Misunderstanding Poverty

Perspectives on poverty, especially when defined by middle-class White dudes, inevitably seems to strike a judgmental and surface-level understanding:

  • if only the poor didn’t waste their money on cigarettes and alcohol
  • if only the kids were properly taken care of by their parents
  • if only they wanted to get jobs and stay out of trouble
  • if only the poor cared as much as we do about having a better life

What’s missing here, at least for us Christians, is real repentance and justice on behalf of the poor. Jesus proclaimed blessing to the poor and woe to the rich (Luke 6:20-26). He taught his disciples a radical gift economy that had the effect of making them poorer and yet well taken care of (Matthew 10:8). Understanding poverty from Jesus’ own instructions and example disrupts our self-preserving and often paternalistic plans on how to “end poverty” over there, while keeping the status quo where we live.

“I continue to believe that in this country the opposite of poverty is not wealth…the opposite of poverty is justice…Our system treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.”

Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy

“Poverty is a multidimensional reality. It is necessary, therefore, following the example of the Bible, to make sure that it is not reduced to its economic dimension, important as it is…[T]he poor represent the ‘insignificant ones’–those regarded as non-persons; those whose full rights as human beings are not acknowledged. Individuals without social or individual weight, who matter little in society and the Church. Thus are they seen or, more exactly, not seen, since they become invisible insofar as excluded in the world of today. Various reasons account for this state of affairs–economic want, to be sure, but also: having a particular skin color; being a woman; belonging to a despised culture.” (p. 18)

Gustavo Gutiérrez in The Theology of Liberation: Perspectives and Tasks

“The Time of No Room”

Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it–because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it–his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak; and with those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, and are tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.

–Thomas Merton, in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (p. 278)