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Poverty: It's Not What You Think

People once believed the world was flat until someone explained “It’s not what you think.” Many Australians think they know what poverty is but misunderstand, yet the Bible points us in the right direction.

1. Poverty in Psalms 10 and 12

In Psalm 12:5 David wrote, ‘“Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan, I will now arise,” says the Lord. “I will protect them from those who malign them.”’ Psalm 10 observes how powerful people trample the poor. These psalms describe poverty and challenge common perceptions. They don’t focus on ‘stuff’, material things. When Australians describe poverty they focus on what people don’t have. These psalms focus on how the poor are treated. The poor are powerless and lose out to the more powerful. The poor are not poor in isolation but other people contribute to their poverty intentionally or unintentionally.

The poor are described as hunted (10:2, 9); victims of greedy schemes (10:2, 3); lied about and threatened (10:7); victimized and ambushed (10:8); helpless, crushed, disempowered, afflicted and oppressed (10:9, 10, 12, 14, 17); trapped in relationships that don’t work or disadvantage them (10:7-10); needy, plundered and groaning (12:5, 7).

The powerful are described as proud (10:4), greedy (v.3) liars (v.7). They think they are invincible (v. 6) and unaccountable (v. 11, 13). They have no regard for God and don’t believe that God will call them to account. They think they are superior to others and entitled to behave this way.

Notice that David does not focus on stuff but on how the poor are treated. There are many causes of poverty. The Bible teaches that some are poor because they are foolish (Proverbs 22:26) or lazy (Proverbs 10:4; 14:23). However, when whole people groups live in poverty for generations, the issues in Psalm 10 are probably involved; that greed, lies and oppression lurk in the background. The causes are spiritual and moral, not just economic.

2. Perceptions of poverty in the developed world

Our modern understanding of poverty emerged in the aftermath of World War 2. Much of Europe had been destroyed but had been rebuilt and was progressing. The idea developed that what we did for Europe we can do for the developing world. Poverty became seen as not having enough stuff and the solution as giving people stuff. However, this did not produce the results it had done in post-war Europe. Although the developing world had seen significant improvements, many serious problems still remained. Some countries had received considerable aid but got worse.

A turning point came in the 1990s with research conducted by the World Bank called ‘Voices of the Poor’ which asked the poor themselves to define poverty. Over 60,000 of the world’s poorest people were surveyed, with surprising results. They found that “while the poor mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition far more in…psychological and social terms. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness.”
The poor were less concerned about stuff but much more concerned with how they were treated. When the poor were asked to describe poverty, they raised the same issues David wrote about in Psalm 10. Poverty is not about stuff but powerlessness.

3. What is poverty?

There are two basic views.

(1) Poverty as deficit: The Twentieth Century view
This view sees poverty as stuff that’s missing. The poor don’t have enough food or access to safe water, schools and health care. Of course this is true as far as it goes: the poor don’t have these things and people need them. However, this confuses the symptoms with the disease. Measles comes with spots, but the spots are symptoms, not the disease. Now the poor lack stuff, but that is a symptom. We need to ask, “Why don’t the poor have the stuff they need?” The answers to that question will vary, but they are the sorts of things David wrote about in Psalm 10. Responses that don’t address those underlying causes are inadequate. That is true here in Australia. There are reasons why some Australians are poor, including family breakdown, death of the breadwinner, and unemployment. You can give people material things, but unless the reasons behind the poverty are addressed, they will soon be in the same position again. The same is also true in developing countries.

Furthermore, if we see poverty as the absence of stuff, the solution is to provide what is missing — and the poor are reduced to passive recipients. This demeans and devalues the poor who are not seen as the image of God but as defective and inadequate. Sadly, our view of the poor as deficient can easily become their view of themselves. On the flip side we see ourselves as superior — perhaps even as saviors who save the poor with our stuff. This promotes materialism and presents possessions as the solution to life’s problems. It is an approach that promotes unbiblical views of the poor, us and material things.

(2) Poverty as disempowerment: The recent and ancient view
(2.1) The poor are disempowered.

They don’t have what they need because they lose out to more powerful people and lack recourse to justice.

The poor lack social power and are less able to resist unfair treatment by politicians, police, the courts, landowners and businesses. They become easy prey for companies who take their land for logging, mining or whatever, and they are less likely to receive proper compensation or income. The poor are often excluded from community decision making and their voices are not heard.

The powerful live on the best land and the powerless try to survive on the least productive lands like flood plains, deserts or high-altitude mountains. As a result they have less income, poorer nutrition and are more prone to disasters. The city poor often have to squat illegally on vacant land or under bridges and live with the constant threat of eviction. All this leads to reduced physical strength and mental capacity due to poor health and hard labour. Physical weakness becomes both a cause and result of poverty, leading to further disempowerment.

(2.2) The poverty of the poor is linked to the behavior of the non-poor.
Proverbs teaches that the poor are exploited and crushed (22:22); oppressed (28:3); mocked (17:5); denied mercy (18:23); shunned and avoided (19:7). Psalm 10 and other Scripture passages teach that the non-poor significantly contribute to the poverty of the poor.

Many see themselves as superior and believe they are entitled to do what they like with the poor. Psalm 10 refers to the ‘arrogance’ and ‘pride’ of people like this. They have a sense of entitlement and believe they are anointed to rule and have the right to do to others what no one else must ever do to them. The poor are often oppressed by people with vested interests in maintaining low wages and other injustices.

Oppression evokes images of guns and armed militants, but it can also be the work of accountants, lawyers, company boards and political rulers. These people use words and numbers rather than guns, but they can be just as destructive.

(2.3) The instrument of disempowerment is lies.
There is an African tribe that believes that God has given all the cattle in the world to them. They believe cattle owned by other tribes must have been stolen at some point and they are entitled to raid other tribes and steal cattle because all cattle are rightfully theirs. They have a sense of entitlement driven by a lie. This happens here as well as in Africa. In the debate around the Iraq war someone said, “Why did God put our oil under their sand?” Many in the West believe they are entitled to take the resources of other countries if they can get away with it.

Psalm 10:7 says that lies are used as an instrument of oppression by the proud who believe they are entitled. Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kings 21) wanted Naboth’s vineyard so they lied about Naboth. Naboth was tried, executed and Ahab took possession of his land. The legal system was used in combination with lies to make murder and stealing appear legitimate. Stealing someone’s land is readily seen as unjust, but if you first tell lies to depict them as unworthy of the land, you are much more likely to get away with it. Similarly, lies depict particular people as sub-human to justify making them slaves or to work for low wages in inhumane conditions.

Jesus was tried and executed on a case based on lies. The Jewish leaders constantly lied about Jesus. Jesus said, “You belong to your father, the devil…he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). There is something satanic about people who use lies to take others down for their own advantage. Poverty is not about stuff but powerlessness. Behind that, there is oppression legitimated by lies. Behind the lies are forces of evil.

(2.4) The result is a marred identity.
The idea of ‘karma’ tells people that they deserve to be in their present condition because of their former lives. If they had lived better lives they would have been reincarnated into better circumstances. Many Asian poor believe this for themselves and think they have no right to education, social services, just employment, and decent living conditions. In other contexts white people tell blacks they are inferior and often black people believe it is true.

In short, lies are used to disempower the poor, and after years and generations the poor believe the lies. The poor no longer believe they are the image of God: their identity is marred. Bryant Myers wrote in ‘Walking with the Poor’, “A lifetime of suffering, deception, and exclusion is internalized by the poor in a way that results in the poor no longer knowing who they truly are or the purpose for which they were created. This is the deepest and most profound expression of poverty. The poor come to believe that they are and were always meant to be without value and without contribution.”

The poor have a marred identity and a distorted sense of who they are. They don’t know they are the image of God and precious in God’s sight. They have believed lies about themselves and need to know the truth. Poverty denies the love and justice of God and the image of God in human beings. Poverty is not just about stuff: these are moral and spiritual issues.

4. Responding to poverty

If poverty is disempowerment, the solution is empowerment. The goal is for people to earn all they need through their own efforts and not be dependent on handouts. Little of that involves giving stuff. In TEAR Australia projects a lot of funds go to paying the local project staff to work with the poor in support, training and empowerment. People get stuff but it is in the context of empowerment. For example, they might get goats but that is in the context of goat rearing training, aimed at setting them up in their own businesses. That changes the way the poor think of themselves. Empowerment heals the marred identity of the poor. Just giving stuff reinforces that they are deficient.

I asked a group of project participants in Bangladesh how their lives had changed as a result of the project. They had all established their own businesses, as well as received safe water, sanitation and food security. They said very little about stuff even though they had much more stuff than they did before, but they listed off over 20 ways their lives had been empowered. Then one man said, “We now have dignity.” Their marred identity is being healed.

What can we do here?

• Give
• Advocate

In Psalms David calls on powerful people to treat the poor differently and we can speak up on behalf of the poor.

• Pray

Psalms 10 and 12 are also prayers where David calls on God to protect the poor and disempower those who oppress them. Only God can save from evil, so we need to pray.

by Ross Farley

Fleming, D.C. The Old Testament Speaks. Volume 5. Psalms. Hong Kong: Living Books for All.
Kidner, Derek. Psalms 1-72. London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973
Myers, Bryant L. Walking with the Poor. Principles and Practices of Transformational Development. New York: Orbis Books, 2011.
Corbett, Steve and Fikkert, Brian. When Helping Hurts. Chicago: Moody Publishers. 2009.


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