As we so often say, material poverty in America is not an economic or financial problem; it is first and foremost a relational problem. As Christians, we approach any problem with some essential facts about reality, namely that we are all broken—sinners against a Holy God—and in desperate need of a Savior. But what do we mean when we say “broken?”
In Genesis, chapter 3 we are made privy to a break in four successive relationships essential to living in harmony with God, ourselves, each other, and creation—what the Bible calls shalom. It is the absence of this harmony that results in all suffering, deprivation and sorrow that accompanies the “human condition.” It is also for the reconciliation of these relationships that Christ came, suffered, died and rose again.
In Genesis, chapter 3 we learn that where Adam and Eve once shared intimacy with God, working in partnership with God as co-regents of His creation, we now find Adam and Eve hiding from God (v. 8). Fear and guilt have replaced intimacy with God and as such mankind is now alienated from God, cut off from the source of life; we are spiritually dead.
When God asks, “Where are you?” Adam responds by saying, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself” (v. 10). Nakedness in the Bible is associated with “shame,” something Adam and Eve have never experienced until their sin. Where they were once secure with themselves they now feel shame, which leads to insecurity, fear of rejection and all of those things that render us with a sense of inadequacy. This is a principal source of our idolatry.
Once confronted with their sin, Adam’s first impulse is to blame others; “It was the woman you gave me!” (v. 12). This is the root of all conflict, from interpersonal squabbles to national warfare. Humanity is perpetually at odds with one another.
Finally, in verse 17, God describes the consequences to their relationship with creation; “The ground is cursed because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.” The struggle to survive will become the normative state of mankind and all of his efforts will be met with hardship and obstacles to flourishing.
This is the story of human history and would remain our ultimate condition were it not for God’s great mercy. That is why the truth of Jesus—God incarnate—is good news indeed; it is the only hope for humanity and the world that God created.
When working to alleviate the conditions of material poverty it is important to understand this truth. Any attempt to bring remedy that fails to consider these facts is doomed to failure because it has no foundation in the Gospel!
Every single one of us is born with a broken relationship with God, ourselves, others and creation. However, among the materially poor and the materially secure this brokenness manifests in very different ways. For the materially poor, their broken relationship with God often drives them toward the worship of false gods or “spirits.” In the modern urban context this is often revealed in a false “religiosity” that pursues the “health and wealth” gospel—an idea that for obvious reasons holds attraction for the poor. Among the materially secure, this brokenness either results in atheism; “I don’t believe in God” or a practical deism; “I believe in God but he isn’t really involved in my “practical” daily affairs.” For these, the sacred-secular divide becomes a way of life. The materially secure are tempted to first trust in our own abilities and resources to provide for ourselves and achieve personal peace. Many of these may even call themselves Christians, attend church regularly, etc. but in reality they live largely independent of God until those things that they have trusted in fail. The danger here is that the gospel can be treated as an “addendum” to an already well-lived life.
(diagram courtesy of The Chalmers Center)
In terms of the broken relationship with self, the materially poor suffer a marred identity having little to no self-confidence. They feel diminished and utterly inadequate to rise to the demands of life. On the other hand, the materially secure is tempted toward pride and when dealing with the poor can develop a “god-complex;” “I can solve your problem.” Imagine the potential impact on these two parties when they interact. The poor are reminded of their inadequacy, which only deepens their already broken relationship with self and the materially secure are emboldened in their pride in the form of self-righteousness.
The broken relationship with others results in inter-tribal conflict among the materially poor and respect is earned through violence and domination— “disrespect” is the unforgivable sin. Among the materially secure the tendency is toward self-centeredness, “I don’t need anyone; I’m a self-made man!”
Finally, the broken relationship with creation manifests in a failure to exercise dominion among the materially poor, resulting in social chaos, family dissolution, criminality and the like. For the materially secure, we too fail to exercise dominion and instead tend toward becoming workaholics. Again, believing that we are “masters of our domain” because that’s what modernity has conditioned us to believe.
The point is this; it is incumbent on the Christian to conduct an honest self-assessment, recognizing the universal effects of sin in our lives and the sinful inclinations that our particular social, economic and cultural conditions reinforce. Such knowledge should produce a holy humility among the materially secure, which is essential to working among the materially poor so we will see them as equal image-bearers in need of the same saving grace and walking together as we all seek to discover our new identity in Christ.