Can we rethink poverty?

I’ve worked in the development sector for nearly seven years. People talk to me about “the poor” a lot. You know, that homogenous mass of people who don’t have what we have. The unfortunate ones.

We talk about “the poor” and very quickly it becomes us and them. Us, the rich. Them, the poor.

I won’t lie, it makes my heart hurt.

It’s not that I don’t get the sentiment behind it, it’s just that the way we speak about poverty in general, and the “the poor” in particular, shows that we’ve become so used to a certain way of seeing things. And I think it needs a rethink. For all our sakes.

Because it is us. But there is no them.

And it’s not like I don’t recognise that there is indeed a separation in our world. A separation between those who have the money and those who don’t, those who have power and those who don’t, those who have access to education and those who don’t. But the problem is that our money, our power, our education does not devoid us of poverty. Most often, it’s the very thing making it worse.

I have this conversation with a lot of people. And it’s usually a great one, as we challenge each other and learn from one another’s perspectives. So I thought—on the request of others—I’d write out some of my thoughts here. In hope that the conversation will continue.

[BIG CAVEAT AHEAD]

I work for Tearfund. A lot of this thinking is not mine, but “ours” – it’s stuff I’ve been journeying with since I started there. A lot of what I think and say is influenced by bigger and better brains that my own (Bryant Myers and Brian Fikkert to name two) and while this is the stuff that’s on my heart and it shapes so much of my theology, vision and purpose, I certainly cannot claim these thoughts to all be my own. They are reflection on what I’m learning from others.

So…what do we mean when we talk about poverty?

I suppose that’s a good place to start.

Because how we define the problem will determine the solutions we propose. Right?

Usually, when we think about poverty, things like hunger, poor sanitation, disasters, oppression, HIV, mud huts and people living on less than $1 a day are the things that spring to mind…or that picture of a poor-african-kid with a swollen belly and a tear in their eye…desperately needing you to play the hero.

It’s certainly some of what poverty is. But it’s not the whole picture.

The World Bank did a study, asking hundreds of people living in developing countries what poverty meant to them.

One woman in Moldova said, “For a poor person, everything is terrible, illness, humiliation and shame. We are cripples, we are afraid of everything, we depend on everyone. No one needs us. We are like garbage that everyone gets rid of.”

I find that really interesting.

That we talk about poverty in material terms, focussing on a lack of education, healthcare, income, possessions etc.

But it’s experienced in psychological and social terms. It’s experienced as shame, humiliation, dependance, fear, rejection.

It’s quite different.

And perhaps that gap—the really big one between how we see it and how it’s experienced—is where a big part of our problem lies. Perhaps that gap is the reason why so much of our aid effort falls short. Why so often our attempts to help people often end up hurting them…and us.

And maybe we’ve spent so long talking about the symptoms of poverty that we’ve forgotten there’s an underlying illness that needs to be addressed.

Because symptoms are really just clues that something much bigger is wrong.

And if we only treat our symptoms, we’ll just keep getting sicker.

So, what’s the underlying cause of poverty? I hear you ask.

Great question.

Lets talk about that.

— — —

My understanding of poverty comes from The Bible. Unsurprisingly.

So, lets go back to Genesis. Back to the beginning. When things were good, very good—perfect in fact.

You see God. You see Adam. You see Eve. You see the rest of Creation.

And we seem to exist really well in this space. We live in perfect relationship with God, perfect relationship with ourself, perfect relationship with each other, and perfect relationship with creation.

This is Shalom. 

This is the wholeness we were created for.

And then—as I’ve written about before—we see that something happened that made us relationally incomplete. Our four perfect relationships get broken.

And that is poverty.

Brokenness.

The absence of shalom.

And so we swap an intimate and authentic connection with God, where he is the source of our identity and value…for a fear of God and we start looking to others to determine our value. We experience a poverty of intimacy

We swap a healthy view of ourselves and an ability to let other people see us as we truly are…for shame and a need to cover up and hide. We experience a poverty of being

We swap life-giving relationships with each other, where we are happy to prefer one another…for blame, judgement and a culture of individualism. We experience a poverty of community

We swap a healthy dominion over creation and an ability to live in harmony with it…for toil of the land, exploitation, consumerism and decay. We experience a poverty of stewardship

[To unpack this more, read Brian Fikkert’s book When Helping Hurts]

My boss also puts it well.

“Poverty is the result of a social and structural legacy of broken relationships with God, damaged understanding of self, unjust relationships between people, and exploitative relationships with the environment.”

And because these relationships are broken, the systems we create to live in are broken too: Economic, Political, Religious, Social.

And so these systems don’t always work to restore our relationship with God, Self, Others and Creation. So often they drive a bigger wedge between them. And things just keep getting worse.

And that’s why the symptoms of poverty that we see around us are so awful. Hunger, lack of education, oppression, earning less than $1 per day, gender-based violence, HIV, natural and man-made disasters. These are all the harsh realities of how poverty is manifesting for some people around the world.

Our systems are desperately, desperately broken. And we do need to put our money where our mouth is, we do need to pray like mad for breakthrough and we do need get active and figure out how to use our influence to bring about change. It’s crucial that we do. Trust me, the need is overwhelming and it needs us to show up.

But when we show up without understanding and admitting our own brokenness, we end up hurting the very people we are trying to help.

And I guess that’s the point I’m really trying to make.

We suffer from those broken relationships. From a poverty of intimacy, being, community and stewardship. We suffer terribly. It just manifests differently in our cultures and communities.

It might look like soaring rates of depression, suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction.

It often looks like pride, greed, selfishness.

It’s all poverty.

And what happens when our pride, greed and selfishness meets their shame, dependence and fear? What happens when our brokenness collides?

Our pride increases.

Their shame, humiliation and dependance increases.

We’ve tried to help, but poverty has increased for all of us.

— — —

So, if that’s all a bit intense…and if you’re feeling like we’re all a little more doomed and depressed than we were about 10 minutes ago – and you now have no idea how to help…then I’m sure you want to know that there’s some good news.

Because there is good news.

Let’s go back to Genesis—back to the beginning again—because here you see God kick-start a plan of action to restore what got broken. You see that he’s intent on ushering in a Kingdom where we exist in, once again, in perfect relationship with him, with ourselves, with others and with creation.

He’s restoring Shalom.

And he calls us to join in. To usher in His Kingdom.

And so, when Jesus talks about salvation, he’s not just talking about our souls, he’s talking about our whole-selves, all of our relationships, our whole world. And all of creation. Even the undiscovered bits. He is bringing all things into realignment with Him.

Colossians 1 vs 19-20 puts it brilliantly:

“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

And The Message version unpacks it a little more….

“From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.”

And this stuff blows wide-open some of what I thought my mission was as a Christian. It expands the smaller Gospel I had been living. I’ve come to understand that when we narrow our view of salvation—when we narrow our view of poverty—we miss out so much of what Jesus came to restore and make right.

And I don’t want to miss that out.

I want to play in vibrant harmonies so that all things get fixed and fit together. I want to join in the whole song.

Because that’s the invitation. That’s the call to the Church. To you and me.

I have been so privileged to travel to different countries and communities all over the world. And I’ve seen so much brokenness and despair that it leaves me longing to know how to fix it. How to make it better. And so often I can’t or at least don’t know how to. So often I’ll come home and feel helpless, knowing that the problem is HUGE and I am small. I’ll switch on the news and see the typhoon in the Philippines and wonder if there’s anything I can really do to make a difference in this world.

But that’s not the point. God doesn’t need me to fix every problem, right every wrong. It’s not supposed to overwhelm us. That’s not why God draws us close to brokenness—so close that we feel it like our own pain.

He draws us close so that we’ll hear the invitation. We’ll see Him in that space of brokenness and he’ll lead us as we join in His story of restoration.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Excellently articulated. If Christians are meant to bring Heaven to Earth, and there is no lack in Heaven – meaning no Poverty – then the Church needs to understand that engaging with the roots and fruits of Poverty isn’t actually primarily about seeing salvation; its about expanding the Kingdom of God here on Earth.

  2. jameswleee says:

    This is great. I really enjoyed reading this. I have been learning all of this stuff recently and I’m trying to figure out the best way to live this out authentically as a believer and follower of Jesus. Also how to communicate this to people who are not thinking about these things.

    1. Thanks. I’m pleased you enjoyed reading it!

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