Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about poverty. It seems like there is ongoing controversy about what can be done to help those in poverty. Although lots of people from all kinds of different philosophical and religious backgrounds feel it’s important to help the poor, and all are approaching the issue with good intentions, just as with most things that are truly important, there are strong disagreements regarding how to go about it. I don’t mean to minimize the efforts of all those who are working hard and often making great sacrifices to do what they feel is in the best interests of America’s poor, but I wonder how often we are jumping the gun by debating the question of methodology before answering a much more important question. I think that before we can truly know anything about how to help those in poverty, we first have to ask, exactly what is poverty?
We often assume that poverty means simply a lack of material resources. And it’s true, there are many who suffer from a lack of food, wealth, or possessions. But many also suffer from a lack of status, one that prevents them from advocating for their own needs or acting in their own defense. And many, many more, including many of us who declare an interest in “helping the poor,” suffer from poverty in our spiritual lives and in our relationships. In the excellent book When Helping Hurts, authors Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett make the case that the picture of “the poor” found in the Bible must include these types of impoverishment–not just material need, but also poverty of community and poverty of being.
In that case, as you may already be thinking, we are all in the same boat. We all stand before God and each other broken, wounded, in desperate need, without the resources to help ourselves. The solution (and the mission statement for those of us committed to addressing poverty) is simply this: “Poverty alleviation is the ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation.” This is the message of the gospel.
When we neglect this truth and fall into the trap of thinking about poverty as simply material, we can mistakenly pour all of our efforts into the provision of material relief, and miss out on the true solution, this ministry of reconciliation. It is too easy to do this. We don’t understand because we don’t want to understand. For one thing, as Fikkert and Corbett put it, “it’s much simpler to drop food from airplanes or ladle soup from bowls than it is to develop long-lasting, time-consuming relationships with poor people, which can be emotionally exhausting.” A friend of mine calls this “hiding behind the ladle.” For another, we often fall victim to our own illusions of spiritual accomplishment. We want to show others, show God, even show ourselves, that we are really “getting something done.” Again, Fikkert and Corbett point out, “‘We fed a thousand people today’ sounds better…than ‘We hung out and developed relationships with a dozen people today.'” Piling up accomplishments and focusing only on the material–the one area where we have ample resources–keeps us from the humbling and profoundly uncomfortable position of admitting our own poverty, our own lack, our own need for spiritual and relational reconciliation. Truly helping those in poverty means acknowledging that we also are in need of the same kind of help.
Certainly none of this lets us off the hook when it comes to giving unselfishly of our material resources to those who really need this type of help. Material provision for others is still usually good and often quite necessary. But it does help us to realize that the true value of material provision lies in its effectiveness as a vehicle for this gospel ministry of relational reconciliation. And many true, effective, and lasting efforts to alleviate poverty will not involve material need at all, but will simply allow us to practice real community, the kind that does indeed move people toward living in right relationship with God, themselves, other people, and the world around them. I know this idea is a hard sell for most people. It runs counter to everything our culture, often our churches, and maybe even our families have taught us to believe. But I suspect that may be exactly what makes it the gospel truth.