ever lift itself up, if debt repayment obligations far exceed any global aid they receive?
“If we pay off their debt, can’t these nations rack up debt all over again?” Yes, of course a response to poverty is not as simple as debt reduction. Humanity remains riddled with selfish, power-hungry people. Social and economic criteria are needed to help sustain poverty reduction, such as law and order, spending prioritization by the developed world, trade agreements, and more.
As Christians, we don’t practice Jubilee today like they did in early Jewish history, but the concept is alive and well metaphorically. We believe that we should always provide an opportunity for the oppressed, indebted, and enslaved to have a renewed chance in life.
Why does poverty exist?
There isn’t a great answer for why God allows poverty to continue. However, we firmly believe that poverty is not a signal of God’s disapproval—just like wealth is not an indicator of God’s approval.
Do we do it to ourselves, then? Sure, there are times when we make bad decisions that cause our own financial hardship. But this is not the primary cause of poverty. Christians believe the root issue of poverty is that humanity still remains primarily self-centered—or sinful. Our self-centered actions (or inactions) have a direct impact on poverty in our own country and around the world.
On a global scale, the resource- and power-hungry developed world has starved other parts of the world of the capacity to grow economically. For example: with so much excess food available, why does the concept of famine even exist anymore?
On an individual level, our drive to satisfy our personal needs often results in resources not being shared, or someone else being deprived of what they need. Having material possessions is not a bad thing. They’re only negative when an addiction to material things results in us depriving other people of their basic needs—a byproduct of consumerism.
It’s not just about money.
There is more than one kind of poverty—we think primarily of material poverty, but if you lack the fulfillment of any deep need, you are poor in that area. You can be poor in your relationships, in your dignity, in your security, in your spiritual life, in your capacity to influence the world around you, or in any number of other ways.
There are two points to take away from this.
One is that anyone can face real poverty, even if they are materially rich. Think about it—you could have all the money in the world but still crave many things physically and emotionally. In effect, you are still poor. There a number of biographies that tell this type of story, such as Howard Hughes, Charles Schwab, Marilyn Monroe, etc.
“We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked, and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty” (Mother Teresa).
The other is that material poverty often brings other kinds of poverty along with it, which make it hard to overcome any of them. “Poor” college students typically aren’t truly concerned about food and shelter because they have social/relational resources as safety nets, as well as the expectation that their educational resources will take them out of material poverty soon enough. But people we typically think of as poor often face social/relational poverty in addition to material poverty. This makes it harder to escape either one: changing your situation typically requires resources of some kind.
“At the core of poverty alleviation is igniting God-given dignity into the hearts of the poor by empowering them to be who God created them to be. In that, there is abundant joy. Our efforts can’t just be monetary. Poverty alleviation is all about relationships. Jesus loved and cared for the poor, and he calls us to model his example” (Dr. Anne Bradley).
Changing the world by changing yourself?
As Christians, we believe the path to poverty reduction (of any kind) ultimately lies in a much needed change in the human condition—away from our self-centeredness. Our lives are often consumed by a constant craving to fill our desires (Matthew 6:19-21). In effect, we are poor too.
For Christians the jubilee of all jubilees was the arrival of Jesus. It’s the belief that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we were provided with an opportunity to no longer be enslaved to our own self-centeredness—or sin. God made it possible for us to be rescued from the sin that we can’t seem to release ourselves from. This is why the core of Christianity includes emphasis on justice, mercy, and liberation—because we have experienced these things personally, through Jesus.
Because of this ultimate act of debt relief, our quest now centers on more than our own desires—it now has the chance to align with God’s desire to restore and renew all creation to the way God originally intended (Colossians 1:20). And we want to be part of that. Christians become engaged in poverty reduction as part of God’s mission (Luke 4:18-19) here on earth; because we believe poverty is not part of God’s ultimate plan for anyone (Luke 12:22-34).
The Bible lays a great deal of groundwork to help us understand the nature of poverty, the capacity of our solutions, and the greatest motivations to fight the problem. While we can’t eradicate it completely through these efforts today (Matthew 26:11; Acts 17:26), we do believe that Jesus will ultimately renew this earth, fully eliminating poverty (Revelation 21:3-5). Until then we continually work to restore what we can and reduce poverty to the greatest extent we are able.
Other voices in this conversation:
Video: Stanford’s 2016 State of the Union on Poverty
Video: Tom Hart on Poverty and Global Terrorism
ONE—Extreme Poverty Campaigning and Advocacy Organization
ONE explores the issue of international debt cancellation
11 Facts About Global Poverty by DoSomething.org
Research Report: World Bank on Policies for Ending Extreme Poverty