Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Theology of Poverty and our Personal Biases: A SynchroBlog

Poverty is the subject of this month's SynchroBlog, and as such I thought I would look broadly at the subject from a perspective of personal biases held both theologically, and personally by Christians I have known.

Dallas Willard identifies a bias against those who are rich as a growing phenomenon in Christianity, and in his book "The Spirit of the Disciplines" sees it as problematic to our faith. Upon first reading this book nearly 20 years ago, while living among many people of a Word of Faith persuasion I wondered whether this observation made any sense in our media and personality obsessed culture, and have come to see his observation as valid and astute over these years. In America it is often true that those in poverty are regarded as victims, and those with wealth are seen as oppressors without consideration of specifics.

It is true that the Lord identified with those in poverty, and so the Apostle Paul wrote, "For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich." Through this model of sacrificial identification, and giving groups like the Franciscans were born, and people have followed vows of poverty in various seasons throughout church history. In this manner poverty is viewed as a means of attaining the riches of heaven. By putting off the attachments to this world the discipline of poverty leads one to high places in Christ.

Twentieth century schools of thought have adapted Capitalism and Faith, which in itself may not be inherently wrong if indeed Christianity is simultaneously a subversive and transcendent system, but the resultant theologies have been embraced by some, and decried as heresies by others. Within Pentecostalism the faith movement attaches prosperity to faith in God, and poverty to a lack of faith, or more radically to the problem of sin.

For a large cross section of the church encompassing Orthodoxy, Anabaptists and growing segments of evangelicalism social action is being seen as one of the main efforts of the Gospel. Poverty is treated almost as an inherent evil to be driven out by the work of the church.

From a wholly different perspective Christianity views poverty as a spiritual issue, and bypasses the definitions given by culture, and bounded by money and the ownership of physical property. So John writes, "Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich...."

Could it be that whatever school of thought we have adopted as our own has potentially played into our own spiritual poverty? Could it be that our own satisfaction in our biases about other people, and why they suffer or prosper has caused us to be those who are in need and poor when we think that we are rich? Is there still a gold we need to buy, which can not be found in the treasuries of earth? And could it be that the buying of this gold is the only thing which might make us effective solutions to the problem of poverty on earth?


Bruce said...

Here's something I haven't ever seen addressed. Some people (like me) see the making of money as an option or personal preference when compared to the absolute essential nature of doing what we're supposed to be doing (without regard for the moneymaking potential). Then again, many people, such as my wife and many Christians of both sexes see moneymaking as the default position for everybody who is not hopelessly sick or spoiled or something like that.

This KIND of split is present around spiritual gifts. When a person or ministry is especially gifted in an area, they can barely restrain themselves from asserting that THEIR gift is the sine qua non of being a Christian. Evangelistic ministries are famous for this, healing ministries are infamous for this, but so too are ministries of mercy who care for the sick and dying, and those who show leadership in the public spheres (i.e., political leadership).

Aristotle argued that doctors don't make money in their role as doctors, but they heal people. They make money in their role as moneymakers. Rich doctors just have two "knacks"--for healing and for making money.

Do we have this same thing going on here?

Unknown said...

I am appreciating more and more every day my anarchist/libertarian friends. Obviously, "money" drives most activity in life. I did a double-take the other day when I realized that I get up and go to work every work-day so that someone can send an electronic file that adds a number and some zeros to some "electron-tank" attached to my social security number. And, by some feat of magic, when I swipe this piece of plastic and any grocery or retail store, they let me leave carrying stuff they are selling. Furthermore, I type in a few characters in my computer, and a box of timberlands magically is delivered to my house. Bizarre... :p