-Ryan Fasani & Eric Paul
In the last five installments, we have affirmed that “the mission of the church in the world is to continue the redemptive work of Christ in the power of the Spirit” (Manual, Article 11). Jesus’ ministry—his redemptive work on earth—was the proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favor, the Jubilee, the Kingdom of God, the Good News to the poor (Luke 4). Good News to the poor, we think, is to not be poor, and the Jubilee was largely an economic leveling between community members. Christ’s redemption is preoccupied with poverty. Consequently, the church as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12), continuing the redemption of the world, is also preoccupied with poverty—proclaiming the Good News to those that suffer from poverty, the poor.
We understand, however, that we have unfairly left unexplained what it is we mean by poverty. To assert that God is a God of the poor without making some strides toward at least a working definition of poverty weakens our project. Perhaps the following assessment of poverty should have been the first piece. In part because it informs our reference of poverty throughout the series, but more importantly, because in the church’s diagnosis of poverty lies the biggest potential for missing the God of the poor. If God’s redemptive work in the world truly liberates people from that which enslaves, then the church must ask whether we have placed ourselves physically as a body working toward human freedom or “distanced” ourselves from God’s work. While this last section in the series explores further how we miss God by misunderstanding poverty, it leads us into the next step in our journey: a definitional series exploring the nature, causes, and interconnectedness of poverty as well as the church’s habit of largely misperceiving it.
Should the church have a chance at being Christ’s body in the world, should we have a chance at being God’s agents of redemption, then it is without option that we know from what people need to be “bought back” (redimere, the Latin root for redemption). Namely, the church must understand poverty, as poverty holds ransom the poor from living life fully in God (Matt. 20:28; John 10:10). To understand poverty is to recognize and comprehend it (diagnosis) and respond effectively (prescription).
An untrained eye sees poverty as deficit, a lack of things. In this view, income is the largest determinate of poverty—one is poor if one has a deficiency in buying power. A broader definition might include non-material deficiencies like education and political knowledge. Christians have sensitivity to the immediate limitations of these definitions and will add to them a spiritual deficit. All these definitions, though different, assume that if the poor receive what they do not have, for instance, money, water, education, and a working knowledge of the bible, then they will cease to be poor. If the diagnosis of poverty is the absence of things, the prescription is to acquire those things. It comes as no surprise, then, that many Christian ministries to the poor are “gift drops.” When one lacks, Christians should give.
Economic development professionals have discovered that poverty is far more complex than the simple experience of deficiencies. A glance at three— Jayakumar Christian, John Friedman, and Bryant Myers—will not enable us to develop an alternative definition of poverty, as that would require a more lengthy assessment of their work. Instead, all three development professionals will lend a hand in us suggesting that poverty is and therefore the church’s response must be far more complex and nuanced.
Christian, in his PhD thesis, Powerless of the Poor: Toward an Alternative Kingdom of God Based Paradigm of Response, explains that poverty is the experience of living in power-stealing systems. These systems that disempower individuals are social and personal. For instance, personal systems that steal power from the individual are physical (weakened body and mind), personal (inaccurate identity), and religious (deceiving spiritualities). Social systems that can disempower include one’s culture (ideology) and social place (relationships to others, especially the non-poor). These systems complexly interact and influence each other, further reinforcing the experience of powerlessness—poverty. Poverty is essentially being caught in disempowering systems.
John Friedman, in Empowerment: The Politics of Alternative Development, contests that if poverty is the experience of deficit, then the deficit is a lack of power in rather stationary and overlapping domains. This creates a layered and nuanced experience of power or its lack—a layered experience of poverty. Different types of power arise from these overlapping domains (e.g. power arises through party affiliation in the overlap of the political domain and the economic domain). The poor have a particularly difficult time engaging these domains—economy, civil society, politics, and state—precisely because of the pressures on them as ones impoverished. The poor do not have the organizational resource, political influence, or judicial access to realize a different future. Poverty is essentially disconnection from the power found in social organization and political representation.
Bryant Myers, in his Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development, attempts to build on Christian and Friedman’s analysis by explicitly utilizing the biblical story as guidance. Myers largely agrees with the aforementioned analyses but diagnoses a more fundamental commonality between all that are poor: poverty is the result of broken and unhealthy relationships to self, God, others, the environment, and one’s community. Poverty is at its core a spiritual brokenness, but not in a way that deems other components subordinate. Instead, Myers uses a theological understanding of sin to assess the spiritual nature of individual (relationship to oneself) and systemic (relationship to other individuals, the community at large, and natural resources) causes of poverty.
As Christian, Friedman, and Myers suggest, poverty is a complex experience, and it’s simply inaccurate to diagnosis it as the experience of basic deficit. If the disease is complex, the diagnosis, then, must be complex and sophisticated. And if the diagnosis is complex—and the church is to be faithful to its call to redeem the impoverished—the prescription (ministry to the poor) must be at the very least complexly appropriate to the need. What might this suggest about our clothing collections, food drives, and hygiene kits? What about our clothing closets, our free hot meals, or our Christmas toy collections?
We’re afraid to say it, but we must: our churches do not understand poverty—certainly not its complexities. We know our poor neighbors need Jesus, but we are unaware, for instance, that they may be trapped in a system of disempowerment largely bequeathed to them by generations of broken social relationships, reinforced by marred personal identity and cultural stereotypes, and augmented by untreated physical disease. Being Christ’s body in the presence of such experience—being near to God in the poor (Matt. 25) and being God to the poor (Luke 4)—necessitates far more than warm clothes in the winter or extra toys at Christmas. By missing the diagnosis of poverty, the church is missing its role in redemption. By missing poverty have we missed God altogether?
-Ryan Fasani, Ex Director, and Eric Paul, Resident Theologian, are guest contributors of Micah Mandate from East Nashville Cooperative Ministry.
-ENCM is an East Nashville based, ecumenical ministry organizing neighbors and churches to develop a food-secure community through emergency food assistance, urban food growing and allocation, and nutrition and cooking education.
-To view the rest of the Keeping God at a Distance series, please click here.