8.14.2013

Is Poverty Spiritual?

Genesis 1-3 the story of creation and fall; man is created in a state of harmonious relationships with God (Genesis 1:27-31) , with other human beings (Genesis 2:20-24), with the natural world (Genesis 2:8-16), and with himself (Genesis 2:25).  Man's rebellion fractures and distorts each of those relationships; God (Genesis 3:8-9), Others (Genesis 3:12 & 16), Natural World (Genesis 3:17-19), Self (Genesis 3:10).

This is a helpful rubric for understanding poverty as a condition that is rooted, not in a lack of material 'stuff,' but rather in something much more implicitly personal, and intrinsically spiritual; the relative health our relationship to God, Others, the World, and Ourselves.

This has the benefit of explaining the language and experience of poverty in ways that mere materialism does not.  Those who self-identify as 'poor' are more often going to define their poverty in terms of shame, impotence, and disenfranchisement, as opposed to low earning, or a lack of material possessions.  Indeed, the identification of oneself as 'poor' comes with its own stigma for precisely those reasons.  It also takes the most culturally prominent aspect of what we call poverty (lack of stuff), and frames it in a more holistic way; a broken relationship to stuff (or the world around us).

It has the additional benefit of explaining the unique poverty of meaning and community that is present in many middle-class neighborhoods as (while clearly different) rooted in the same basic state of humanity as the poverty of environment and self that is present in many economically challenged neighborhoods.

Further, it highlights the basic flaw in most attempts to combat poverty, namely through direct redistribution of goods and services.  If all forms of poverty are rooted in a lack of spiritual health and/or maturity, and a broken relationship in one or more of these areas, then changing the circumstances of the poor won't alleviate their poverty (a painfully obvious reality in economically challenged communities the world over), but simply exacerbate the problem through the perpetuation of impotence, self-victimization, and manipulation.

Finally, it points to the common solution; a resolute commitment to the process of developing a healthy relationship with God, Others, the World, and Self; namely discipleship unto Christ-likeness within the multicultural community of God's missional people.

4 comments:

Ramon Mayo said...

I thought I posted a comment earlier but it looks like it didn't take. Well here it goes again

I like the overall point that we are all lacking something and thus we are all poor. My only apprehension is that if you make everyone poor then no one is poor. Redistribution of goods and services are not the solution to the problem of poverty but I don't think redefining poverty is. Everyone is "poor in spirit" but not everyone is materially poor. Being materially poor comes with its own causes and symptoms that are distinctive from the suburban angst so many people feel. For example: If I have to figure out how to pay my bills I'm not thinking about how to find meaning in my life. I say this from experience :)

Steven Schenk said...

To clarify, I don't want to say that 'all people are poor' but rather, I want to clarify what the roots of poverty are. Not everyone is materially poor, and that is not something to ignore, however, the root causes of material poverty are in human sin, just as suburban angst is. They are very different manifestations of human commonalities. This means that they need to be addressed in different ways, but the same underlying problems lead to commonalities in the solutions as well...

For example, the solution to suburban angst AND urban dis-empowerment might well be addressed (in some small specific cases) by having middle-class suburbanites mentor the materially poor in their finances. Whereas we typically tend to conceive of the solution to the problem through the binary options of de facto segregation and/or redistribution.

This is highlighted if we define poverty in terms of these four relationships, but is obscured if we define poverty as a lack of stuff.

Ramon Mayo said...

So I think you are saying the materially poor are actualy poor in multiple ways and that sin is the root cause of it all. If that is what you are saying then I feel that it does define the problem correctly.

Steven Schenk said...

That is what I am saying...

;-)

But I would go one beyond that to talk about the solution that arises from such a perspective; discipleship. And that this solution is actually the solution to any and every form of poverty.

Discipleship is the process by which we learn to appropriate the victory of the cross to every aspect of our person, namely, our relationship to God, others, self, and the world. If we enter into the process of discipleship, we will find ourselves being healed of the root causes of poverty, and other forms of brokenness...