Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Beyond Purely Economic Solutions to Poverty
By the Editorial Team, Shared Justice
By the Editorial Team, Shared Justice
August 30, 2013
A version of this article originally appeared on SharedJustice.org, an online journal of the Center for Public Justice dedicated to engaging young Christian thinkers in a conversation on what it means to do public justice.
The Great Recession is behind us, but the worst may be yet to come. According to the Associated Press, nearly 80 percent of Americans are struggling to stay afloat even though the economy has begun to recover from the recession that began in 2008. William Julius Wilson, a Harvard University professor whose expertise includes joblessness and urban poverty, told the AP that Americans must begin to understand “that many of the nation's biggest disparities, from education and life expectancy to poverty, are increasingly due to economic class position.”
But is the problem of poverty really that simple-- a lack of opportunity given to those in the lowest economic class? It depends on how you define the terms “poverty” and “opportunity,” as well as the terms “justice” and “charity”—all of which require multi-dimensional definitions if we hope to build a constructive conversation around the problem of poverty. The question is: What are the right definitions?
Answer: “Right” definitions don’t necessarily exist, but some are better than others.
Although poverty does have decidedly economic and material components, it also includes ones that are relational and spiritual. A public justice perspective rooted in Scripture suggests that poverty is much more complex than economics alone. Instead it recognizes that a host of institutions, including the church, families, businesses, and more, have distinct roles and responsibilities and so must work together towards a solution.
Poverty began with the creation and fall of mankind when sin entered the world. That’s why, as Christianity Today editor Mark Galli wrote last year, "It is a stretch to suggest we can end any sort of poverty. I asked a number of Christian economists about this, and all agreed: No, we can't. When I asked why, every one of them said, "Original sin." Until the coming of the kingdom of God, greed, sloth, oppression, corruption, and the like—all of which breed poverty—will persist."
That would be cause for despair if it were the end of the story. Luckily, the fall of man led to a beautiful redemption that began with Christ’s atoning sacrifice and is still playing itself out today.
Does that mean that Christians ought to give up, knowing that our efforts ultimately will be futile until the end of the creation-fall-redemption narrative? Of course not. The best solutions for alleviating poverty will involve collaborations among institutions that can address poverty in many different ways. World Vision president Rich Stearns says that poverty is a “complex puzzle with multiple inter-related causes.” As a result, the best solutions will “help a community address their challenges on multiple fronts: food, water, health, education, economic development, gender, child development and even leadership and governance.”
Broken relationships lie at the root of all of these things, so solving poverty demands that we meet more than just material needs. Generally, Christians today have engaged in one-way giving and service, amounting to little more than charity in the end. And the result? Christians and the church have been relatively ineffective at providing lasting opportunities for the poor to overcome their situations.
But what does opportunity look like beyond favorable economic circumstances, and how can Christians contribute to it? The church too often focuses solely on direct services in addressing poverty and neglects its teaching function. The church has the vision of what a fully restored, fully just, world might look like. Preaching and teaching from this vision is crucial if we are to have Christians in policy, in tax law, in environmental sustainability, in education, who know and seek that vision. While Christ certainly calls the church to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and clothe the naked, the church also must become a better teacher so that individual believers are better equipped in their vocations to live into a vision of justice and full flourishing and to fulfill their political responsibilities to pursue public justice.
If we view poverty holistically, then our role as believers becomes a little more manageable. Although we are called to address the multi-dimensional problem of poverty, we are not called to solve it. God sovereignly provides unique institutions to address all the different aspects of human thriving. As a result, churches can focus their efforts on their unique calling to guide people into restored relationships with God. Moreover, local churches often are well-situated for identifying which of their poorer neighbors’ needs have been neglected. Once those needs are identified, Christians can help discern which institutions—including governmental agencies, religious groups, health centers, legal clinics, community groups, and para-church ministries—are best suited to serve those specific needs and foster cooperation among them.
As Christians, our work extends beyond church walls when we reach out to cultivate healthy friendships with neighbors, many of whom may be lacking healthy social connections. These efforts encourage the healing of broken relationships that perpetuate poverty. Whatever other directions we take in seeking to alleviate poverty, we must never abandon our primary task: attesting to Scripture’s fuller vision of flourishing that encompasses the wholeness of our humanity in right relationship with God.
- By the Editorial Team, Shared Justice
“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”