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Lifting the Burden of Poverty

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The numbers are staggering, and the extent of human suffering is almost unimaginable to people who live in affluent parts of the world. Today—in the 21st century—nearly half of the world's six billion human beings live in daily, crushing poverty. Are there biblical solutions to this global problem?

Are there biblical solutions to this global problem?

The numbers are staggering, and the extent of human suffering is almost unimaginable to people who live in affluent parts of the world. Today—in the 21st century—nearly half of the world's six billion human beings live in daily, crushing poverty. More than a billion people live on less than US$1 per day. Nearly two billion people eke out a meager existence on less than $2 per day (World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 3341, Chen & Ravallion, June 2004).

Viewed from another perspective, the inequities and disparities between the richest one-third who live in abundance (mainly in the northern hemisphere) and the poorest two-thirds who struggle to survive (mainly in the southern hemisphere) are not only disturbing, but are increasingly unconscionable (Religion and the Ambiguities of Capitalism, Preston, p. 150). The richest 20 percent enjoy 72 percent of the world's gross domestic profits, drive on 78 percent of the world's highways, consume 73 percent of the world's forest products and use 50 percent of the world's energy (Global Disorder, Harvey, p. 198). Yet, this tragic gap between the world's rich and poor continues to widen every year! In 1960, earnings of the richest 20 percent were 30 times those of the poorest 20 percent; in the 1990s the average income of the top one-fifth was 74 times greater than that of the poorest 20 percent (Earth Summit 2002, Dodds, pp. 135–136). The richest 20 percent spend 85 percent of the world's money, while the poorest 20 percent account for only 1.3 percent of the world's spending.

The significance of these starkly contrasting figures is much greater than a matter of arithmetic. These growing disparities of income and opportunity threaten the future stability of the world, and present a major hurdle to world peace. Twenty-five years ago, a U.S. Presidential commission warned: "The most potentially explosive force in the world today is the frustrated desire of poor people to attain a decent standard of living" (Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, Sider, p. 29). The north-south division—between rich and poor countries—has been called "one of the most dangerous divisions in the world today" (ibid., p. 31). Recent analysts have noted that "the failure to meet the needs of the world's poorest citizens… is now contributing to global instability in the form of terrorism, war and contagious disease… an unstable world not only perpetuates poverty, but will ultimately threaten the prosperity that the rich minority has come to enjoy" (Vital Signs 2003, The Worldwatch Institute). Brazilian President Luiz da Silva has called poverty "the most destructive weapon of mass destruction in the world." Robert Harvey, author and former member of the British parliament, observed that "global poverty remains the scourge of mankind" and that global poverty, with "her four handmaidens, mass migration, hunger, disease and debt" represents one of the major challenges to peace in today's world (Global Disorder, p. 197). It is no coincidence the United Nations has placed the eradication of extreme poverty as the primary item on a list of Millennium Development Goals (State of the World 2005, Worldwatch, pp. 164–165).

But what is it like to experience real poverty? If you live in an affluent part of the world, can you grasp the enormity and reality of this tragic situation? Do you know what causes poverty on a global scale? Why does it persist? Are there any real solutions? Does religion—and especially Christianity—have anything to say about this major social issue? Why should you be concerned?

An Important Perspective

Since the late 1700s, social reformers have envisioned a world where poverty and human suffering would be banished by "scientific and economic progress… [the spread of] knowledge, reason and freedom… [and] free, compulsory, secular education" (An End of Poverty?, Jones, pp. 1, 26, 203). Enlightenment thinkers believed that technological progress, the rule of reason and a more equitable distribution of income would eliminate not only poverty, but also the scourge of war. They worshiped human reason, viewing religion (including Christianity) with suspicion and even hostility (Civilization Past & Present, 6th edition, Wallbank, p. 507). Noted economist Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, a leading exponent of the Enlightenment tradition, sees the elimination of poverty as the great and doable challenge of our age, as he suggested in his book, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities of Our Time). Sachs, like his philosophical predecessors, makes little room for God and religion in this great task of banishing poverty, healing the world and ushering in a new era of peace (ibid., pp. 360, 364), even though centuries of human effort have not resolved these problems.

In the light of history, it is not surprising that few today realize that the Bible contains valuable information for addressing the problem of global poverty. The Bible reveals important perspectives about the causes of poverty, and shows how God views the plight of the poor. The Scriptures also outline responsibilities that God places on those who enjoy a more affluent lifestyle. God even gave biblical writers practical principles for eliminating—and preventing—poverty. Sadly, many have never heard how the burden of poverty will be lifted in the not-too-distant future. Many have no idea that Christ is preparing Christians to eliminate the curse of poverty, yet this exciting message is clearly revealed in the Bible! It was part of the good news announced by the ancient prophets, it was part of the gospel preached by Jesus Christ, and it is part of the message God's Church is to proclaim today. It is a message of hope, but it is also a warning that the world needs to hear and understand!

Faces of Poverty

For poverty to be eliminated, its root causes must be understood—and addressed with workable solutions. Poverty can be defined as the inability to satisfy basic needs to live in human society. Poverty is hunger, lack of shelter, inadequate housing, lack of sanitation, little or no access to clean water, sickness and disease without access to (or ability to pay for) adequate health care, unemployment, illiteracy, powerlessness and lack of access to education.

What is it like to be poor? An affluent person would have to go to great lengths to really understand. Can you imagine moving out of your home into a one- or two-bedroom shed—made of mud and sticks or of salvaged bits of corrugated tin, lumber, cardboard or plastic? Maybe if you were a little better off, you might have a room in an overcrowded and dilapidated older building, with no glass windows, no screens on the windows or doors, no heating, no running water, no stove, no refrigerator, no showers or toilets, only a few pieces of furniture (and nothing electronic, like a television, computer, radio or clock). You might own one old suit and a couple of shirts, or perhaps a couple of dresses. You might own a pair of shoes. There will be no postman to deliver mail, and no fireman or ambulance to call in case of emergency. There will be no telephone with which to call anyone. The roads to your village, and the alleys leading to your shed, are unpaved and nearly impassable when there is rain. The nearest school or clinic is several miles away, and since you have neither a car nor a bicycle you must walk there whenever you need to go—if you are healthy enough to walk.

In your home you have only a few items of food, even though you spend up to 70 percent of your meager income each week to feed your family. You are often sick, tired and hungry, and you have watched several of your children die from starvation or from infections that could be easily treated if only you had access to some simple and inexpensive remedies that are beyond your reach.

You agonize because you cannot afford to send all of your children to school. You yourself cannot afford to get further training or education, and you lack the money to start a business that might lift you out of poverty. There is plenty of money in your country—but it is hoarded by officials of your hopelessly corrupt government.

You tried moving to a city to look for work, but there you found many unemployed people, more crowded slums, and terrible drug abuse and crime. Commuting to a job is out of the question, because of the cost, as well as your nation's crumbling roads and irregular means of mass transport. You want something better for yourself, and for your family—but you do not have the resources to move elsewhere in search of a better life. As a result, you have a bleak outlook on the future.

To billions of people around the world, trapped under the burden of poverty, this is their life.

Fundamental Causes

Governments, philanthropists and charitable organizations have for centuries struggled to eliminate the curse of poverty, with only limited success. In the 1960s, the United States launched a "War on Poverty" as part of what President Lyndon Johnson called an attempt to build a "Great Society"—yet today, four decades later, the U.S. still has 35 million people living in what America considers poverty! Welfare programs offer temporary help to some of the poor and needy, yet often foster a "welfare mentality" that teaches recipients to look to government to supply all their needs. Social activists and religious people preach against spending money on armaments at the expense of taking care of the poor, but offer few practical solutions that go beyond exhortations to "love your neighbor" and to be more generous (The Observer, December 26, 2004).

In 2005, leaders in the United Kingdom launched a campaign to "Make Poverty History." Time will tell if they will be successful. Experience suggests that, just like every previous attempt, this one too will fail.

Most human efforts have failed to lift the burden of poverty because they do not address the root causes of the problem. Income redistribution—taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor—will not solve the problem. This approach fosters dependency among the poor majority, and in order to continue must take more and more from the affluent minority (and from less and less affluent people as time goes on) to provide aid (see The Creation of Wealth: A Christian's Case for Capitalism, Griffiths, pp. 12–13). Centrally planned economies have not solved the problem, and extensive government regulations to disperse tax revenues (as found in the European Union) have led to economic stagnation.

Free market economies are capable of generating great wealth, but a free market that is not based on strong moral principles merely rewards the greedy and ruthless, and leads to "predatory capitalism" that only accentuates the gap between rich and poor (Religion & the Ambiguities of Capitalism, Preston, pp. 145–146). Government legislation that sets minimum wages—and that provides equal access to jobs, rent supplements for the needy, food vouchers for the hungry and medical services for the sick—can alleviate some of the suffering inflicted by poverty, but still does not address fundamental causes of the problem.

The Bible, however, takes a different approach by focusing on basic attitudes that determine actions. Interestingly, business professor Peter Bauer comments: "Emergence from poverty… does not require large scale capital formation. It requires changes in attitudes" (Equality, the Third World and Economic Delusion, p. 248). The Scriptures indicate that a careless, irresponsible attitude which fails to develop initiative or plan for the future can lead to poverty (Proverbs 6:6–11; 21:13; 24:30–34). Impulsive and unwise decisions can also lead to poverty (Proverbs 21:5). However, many scriptures indicate that much poverty results from unjust treatment and oppression of the poor by rich, greedy and often heartless individuals in government, business, religion and other fields. Prophets of God have warned that economic injustice, oppression of the poor and living in luxury while ignoring the needs of the poor would bring about God's wrath (Jeremiah 7:5–7; Amos 4:1–3; 5:11–13; Malachi 3:5). Many forget that God destroyed the sinful city of Sodom not only because of its sexual perversions (Genesis 19:4–7), but for other important reasons as well. We read that "this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy" (Ezekiel 16:49–50, NIV).

The Bible and history indicate that selfishness, inequity and economically oppressive behavior became widespread in ancient Israel when the Israelites forgot God and ignored the laws and instructions He gave to Moses. Those instructions included specific guidelines for protecting the poor and needy. God told Moses: "If you lend money to any… who are poor among you… you shall not charge him interest. If you ever take your neighbor's garment as a pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down" (Exodus 22:25–26). Moses was also told that "if one of your brethren becomes poor, and falls into poverty… you shall help him… you shall not lend him your money for usury, nor lend him your food at a profit" (Leviticus 25:35–37). God stated further: "If there is among you a poor man… you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need" (Deuteronomy 15:7–8). These instructions prohibited exploiting the poor and the indentured servants, and admonished the affluent to be generous to those in need.

It is interesting to note that medieval theologians (using ideas borrowed from the pagan philosopher Aristotle) debated these verses extensively, and mistakenly concluded it was wrong to charge any interest on loans. In fact, however, the term usury refers to the charging of excessive interest (Preston, pp. 135–142). The Expositor's Bible Commentary points out that these verses "were not intended to prohibit commercial loans but rather the charging of interest to the impoverished so as to make a profit from the helpless of one's neighbors" (see comments on Nehemiah 5:7; Leviticus 25:35–37). This has important implications for the successful functioning of economic systems.

Biblical instructions for protecting the poor reflect the mind of God. Many scriptures show that God cares deeply about those made in His image, and that He will bring retribution on those who oppress, exploit or ignore the needs of the poor. David wrote: "The Lord is high above all nations… He raises the poor out of the dust, and lifts the needy out of the ash heap… He will bring justice to the poor of the people; He will save the children of the needy, and will break in pieces the oppressor" (Psalm 113:4–7; 72:1–4). Solomon echoes this same warning: "Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the Lord will take up their case and will plunder those who plunder them" (Proverbs 22:22–23, NIV). However, the Apostle Paul also stressed the importance of personal responsibility: "If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat" (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

The Bible offers specific advice to leaders, because leaders have a tremendous effect on the people they lead. "A ruler who lacks understanding is a great oppressor, but he who hates covetousness will prolong his days… When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan… The righteous considers the cause of the poor, but the wicked does not understand such knowledge" (Proverbs 28:16; 29:2, 7). Billions of people today suffer from the painful effects of poverty because their leaders do not follow these simple yet profound instructions that God recorded long ago in the Bible.

Powerful Principles

When you study the subject of poverty from a biblical perspective, you make some very interesting discoveries. Old Testament laws that have been cast aside by "mainstream" Christianity actually turn out to be powerful principles that were designed to prevent some of the major problems facing the world today—including the exploitation of cheap labor, the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, the problems of famine and hunger and of sustaining an economy crippled by staggering debts from loans made by rich nations.

In His wisdom, God mandated observance of the seventh-day Sabbath (Exodus 16:23–30). The Sabbath was not only a day of worship; it was to be a day of rest when laborers would cease from their routine toil of earning a living (Exodus 20:8–11). Properly observed, the Sabbath would prevent the exploitation of servants and hired workers. No one would be pressed into working seven days a week; even the poorest would have a day to rest. It was God's intent that his model nation of Israel would stand out as an example to the world if it followed this divinely ordained, yet very humane, practice (Exodus 31:12–18).

God also established a "sabbatical year" that occurred every seven years (Exodus 23:10–13). During the seventh year, fields were to lie fallow (observing a "land Sabbath" to replenish the soil). During this year, the poor could eat whatever grew on these fields (Leviticus 25:2–7). This seventh year was called a "year of release" because all debts were cancelled and all bondservants were set free with enough resources for a fresh start in life (Deuteronomy 15:1–15). If this principle were followed today, a huge burden of debt would be lifted from the shoulders of billions of people around the world, and they would have a new lease on life!

Every 50th year was a "jubilee" year (Leviticus 25:8–17). During the jubilee year, all land that had been sold was to be returned to its original owners. This principle prevented the accumulation of land in the hands of a few rich people (see Isaiah 5:8). Today, without this principle in effect, millions and millions of people live as landless peasants dependent on the whims of affluent landowners. Professor Ronald Sider commented on the reasons behind the return of land during the jubilee year: "In an agricultural society, land is capital. Land was the basic means of producing wealth… In the beginning [when God set up the nation of Israel] the land had been divided more or less equally among the tribes and families (Numbers 26:52–56). Apparently God wanted that basic equality to continue. Hence His command to return all land to the original owners every fifty years. Private property was not abolished. But the means of producing wealth were to be equalized regularly" (Christians in an Age of Hunger, Sider, p. 80). Sider continues: "Physical handicaps, death of a breadwinner or lack of natural ability may lead some people to become poorer than others. But God does not want such disadvantages to lead to greater and greater divergence of wealth and poverty. God therefore gave His people a law which would equalize land ownership every fifty years… the biblical concept of jubilee underlines the importance of institutionalized mechanisms and structures that promote justice" (ibid.).

In addition to the sabbatical and jubilee principles, gleaning laws stated that the edges of fields were not to be harvested. They were to be left so the poor could gather food—this was not just a "free handout" (Leviticus 19:9–10). God also established a system of tithing to provide for the spiritual and physical needs of His people. The first tithe (10 percent of one's "increase" or income) supported the priests and Levites—the spiritual leaders, teachers and civil administrators of the nation. A second tithe was retained by each head of household for observing the annual Holy Days (Deuteronomy 14:23–26). A third tithe (10 percent paid in the third and sixth years of a seven-year cycle) was used to support widows, orphans and the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28–29). With this arrangement, God provided an organized system to provide for the needy. Under this system, the most anyone would pay annually in tithes was 20 percent (since the second tithe was always retained for personal use during the Holy Days). Compare this to modern taxation schemes. This would be a welcome change for many today who pay greater amounts to big-spending governments.

An Exciting Future

Many who call themselves Christians today believe that these biblical principles for meeting economic and social needs are no longer relevant. They believe that their destiny is to float off to heaven, never again to care about improving the world. But the Bible indicates something far different! Jesus Christ preached about a coming Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14–15). This kingdom will be established on the earth for a thousand years, when Christ returns with His saints to rule all the nations (Revelation 1:6; 5:10; 11:15–18; Daniel 2:44–45; 7:27).

When Jesus announced that His mission was to "preach the gospel to the poor… heal the broken hearted… set at liberty those who are oppressed" He was quoting the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:18–19; Isaiah 61:1–2). Isaiah has been called "the messianic prophet" because of his many detailed prophecies about the coming Kingdom of God. Isaiah wrote that "it shall come to pass in the latter days" that the returning Messiah will set up a world-ruling government in Jerusalem and will begin to teach all human beings a different way of life, "For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations" (Isaiah 2:2–4).

At that time, the laws and principles discussed in this article will be explained to all peoples. Biblical principles will become the framework and building blocks of an economic system that will transform the world. As these instructions are put into effect, the exploitation of the poor will cease, the gap between rich and poor will begin to disappear and the burden of poverty will be lifted. True Christians have been called to prepare for this future (Isaiah 30:20–21), and to change the course of history when Jesus Christ returns to the earth. This is how the burden of poverty will be lifted from the human race and when the oppressed will finally be set free. This is the good news and the real hope of the future. If you prepare now, you can be part of a future that will make poverty history!

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