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Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
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Friday, December 6, 2013

The Problems Christians Have With Responding To The World's Needs

Greg Forster just contributed an article called The Radical Christian Approach To Poverty And Riches to The Gospel Coalition's blog. The approach to wealth and poverty which Forster recommends is that of attitude change. He charges the rich with 'arrogance' and the poor with 'envy.' He wants the rich and poor to regard each other as equals. He wants the rich to donate to the poor as part of their stewardship and he wants the poor to be content and realize that they have enough to be stewards of before God. He wants a healing of the relationship between the rich and the poor so that no partiality is shown to either. His only other comment is to speak against massive redistribution. Unfortunately, if all of those involved do as he recommends, there will be no transition of those who are poor from poverty. Thus, one has to guess whether the title of his article was written tongue-in-cheek.

Are there good things in this post? Certainly. First, all of us need to look to the Scriptures for an attitude check. Riches do not justify arrogance while poverty does not justify envy. Second, Forster acknowledges the great wealth disparity that exists during our time. Third, our dignity is not found in our wealth but in being made in God's image and our stewardship. Fourth, Forster wants a healed relationship between the rich and the poor.

But there are glaring errors and omissions as well. The title suggests that the article addresses wealth and poverty in society. It does not. Rather, it addresses wealth and poverty among Christians. Forster doesn't talk about how we should react to nonChristians' struggle with poverty in society. Rather, Forster wants everybody to take the Christian approach to their lot in life. Thus, Forster has nothing to say to nonChristians who suffer through poverty but to believe in Christ so that one can adopt the proper attitude.

The trouble with addressing poverty by repeating Biblical instructions given to the Church is that it fails to recognize the differences that exist between society in general and the Church. The Church is a voluntary organization consisting of those who believe in Christ. Now unless Forster believes that society must be made up of Christians only, how is telling nonChristians who are poor to take up the task given to Christians only? That task is to endure the suffering of injustice to bring glory to God. 

Another trouble with Forster's article is that the only changes he calls for are attitude changes which are to result in behavioral changes. Both the rich and the poor are to be stewards of what God has given them. The rich are not to be arrogant but are to be 'generous' and serve those in need while the poor should work to become economically independent. As part of a larger solution, such attitudes and actions are good. But to reduce the solution to poverty to changing attitudes about work and possessions is overly simplistic.

First, Forster's reductionism only recognizes the responsibility of the individual in how one should react to poverty. Thus, his only solution to poverty is to tell the rich and the poor to shape up. What this ignores is society's corporate responsibility for poverty. In other words, the political and economic systems which society embraces also share some of the blame for our problems with poverty. This is why Martin Luther King said that it is insufficient to address poverty by merely donating money to those in need, we must also examine, and possibly change, the system that puts so many in need. According to King, society has a significant responsibility, and that means those of us living in society have a collective responsibility, to help those in need.

If we look at Jeremiah 22, we see the prophet comparing the responses of 2 different king to the poor. One of the kings, Shallum, ignored the poor to increase his wealth and glory. Read about Josiah's righteous response to the poor in verse 16.


He [Josiah] pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; Then it went well.  Is not that what is means to know Me? Declares the Lord.

Here, the king is charged with a responsibility defend and help those in need. The modern day translation of the Old Testament king here is THE GOVERNMENT. In fact, the Old Testament constantly warns us about Israel's two greatest sins: idolatry and the neglect and oppression of the vulnerable and needy. 

But lest we think that the above is just a religious charge, we need to consider what our troops were commanded to do to German citizens who lived near Hitler's death camps. Our troops were commanded to force the German citizens who live under Nazi rule to tour the camps and see both the dead those who barely survived so they could confront their personal and corporate responsibility for the Holocaust. With wealth disparity increasing, where are the troops who would make us see, up close and personal, how we have failed in our corporate responsibility as a society to those in need? Please note that there  I am not equating the suffering of the victims of the holocaust with the poor of our nation. Certainly the suffering during the Holocaust was horribly beyond the pale. But I am equating the social responsibility that the Germans had then to the victims of the system their society embraced with what we have now toward the victims of the system our society embraces. Individual responsibility plays a role in creating and maintaining poverty; but so does corporate responsibility as well.

This partially leads to the final problem with Forster's article. The alternatives that he provides to our current system are highly flawed and designed to support the status quo. One of Forster's alternatives is to say we could hate wealth, but then he shows that that is not biblical. He then says that we could embrace a massive redistribution of wealth; but he claims that such is not justified. In all of this, our current economic system is receiving a double coat of white paint to hide its dirt and flaws. 

In addition, Forster's comments here show a lack of awareness of both the system and the alternatives. Our current economy is gradually embracing neoliberal capitalism. Such an economy was militarily forced down the throats of many countries so that freedom and democracy were decimated. In the comments, I provided three examples of where this occurred, it occurred in Chile in '73, Argentina in '76, and Russia in the 1990s under Yeltsin, and Forster's response showed that he did not know about any of these situations. His claim was that democracy and free markets go hand-in-hand.

We could summarize Forster's inadequate response to poverty in this article by noting that it typifies the American Conservative Christian response to most of the world's crises. The American Conservative Christian response to the world's problems are many times wholly inadequate because of our self-absorption and our resulting lack of awareness of the world outside of our Christian faith.


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