A Christian Ethic Towards Poverty
(A short essay written for class)
It has been said that if a person has change in their pocket and a solid meal for the day, then that person is richer than 80% of the world’s population. I do not know how accurate that statement is, but regardless, the fact remains that a great percentage of the world is, at this very time, experiencing hunger, thirst, and extreme poverty. As Christians, or even more to the point, as North American Christians, how are we to respond to the reality of such poverty? It is not as if the vast majority of us have experienced the pangs of hunger in the recent (or distant) past. I, for one, have never had to worry about where my next meal is going to come from. The difficulty of arriving at an appropriate response is twofold: we remain conveniently ignorant of the issues of poverty—whether that be from embracing false ideas about the causes of it or simply neglecting to find accurate information. This, I would suggest is mainly due to a pervasive attitude of apathy among the middle-class and affluent. Secondly, even when we are aware of the issues, we are unsure of how to effectively “help” the situation. Yet, because we are not in poverty, we do not diligently look for solutions. Both of these issues must be addressed to outline a view of a Christian ethic towards poverty.
Dennis Hollinger notes that “Christians have no option regarding care for the economically disenfranchised and victims of economic injustice within the world.” In fact, justice for the poor is one of the clearest injunctions in scripture. Jesus noted that central to his ministry to “preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). Yet, in spite of this, North American Christians, for the most part, remain painfully ignorant of this gospel attitude towards the poor.
Part of this is that we have embraced false ideas about the nature of poverty. Dr. Brian Edgars suggests a few of these such as: believing that “God only helps those who help themselves,” that there are “two types of poor—the deserving and the undeserving,” or that “giving money is ineffective.” These are examples of beliefs that we embrace to buffer us from facing responsibility. For example, it isn’t true that God only helps those who help themselves—God often regards those who are “helpless” (i.e. the fatherless, the widow, the alien). What about the “deserving” poor? A Christian response is that while there may be those who have inflicted poverty on themselves, what is that to us? Are we not called to extend mercy and help? While we may not have been physically poor, were we not at one time “poor” in our need for redemption and reconciliation? A Christian ethic towards poverty is predicated on the fact that we are Christians because we have been helped by God; we help others because God has helped us. As to the issue of giving being ineffective, while we should be discerning about where we give, this should not prevent us from giving! Unfortunately though, this is often used as an excuse to not give, until we eventually believe that the excuse itself is the truth. So, part of our ethical responsibility as Christians is to actively dispel incorrect understandings about the reasons for poverty, and then to make ourselves aware (through research) of the realties of poverty. Perhaps we should do this first locally, then nationally, and then internationally.
Once we have actively sought to overcome ignorance (legitimate or otherwise) we still face the problem of what we can do to help. First, we must recognize, as John Wesley did, that the Christian life “is not defined primarily by doing certain acts but by being a certain kind of person” (a quote by Dr. Edgar). As Christians, will we become the kinds of people who have an intentional regard for the poor?
Following this, I again appeal to Wesley and his dictum of “earn all you can, so that you can save all you can, so that you can give all you can.” North American Christians have been traditionally effective at the first two of these guidelines. However, let me make a few suggestions. First, as Christians we should seek to avoid debt as much as possible. If we are in debt, we will constantly focus on our own need. Secondly, and related, we must become intentional about living simply. I would say one of the greatest ways we can begin to have a distinctive Christian identity again is by not needing to have all the “things” that our culture deems important: the large house, the big-screen television, the expensive vacations, eating out three times a week etc. If we began to voluntarily cut out some of these luxuries, we would undoubtedly save money. More importantly, we would begin to live in solidarity with the poor—and that would do more than perhaps any giving we can do. Lastly, we should not ignore Wesley’s third element: “give all you can.” When we have gotten out of debt, saved money by living simply, then we must not put it away for our “retirement”; instead, we should give it to those who need it now. We can be discerning about where we give—but we should give. While small suggestions, these could begin the process of living lives that reflect God’s intentions for the poor—of becoming (as Wesley said) Christians in our lives as well as our beliefs.
 This essay will focus on how North American Christians should view and respond to poverty, for this is the context in which I live and minister currently.
 Dennis Hollinger, Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics in a Complex World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 179.