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The Gospel & The Poor

May.27.2009

Here is a selection from Tim Keller’s Article about the Gospel and the poor. I think this is helpful in how we view the poor.

2. Some Thoughts on the Practice of This Ministry

I don’t think that this essay is the place to lay out all the details of what ministry to the poor looks like in practice.33 But there are two practical balances I would urge churches to strike in their ministry to the poor.

A Balance of Analysis: Justice and Mercy

It is one thing to want to help the poor. It is another thing to go about it wisely. It is extremely easy to become involved in the life of a poor family and make things worse rather than better. One of the main reasons this happens so often is because of the two unbiblical political ideologies and reductionisms that reign in our culture today. Conservatives, in general, see poverty as caused by personal irresponsibility. Liberals, in general, see poverty as caused by unjust social systems; poor individuals have no ability to escape them.

The Bible moves back and forth in calling ministry to the poor sometimes “justice” and sometimes “service” (diakonia) or mercy. Perhaps the most famous biblical appeal to help the poor is the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which this aid is called “mercy” (Luke 10:37). But elsewhere, sharing food, shelter, and other basic resources with those who have fewer of them (Isa 58:6–10; cf. Lev 19:13, Jer 22:13) is called “doing justice.” To fail to share is considered not simply a failure to be compassionate, but also a failure to be fair.

I think that the reason for this usage of both the terms “justice” and “mercy” is that the biblical explanation of the causes of poverty is much more complex than our current ideologies.34 The wisdom literature provides a remarkably balanced and nuanced view of the “root causes” of poverty. In Proverbs we see the familiar statements to the effect that “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (Prov 14:23). And yet we are also told, “A poor man’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away” (Prov 13:23). Both personal and social, systemic factors can lead to poverty.

Actually, the Bible reveals at least three causal factors for poverty.

1. Injustice and oppression: This refers to any unjust social condition or treatment that keeps a person in poverty (Ps 82:1–8; Prov 14:31; Exod 22:21–27). The main Hebrew word for “the poor” in the Old Testament means “the wrongfully oppressed.” Examples of oppression in the Bible include social systems weighted in favor of the powerful (Lev 19:15), high-interest loans (Exod 22:25–27), and unjustly low wages (Eph 6:8–9; Jas 5:4).
2. Circumstantial calamity: This refers to any natural disaster or circumstance that brings or keeps a person in poverty. The Scripture is filled with examples such as famines (Gen 47), disabling injury, floods, and fires.
3. Personal failure: Poverty can also be caused by one’s own personal sins and failures, such as indolence (Prov 6:6–7) and other problems with self-discipline (Prov 23:21).

These three factors are intertwined. They do not usually produce separate “categories” of poverty (except in acute situations, such as a hurricane that leaves people homeless and in need of immediate short-term material care). Rather, the three factors are usually interactively present. For example, a person raised in an ethnic/economic ghetto (factor #1) is likely to have poor health (factor #2) and also learn many habits from their community that do not fit with material/social progress (factor #3).

Yet factor #3 can be seen as a version of factor #1. For example, the failure of a child’s parents to read to them, nurture them, or teach them habits of honesty, diligence, and delayed gratification is factor #3 (personal irresponsibility) for the adults but factor #1 (injustice) for the children. Inner-city children, through no fault of their own, may grow up with vastly inferior schooling and with an overall environment extremely detrimental to learning. Conservatives may argue that this is the parents’ fault or the “culture’s” fault while liberals see it as a failure of government and/or the fruit of systemic racism. But no one argues that it is the children’s fault! Of course, it is possible for youth born into poverty to break out of it, but it takes many times more fortitude, independence, creativity, and courage simply to go to college and get a job than it does for any child born into a middle-class world. In short, some children grow up with about a two-hundred-times better opportunity for academic and economic success than others do. (You can’t ask an illiterate eight-year-old–soon to be an illiterate seventeen-year-old–to “pull himself up by his bootstraps”!) Why does this situation exist? It is part of the deep injustice of our world. The problem is simply an unjust distribution of opportunity and resources.

In summary, many “conservatives” are motivated to help the poor mainly by compassion. This may come from a belief that poverty is mainly a matter of individual irresponsibility. It misses the fact that the “haves” have what they have to a great degree because of unjust distribution of opportunities and resources at birth. If we have the world’s goods, they are ultimately a gift. If we were born in other circumstances, we could easily be very poor through no fault of our own. To fail to share what you have is not just uncompassionate but unfair, unjust. On the other hand, many “liberals” are motivated to help the poor mainly out of a sense of indignation and aborted justice. This misses the fact that individual responsibility and transformation has a great deal to do with escape from poverty. Poverty is seen strictly in terms of structural inequities. While the conservative “compassion only” motivation leads to paternalism and patronizing, the liberal “justice only” motivation leads to great anger and rancor.

Both views, ironically, become self-righteous. One tends to blame the poor for everything, the other to blame the rich for everything. One over-emphasizes individual responsibility, the other under-emphasizes it. A balanced motivation arises from a heart touched by grace, which has lost its superiority-feelings toward any particular class of people. Let’s keep something very clear: it is the gospel that motivates us to act both in mercy and in justice. God tells Israel, “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:34). The Israelites had been “aliens” and oppressed slaves in Egypt. They did not have the ability to free themselves–God liberated them by his grace and power. Now they are to treat all people with less power or fewer assets as neighbors, doing love and justice to them. So the basis for “doing justice” is salvation by grace!

We said at the beginning of this section that this balance of mercy and justice—of seeing both the personal and social aspects and causes of poverty—is necessary for a church’s ministry to the poor to be wise. A conservative ideology will be far too impatient and probably harsh with a poor family and won’t be cognizant of the more invisible social-cultural factors contributing to the problems. A liberal ideology will not put enough emphasis on repentance and personal change.

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