Our aim this morning, from the Bible, is to look at the causes of poverty and what we can do about it.
First, let’s define poverty.
It’s difficult to find a verse or passage in the Bible which does this, but the laws to help the poor in Scripture seem to assume that poverty is “being unable to provide food, shelter and clothing for you and your family.”
Much as modern Britain might consider a television to be a basic essential, not being able to afford a TV doesn’t make you poor.
What, then, are the causes of poverty?
Our Bible reading has given us some of them, though there are a few others.
Proverbs 28:3, 8.
Oppression is the abuse of power, political, legal, military, financial, social, to the advantage of yourself and the disadvantage of another. It can take all sorts of forms, and consistently in the Bible, the poor are the most vulnerable to it. It is both a cause and a result of poverty. It is a vicious spiral, the more oppressed you are, the poorer you become; the poorer you are, the more open to oppression you are.
It’s not particularly a theme in this chapter, but theft and dishonest trading (which is, of course, theft) is a cause of poverty. Here it’s doubly shocking that anyone would rob their parents. The repeated criticism in the prophets of those who use false weights and measures would apply here. If you give someone 2 lbs of potatoes (I don’t know what that is in metric – how un-European!), but charge them for 3 ½ that is theft.
Proverbs 28:8, 20, 22
Notice the twist in each of these. It’s not that greed causes poverty in someone else, rather that greed causes poverty in the greedy person. It’s the stingy man seeking riches who is heading for poverty.
And we’ve seen that to be true in our world. Mike Tyson famously earned $300 million from one of the mosrt successful boxing careers in history. So how come 4 years ago he had to file for bankruptcy, being $27 million in debt? How could Michael Jackson, at his peak earning £30 million A YEAR be an estimated £156 million in debt?
This is rather more controversial. It’s pretty un-PC to say that some people are poor because they’re just lazy.
Proverbs 28:19. And I found at least another 12 verses in Proverbs which say the same thing. Proverbs is full of the theme of the sluggard, the lazy man who will not work and comes to nothing. Or 2 Thess 3:10,
“For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’”
Much as people don’t like it, we must say it. This isn’t a one-off verse. If God thinks we need to be warned repeartedly against idleness, we may fairly think that some of the world’s poverty is caused by laziness.
There are other causes of poverty which don’t particularly feature in Proverbs 28 – natural disaster can bring poverty on whole communities and nations; ill health can bring poverty; war brings poverty.
What this shows us is that poverty is very complicated. Some poverty is self-inflicted, some poverty is the result of others’ sin, while still other poverty is simply the result of living in a fallen world.
I think there are two mistaken extremes we can fall into as we look at poverty.
One is to dismiss all the poor as worthless scroungers, bone idle, the undeserving. Get on your bike and look for work! We’ve seen that the Bible expects that much poverty will not be self-inflicted. There are godly, faithful, hard-working people who are in abject poverty. Only the ignorant or the very cruel would dismiss the poor out of hand.
The other mistake is the opposite. It is not right to assume that all of the poor are unfortunate victims, the exploited, the oppressed. Many are, but Proverbs would tell us, some of them are just downright lazy.
Proverbs 28:27 tells us,
“He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses.”
We must hear this. Poor relief is not optional, for the church as a whole, or for the individual. Close your eyes to the poor, and expect God’s curse to fall on you. We must help the poor. But that does not mean we must help every poor person. 2 Thess 3:6 commands the church “to keep away from every brother who is idle.”
So we must be discerning in the way we help the poor. There are some who are poor who should not be helped, or perhaps should be helped provisionally, on the basis that they will do some work. But there are many still whom we must help.
One way of doing this is supporting Christian agencies and charities who understand this. There are many secular charities, and indeed some who claim to be Christian, who do not believe that man is basically sinful. Without that, you will not believe that some poverty is self-inflicted. Truly Christian charities, who believe that mankind is sinful, will be discerning.
Another way of doing this is trying to give as directly as possible. It’s great that Tearfund, for example, is moving more and more to linking up local churches in the West, with local churches in the developing world. A local church knows its people, its community. It knows local needs and local failings. If we can give money direct to local churches for poverty relief, we can have much more confidence that it will be used carefully, efficiently and with discernment.
Personally, I’d love to be really specific, and give you a checklist of how to discern who should be helped and who not. But it’s really difficult. Every person is different. We will need to decide on a case-by-case basis. Often, it won’t be obvious one way or the other. We will need to pray and consider, and pray again. Experience will help, so the more you help the poor, the more discerning you will become. I personally would not give money to people on the streets. On a few occasions, when I’ve had the time, I’ve taken them to McDonalds, bought them something and listened to their story, but be aware of your personal safety, particularly if you are a woman. The principle is, I think, very clear in Scripture. The practice is very hard.
The causes of poverty: there are many, they are complex, we must help the poor, we must be discerning.
How then can we address poverty?
The first thing to say is that we are not alone in addressing poverty. Someone else has gone before us. 2 Cor 8:9
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
Jesus is the richest person imaginable. He is the king of kings and lord of lords. He created all things and sustains all things. Everything in the whole world belongs to him, fossil fuels, energy resources, barrels of oil, precious gems, all of De Beers’ diamonds, every piece of land, and ocean, and sky. He has landlord’s rights to everything and everywhere. Talk about the Midas touch. Sure, King Midas could turn anything into gold, but there had to be something there first. Jesus makes gold out of nothing. Jesus made us out of nothing.
Yet he gave up his visible majesty, his obvious glory in heaven, his throne, his comfort, and became a man. Not only that, he became poor, truly poor – the only place that could be found for his birth was a feeding trough in a filthy stable. I think that counts as poverty, don’t you? And he did it willingly, for our sakes. And see what else it says. It’s not so that he could empathise or sympathise, so he could stand alongside us in our poverty, and strengthen us (though that is true). No, he became poor so that through his poverty we might be rich.
That is the gospel of our salvation. That is what believe. That is how we were rescued. But more than rescuing me or you, Christ’s poverty, his death and resurrection have also set in train the abolition of poverty. There will be no poverty in the new heavens and the new earth, no lack of food, shelter, clothing. There will be an abundance for all of redeemed humanity. More than that, as the spread of the gospel and the triumph of the church and the renewal of the world progresses, so poverty will shrink and diminish. But, it will not disappear completely until the new heavens and new earth. As Jesus famously said in Matthew 26:11, “The poor you will always have with you.”
As well as being our salvation, Christ is also an example for us. Paul told the Philippians to have Christ’s attitude. So he tells the Corinthians here that Christ is their example in their financial giving. Give freely, willingly, joyfully, to help those who are poor.
So how do we address poverty?
3 principles first, then some specifics.
1. It must be willing.
That’s already come out of 2 Cor 8. Giving to the poor is voluntary, it is willing. That doesn’t mean it’s optional. The Christian should help the poor, but it is an obligation from God, which we obey. So it is not enforced by other agencies, be that the church or the state or a charity. Paul writes further in 2 Cor 9:7,
“Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
Addressing world poverty is a willing, joyful, voluntary task.
2. It must be just.
So Robin Hood was wrong then. Robbing from the rich is not justified by the fact you’re going to give it to the poor. Justice is justice, regardless of your bank balance. So we do not favour the rich because they are rich. And, we do not favour the poor, just because they are poor. If we address world poverty unjustly, whether that injustice is to poor or rich, we are doomed to failure. Poverty may be caused by injustice, but it should not be relieved with further injustice. Two wrongs do not make a right.
3. It must be in the right place.
In that story in Matthew 26 where Jesus is anointed with really expensive perfume, and the disciples complain, specifically because it could have been sold and the money given to the poor, Jesus says they are wrong. The woman has done a beautiful thing to Jesus. Her action has proclaimed something of the gospel, preparing Jesus for his death. This is an example for us that relieving poverty, while important, is not always to be our number one priority. There are other things which may be more important, such as opportunities to proclaim something of the gospel.
As before, the principle is clear, but the practice is very hard. How high up your list of priorities is giving to relieve world poverty? It could depend on your stage of life, your finances, your family situation, the opportunities and situations open around you. By now, you’re getting frustrated with my vagueness in application. So am I! But this is a complicated subject.
Let’s have some specifics then.
Look after your family. I realise that’s not world poverty, but that is one of our highest responsibilities. 1 Tim 5:4-8
Failing to provide for your family, your whole family, but especially your immediate family, if you are able, is worse than being an unbeliever. Look after your aging parents, your destitute sister, your grown-up child who is unable to work through ill health.
Give generously, willingly, joyfully, sacrificially to those in need. In a church I was in previously, one response to the Asian tsunami was to find a Bible-believing church in Aceh in Indonesia, and to give money directly to them to use in their community as they saw fit. Perhaps we should do the same here.
Share the gospel. You’re thinking, how on earth does he get evangelism out of a sermon on world poverty? Well, maybe I’m a pessimist, but as a non-Christian I don’t see why I should help the poor. As a Christian, with the Spirit of God at work in me, with the Bible exhorting me to generosity, with the Lord Jesus as my model, I have many reasons to help the poor. The more Christians there are in the world, the less poverty there will be.
If you’re a Fairtrade buyer, then get your stuff from Mick and Grace Dobney at church, don’t get it from the supermarket. I was shocked this week to discover some statistics about the supermarkets’ abuse of Fairtrade. In one supermarket, of the £1 extra charged for FT bananas over ordinary ones, only 4p goes to the banana producer. In another, the supermarket makes 160% pure profit on FT brands of coffee, which is more than they make on their own non-FT premium brand. Starbucks sell their FT coffee for 10 times the premium the producer gets paid. If you buy your FT goods from Mick and Grace, a lot more of the money will go to the producers.
More controversially, think before you boycott. Let me read you this introduction to an article written a year ago.
In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Labor Research Ben Powell and David Skarbek present the results of a survey of "sweatshops" in eleven Third World countries. In nine of the eleven countries, "sweatshop" wages in foreign factories located there were higher than the average. In Honduras, where almost half the working population lives on $2/day, "sweatshops" pay $13.10/day. "Sweatshop" wages are more than double the national average in Cambodia, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Honduras. In the conclusion of the journal article, Sweatshops and Third World Living Standards: Are the Jobs Worth the Sweat? the authors write, “We find that most sweatshop jobs provide an above average standard of living for their workers.”
Obviously we don’t want to support enforced child labour, or abuses like that, but we must think clearly. Things that we in the West would call sweatshops can be in their local context one of the best jobs available to many people. Wayne Grudem has recently written “The only long-term solution to world poverty is business."
Finally, let me address a couple of political issues. To address world poverty I think we must campaign for the abolition of international trade tariffs and government subsidies, but against the use of government to government aid. Let’s take those two in turn.
Tariffs and subsidies in the West prevent developing economies selling their goods at competitive prices in the West. This means that profits, wages and the standard of living in these countries are artificially held back. It means that Western governments, while claiming to be working to make poverty history, are actually creating and sustaining poverty. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, we should campaign for an end to these tariffs and subsidies.
Having created this poverty by preventing free trade, Western governments then try to address it by giving money to other governments. This is not right. First, it fails two of our principles – it is not willing and therefore it is not just. Tax is money taken by force (legal force – the Bible says we should pay our taxes). But it is compelled, it is not voluntary giving. So it is not just, it does not treat rich and poor the same. It is effectively a Robin Hood solution. To take a crude illustration, if a thief took £100 from you at gunpoint at a cash machine, and then gave £20 of it away to a needy person, he would not be praised for his generous charity. I believe it is no coincidence that the United States, which is criticised for giving the least government aid per head of population, also gives the most voluntary charitable giving per head of population. Second, it is inefficient and wide open to corruption. Recent British and American government estimates are that over half of all aid to Afghanistan has been pocketed by corrupt officials and politicians.
To sum up. Poverty is sometimes self-inflicted, sometimes caused by others’ sin, sometimes a result of living in a fallen world. Christians must help the poor, but with discernment. Jesus has provided the ultimate solution to poverty, and in the meantime we follow his example. Addressing world poverty, while important, will not always be our no. 1 priority. Generous, voluntary, sacrificial giving, free trade and the creation and sharing of wealth through business will all be important parts of relieving world poverty.