A Theological Reflection on Poverty
A recent culling of my theological library brought to my attention an old classic that I had never read in full. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, by Ronald J. Sider, was first published in 1977 while a more recent updated version was released in 2010, exploring issues of poverty from a twenty first century perspective. The book focuses on the deep divide between the wealthy developed nations and the abject poverty of the third or developing world. It explores in some detail the reasons behind this inequality, the deliberate and calculated exploitation of much of the developing world by wealthy nations and some suggestions for lessening the gap.
While the statistics and examples provided in my 1980 edition are some forty odd years out of date, the most beneficial aspect of this book was the theological and biblical reflection on poverty. While Australia does not have the rates of absolute poverty, where people are living on $1-2 a day, it has unacceptable levels of generational, situational and relative poverty. The theological reflection is just as applicable to those situations.
Sider attempts to explore a biblical approach to possessions and poverty. In this attempt he asks whether God is biased in favour of the poor, what concern God discloses for the poor, how God identifies with the poor, whether God works through the poor and oppressed, how God exalts the poor and whether God commands God’s people to have concern for the poor.
The Exodus of slaves from Egypt was a pivotal event in the creation of God’s chosen people. God acted to save a group of people from enslavement and poverty. As their story progresses, the Israelites become the very thing they have been freed from. They become oppressors of the poor and the helpless and, in turn, they are destroyed.
By the time Jesus starts his ministry, the poor, the outcast, the widow and the orphan are still present amongst the Jewish people. Jesus’ proclamation concerning his ministry (Luke 4:18-19) comes from Isaiah. He is to proclaim release for the captives, recover sight for the blind and liberate those who are oppressed. This is the good news for the poor that Jesus has been appointed for. Jesus had a sense in which the poor needed to know that his message was for them, just as much as for anyone else. To care for the poor seems to be part of the very nature of God.
The Incarnation, God becoming flesh in Jesus, demonstrates God’s identification with the poor. Jesus was born into a poor family, was a refugee and an immigrant. When Christians clothe the naked, feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty, they do it to Christ. When Christians fail to care for those less fortunate, they also fail Christ according to Matthew 25:35-45.
God often uses the poor and uneducated for God’s purposes. Oppressed slaves became God’s chosen people. The early church was made up of predominantly poor people. God utilised lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, widows and other disadvantaged people to spread the message of the Kingdom of God.
There are numerous warnings in Scripture of coming judgement on those that perpetuate injustice and neglect of the poor. Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-53), Hannah’s Song (1 Samuel 2:2-8) and the Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-25) all describe an exaltation of the poor and a curse on the rich. It is not that God loves the poor more, it is that the rich are often guilty of exploitation and oppression of the poor.
When God cares for the poor, it is no surprise that God expects the same of Christians. The church is expected to champion equal justice in the courts. What do we do when indigenous Australians are more likely to be given a prison sentence than non-indigenous people for the same crime? Widows, orphans and strangers are to be given special care. What do we do when single mothers are some of the overrepresented statistics of those living in poverty? How do we respond to those seeking asylum in Australia when their own countries are not safe for them anymore?
Sider is clear to distinguish that while God is not partial and has the same loving concern for all people, God is also not neutral. ‘His freedom from bias does not mean that he maintains neutrality in the struggle for justice. God is on the side of the poor! (p 76)’ When the rich oppose or neglect justice because justice demands that they share their wealth and end their oppression, God actively opposes them. An aspect of salvation for the rich will be liberation from their oppression. God’s people are called to speak into and act for the benefit of the poor and disadvantaged.
While Sider’s book offers practical suggestions for alleviating poverty in developing countries, some of the ideas might be able to be applied to an Australian context. Paying fair prices for produce so that farmers can live and maintain our food supply might be a good start. Having wages set to liveable standards might be another. Trialling a universal basic income so that poverty could be avoided by the unemployed and underemployed. Exposing unfair pay rises of politicians when other workers are seeing their benefits cut. Reporting grossly exorbitant bonuses for CEOs when the company is underperforming. Valuing what has traditionally been seen as ‘women’s work’, like early childhood, art, nursing, household duties and aged care, the same as ‘men’s work’ and paying employees accordingly. Shining a light on systemic ways businesses or the government exploit workers or keep people in poverty, especially in relation to wages. Exposing unfair or discriminative practices that oppress indigenous and minority groups. Living a simpler life and not getting caught up in consumeristic and materialistic structures.
Any of these might go a long way in alleviating poverty in Australia. As Christians, Sider argues that we have a God given mandate to do just that – to protect the poor and needy, to stand with the widow and orphan.
Dr Katherine Grocott