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A Christian Ethic On Poverty And Hunger

James Weldon

Tuesday, November 02, 1999









Today, we live in a society drenched with technology. In the last twenty years we have made technological advances beyond those made in the last 100 years. There is one area though, that we have not been able to gain any significant ground. This area is in dealing with hunger and poverty. The 1999 Human Development Report, reported that in 1960, the 20% of the world's people in the richest countries had 30 times the income of the poorest 20% -- in 1997, 74 times as much (Internet).We live in a world were the gap between the rich and the poor continue to widen. "The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the poorest 48 nations (i.e. a quarter of the world's countries) is less than the wealth of the world's three richest people combined."(Internet) Today we have one billion people living in absolute poverty. Of these five hundred-million people go to bed hungry every night. Thirty-five thousand of those people die each day of hunger. 80% of them are under the age of five (Miller, Internet). I think it is safe to assume that poverty and hunger should be a major concern of the Christian today. With the statistics as high as previously stated, either many Christians do not consider poverty and hunger a major concern or they are choosing not to do anything about it. Either way, a Christian is to be guided by the examples set forth for us in the Bible. Contrary to what some believe, a Christian can get more than one view from reading the scriptures concerning poverty and hunger. It would take several volumes of work to cover every ethical position a Christian can make on this issue, so for reasons of brevity

I will cover the two direct opposing views a Christian can take. A Christian can either be for helping those dealing with poverty and hunger, or they are opposed to helping those people that are dealing with poverty and hunger.

Before a Christian can come to an ethical view on poverty and hunger, they must be educated on the subject, know what the Bible says about it, and be able to openly examine each side of the issue without prejudice. Before we can jump into the meat and potatoes of each side, lets take a look at some of the dynamics that make up poverty and hunger.

Poverty and hunger have plagued the human race as far back as records go. "In the early history of civilization all men lived under condition we would consider poverty" ( Interpreters, poverty). Despite its timely existence we still need to define the terms to avoid confusion. In Webster's dictionary poverty is defined as "the condition or quality of being poor; deficiency in necessary properties or desirable qualities, or in a specific quality."(Webster, poverty) In other words poverty means to be lacking something a person needs. The same dictionary also defines hunger as "the discomfort, pain or weakness caused by a need for food; a desire, need, or appetite for food."(Webster, hunger) In other words the person needs to eat because the body is telling them, they need food. For our purposes we will look at poverty being the cause of hunger. This is necessary in order to keep from covering the same material twice while presenting a Christian ethic on poverty and hunger. An other reason for this is the definition of poverty, the deficiency in necessary properties, causes the inability to satisfy the need for food resulting in hunger. From this point further, when the paper refers to poverty it will also include hunger in its definition, unless otherwise noted.

In researching the topic of Christian ethics regarding poverty and hunger, I had a hard time finding anyone that would at least, through public means, support the view of a Christian being able to look at poverty as something that a they don't need to be concerned with. While it may be obvious that a Christian should be in support of helping those stricken with poverty, the reality of the situation is that Christian's do not always help those in need. For those who choose not to help, where do they get the bases for there argument? Is it ignorance or is it actually biblically based? Lets look at a some biblical passages to base a view on not helping the poor in there struggle for existence.

Poverty is seen sometimes as the result of laziness. (Santa Ana, 1) Many of those who do not help the less fortunate see poverty as a result of that persons lack of enthusiasm towards work. People who hold this point of view will say "why don't they get a job or something." Often times this person will refer to several scriptures from the book of proverbs in order to back their view point. The one who holds this opinion will use a variety of verses to uphold there actions. Proverbs 10:4, seems to be the strongest and most widely used scripture, "A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich." (NRSV) While the second half of the scripture is not always true, in a material sense, the first half seems to be a cause that can lead to poverty. This can be noticed simply by a person quitting their job and just sitting around waiting for the results. If no one was to help them out financially that person would end up in a state of poverty. While laziness can be seen as a cause of poverty, it is not the only one.

Worthless pursuits are often seen as a cause of poverty.( Santa Ana, 1) Proverbs 28:19 states "Anyone who tills the land will have plenty of bread, but one who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty."(NRSV) In this verse a persons chasing after the get rich quick schemes is almost destined to live a life stricken with poverty, while the person who works, will have more than enough. This is not always the case. Sometimes those who work and work hard still don't have enough to take care of their needs. In this case the verse might not be true all the time. The verse does hold true that if you chase after worthless pursuits you can fall into poverty. Just imagine doing every get rich quick scheme there is. Eventually you would squander all of your resources trying to recover from the loses you suffered from not getting rich quick. Worthless pursuits and laziness can lead one into poverty, but they are not the only vehicles that will bring you to a point of poverty.

The search for pleasure is another avenue that can lead to poverty (Santa Ana, 1). If we look at Proverbs 21:17, "Whoever loves pleasure will suffer want, whoever loves wine and oil will not be rich"(NRSV), we see what the love of pleasure can do to us. If all you wanted to do was to please yourself your money might as well just grow wings and fly. While in this scripture the word "want" can be described as some kind of poverty, it does not have to be limited to just poverty in a material sense.

According to some Talmudic rabbis poverty is a curse. "There are some expressions in the Old Testament suggesting that life is hardly worth living because of the wretchedness of the poor (Job 24:4-12: Eccl. 4:1-3)" (Interpreters, poverty). The rabbis apparently are basing their view on these two scriptures that allude to God not paying attention to those who seem to be living in poverty and oppression. If that is true then to wish someone to become poor is the worst curse that can be bestowed upon a person. This is seen in 2nd Samuel 3:29 and Psalm 109:9-10 (Interpreters, poverty). If poverty is a curse from God than to wish poverty on someone is wishing that God would curse that person. Hopefully we refrain from such a desire.

By no means have I covered all the scriptures in the Bible that deal with poverty as being a result of a persons own actions. I have tried to give you a basic understanding of what some people use to back their decision, not to help those in poverty. But as you can see, most scriptures that deal with not helping those in a state of poverty come from the Old Testament. So, we must then come to an understanding on Old Testament theology concerning poverty. "We could say, then, in the Old Testament poverty is considered an evil, as a constant and painful fact"( Santa Ana, 2). Poverty was thought to be the way God punished those who sinned against the Lord, while riches were sometimes depicted as a blessing from God for a good that was done. Even though a brief overview of the Old Testament minor prophets would show one that this is not always true, it is still considered to be the main thought on poverty in the Old Testament. As one can see by taking this stance, a person is leaving out an important part of the Bible, the New Testament.

Choosing not to help those dealing with poverty can be justifiable for a person who bases there faith on the Old Testament. As Christians though, we must also look at the New Testament along with the Old Testament. So lets examine the scriptures in light of supporting a decision to help those in poverty.

Before we get into the New Testament there are some key parts of scripture in the Old Testament that we must address. The first verses come from Deuteronomy 23:24-25;

"If you go into your neighbor's vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in a container. If you go into your neighbor's standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor's standing grain."(NRSV)

According to the book of the second law in Greek, Deuteronomy allows for those not able to sustain their own means of sustenance, to pick from their neighbors field. This is an important piece of scripture concerning Christian ethics on poverty and hunger. Even in the Old Testament God commanded that the poor be taken care of by those who had. "In the 7th and 50th year the land was not tilled, and what grew of itself was not harvested, but was free to all to eat (Lev. 25:4-7, 11-12)."(Westminister, poverty) God commanded the people of God to take care of those in need in the days of the Old Testament and God also commands them to do this in the New Testament.

In Matthew 11:5 Jesus says "the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them." (NRSV) The scripture above is telling us that part of Jesus' mission was directed at those who were poor. But this is not the only place the poor are held in great esteem by the Savior.

"Their special place is confirmed by the beatitudes (Matt.5:3-11,espesially verse 3, and the parallel passage in Luke 6:20, where the blessed are poor in the material, and not only in the spiritual, sense)." (Santa Ana, 13)

Jesus upholds the poor with such esteem because they have very little in this world, which causes them to put there hope in Him as their Savior. Besides Jesus holding the poverty stricken with high regards, He finds it important enough to tell those who are not in poverty, what the punishment is for not helping. Matthew 25:41-46 says

"Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'you that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, 'truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."(NRSV)

According to Halley's Bible Handbook, this is one of the most magnificent passages in the Bible, it portrays to us how an act of common kindness will affect our standing in the eternal world.(Halley, 447) In light of the previous verses, it is hard to deny that a Christian must help those who are less fortunate. In reference to the passage above St. John of Chrysostomos is quoted as saying

"The master and creator of the universe says, 'I was hungry and you gave me no food'. What heart is so hard that it is not moved by these words? Your Lord is out there, dying of hunger, and you give yourself up to gluttony."

(Santa Ana, 22)

I believe St. John is trying to convey to us is that we Christians have a responsibility to our Lord to take care of those suffering in poverty. If we refuse to follow this commandment we put ourselves in Gods judgment.

If the words of our Lord do not present a strong enough argument, lets look into some practices of the early church. The New Testament church gave to others who were in need. In 1st Corinthians 16 and 2nd Corinthians 9 early Christians distributed food and other resources among those that needed it (Anderson, 1). In both of these passages Paul is urging the Corinthian church to give to those who needed in Jerusalem. Both of these passages are to be examples showing us that we, should also give to those in need no matter where they reside. This is not the only place that refers to taking care of the poor in the New Testament.

In light of the research I have done, I find it almost unbearable to say that someone can biblically support a position of not helping those in poverty. Even though it is extremely week, it can be done if they take a limited approach to the Bible.

"Christians, like others, choose willfully to be aloof from human need. We consciously remove ourselves from the problem of poverty by the manner in which we become committed to a middle class style of life."(Kemp 200)

In other words the more we live a middle class life the more we will alienate ourselves from the problem of the needy. After reviewing the bible as a whole, I can not but help to side with Jesus who does not favorably endorse leaving the poor to fend for themselves. As a matter of fact he urges us as Christians to help those who are less fortunate. Jesus makes his point very clear, by saying that our reward in eternity

depends on our action of charity today. I would clearly say that a Christian is to do all they can to help someone that dealing with poverty. This is exactly what Jesus would do if he where here today.

Since we have come to the conclusion that a Christian should help the poor, what are some ways they can do it.

"If we are concerned about feeding hungry people, we must work through the structures of society- the economic order and the government- to deal worth the causes of poverty."(Crook, 95)

Society already has some working avenues to help those in poverty. Rather than start a new thing all over and having to build new bridges into those areas needing assistance we should improve upon those already existing. For instance if we, the United States, were to stop feeding animals grain, soybeans and fishmeal, and allow them to eat there natural foods we would save on food. This amount of food saved, if distributed to those who need it, could be more than enough to end world hunger through out the world (Crook, 224). This is just one possible solution. There are to many possibly list and some have been tried while other have been laughed at.

"In our present situation as churches, the church does not recognize itself in the poor. It may recognize the poor as a very important part of the world, but the church does not recognize itself in the poor, and the poor do not recognize Christ in the church."(Santa Ana, 21)

If we are to be successful in our task of supplying the need for the needy, we must act just as Jesus would act in our situations. Only when the poor can see Christ in us can we become the true church and fulfill the need that so many have.

Five hundred-million people go to bed hungry every night. Some of these people live right in your neighborhood. Seek someone out that needs your help and be obedient t the Lord. Make a difference in a real persons life.

Works Cited

Anderson, Kerry. "World Hunger." Leadership U, Report. 1992

Bible, The Holy. The New Revised Standard Version. Zondervan. Michigan 1989

Crook, Roger H. An Introduction to Christian Ethics. Prentice Hall: Englewood

Cliffs NJ, 1990.

Halley, Henrey. Halley's Bible Handbook. Zzondervan: Michigan 1965

Kemp, Charles F. Pastoral Care with the Poor. Abingdon Press: Nashville Tenn. Neufeldt, Victoria. Webster's New World College Dictionary Third Edition.

Mcmillian 1996

Miller, Darrow L. http://www.uofnkona.edu/resources/worldview/poorhungry.html

September 9th, 1999

Human Development Report. http://www.undp.org/hdro/Chapter1.pdf

October 10, 99

http:/www.monde-diplomatque.fr/en/1998/11/?c=01leader October 18, 99

Santa Ana, Julio De. Good News to the Poor. Orbis Books: Maryknoll NY 1979

The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible. Abingdon Press: Nashville Tenn 1962

The New Westminister Dictionary of the Bible. Westminister press: Philadelphia

Penn 1970