“Well, I’m glad you pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps!”
That was the reply I received well over fifteen years ago from a church member after sharing my story of how I went from a twenty-three year old closing down all the local bars to a twenty-four year old following Jesus. Many times since then I have heard various Christians express this boot-strap theology… and too often, I’ll add.
It’s Just Bad Theology
It’t just plain bad theology! Boot-strap theology, that is. And every Christian I know who understands the gospel of Jesus Christ agrees. No Christian who understands the doctrine of God’s grace thinks we save ourselves. Yet, somehow when it comes to the issue of poverty, particularly rising above poverty, boot-strap theology abounds.
Recently a post written by Tom Corley documenting 20 Things the Rich Do Every Day comparing some lifestyle differences between the rich and poor in America. This post drew criticism, particularly from three other evangelicals writing a post titled Things Broke People Do. Due to the criticism, noted evangelical author and financial expert Dave Ramsey responded (his response can be read on Tom Corley’s post). The response from Ramsey drew a critical response from evangelical author and speaker Rachel Held Evans titled What Dave Ramsey Gets Wrong About Poverty.
When I first saw my twitter feed filling up with 142 character criticisms directed at Dave Ramsey a few days ago, I was a bit skeptical. I’ve never read a book by Ramsey but I know what he does and know that he has helped a many of people get out of debt, teaching and equipping them with new money behaviors based on biblical convictions. So I wanted to give Ramsey the benefit of the doubt but as I read his response, I was very disappointed.
Ramsey speaks of the U.S. as a 1st world economy, which it is. However, there are many communities within the U.S. that are 3rd world. Ramsey speaks of biblical teaching on sowing and reaping, suggesting that our choices are the cause of our results. However, that is only partially true. While many times our circumstances, good or bad, are a result of the choices we have made, many other times they are not. If there’s one thing that the book of Job teaches us, it’s that sometimes bad things happen which are no fault of our own and that includes poverty (more on this in a moment).
A Minister’s Point Of View
What bothers me most about Ramsey’s remarks is the fact that he attempts to make the issue at hand about political ideology saying,
If you are broke or poor in the U.S. or a first-world economy, the only variable in the discussion you can personally control is YOU. You can make better choices and have better results. If you believe that our economy and culture in the U.S. are so broken that making better choices does not produce better results, then you have a problem. At that point your liberal ideology has left the Scriptures and your politics have caused you to become a fatalist.
My first reaction is to turn his own words around and say that his thinking is evidence that he has allowed his conservative ideology to… But that misses the point!
For Christians, the issues of poverty should have nothing to do with being liberal or conservative. Poverty is a justice issue! The prophet Isaiah implores the people of God saying,
Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. – Isa 1:17
Part of doing right and seeking justice for the poor, is speaking correctly about the struggles and obstacles they face. And I’m not trying to suggest that Ramsey is being dishonest; I just find his remarks to be lacking.
I’ve been a minister for almost fifteen years now. One of the opportunities ministers have is engagement with the poor, from the homeless to the working poor. Whether it’s helping a struggling family with some groceries and food to eat, accompanying an addict to an N.A. meeting, or volunteering at a homeless shelter, ministers encounter a variety of people steeped in poverty and an assortment of various other issues (addiction, abusive relationships, etc…). The truth is that many, many times, the poor do make terrible decisions that have negative consequences. But… And this is a big “but!”
The poor often suffer From choices that others have made for them!
When I lived in Searcy, Arkansas, I volunteered in the country jail. Most of the men were in jail for some crime related to their meth habit. But most of those men were born into a dysfunctional home where they were taught terrible ways of living, that takes a lot of life rehabilitation to over come. Neither the home they were born into nor the way they were raised was their choice. When I lived in Memphis, I met a woman who was addicted to heroin and dying from AIDS. She ran away from her rural Arkansas home when she was a teenager after suffering years of sexual abuse at the hands of her father who also introduced her to meth. How much of a choice did she have? Also, when I lived in Memphis, I was once told by a manager at my job that one particular job opening that we were accepting applications for was not available to the people “from the hood” (a remark in reference to black people). I wonder how much of a choice people have when their color of skin (something were born with) still means they are discriminated against as they are barred from certain jobs. When I lived in Ithaca, New York, I received a call from a woman needing help with food for her and her children. Her choice? Being married to a man who left her for another woman, leaving her and their children in a terrible bind. When I live in…
The Poor… In America
Do you get me point? It’s not all their fault! There are systemic issues of injustice that affect the poor and help keep them poor, even in America. When we follow Jesus, who always will take us among people, including the poor, and we are seeking the kingdom of God, we are compelled to show mercy and do justice. But to throw the poor under the bus, so to speak, suggesting that they just need to make better choices without at least giving equal voice to the systematic injustices… Well, that might just show that we have allowed the Bible to be absorbed into a story other than the story of Jesus and the kingdom of God.