Christianity and Poverty

How is the believer to think about poverty, welfare, and the best way to help the poor? Such topics are far too big to consider here, but aspects of this discussion can be briefly addressed.

For example, what does one make of the attempts by various celebrities such as Bono to relieve poverty? What about initiatives like Live Aid or the One Campaign? Can churches and other religious groups effectively combat world poverty, or is this something only governments can tackle?

Big questions these. It seems a genuine role can be played by religious aid bodies. Opportunity International comes to mind as one very successful, religious-based group. Instead of giving away handouts, it offers loans to individuals and small businesses in poor countries. Experts in microcredit and microfinancing, they provide a good illustration of the maxim that it is better to teach a man to fish than simply to give him a fish. See their site: www.opportunity.org.au/

As to the celebrities, some of whom are believers, one can at times be cynical. One suspects that Western kids assuage their guilt by buying expensive tickets to a charity concert, and think they have fulfilled their responsibility to the poor.

And what about the pop stars and celebrities? Again, the cynic might argue that if someone like Bono simply sold his collection of designer sunglasses, hundreds of poor people in Africa could be fed for years from the proceeds. But at least they are trying, it can be argued.

Jordan Ballor of the Acton Institute in the US argues that Christians should reconsider how much they rely on governments to fight poverty. Indeed, he suggests that Christians should not be so reliant on governments for doing what churches have always historically done. Says Ballor,

“One of the most common refrains from Christian leaders calling various governments to action – whether those of Canada, the U.S., or other member states of the United Nations – is that governments are the only entities capable of providing the level of material assistance that is needed. In the words of a speaker to a denominational assembly I observed last month, ‘Civil society is never enough.’ The message is that churches can never hope to match sums like the $40 billion the G8 has proposed to cut debt among some African nations.”

But is this the case? Are churches so poor? “This attitude simply does not give Christians enough credit, both for what they have done and what they might do if challenged. In the U.S. alone in 2004, private individuals and corporations gave a record $249 billion to charity, with religious organizations as the single largest recipient group at $88 billion.”

He continues, “This is more than double the debt-relief offered by the G8, and this is reached even though Christians as a group do not give nearly at a level in accord with the biblical principle of the tithe. The Barna Group reports that only 6% of American Christians gave 10 percent of their income to churches or parachurch organizations in 2004. Imagine the possibilities if Christian leaders spent more time admonishing the members of their flock to meet their biblical responsibilities! Sadly, many seem more concerned with politicking than with calling the church to its higher standard.”

And believers should prefer faith-based initiatives over secular government programs for several reasons. First, one can ask how effective government poverty relief measures are, especially in terms of foreign aid. As Lord Peter Bauer liked to remark, most foreign aid programs consist of poor people in rich countries giving money to rich leaders in poor countries.

Second, believers recognise that dealing with spiritual poverty is just as important as dealing with physical poverty. Says Ballor, “But the irony is that the entities with perhaps the most assets to spend on poverty relief (governments) are the ones that are least able to do so effectively. The secular nature of democracies, which vigorously separate ‘proselytizing’ and faith elements out of charity work, is a serious hindrance to the efficacy of compassion.”

He continues, “This restriction prevents governments from addressing anything but the material needs of the poor. While Christianity has always recognized the rich and complex body and soul anthropology of the human person, secular governments only have the tools to enact part of the solution.”

Indeed, biblical aid work must take the whole person into account: “So why are Christians so eager to endorse what is at best a half-measure? Jesus showed us the relative priority of the spiritual over the physical when he asked, ‘What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?’ (Mark 6:36 NIV).”

“Some kinds of Christian charity have been making this error for decades. The National Council of Churches (NCC) ignores the fact that acts of Christian mercy must always be done with a view toward the spiritual welfare of the recipient, as it continually engages in relief efforts while explicitly condemning ‘proselytizing.’ But what the NCC calls proselytizing, other Christians call evangelism. Is not the “cup of water” to be given in Jesus’ name? (Mark 9:41).”

In Scripture we are told to meet the needs of the whole person – body and spirit. “A true vision of Christian charity is one that embraces the whole human person, physical and spiritual. In the same way that we cannot ignore material concerns in ministering to a person’s spiritual needs, the service of the body must be done in view of the greater purpose of Christian missions: the salvation of souls. And this is something the government simply cannot do.”

While governments certainly have a role to play in the reduction of world poverty, believers should not minimise nor ignore the many important roles that churches and parachurch groups can play. And we must not forget that it is only relatively recent that the state took over from the churches so many vital functions, such as welfare, health care and education.

www.acton.org/ppolicy/comment/article.php?id=276

[992 words]