The Bible points us in the right direction
12 MINUTE READ
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 they misunderstand it. The Bible, however, points us in the right direction.
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.1 These psalms describe poverty and challenge common perceptions. They don’t focus on ‘stuff’. When Australians describe poverty, they focus on what poor 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 (Ps 10:2, 9); victims of greedy schemes (10:2, 3); lied about and threatened (10:7); victimised and ambushed (10:8); helpless, crushed, disempowered, afflicted and oppressed (10:9, 10, 12, 14, 17); trapped in relationships that don’t work or that disadvantage them (10:7-10); needy, plundered and groaning (Ps 12:5, 7)
Those who oppress the weak are described as: arrogant and scheming (10:2), boastful and greedy (10:3), proud (10:4), liars (10:7). They think they are invincible (10:6) and unaccountable (10:11, 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.
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). However, when whole people groups live in poverty for generations, the issues in Psalm 10 are probably involved; greed, lies and oppression lurk in the background. The causes of poverty are spiritual and moral, not just economic.
Perceptions of poverty in the developed world2
Our modern understanding of poverty emerged in the aftermath of World War II. 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 ‘solution’ did not produce the same results as it had done in post-war Europe. The developing world saw significant improvements but many serious problems still remained, and some countries received considerable aid
yet nevertheless got worse.3
“When Australians describe poverty, they focus on what poor people don’t have. These psalms focus on how the poor are treated.”
A turning point came in the 1990s, when research conducted by the World Bank, called Voices of the Poor, asked the poor themselves to define poverty. Over 60,000 of the world’s poorest people were surveyed with surprising results. The World Bank 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.”4
The poor were less concerned about ‘stuff’ but were much more concerned with how they were treated. When the poor were asked to describe poverty, they raised the same issues that David wrote about in Psalm 10. Poverty is not about ‘stuff’ but powerlessness.
What is poverty?
There are two basic views:5
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, health care, etc. 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 itself. So, yes, 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 will include the sorts of things David wrote about in Psalm 10 (see above). Responses that don’t address those underlying causes are inadequate. That is true in Australia. There are good reasons why some Australians are poor: family breakdown, death of the breadwinner, unemployment, etc. You can give people ‘stuff’ as a response, but unless the reasons behind the poverty are addressed, those people 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’, and offer as a solution provision of what is missing, we reduce the poor to being passive recipients. This demeans and devalues the poor, who we then see not as being in the image of God but rather being defective and inadequate. Sadly, a view of the poor as being deficient can easily become their view of themselves. On the flip side, we will then see ourselves as superior: perhaps even as saviours, who save the poor with our ‘stuff’. This, in turn, 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.
Poverty as disempowerment: the recent and ancient view6
• The poor are disempowered. The poor 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
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 to 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.
• The poverty of the poor is linked to the behaviour of the non-poor.
Proverbs teaches that the poor can be exploited, crushed (22:22); oppressed (28:3); mocked (17:5); denied mercy (18:23); shunned and avoided (19:7). Psalm 10 and other scriptures teach that the non-poor significantly contribute to the poverty of the poor.
Many of the non-poor 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, 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. Such people use words and numbers rather than guns, but they can be just as destructive.
• The instrument of disempowerment is deceit.
There is an African tribe which believes that God has given all the cattle in the world to them.7 They believe that cattle owned by other tribes must have been stolen at some point and that 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 in the developed world as well as in Africa. In the debate around the Iraq war, someone is reported to have said, “Why did God put our oil under their sand?” Many in the West believe that they are entitled to take the resources of other countries if they can get away with it.
“Unless the reasons behind the poverty are addressed, those people will soon be in the same position again.”
Psalm 10:7 suggests that lies are used as an instrument of oppression by the proud. Ahab and Jezebel8 wanted Naboth’s vineyard, so they lied about Naboth. Naboth was tried and executed under false accusations, 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 such a person as unworthy of the land, you are much more likely to get away with it. Similarly, lies can be used to depict particular people as subhuman in order to justify making them slaves or to compel them 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.
• 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 or decent living conditions. In other contexts, white people tell blacks that they are inferior, and often black people believe that to be 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 that they are created in the image of God: their identity is marred. Bryant Myers9 wrote, “A lifetime of suffering, deception, and exclusion is internalised 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 created in the image of God and precious in God’s sight. They have believed lies about themselves and they 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.
“Empowerment heals the marred identity of the poor. Just giving them ‘stuff’ reinforces that they are deficient.”
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 to 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 such people up in their own businesses. That changes the way the poor think of themselves. Empowerment heals the marred identity of the poor. Just giving them ‘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 said very little about ‘stuff’, even though they had much more ‘stuff’ than they did before,10 but they listed off over 20 ways in which their lives had been empowered. Then one man said: “We now have dignity”. Their marred identity was being healed.
What can we do here?
In the Psalms, David calls on powerful people to treat the poor differently and we can speak up on behalf of the poor.
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.
Ross Farley Ross Farley works for TEAR Australia as an educator and Bible teacher. He has decades of ministry experience with several organisations and churches. Ross has lectured in a number of theological colleges and training programs and is author of Strategy for Youth Leaders, Following Jesus and Leading People and Strategy for Youth Leaders for the 21st Century. He is co-author of Incite, Making a World of Difference. Ross is a graduate of the Brisbane School of Theology.
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- D.C. Fleming The Old Testament Speaks. Volume 5. Psalms. Page18.
- Much of the information in Point 2 is taken from Bryant Myers, Walking with the Poor. Pages 26-32.
- See publications like When Helping Hurts, Dead Aid, and Toxic Charity.
- Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts. Page 53.
- Bryant Myers outlines six views in pages 113-132 but this is reduced to two due to time constraints. Aspects of five of the views presented by Myers are captured in the second view, disempowerment.
- This is developed by Myers in pages 123-132.
- http://www.bluegecko.org/kenya/tribes/maasai/livestock.htm Also Steve Bradbury discovered this on TEAR project visits.
- 1 Kings 21.
- Walking with the Poor. Page 127.
- They had all established their own businesses as well as received safe water, sanitation and food security as a result of that particular project.
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.