Speaking of the Poor — It’s Not Their Fault!

“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.

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12 responses to “Speaking of the Poor — It’s Not Their Fault!

  1. Pingback: Tuesday’s Links To Go | Tim Archer's Kitchen of Half-Baked Thoughts

  2. If faced with the choice to help a poor person or crusade to fix a “system” that is virtually impossible to fix, should I help or crusade?

    I think you’ve postulated a somewhat false choice, Rex. I’m not disputing your examples. But the examples you gave are not systemic, they are individual examples of evil.

    Do you think we will ever eliminate all of the causes that people are poor? Or, should we simply start helping them, individually?

    • David,

      I do think the examples I mention are systemic, as there is much systemic prejudices that fuel into the dysfunctional family systems but I probably did not make that clear. I’ll add an example that has a clear systemic cause.

      Any ways, I don’t believe we will ever eliminate poverty. However, that should not keep us from working to both help individuals we encounter as well as working together for viable solutions that can help address the more systemic issues.

      Grace and Peace,

      Rex

    • Also, there are systemic issues that feed into the abuse of children. While such abuse itself is illegal, there are many other factors that can fuel such abuse. That would be a systemic problem.

  3. Jesus was poor, and spoke prophetically against the rich, who ruled their society (system). Most of the poor were poor because their rich landlords and employers paid them poverty wages. That remains true today.
    Jesus also gives his disciples a Spirit that produces fruit like kindness and generosity. As disciples, like Jesus, help others even more poor, the result is not lifting people out of poverty so much as forming friendships (or even a fellowship) among people at different levels of poverty. Generous disciples are thus involved in downward mobility (for themselves), a little upward mobility (for the most destitute), and prophetic mobility (toward the rich and powerful).

    • “Jesus was poor”

      He was also God so it doesn’t count. And when one female disciple wasted a bunch of expensive ointment on Jesus, who was it that said it was a horrible thing because it could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor? and who said “the poor you have with you always; me you have not with you always.” Its always the Judases stabbing Jesus in the back that are clamoring about the poor.

  4. I grew up in Memphis in a relatively middle-class neighborhood. I attended the local schools, which were pretty good. My classes were approximately 40% white, 40% black, and 20% other (Latino, Asian, etc.) I had some good teachers, and a few bad ones. I used books others had used, but they were in decent shape. I received a pretty good education, and I had friends of all different races, religious beliefs (or non-belief), and backgrounds.

    In my same city, however, there were schools that had no air conditioning. They received the castoff books from other schools, most of which would simply be recycled if not sent to these schools. The teachers in these schools (mostly) hated their jobs and spent the vast majority of their time simply dealing with behavioral issues. Most of those children were hungry when they came to school and went to bed hungry when they left; the only meal they received was the “free meal” during lunchtime. Few of these individuals had male role models in their lives; almost none had male role models at home. Gangs are prevalent in that area of town…

    I, too, believe that people’s individual choices can lead to their situations. But I also believe that the problem is systemic. The kids that grew up ten miles away from me simply didn’t have the resources to succeed. Most give in to drugs or join gangs simply to protect themselves or escape the monotony of life on the streets. They are looking to better their lives just as I did, but in a different way that was available to them.

    Am I part of the system? Probably. I don’t want to increase the amount I pay in taxes. I don’t want to become a teacher in those schools. I volunteer my time from time to time when it is convenient for me, but I am not there day in and day out in those circumstances. I don’t want to move my family into those neighborhoods simply to be a “person of peace” in the midst of that turmoil.

    To say that the problem is JUST individual or JUST systemic is incorrect. But I think we need to realize that the problems run much deeper than we assume or see at first glance.

    One of the passages that has struck me in the past few weeks is from Amos. I have been teaching Amos in my Bible class, which is composed of mostly upper-middle-class white young professionals with families. Some have quite a bit of wealth, others struggle to make ends meet.

    Amos tells the people, ““Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory
    and stretch themselves out on their couches,
    and eat lambs from the flock
    and calves from the midst of the stall,
    5 who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp
    and like David invent for themselves instruments of music,
    6 who drink wine in bowls
    and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
    but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
    7 Therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile,
    and the revelry of those who stretch themselves out shall pass away.”

    This passage is about apathy. Woe to those who have it easy and care nothing about the poor in their midst.

    I had a REALLY hard time teaching this passage, and I am sure I did it an injustice because it was simply too difficult.

    All that to say… Justice is a huge issue, and it is probably much more profoundly systemic than we would imagine at first glance.

    Just my random thoughts.

    -Daniel

    • Thank you for those thoughts. I appreciate your inside knowledge from growing up in Memphis. My wife taught for Memphis City Schools in one of those schools that always was given used computers when other schools were receiving new computers. But her school was just “in the hood” so… That sentiment was always frustrating to her.

  5. Children born into dysfunctional families are the victims of poverty, not yet responsible for poor choices. Giving money to their irresponsible parents does not alleviate their misery, though; because that money will go toward drugs and other negative expenses.
    Poverty has multiple causes, and hunger sometimes is the best discipline to bring a prodigal to his senses. Solomon had much to say about foolish spending as well as neglecting the needy. To “champion the poor” without addressing foolishness as one of the causes poverty is just as two dimensional as to say poor people are poor for their own stupidity.
    I can appreciate David Himes observation that an either/or solution is a false choice.
    This is exactly why the church needs to attend to the poor. Government agencies do not discern the root causes as much as they throw money at every problem. It will take both wisdom and compassion to maximize the help given to the poor.

    • I don’t ever recall proposing any solution to the problem of poverty, let alone saying anything about what (if anything) the church or the government should do.

      And I must say… You write, “Poverty has multiple causes, and hunger sometimes is the best discipline to bring a prodigal to bring a prodigal to his senses.” I don’t know you but I can’t imagine such a remark being made except by the well fed. It’s certainly not a principle I ever recall seeing Jesus apply to the poor he encountered.

  6. Pingback: Speaking More For the Poor! | Kingdom Seeking

  7. Pingback: links: this went thru my mind | preachersmith

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