The questions of poverty and wealth have been with and will most likely stay with mankind forever. Jesus himself says that we will always have the poor with us (John 12:8). Poverty and wealth are found in every part of the world. Millions wallow in abject poverty in most parts of the globe and a small minority lives in luxury. While the vast majority of the people in the Western World (Western Europe, America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) have their basic needs met, the vast majority in Africa, parts of Asia and Latin America live in appalling conditions without adequate food, shelter, safe drinking water and basic medical care. The Christian Church is part and parcel of both worlds with both the extreme poor and the extreme rich among its ranks. What then is the Christian perspective and attitude towards both? What should be the Christian view and attitude to both?
We propose a series to explore both of these issues of poverty and wealth. This introductory article will zero in on some definitions of poverty and wealth and a survey of prevailing Christian attitudes to both. Articles two and three will focus on issues of poverty and the last two articles (four and five) on issues of wealth. In article two the thrust will be on why the widespread realities of poverty in the world, and article three will consider what can and should be done to drastically reduce it. The fifth article will delve into the Christian perspectives on wealth, and the concluding (fifth) will gauge the Christian views on wealth (its creation and distribution).
It is very hard to give a definition of poverty that fits all kinds and degrees of poverty. Who are the poor? What is considered poor in one part of the world may be seen as wealthy in another. For example, having a television and access to electricity may be signs of relative wealth in sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world while in developed nations those who possess these two may be among the poor. It might help to begin our definitions of poverty with the kinds of poverty. According to research done by John Stott, there are three major categories of poverty. These categories are the indignant or economically poor, the oppressed or powerless poor, and the humble or spiritual poor.
Economically speaking the indignant poor are those who lack the basic necessities of life, namely, food, shelter, clothing and basic health needs. They are sometime referred to as the destitute. We may refer to people who have more than the basic necessities of life such a television, a vehicle, a smartphone, washing machine, two or three decent meals a day and the like that make life a bit more comfortable but in comparison with the rich poor relatively. They do not have luxury goods and items in abundance as the rich have. The word poor is also employed in reference to the one deserving pity and sympathy. Like we would say, “Poor Flomo, he recently lost both his job and his wife”.
The oppressed poor, sociologically and politically speaking, are those whose rights are denied because of their race, tribe, religion, political affiliation or place of residence. They may have some material comforts but have no say in the decision making of the society they belong to. The spiritually poor are those who recognize and acknowledge their need and dependence on God. They do not confide solely in their own strength or any other human strength. Jesus calls them, “blessed are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:8). Our main concern in this series is with the materially poor.
The rich on the other hand are those who have material abundance. This again is relative in relation to a particular society and depending on whom one is comparing the rich to. It is the complete opposite of the poor. They have lot of money and property and can afford the comforts of life. Poor can be used in terms of interesting and variety. “The country has a rich history and culture”.
A study of Church history reveals that there has been and still is a variety of Christian views on poverty and wealth ranging from seeing material poverty as the way of the true Christian life to regarding wealth as the reward of genuine faith, from seeing poverty as a mark of true spirituality to regarding wealth as an offense or obstacle to faith. We shall explore these a bit more in subsequent articles. Suffice it to say at this stage that poverty and wealth do affect real lives and how we regard them matters very much.