Poverty Traps The poor are always with us – so there’s plenty to do
Wealth increasing for evermore, and its beneficiaries, rich in hire-purchase, stupefied with the telly and with sex, comprehensively educated, told by Professor Hoyle how the world began and by Bertrand Russell where it will end; venturing forth on the broad highways, three lanes a side ... blood spattering the tarmac as an extra thrill; heaven lying about them in the supermarket, the rainbow ending in the nearest bingo hall, leisure burgeoning out in multitudinous shining aerials rising like dreaming spires into the sky ... many mansions, mansions of light and chromium, climbing ever upwards. This kingdom, purely, can only be for posterity an unending source of wry derision — always assuming there is to be any posterity. The backdrop, after all, is the mushroom cloud; as the Gadarene herd frisk and frolic, they draw ever nearer to the cliff’s precipitous edge.
So Malcolm Muggeridge satirises the affluence of the West — its materialism, selfishness and superficiality.
The age-old question still remains — how should Christians approach the harsh reality of poverty in the contemporary world?
The early church was generally poor itself. It was marked by an indifference to the things of this world. Over time it developed a distrust of wealth and a glorification of poverty. The early church fathers recognised the tension between the affirmation of private property in the Scriptures and the radical demands of Christian love. They warned constantly about the dangers of wealth and instructed the rich to relieve the sufferings of the poor through almsgiving. The church fathers were universal in their condemnation of usury, in an effort to protect the poor.
The early church recognised that the care of widows and orphans, the crippled, the blind and the disturbed was an essential part of the ministry of Jesus, and so specific members of the church were given the responsibility for maintaining this important ministry. While the apostles gave themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word, the deacons devoted themselves to the ministry of the tables (Acts 6). The ministry of the deacon in the church is grounded in the ministry of Jesus Himself.
During the first few centuries of the Christian movement, the church became renowned for its care of the poor through the giving of alms. Tertullian, in his Apology written at the end of the second century, makes it clear that Christian fellowship involved not only communion with God but also sharing with the poor. This led to the giving of alms during the celebration of communion. Other notable figures during this period were John Chrysostom (AD 347-407), who is regarded by some as the most famous alms preacher of all.
Gregory of Nazianzus extolled the compassion of Basil, bishop of Cappadocia, who gave great attention to the poor in his diocese as a result of his commitment to the Gospel. On the outskirts of his city he built a large complex of dwellings for the poor, a hospital, accommodation for clergy with an imaginative system of oversight. This was so comprehensive at the time that it was called the Newtown. Gregory said of him: “Basil’s care was for the sick, and the relief of their wounds, and the imitation of Christ, by cleansing leprosy, not by a word, but in deed.”
The ascetic movement found a home in the thoughts of various people during the time of the medieval church. They felt that wealth beyond that which was necessary for survival was subversive to true spirituality, and material poverty was necessary for spiritual perfection.
It is not until the middle ages that we begin to see legislative attempts by the church to alleviate the problem of poverty. The practice of almsgiving was extended by medieval church councils into a quasi-income tax. Members of the church were required to pay a tenth of their income to the bishop, specifically to provide relief for the poor.
The Reformation brought a radical reshaping of the church’s ministry to the poor. The city of Nuremburg, which took a strong stand for Protestantism, published a new order for the care of the poor. Those in genuine need were to be cared for at public expense. Begging in the streets was to be done away with. Homes for the care of the elderly, the widowed and the orphaned were established and maintained by the deacons with the help of the city treasury as well as the giving of alms.
Following the example of Nuremburg, Strasbourg reorganised various institutions so that the city supported a comprehensive program for the care of the sick, the blind and anyone else in need. In fact, Gerard Roussel, the chaplain to the Queen of Navarre, reported after his visit to Strasbourg in 1526 that the care of the poor was one of the most impressive aspects of the Reformation.
The office of deacon also underwent reformation beginning in Strasbourg. Over the years the uniqueness of the diaconal ministry had been lost, becoming just a stepping-stone on the way to “more glorious” offices within the church hierarchy. The Reformers of Strasbourg did much to recover the charitable orientation of the diaconate.
Calvin echoed this thinking, interpreting the office of deacon in light of Acts 6. Calvin believed the diaconate performed a distinct ministry of the church — and that distinct ministry was care of the poor. This understanding of the office of deacon became characteristic of the Reformed doctrine of the ministry.
The church of Geneva is an inspiring case study in the history of the church in caring for the poor. One of the most important ways that the poor were cared for in Geneva was within a hospice or hospital. In Geneva the hospital, which was a much more comprehensive institution than it is today, was housed in a large building in the centre of the city, surrounded with stables, barns, courtyards and gardens.
Dozens of people were cared for in the building, ranging from orphaned children to elderly widows who were too feeble to care for themselves. Extensive gardens and large kitchens were cared for by servants, as they were both instrumental in providing food for many needy families who did not necessarily live at the hospital. There was usually also a tutor, generally a theology student, who helped care for the children at the hospital. The hospital fell under the care of the deacons, whose job it was to ensure that the hospital was well-funded and well-administered.
In addition to the hospital work, the French Refugees Fund was another diaconal work of the church of Geneva. The fund was established to care for those who had fled from France because of religious persecution. It was generously supported by several very wealthy French refugees living in Geneva, including Jean Bude, who presided over the fund.
The fund was used to help secure housing for recently arrived refugees, provide furniture for families and tools to help artisans set themselves up in business. It provided fees for young men who needed to enter apprenticeships and dowries for women wanting to get married. It supplied food and medical care for those in need and it supported the widows and orphans of Reformed pastors who had lost their lives in the service of the gospel. But the fund did not only focus on social welfare. It had an evangelism focus too, sending missionary pastors back into France, and saw to the printing and distribution of Protestant literature in France.
The post-Reformation era abandoned the social revolutionary thought of the Reformers. Rather than seek the structural solutions to poverty that characterised the Reformation, Protestantism returned to the early church model of personal charity. Protestant mission efforts to ameliorate the economic victims of industrialisation generally did not aim at structural change in society.
For many evangelicals in the West, the problem of poverty has been tied to the question of relating evangelism and social action. In the 19th century, the evangelical benevolent empire in the USA saw no conflict in the church engaging in both activities.
Historian Timothy Smith argues that reform-minded evangelicals successfully united spiritual and social concerns: “The soul-winning impulse drove Christians into systematic efforts to relieve the miseries of the urban poor.” By the turn of the century, however, pessimistic premillennialism saw social reform as a lost cause. Charity again became privatised, and the emphasis in many churches returned to evangelism.
The Bible says that there will always be needs in the world around us. The purpose of this is twofold: one, to test our commitment to obedience (Mt. 25:40); and two, to create an attitude of interdependence (2 Cor. 8:14). It is impossible to read the epistles of James and John without recognising the requirements to help others in need. John uses the lack of concern for the needs of others as evidence of lack of love (1 Jn. 3:17-18). We therefore know that the true purpose of welfare (meeting the needs of others) is to demonstrate God’s love through us.
It is interesting to see the contrasting objectives of biblical welfare and government welfare. Sharing with others in need out of God’s love should produce three results: one, a sense of fellowship and belonging (2 Cor. 9:13); two, a stronger family unit (1 Tim. 5:8); and three, a high standard for work, which prohibits laziness (2 Thess. 3:9-10).
However, when we look around society, the effects of social welfare, as administered by the government, is virtually the opposite. Why is this? It is because the motivation is not love but pity, or even worse, guilt, writes Larry Burkett.
When society tries to make up for previous wrongs by providing government welfare, the results will be permanent dependence and poverty. With the best of intentions, our welfare system traps people at the lowest economic level through indiscriminate giving.
Indiscriminate welfare traps the recipients by making them dependent. Biblical welfare meets needs and always looks towards restoring the individual back to a position of productivity.