A secularist recently complained that Christians haven’t ended poverty after two thousand years and that maybe it’s time we give the federal government a crack at it. I think he’s forgotten about the inefficiency of the federal “War on Poverty” that LBJ established in 1964, but I also have to admit that the church at-large does a terrible job of helping the poor, apart from a bit of short-term assistance or symbolic sympathy.
This topic has been much on our lips in my household for the past few weeks. My wife has been reading Francis Chan’s Crazy Love, which calls for radical communalism in faith communities, and I heard David Platt’s series of Union University chapel messages (in a list at http://www.uu.edu/audio/ ) about the seductiveness of materialism. Chan and Platt are coming from two different hermeneutical models, but their common point is the same: the U. S. church isn’t doing as much as it should.
Through the centuries, some leaders have declared that all Christians should become poor themselves in order to best help those who are in poverty. As Dallas Willard has observed, however, in “The Spirit of the Disciplines,” “Being poor is one of the poorest ways to help the poor.” Willard seems to believe that most persons who have the ability to make money but who become willfully poor are, perhaps, sinning because they have rejected their God-given opportunity to help not once but rather in an on-going way. The clear message of the totality of Scripture (and not just a few cherry-picked passages) is that all Christians, especially those who have means, are to help poor persons for the sake of the Gospel. Making a choice to “become” poor is, in fact, a luxury; most poor persons do not have such a choice. In some ways, I think that trying to solve “poverty” is the epitome of absurdity. Poverty is a byproduct of the Fall (whether it is related to drought, political turmoil, chemical dependency, or illness and bad luck). As such, no matter how hard we may work at ending it, it will persist on this side of heaven. Even Christ Himself said, “You will always have the poor among you” (John 12:8). Why, then, should we even try to do anything about it? Isn’t it absurd to try to fix what is irreparable?
As I’ve been pondering this issue, though, I keep coming back to a rather famous quotation from Elie Wiesel; lamenting the dehumanization of the Jews by the Nazis, he implied that we do the same thing in our discussions of the Holocaust. Six million Jews were not killed by the Germans, Wiesel observed, rather “one Jew was killed by one German six million times.” I think that we could alter that with great effect in considering our calling to help poor persons: “Poverty will not be solved by Christians; rather, one poor person or family should be helped by one Christian or Christian fellowship at a time.”
What I mean is that we can have all of the grand visions for benevolence that we can conceive of, but until we stop seeing “poverty” or “the poor” as faceless nouns and begin seeing “poor” as an adjective applied to individual persons who bear the imago dei, we will never be effective in our outreach.
David Platt noted in one of his messages that we need to stop trying to help poor persons out of a sense of guilt but rather help them out of a sense of the Gospel. All of our efforts in this world are doomed to failure; only what is done for the glory of God will last. Like so many things, the wisdom of God is the foolishness of men. It is absurd, in human terms, to keep trying to eliminate poverty. It is wisdom and in fact true religion that honors Christ, to visit widows and orphans in their affliction and to serve poor persons in their time of need. It should be one of our primary endeavors as the people of God.