Transforming the World Series (6) ‘Understanding and Overcoming Poverty’

This is s repost from a series I’ve kindly been asked to do over at Jesus Creed.

Dewi Hughes, theological advisor to Tearfund UK, isn’t afraid of controversy.

Some of his opening points in his chapter ‘Understanding and Overcoming Poverty’

– God does not approve of poverty or of the exploitation of the poor

– There are about 1 billion people living today on less than $1 a day which equates to absolute poverty: inadequate nutrition, shelter, clothing, healthcare and education.

– Being in the kingdom of God means that care for the poor must be one of our priorities.

– But to bring about lasting social transformation, we need a proper understanding of poverty: its causes and strategies for its alleviation.

– The average wage in the UK is about 100 times greater than the average earnings in many African countries (anyone know of the stats in the US?)

– 300 billionaires possess more assets than 2.5 billion of the world’s population.

While there are many complex reasons for the vast differential between the rich industrial nations and poor Majority World countries, Hughes focuses on the spiritual reasons for why inequality is so deeply embedded in the spirit and psyche of mankind.

What do you think of his analysis?

He sketches developments in Genesis 1-11 that include:

– Alienation from God

– Fallen humanity acting in independence of God

– Preoccupation with the self

– Lack of guilt

– Insecurity and the search for power, superiority over others and the quest for material resources

So while we have not lost our social and relational nature – we still value marriage, family, clan, tribal and ethnic identities – we take our insecurity and self-centredness into all our social relations. We are prone to dominate and be dominated. (174)

“The world has always been, and still is, full of empire-builders, big and small, and the poor are still victims of their violence.” (175)

Hughes moves on the biblical narrative. It is God’s covenant with Abraham and Israel which forms the key strategy for overcoming poverty and establishing justice.

Empires founded on the basis of alienation from God, and framed by the powerful protecting themselves from insecurity, will be oppressive by definition (think Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans for example).  Such empires develop into powers whose well-being and prosperity of the included is built on the oppression and exploitation of the excluded. They also frequently use divinely sanctioned violence against those who are seen as ‘hindering the spread of the blessings of the “empire”.’

In contrast, Israel was to be a society built on righteousness and justice.

The point Hughes makes well here is that obeying God’s laws required faith and trust because it was costly and risky to do so.

“It was a lack of faith in God that led Israel to adopt economic models that bred inequality and oppression of the poor and resulted in their expulsion from the land.” (176).

So how does this translate to the NT and the modern church?

Jesus’ new covenant kingdom vision called his followers to commit to what amounted to a spiritual and economic fulfilment of the old covenant.

It takes a lot of faith and trust in God NOT to find security and identity in riches and possessions. Disciples, Jesus says, cannot serve both God and mammon. They are to store up treasure in heaven, not on earth. They are to show mercy – which finds expression giving alms to the poor. They are not to worry about things like food and clothing and resources to sustain physical life because they are to trust in God.

I think he’s spot on here – and it would be good to hear of some stories around this call to counter-cultural faith.

And what do you think of Hughes’ hermeneutical move here? – In our Western context, the empire in which we live is “globalized free-market capitalism with its economic and military heart in the USA. The ideology it espouses is ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ but it is freedom to worship Mammon and the religious express of this worship is consumerism.” (180)

What then does it mean not to ‘trust’ in the empire of modern capitalism?

And sounding very Ron Sider-like, this leads Hughes to two proposals for Christians in overcoming poverty:

1.       Rejecting Consumerism

Evangelicals are richer than ever but give less of their wealth away than they used to. And like Ron Sider and others who followed him, Hughes urges

–  sustained theological reflection and writing on consumerism

– a renewed call for generosity and justice

– living simply

2.       The local church and justice

Hughes notes that too much ecclesiology tends to be focused on the survival of the church in a post-Christendom context. Rather than being self-interested, he urges more reflection how can local churches be engaged in transforming societies for the better? Yet too often the local church plays little or no role in transforming the society in which it exists.

And it would interesting to hear some stories here on your church’s vision locally for engaging with issues of poverty and injustice.

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