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Opinion >

Yes, the poor will be with us — so fight on

A new theological approach to poverty is needed, says Justin Thacker

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CAN global poverty be ended? The short answer is: no. “Make Poverty History” might be a great slogan, but, in the end, if it cannot be made history there is a risk of fostering a generation of short-term campaigners who give up once they see the real difficulty of the task.

What is needed, instead, is a motivation for poverty alleviation that remains even when the task seems endless.

Jesus’s statement in the house of Simon the Leper — “For you always have the poor with you” — is one of the most frequently disputed among Christian politicos. Some on the right have claimed that, in the light of Jesus’s words, there is no point in seeking to end poverty. A few in the United States have even found a justification in Jesus’s statement for the removal of welfare services for the poor.

In response, some on the left have argued that such a view fails to take account of the context in which Jesus said these words. His point was not about the inevitability of poverty, but about the social location of the church — in and among the poor.

 

BUT it strikes me that both sides are missing the point. Imagine, for a moment, that when Jesus was in the house of Simon the Leper he had not made a comment about poverty, but, instead, he had made one about sin — namely, that there would always be sin among us.

It is unlikely that anyone would argue with such a truism. Indeed, it would be absurd if someone suggested that, because sin is inevitable, no effort should be put into minimising it, or that, because Jesus said that there would always be sin, efforts to reduce it should be stopped.

At the same time, it would be strange to argue that sin can be ended, perhaps by arguing that Jesus’s point was about the social location of his followers rather than about the inevitability of sin.

So, if Jesus’s comments had been about sin, both sides would have readily agreed that, yes, there will always be sin; and, yes, followers of Jesus should do all that they can to minimise it.

Given this, it seems strange that people do not reach the same conclusion about poverty. It will always exist, and, yes, we should do all we can to reduce it. This is particularly the case given that Jesus’s words were an almost direct quotation from Deuteronomy 15.11 (“There will always be poor people in the land”). Moreover, that chapter makes it abundantly clear that the reason there will always be poor in the land is because there will always be sin, and that the response of God’s people should be to address it.

 

ACCEPTING this is what provides the kind of long-term motivation for poverty alleviation that is actually required. There is a strange paradox in the fact that, when people’s motivation for poverty reduction is centred on what they can do, then the poor are no longer the focus of their efforts, but rather their own achievements.

The danger in this is that our efforts become dependent not on the actual needs of the world, but on our own sense of success. This is a recipe for short-termism, or what some have called “clicktivism” — social activism limited to one’s activity on social media.

But the poor deserve far more than that. What is required is a motivation that is not activated only when social media or the news has pricked people’s consciences, but is active irrespective of the results.

That motivation comes when we keep as our central focus not our achievements (which are fickle), but the ongoing need before us. When we keep the poor continually in focus — and especially when we see poverty for what it is: a manifestation of a sinful world — then, just as we seek to minimise sin in our own lives, we should also seek to minimise the expression of sin that is poverty.

In saying this, I am not suggesting that somehow poverty experienced by any individual is the direct result of their own sin; but, rather, that poverty in general is the result of our collective failure to honour God in the way that we should. And, just as one day sin will be no more, so, one day, poverty will end.

Until then, the responsibility of Christians seems pretty clear: it is not to misuse scripture to offer either a justification for ongoing greed and injustice, or to promise a false utopia. Instead, it is to remind us that we are in a long-term war with sin, death — and, yes, poverty.

This war will one day be finished by Christ; but, until that day comes, followers of Christ need to remain steadfast and focused on the need before them: the lives of the 1.3 billion people who continue to live in extreme poverty.

 

Dr Justin Thacker is a lecturer in practical and public theology at Cliff College. He is the author of Global Poverty: A theological guide, published by SCM Press (£25 (CT Bookshop £22.50)).

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