A Few Words on Poverty: A biblical view?

Since this site is about ‘breaking the Poverty Cycle’, I decided that it is important to say a few things about poverty. What is poverty? And how do we conclude that a young person can break out of such a cycle? Poverty is a tricky thing to talk about. It is tricky because poverty is a very ambiguous condition of humanity. Can we even agree in defining poverty? And what steps one needs to take to eradicate such condition? If you ask people (and now responsible corporations) most of them agree that poverty needs to be eradicated. Sounds beautiful, right? But the truth is that poverty is deeply rooted into culture, financial giant’s profits and daily people like you and me.

Of course, I don’t want to give people a guilt trip, like the one that you get when you see a documentary about food, and how bad some foods are. Most people see those documentaries and still will have a burger now and then. Poverty isn’t contextual, and it is really challenging to write about poverty, when we live in the wealthiest nation in the world by far. There are diverse types of poverty and to a degree, to people outside of the US, what we call poor here looks like the middle class in other countries. That begs the question about defining poverty more in detail. Believe or not, there is a lot of poverty in the USA, because of the wealth inequality. In fact, Povertyusa.org states than 13.5 % of the US population lives in poverty today. That is 1 percent increase since 2008. That rate is even higher among kids, jumping to 1 out of every 5 kids in the US, or 19.5 %, lives in poverty.

Let’s get to the task! What is poverty (and the Poverty Cycle)? Poverty in simple terms is the involuntary lack of resources. There are two definitions of poverty in the bible. Of course, I did not develop these definitions. But over the years I had relied heavily on others to help me understand poverty from a perspective external to my own context.

First, the bible defines poverty as a scandalous condition. The biblical narrative describes very detailed what it means to be poor: it means to die of hunger, to be illiterate, to be exploited by others, to be marginalized, to lack cultural relevance and to be rejected by main stream society. Poverty designates in the first-place material poverty. The lack of resources in the life of human beings created in the image of God is poverty.  In other words, poverty is hostile to our human condition and therefore contrary to the will of God. Poverty is degrading to humanity.

Second, the bible describes poverty as a spiritual childhood. This condition of poverty “is the “ability to welcome God and openness to God, a willingness to be used by God a humility before God.””[1] This idea, as novel as it might sound, it is misleading to people, because it over simplifies the spiritual over the physical. Spiritual poverty is important, but not the only poverty that God cares about. In fact, God is always found at the margins, side by side by the least, the poor and the rejected by society. God, as some friends of mine might say, prefers the poor and vulnerable. Mark 10:17 might come to mind?

Both ways to understand poverty are valid. However, currently the Church in the US has the tendency to emphasize the second one. Many programs, teachings and even preachings have made spiritual poverty an ideal for Christians to seek, or to arrive to, neglecting the help to the least. The question to us today is: why do we have an ideal of something that is contrary to human dignity and contrary to the will of God? Spiritual poverty, in my opinion, should only be understood in light of the ‘scandalous condition’ that angers the heart of God. It is only under both conceptions of poverty that truly the witness of the church will be validated, as we seek to be spiritually open to God and we do everything we can to help mediate physical poverty everywhere we go.

Finally, I will say that in our nation poverty can be defined as a state of mind as well. To a degree this can be poverty because of the lack of education. Let me explain what I mean by this. The lack of financial education is pushing young families to be in debt more than ever. Also, the fact that families do not know what to do in key situations is taken advantage of by banks and financial institutions that prey on the weak and misinformed. This is also a scandalous condition. In my opinion, we need to teach our kids financial education earlier than before, not with the goals of having more, but with the goals of being able to help more. Together, as we educate ourselves, we can condemn corporate evil that takes advantage with evil intent to financially slave people for their gain. This is also a scandalous condition and contrary to the will of God.

Hopefully, instead of agreeing into thinking about the eradication of poverty (novel idea, but a bit unrealistic) we can all agree into making small individual steps that will help alleviate poverty around our communities and beyond. It all starts at home. So, please, start small and hope big. Enjoy!

[1] Gustavo Gutierrez. A Theology of Liberation. Orbis Books. Maryknoll, NY, 2005.

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