Any consideration of poverty brings to mind Jesus’ overriding concern for the poor and the marginalized.
He who called Himself the starting and ending point of time overcame the greatest poverty, death, and promises escape from death in this life and beyond for anyone who comes to Him.
The world around Him was splintered politically and socially, and many of its people oppressed. Jesus entered to announce the arrival of the kingdom of God in Himself. The poor, the sick, the searching were drawn to His healing touch and His message of God’s mercy and love. He fed the hungry, made the blind see, restored the maniac to sanity and forgave the adulterer. He challenged the norms of society by proclaiming that attitudes and actions should reflect true justice, true love.
Science informs us that existence is the manifestation of complex mathematical formulas and relationships. Life itself is contingent on elements as basic as air and water. Our relational reality hinges on the ultimate contingency, the God who is in all things, above all things and through all things.
The poor, exposed to grinding need, are in their vulnerability open to transformation. A literal translation of the Hebrew word for salvation translates as “God is a saving–cry.” The English language further defines salvation as “wholeness, health, and physical and emotional well–being.”
The specter of poverty is such a burning issue because it exposes what is true for everyone. All are in need of transformation. All are cut off or dimly perceive the ultimate contingency, that of a God who calls His creation to emulate Himself in all His righteousness.
God demonstrated His supreme love by coming to earth to address human need completely. Author Obery Hendricks, Jr., in The Politics of Jesus, refers to Jesus’ meeting with a man branded a leper: “For Jesus… they were mothers’ sons and daughters, children of God. It was this systematic exclusion and crushing of the spirits of some of God’s children by others of God’s children, this violation of the fundamental freedom that permeates the Gospels, that fired the anger of Jesus and moved Him to counsel this particular victim, and by extension, all who are victimized by unjust power, to publicly repudiate the agents of injustice and the systems they administer.” Reverend Hendricks goes on to say that to be true to Jesus’ vision means to “treat people’s needs as holy.”
It is one thing to refer to the vision of the gospels, another to interpret it for today. Even defining poverty is difficult, since psychological and social impacts are hard to measure. Mollie Orshansky, who developed poverty measurements for the U.S. government, said, “to be poor is to be deprived of those goods and services and pleasures which others around us take for granted.” The World Bank defines poverty as “an income level below some minimum level necessary to meet basic needs.” The United Nations defines it as “a denial of choices and opportunities, a violation of human dignity.” Poverty is lack of food, clean water, shelter, sanitation, health, education, basic services, representation and power. Army Founder William Booth thought the poor of industrial London deserved at least the same treatment as the city’s cab horses. Today The Salvation Army is developing a human needs index to better serve those in need. Mother Theresa said, “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.”
The Army’s international leader General André Cox has expressed concern about the disparity of wealth and the self–absorption of materialism. “We cannot remain unmoved… We may by the only means that God has of touching people around us with His love.”
The causes of poverty are both social and personal. Those without access to basic necessities, to a safety net, to pathways to self–sufficiency and to gainful employment, live on the margins, without benefit of instruction and guidance. And while it is easy to stereotype those in poverty as responsible for their negative outcomes, a person’s behavior does influence destiny to some degree. Psychiatrist Anthony Daniels has worked in countries in Africa and with prison populations in his native England. He notes from his experience that heroin addicts “show considerable determination in becoming addicts… In Britain, at least, heroin addicts do not become criminals because they are addicted… Criminality is a better predictor of addiction than is addiction of criminality.” He also points out that by the time they are 15 or 16, twice as many children in Britain have a television as have a biological father living in the home.
The Way Forward
The poverty level in the United States has remained between 15-20% since the 1960s. Many more people would have been subject to poverty if government assistance programs had not been available. The safety net provided through public assistance has done much to help individuals and families improve their circumstances. But those on the ground, such as social workers, realize that initiatives to alleviate poverty can trap people in a maze of attitudes and services that perpetuate an impoverished lifestyle.
Americans are a generous people, giving on average about 4% of income to charity annually. Yet the untapped resources in the private realm are vast. Charitable giving amounts to only about 1.5% of GNP. The opportunity for a free people to harness the power to contribute to the social capital of the nation is one of America’s greatest prospects.
The nation’s social capital has been depleted over the last decades. Rising inequality is one sign, as are the erosion of values that lead to stability and responsibility. In his book Coming Apart, Charles Murray sites as examples the rise in the number of children born out of wedlock, the decrease in civic involvement by citizens and the sense that traits such as trustworthiness, honesty, service and self–sacrifice are no longer the norm.
The founders of the United States instituted self–government according to shared values. James Madison observed that “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.” For Patrick Henry, “No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality and virtue.” As Charles Murray summarizes it, “the founders recognized that if a society is to remain free, self–government refers first of all to individual citizens governing their own behavior.”
Jesus embraced the poor, the lonely, the sick, the marginalized because He saw in them the potential for transformation. The challenge of poverty is to renew social capital and inform it with the values that lead to lasting change, and with the transformative spirit that defines salvation in all its dimensions.
By Jeff McDonald