THE POOR VS POVERTY. Along with fresh material, I’ve been rereading some core works on the spiritual disciplines. I had forgotten about Dallas Willard’s chapter titled “Is Poverty Spiritual?” in Spirit of the Disciplines. Willard perceives a significant difference between “the poor” and life-crushing “poverty.” "The poor" will always be with us, he declares. On the other hand, "poverty" must be addressed aggressively and persistently. Interesting distinction. Interesting perspective.
NOT OFF THE HOOK. Willard asserts that the Bible does not indicate that no one should be poor. I disagree. He overlooks clear and repeated directives and provisions in the Old and New Testaments. But even if one holds that “the poor will always be with you” is an emphatic declaration instead of a reference that cannot be taken out of the context in which Jesus was making another point of emphasis, no one--particularly sincere followers of Jesus--is off the hook regarding the poor and poverty.
GODLY USE OF WEALTH. I appreciate the manner in which Willard addresses the call of God’s people to alleviate and end poverty. He doesn’t go where you’d think one who believes the poor exist by God’s design goes. Willard avoids typical “charity” and band-aid approaches to relieving poverty and encourages followers of Jesus to work for relief, yes, but also for release and restructuring. He links poverty with injustice, the idolatry of money, and misplaced trust in riches. He asserts that a Godly person with wealth will use it to help the poor, address injustice, and change poverty-producing policies, patterns, and behaviors.
Here are a few statements by Willard that I find insightful:
PRESENT INEQUALITIES REFLECT INJUSTICE. “At the present time we find ourselves in world where few people are rich and powerful, while many are poor and weak. Some who are well-off have actively wronged their neighbors to get or keep their wealth; others wrong their neighbors by allowing them to suffer rather than share with them. There is an obvious inequality in the distribution of goods needed for life, and much of the inequality is a reflection of injustice.”
WHEN ‘ECONOMIC’ OPPORTUNITY KILLS. “The problems posed for human life by wealth and poverty are not just concerns for theology and social or personal ethics. They go to the very foundations of the social order. We talk in clinically detached terms of ‘the economy,’ but it is economic issues that open the door to the most repressive and bloody regimes, of the political Right as well as Left…At some point, ‘economic’ considerations are translated into the ruin or termination of human lives. Sometimes this is due to ‘the establishment”; other times ‘the requirements of the revolution’ are served.”
WORSHIPING GOD OR RICHES? “Whoever cannot have riches without worshiping them above God should get rid of them, if that will enable him or her to trust and serve God rightly.”
GIVE ALL AWAY OR STEWARD IT GRACIOUSLY? “To assume the responsibility for the rightful use and guidance of possessions through ownership is far more of a discipline of the spirit than poverty itself. Our possessions vastly extend the range over which God rules through our faith. Thus they make possible activities in God’s power that are impossible without them. We must not allow our quite justifiable revulsion at the debauchery of those who happen to be rich to blind us to this fact.”
BEYOND WELFARE PROGRAMS. “Charity and social welfare programs, while good and clearly our duty, cannot even begin to fulfill our responsibilities as children of light to a needy world. It is pure delusion to imagine they can. They simply concern too small a portion of the goods of life…”
EQUALITY OF POOR AND RICH. “Only if we believe with our whole being in the equality of rich and poor before God can we walk in their midst as Jesus did, unaffected in our personal relations by the distinction…The New Testament teaching is that we are to honor all people. Hence we are to honor the poor. We are to respect them and to show our respect in all the natural ways. We are to do no less and no more to the rich.”
AT THE FOOT OF THE CROSS. “Our problem is not primarily with how we see the poor, but with how we see ourselves. If we still think and convey by our behavior that in some way we are fundamentally different and better as persons from the man sleeping in the discarded boxes in the alley, we have not been brought with clear eyes to the foot of the cross, seeing our own neediness in the light of it. We have not looked closely at the lengths to which God had to go to reach us. We have not learned to live always and thankfully in the cross’s shadow. From that vantage point alone is our solidarity with the destitute to be realized.”