A "Tough" Proposal – An Approach to Alleviating Poverty, 1

This is the first of 3 posts that I plan to do regarding alleviating poverty.  This will not be comprehensive in any way shape or form, but aims at doing some critical reflection on the situation we now find ourselves in as American citizens.  Everything I write is an interaction with a book titled: Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America; by Paul Tough (thus the title).  Specifically this will be based on chapter two of this book titled: “Unequal Childhoods.”  I must admit that I have not read this book in its entirety, but thoroughly read chapter two as an assignment for a seminary class.  I am reflecting therefore, on the issues presented in that chapter, and have not necessarily made a decision about the ‘whole’ of the approach outlined in the book.  And actually, this first post is not in dialogue with the book at all, but rather lays a brief theological basis for why issues of poverty matter to the church of Jesus.


Post I:  Why is helping the poor and alleviating poverty an aspect of the mission of the church?

The above question is one that has much relevance in recent weeks.  There has been an intense dialogue between political voices and various Christian voices on the role of social justice and the church.  It is quite clear that the witness of the bible gives us an ethical imperative to care about issues of poverty.  Not simply as abstract feelings of empathy, but out of a concrete realism of action and relationship (meaning that the bible invites us to be in relationship of those who are impoverished and to act on their behalf).  If we look at the narrative of Scripture it becomes clear that poverty is not part of the good design of creation, but is a result of fallen powers of evil who have lured in rebellious humanity to join in the vicious cycle of exclusion.  The word that the bible often uses to describe the world and relationships as they ought to be is shalom.  This is a view of reality that is holistically peaceful, meaning that every relationship is right: to God, others, self, and creation.  It is such a state that God created this world for, and it is to the same that God intends to eventually take the creation project as expressed in the new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21-22, Romans 8).  So, the short answer for the biblical theologian is that: if God intends for us to have a world that is free from suffering and poverty, then it follows that Christians ought to reflect such an intention in the present.  In other words, God’s future new creation reality can become partially realized in the present time as the church chooses to work for justice in the world as a signpost of what is to come.  Not only are the eschatological implications strong in Scripture, but also the words of Jesus about the poor, the rebuking statements of many of the OT prophets, and the 500 verses devoted to justice in the NT.

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  • Hey Kurt- thanks for this brief but thoughtful post on the topic of poverty. I think you’re right on that this subject has taken on new significance in recent months given the unfortunate but inevitable confluence of theology with the talking points of the pundits.

    I very much agree that this kind of realized eschatology, living out Christ’s redemption as fully as we can in the present, involves this mandate to care for the poor and needy among us. Christ has already begun to redeem the world through his incarnation, birth, life, death and resurrection. Even as that redemption awaits fulfillment, Christ invites us to be a part of it. Responding to the work of Christ, or “being saved” as some are accustomed to referring to it, mean letting Christ reform and renew our relationship to God, ourselves, our neighbors, and creation beginning now. This is what it means to not only “believe in” Christ, but to follow him.

    It is sad, I believe, that the over-statement of the future aspects of eschatology leads so many Christians to detachment from and lack of concern for the world around them. The notion that redeeming the world is God’s work at the eschaton and therefore we don’t need to worry about or do anything (except convert people) in the present. And that same approach is applied across a range of ethical questions, most notably ecology (as you touched on in another recent post). I believe that approach is fundamentally disconnected from the Christ of the gospels. The scandalous and unique confession of Christianity is that in Christ God becomes human. God enters the real, finite and flawed corporeal, human existence. The very immediate and concrete realities of peasants and fisherpeople and religious figures and whores is of great concern to God, and God dignifies these things by God’s imminent involvement in them. In the incarnation God declares that salvation and redemption are centered in this world and in the real and tangible lives of human beings.

  • Bring Shalom to all things

  • Another very good and though provoking post, Kurt. I’ll be looking forward to future installments. I also very much enjoy Tucker’s comments – all of them I’ve seen thus far.

  • I guess you can figure out that I meant ‘thought provoking’, not ‘though provoking’. I hate it when that happens!

  • Michelle

    I agree with Tucker. It is the combination of the eschatology and a misunderstanding of the love of God. Put these two together and you get behavior and messages that are anti-christ.

  • It’s also important to remember that many of Jesus’ and the prophets’ strongest words about poverty are words of condemnation for those who participate in creating, perpetuating, or exacerbating poverty. Far too many of those statements apply quite easily to anyone in a developed Western country, but they apply in particular to a lot of policies that Christians enthusiastically vote for in this country. As I read Jesus, it’s not enough to give your tithes and do good to the poor you meet (though both of those are important); you also have to be really sure you’re not aiding and abetting (or just plain being) the oppressor.

  • matthew

    Words of Gustavo Gutierrez (his discoveries at Medellin) that have shaped me:

    “I discovered three things. I discovered that poverty was a destructive thing, something to be fought against and destroyed, not merely something which was the object of our charity. Secondly, I discovered that poverty was not accidental. The fact that these people are poor and not rich is not just a matter of chance, but the result of a structure… Thirdly, I discovered that poor people were a social class.

    “When I discovered that poverty was something to be fought against, that poverty was structural, that poor people were a class (and could organize), it became crystal clear that in order to serve the poor, one had to move into political action.”