How We Define It
What is Poverty?
“Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.” Bryant Myers Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development
Poverty is about broken relationships.
Most Christians lack a biblical foundation for holistic ministry to people who are poor and fail to see how central such ministry is to the church’s mission. At the start of His earthly ministry, Jesus said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent” (Luke 4:43). The kingdom of God is the reconciliation of the entire cosmos through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:19). Jesus and his followers declared the good news of the kingdom through both words and deeds to the blind, the lame, the deaf, the mute, the leper, and the poor (Luke 7:18-23; 9:1-2; 10:9). As His body and fullness, the church is to continue Christ’s work of declaring his kingdom—in both words and deeds—to the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40). Unfortunately, the evangelical world has been paralyzed by a truncated gospel which reduces the reign of Christ to saving souls, thereby undermining the biblical concern for the whole person. A shift in thinking is needed to enable the church to pursue the whole gospel, for the whole person, and the whole world.
How we answer the question—What is poverty?—determines the solutions we propose. A misdiagnosis of the problems related to poverty results in remedies that are ineffectual and even harmful. Good intentions are not enough. Unfortunately, Christians often have faulty assumptions about the root causes of poverty and its solutions. As a result, we often end up hurting people living in poverty and ourselves in the process of trying to help them.
In order to help people in poverty we need to have a biblically consistent framework which conceives of poverty as being rooted in the effects of the fall on the four foundational relationships that God established for each person: relationships with God, self, others, and creation. When defined in this way, at our base level we’re all poor because none of us experience the fullness that God intended for each of these relationships. For the economically poor, these broken relationships often include shame, a marred identity, social isolation, and a lack of a sense of vocation that contribute to a lack of income. For the economically rich, these broken relationships manifest themselves in pride, selfishness, workaholic tendencies, materialism, etc. that lead to all sorts of individual and social ills. Unfortunately, when the economically rich interact with the economically poor, they tend to do so in such a way that exacerbates the shame that the economically poor feel, while also exacerbating the pride of the economically rich. Central to poverty alleviation is embracing our own mutual brokenness so that we can truly help others without hurting them and ourselves.