On Poverty

After living in Haiti for eight days, I’m more aware now than I was before of the plight of those living in poverty. You might think I’m referring to the Haitians. Well, I am. But I’m also referring to Americans, some of whom live in greater poverty than the Haitians.

Words cannot describe some of the economic poverty that I witnessed. On our first day, we prayed with a newly married couple in their 40’s who lived in something less than a shack – probably no more than 10’x8′, with tarps for walls and some tin and wood for their roof. Their floors were nothing more than dirt and their front door – if you can call it that – was nothing more than a couple of long cloths that were hung to provide some privacy. Both are unemployed and neither have any realistic expectation of ever having gainful, steady employment. They lack any transportation, other than their feet. No running water. No electricity. No air conditioning. Both have very little formal education. Yet, they believe in God and trust God for their daily bread. Literally.

The following day, I sat in church and listened to man, who lives in similar poverty, sing the following hymn with a studio-quality voice and an honest earnestness that took me by surprised:

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav’n and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Can you imagine someone living well below the poverty line in America singing that Jesus is their portion, that they are happy and free? Because nearly everyone in America defines poverty as a lack of stuff or services, we find it hard to imagine – let alone believe – that someone living without much materially can consider themselves happy and free. Americans believe that money and material things bring them happiness, security and comfort. But this is not the case.

I can point to more than a few rather rich people who live empty, vacuous lives. They have the homes, cars, boats, clothes, club memberships and so forth, but they are empty, void, restless, discontent and generally unhappy people.

If we believe that economic poverty is a result of a lack of knowledge, then we’ll spend time educating the poor. If we believe that poverty is a result of oppression by powerful people, then we’ll spend time working in social justice causes. If we believe that poverty is a result of personal sin, then we’ll spend time in evangelism and discipleship. And if we believe that poverty comes from a lack of stuff, then we’ll spend time in philanthropic work, trying to give the poor more stuff.

Real poverty is not a lack of stuff or knowledge or a result of some type of oppression, though all of these elements might exist in any given scenario of poverty.

Real poverty comes from broken relationships: with God, with self, with others and with creation. Hence, when properly understood, poverty results in a loss of spiritual intimacy with God, loss of proper stewardship of what we do have, poverty or disconnection from community with others and a poverty of being – developing pride or low self-esteem. In this model, a Jeffrey Skilling can be living in as much poverty as a Haitian born in the slums of Port-au-Prince.

Why do I say this? Because, when you find a person who is walking with God, who is properly connected to their community, who steward what they have and who have a good self-esteem without pride, you won’t find a person who appears to be in poverty. They might be lacking in economic means, but they’ll be willing to work for what is given to them. They won’t covet what others have and they won’t blame society for their lot in life. If Jesus Christ really came to reconcile to Himself all things (Colossians 1.15-20), then lack of reconciliation must be defined a poverty. If our faith in Christ is really worth more than silver or gold (1 Peter 1), then surely a lack of faith in Christ must mean we’re living in poverty.

 A key principle in aid is not to do anything for people that they can do for themselves.  People’s needs can be divided into one of three categories: emergency relief, rehabilitation and long-term development.  An emergency situation often exists immediately following a natural disaster, or conflict.  It is characterized by the presence of life-threatening injuries, or shortages of water, food, shelter and adequate clothing.  But this emergency situation usually is very short – only a few weeks long – and during this period the correct response is to provide the necessary medical and humanitarian assistance to save lives.  Once “the bleeding has stopped”, the recovery period starts; it is no longer appropriate to give things away unthinkingly.  Here is the illustration from the When Helping Hurts book of the 3 phases with the following graphic drawing:

When Helping Hurts advocates a participatory approach to rehabilitation and development that includes the beneficiaries/community in the design and implementation of the intervention.  This approach is illustrated with stories of how well-meaning Westerners can actually do harm to communities and people through an inadequate understanding of the unintended consequences of applying a relief response when a rehabilitation or development response is more appropriate.

Some who read this are going to be angry or upset with what is written here. I have two responses: first, read the books “When Helping Hurts”, “Toxic Charity” and other books like them. Then please take my word when I say that I’ve met Christians living in thin economic conditions who were not living in poverty because their relationships were healed. They didn’t act like most who live with very little and they didn’t define themselves as living in poverty. When Christ is at the center of one’s life, one can really get to the place of contentment, whether or not one has much in material goods. Is this not the point of Philippians 4.12-13?

Our American government defines poverty as a lack of stuff coupled with oppression that comes from the rich in our capitalistic system. So we redistribute wealth on an ever-increasing scale to fight poverty and the structural oppression. We try to hurt those who have too much by implementing policies and programs that strive to achieve some level of equality of outcomes for everyone. But positive results are elusive because we’ve define the poverty problem the wrong way in this county.

In this context, we can now understand why Phil Robertson could say:

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once,” he said. “Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field … They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

I’m not arguing here at the Civil Rights legislation was unnecessary. But if they were godly people, then they were reconciled properly to God, themselves, their environment and their community. This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have worked for improvements, but it is an example of how people with little can still live in the reconciliation provided by Jesus Christ. By contrast, this article suggests that having money and the pursuit of money can have deleterious effects on our relationships that Christ came to reconcile.

Look – all things being equal – having more money is preferred over less money. But all things are rarely equal and many times, those who walk with God the closest are also those who live with less than most others. Yet, they don’t live in poverty because they have learned that their faith is worth more than silver or gold.

Bill English