The Gospel and Poverty

Blessed is the one who considers the poor.” Psalm 41:1

by John Ellis

In 2011, successful Wall Street bond trader Chris Arnade walked into one of the Bronx’s worst neighborhoods. Prior to his foray into America’s world of poverty, Arnade was warned that “it was too dangerous, too poor.”[1] He didn’t care and went anyway.

Watching the large financial company where he worked escape the consequences of their mistakes via government bailouts after the 2008 crash, Arnade, in his own words, “wasn’t in the mood to listen to anyone, especially other bankers, other academics, and the educated experts who were my neighbors … I had just seen where our – my own included – hubris had taken us and what it had cost the country. Not that it had actually cost us bankers, or my neighbors, much of anything.”[2]

Whom had it cost? And what was that cost? Those were the questions that compelled Arnade to walk into the Hunts Point neighborhood.

As a form of self-penance, Arnade left behind his cushy job and privileged life, grabbed his camera, and for the next five years became a tourist in America’s world of poverty, searching for answers. He documented his journey, turning his years as a sociological tourist into a book – a successful book. The irony, which, to be fair, isn’t lost on Arnade, is that his life of privilege has been increased thanks to his time spent among those living on what he has termed America’s back row.

The images splayed throughout Chris Arnade’s book Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America are haunting. I think most people can agree on that. Being confronted with pictures of the hurting and downtrodden is unsettling. While containing a measure of self-serving voyeurism, gazing on those toiling under the bondage of poverty captured by Arnade’s camera is instructive. Or, rather, it should be instructive.

For most of us, those of worrying about our 401ks and trying to decide if the cruise to the Bahamas will take too much of a bite out of our overall budget, poverty is a foreign land. For that, we should be thankful because poverty is a trap. And it’s a trap that requires outside help to escape. Sadly, many Christians and churches interact with poverty solely according to man-made economic theories with little thought about Christ’s law of love. And if it challenges our assumptions about poverty, we’re simply not interested in being instructed by Chris Arnade or anyone else, for that matter, about the world of poverty. Even those of us who read books like Dignity and express our disgust at the policies and positions adopted by the blatantly self-serving aren’t off the hook; we tend to interact with the issue without ever exiting our seat of privilege. We have solutions, enlightened solutions, after all. Brimming with an emotion we’ve wrongfully labeled love and armed with buzz words like grace and justice, we can fix the problems. Except our solutions wrapped in the veneer of mercy can and often do exacerbate the problem. Poverty is not simply a matter of not having enough money or food or whatever other material thing rich Americans believe will improve the lives of those living in neighborhoods like the Bronx’s Hunts Point. It’s not even a matter of education in the form of right information like how to balance a checkbook or what diets improve cognition. Poverty is its own oppressive mini worldview with its own codes, rules, language, expectations, and social dynamics.

So, yes, outside help is needed, as I wrote above, but that outside help must be specifically educated about poverty and its effects. We don’t want just anyone treating our physical maladies or even our emotional and mental issues and illnesses; we expect to be treated by acknowledged experts. So, why do we operate under the assumption that just anyone can provide remedies to poverty, a complex social condition brought about by a variety of interwoven factors? After Arnade spent time among those oppressed by poverty, he came to understand this, confessing that, “After five years documenting addiction, poverty, and pain, after the election of Donald Trump, after the explosion of drug deaths, I get asked: What are the solutions? What are the policies we should put in place? What can we do differently, beyond yell at one another? All I can say is ‘I don’t know’ or the almost equally wishy-washy ‘We all need to listen to each other more.’”[3]

Like Arnade, I, too, have spent time poking around America’s back seat. The main difference is that my first journey was a product of my poor decisions (you can read about some of that first journey by clicking here – I’ll be writing some about my second journey below). Even though my time spent as a tourist in poverty was a trip that I didn’t want to take, I never belonged. I always had ways out – safety nets of parents and other family members, education, and cognitive abilities developed through variables provided me by my privileged upbringing that built skills and perspectives that enable me to successfully navigate different socioeconomic strata. At any moment, if I had been willing to swallow my pride, I could’ve been lifted out of the world of poverty.

Because of my time spent in the world of poverty, though, including my second foray as a teacher, like Arnade, I have concluded that the solutions and policies needed to help combat poverty are not easily seen nor are they easily implemented and can’t be distilled into meme worthy soundbites. However, even considering my experience with poverty, which, to be blunt, is more extensive than most people, I have learned that I am not qualified to head up anti-poverty organizations. Nor do I have the requisite training and knowledge to proffer detailed plans for churches desiring to better serve those in poverty. I do have the desire to use what experience and knowledge I have been given, though.

To that end, my desire with this article is twofold: Firstly, I want to help foster our desire to serve fellow Image Bearers who are oppressed by poverty. Secondly, I want to help push our perspective on the issue to one that understands that ministering to those in poverty is not simple nor can it be done fruitfully without long term commitments combined with a willingness to examine our own inadequacies to deal with the effects of poverty. And I believe that my experience and training regarding poverty have provided me with some insight that hasn’t been afforded most of my socioeconomic peers. While recognizing my own limitations, I do believe that I can offer some ground floor recommendations that can help churches begin the process of better serving our neighbors living in poverty.

Sadly, owing to a variety of causes, including widening political divisions, the concept of ministering to those living in poverty is a concept that is often reduced to either soul-winning and soup kitchens or is one that is looked at suspiciously by many conservative Christians. Social justice has become a boogeyman phrase that prompts fears of watering down the gospel or of allowing ourselves to be influenced by intersectionality (identity politics) or the amorphous “cultural Marxism.” Knee jerk reactions to terms and vague connections (that, frankly, are reactions that are also touched off by specific, self-serving views on history, epistemology, anthropology, and politics) often cause churches to turn blind eyes and deaf ears to those who are hurting and are mostly hidden from us within our communities.

In the first post of this three-part series, I attempted to build a theological framework, providing a scaffolding on which Believers can tag and hang ethics that commonly fall under the categories of mercy ministry and social justice. That scaffolding consists essentially of the instruction that submission to the Lordship of Christ includes Kingdom ethics and, furthermore, that mercy ministries and social justice issues are gospel issues in the real and important sense that they are the ethics of our King (you can read the initial post by clicking here; the third post, which I’m already working on, is on systemic racism). I’m not planning on completely retreading that same ground, although, I believe that further theological underpinning is probably necessary, especially for a post titled “The Gospel and Poverty.”

Not all, for sure, but many conservative evangelicals have misguided and incorrect views on poverty and those living in poverty. Views that contradict the Bible’s perspective and instructions on the Kingdom’s ethics regarding poverty. For starters, and thankfully, to be clear, we are quick to embrace, teach, and attempt to live out certain ethical demands like anti-abortion and sexual ethics, and we do so with the understanding that Jesus meant it when he said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15).” Shamefully, though, while we are willing to embrace Christ’s call to pursue personal holiness and protect pre-born Image Bearers, many of us recoil at the notion that serving the poor and fighting for justice throughout all aspects of society are Kingdom ethics, too. This is most clearly seen in the ways in which many conservative Christians view and discuss those living in poverty (and racism, but that will be discussed in the third post). However, in the issue of fairness, it must be acknowledged that many people do not understand poverty nor its oppressive effects. As the tautology states, you do not know what you do not know.

For many of us, we harbor deep suspicions of those living on America’s back row. In our minds, their poverty is due, in large part, to their own personal failings: they are refusing to do the hard work needed to climb the economic ladder and achieve the American Dream. The concept of the “self-made man” or the belief that “he pulled himself up by his own bootstraps” resides proudly in our American lore. You can become the President after being born in a log cabin, after all.[4] Except, not only is that perspective incorrect and damaging, it violates the Bible’s expectations for Christ’s followers.

Again, I urge you to read the initial post in this series if you haven’t already done so. In summation of that post, it requires a Jeffersonesque scalpel to deny that the Bible has a lot to say about God’s concern for the poor. The Bible also has a lot to say about our responsibility towards the poor among us.

That responsibility is, at times, dismissed by a complete misuse of Jesus’ words recorded in John 12, and, more frequently, by attempts to shoehorn post-Enlightenment economic theories into Christian ethics using prooftexts.

By way of a brief refresher of John 12, after Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with oil, Judas Iscariot scolded, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor (John 12:5)?” In response, Jesus reminded those gathered that “the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me (12:8).”

Because the Apostle John told us, we know that Judas’ seemingly generous words were motivated by greed. Jesus’ eventual betrayer was upset that he didn’t get the opportunity to misappropriate some more funds into his pockets. Sadly, Judas’ motivation is not dissimilar to the ways in which I’ve heard Jesus’ answer recorded in John 12:8 interpreted and applied.

Far too many times, I’ve heard people that I otherwise respect throw out John 12:8 (or Matthew 26:11 or Mark 14:7) to justify supporting post-Enlightenment economic theories, especially of the libertarian/laissez-faire persuasion. Citing Bible passages that support the concept of private property and personal thrift, they deride policy positions designed to provide societal assistance to those living in poverty. It should be pointed out, whether they deny this as a motivator or not, that doing so allows them to “build bigger barns,” as it were.

Now, and I want to be clear here, I am not advocating for any policy positions nor am I championing any contemporary economic theories. The Bible is not an economics textbook; a fact that is correctly pointed out by my conservative friends whenever leftists attempt to use the Bible to support socialism. And while I don’t believe that we should pull Bible verses out of context to justify contemporary policy positions regarding things like poverty and/or property rights, I do believe that the Bible is coursing with principles and distillations of God’s ethics that provide us guidance as we seek to serve the poor and hurting. And that should be our starting point. As followers of Jesus, we should desire to minister to others and to show love to the downtrodden and those who occupy our society’s backseat. And this takes us back to Jesus’ words to his disciples after Mary dumped what amounted to a year’s worth of wages on his feet.

Knowing the Old Testament reference Jesus quoted is instructive. Deuteronomy 15:11 finds Moses telling God’s people that, “there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’”

The immediate context places Moses’ command in verse 11 within his instructions about the Sabbatical Year. Every seven years, the Israelites were to erase the debts of fellow Israelites. In fact, and using no uncertain terms, Moses tells them that, “If any among you, one of your brothers should become poor … you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother (15:7).” That command is followed by Moses’ warning not to consider how close it is to the Sabbatical Year if their neighbor needs help. In other words, if a poor Israelite needs grain to feed his family, you better loan it to him (without interest, mind you) even if the Sabbatical Year is around the corner, meaning that you likely ain’t getting it back.

Leading into verse 11, Moses makes it clear that serving the poor is an act of worship and thanksgiving for what God has done for them. God gave them a land containing already constructed cities, crops planted, and vineyards blooming. The Israelites didn’t build the Promised Land.

So, with Deuteronomy 15 in mind, back to Jesus we go, and it should now be easier to see Jesus’ point. And his point is reminiscent of his response to John the Baptist’s disciples when they asked him why his (Jesus’) disciples didn’t fast. In response, Jesus said, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast (Matthew 9:15).”

In his commentary on John, situating the words recorded in verse 8 within the context of Jesus’ rebuke of Judas Iscariot, theologian D.A. Carson explains, “That the poor are always present (cf. Dt. 15:11) is not an excuse for stinginess in almsgiving, but a reminder that they would still be around to receive the alms distributed amongst them long after Jesus himself had been taken away: you will not always have me. Were a mere mortal to claim such priority, he would be very ill or unspeakably arrogant. Jesus speaks this way as a matter of course, not only because he sees his cross and burial on the near horizon, but also because he knows he is to receive the same honour that is due his Father (5:23) [emphasis kept].”[5]

Using Christ’s word to justify, on any level, lack of concern for the economic plight of those living in poverty and lack of action to aid those living in poverty is a wicked abuse of Scripture. If anything, since Jesus points us to Dt. 15, a case could be made that he is encouraging us to actively promote policies and commit personal actions that alleviate the miseries that come from living in poverty while providing pathways for people to climb the socioeconomic ladder. But we don’t even need to use Jesus’ words on the heels of Mary’s actions to make that case. Without question, the Bible is clear that we have a responsibility before God to serve and aid the poor – again, I point you to the first post in this series.

To be clear, and on the flipside, we don’t need to hijack Jesus’ words or rip verses out of context to evade Kingdom ethics regarding poverty. No doubt, some readers can legitimately say that they’ve never abused John 12:8 and with their next breath (or actions) demonstrate that their ethics are driven more by contemporary economic theories and/or political tribalism and less by God’s Word.

So, even if you’ve never been tempted to misappropriate Jesus’ words to prop up certain political and/or economic positions, here’s a Rorschach test, of sorts. Read the following words and be honest about your response. Not only will you most likely recognize the words, but you will likely know who the speaker was, too:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me – because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t – look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something – there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges – if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve read or heard condemnations of President Obama for daring to suggest that successful people and businesses are anything less than self-made. The thing is, if you find yourself recoiling at those words of President Obama spoken during one of his 2012 campaign speeches, you may have a self-serving perspective on poverty that runs counter to God’s ethics revealed in the Bible.

I’ve used this analogy many times because it’s clear and, I believe, irrefutable: If my kids become successful in their careers and life, they will owe much of that success to me and my wife. Even beyond the genetic component, the decisions that we’ve made and continue to make for them are shaping their existence as one of privilege. We make them eat fruits and veggies, and severely limit the amount of fast food and sugary drinks they consume. We make them go to bed far earlier than they would choose if the decision were left up to them. And we do so because we understand that young bodies and brains need plenty of sleep if they’re going to develop properly and reach their full potential. We do not allow them to spend hours sitting in front of a TV on a regular basis nor do we allow them to waste hours on other electronic devices. We fill their lives with books (that they are required to read), activities that help their bodies develop and grow, and academic pursuits outside of their “official” schooling in order to help create neural pathways that will deepen their intelligence and cognitive abilities. Their future ability to excel at whatever career paths they choose will have been established, in very real and indisputable ways, because of me and my wife’s parenting, among other variable that they cannot take credit for.  

In contrast with my kids, those who grow up in poverty are frequently surrounded by violence, have poor diets consisting mainly of junk food and sodas, are allowed an inordinate amount of screen time, have fungible bedtimes resulting in poor sleep patterns, and lack of intellectual and cognitive stimulation. Studies have shown that children exposed to violence on a consistent basis develop PTSD. God did not design our brains to interact with violence, and when brains are developing, the problems are compounded. Add to that (or even without the variable of violence) bad diets, too much screen time, and poor sleep habits combine to negatively affect the growth and development of children, including a negative affect on brain development during a critical developmental period. Unlike my kids, children growing up in poverty are not set up for success; they’re set up to become part of the cyclical nature of poverty’s generational trap. And, for the most part, children in poverty have no say in the variables shaping and directing their future. And all that is merely a cursory look at the problem, barely scratching the surface of poverty’s trap.

It is a cold, hard fact that no one achieves success lone wolfing it. There is no such thing as a self-made man nor is it possible to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Those are lies selling us on the destructive myth of personal autonomy; lies reminiscent of Serpent-Satan’s lies to our first parents and the subsequent lie of Cain who dared to mutter to God, “am I my brother’s keeper?”. And this is where a lack of understanding about poverty roils things, because even those who understand that success is a product of a multitude of variables outside of our individual control are often characterized by a poor or incomplete understanding of how the variables of poverty work – how poverty is a trap that requires outside assistance to escape.

Many of the decisions my wife and I are making for our kids listed above are of the “well, duh” variety for the readers of this post. Of course, kids should get plenty of sleep and eat their fruits and veggies. Of course, activities that provide intellectual stimulation are far preferable to screen time. Right?

So, with that established, and armed with all the data and evidence demonstrating that children should eat more broccoli than Big Macs, we can simply educate the parents of children living in poverty and all will be well. Education, of the data and information variety, is the great equalizer, after all.[6]

Nope. That’s not how poverty works.

In 2005, I joined the Kennedy Center’s Arts Integration pilot program. At the time, I had just moved back to Greenville, SC and my boss at the theatre where I worked told me about a new opportunity to make some extra money. She didn’t know a lot about the gig. All she knew was that the Kennedy Center has selected Greenville and the Metropolitan Arts Council (MAC) to test a new program that involved teaching. As a theatre artist, specifics aren’t necessary when trying to decide whether to take a paid gig or not. And, so, armed with very little information, I went to the interview that my boss had graciously set up for me with the executive director of MAC. I got the gig, although I was still unsure of what exactly the gig was.

Turns out, the gig was as a teaching artist in Title 1 schools. Specifically, as a theatre artist, I worked with classroom teachers to integrate theatre into the core curriculum. I won’t get into all the theory and data behind it, but the overall thesis was based on the belief that combining artistic disciplines with the core curriculum helps bridge the socio-economic language/cultural barriers between the teachers/curriculum and the students, most of whom lived in dire poverty.[7]  

And, so, two weeks after my interview, as part of my training, I found myself taking a graduate class on poverty’s effects on education.

That class was eye opening (as were my experiences working in classrooms filled with children oppressed by poverty). The amount of ignorance I had concerning poverty was astounding, and, remember, I had spent time living in the world of poverty. Furthermore, the things I was learning helped clarify and make sense of some of what I had seen and experienced during my years as a tourist on America’s back seat.

My overarching take-away from that class is that there is a difference between being poor and living in poverty. Prior to the class, I had operated under the assumption that money and education (providing data and information) were the two great equalizers. Like all good liberals, I believed that with enough money in the form of government assistance and enough dedicated teachers and after school programs that presented the data for why kids should eat more broccoli than Big Macs, we could solve poverty. At the time, I hadn’t considered how the language, social cues, cultural expectations, and relationship dynamics of those living in poverty are obstacles to receiving and processing information and data in the ways that people in my socio-economic circumstance use to help foster future success not only for ourselves but for our children. That class, as well as my subsequent experiences in the classroom, opened my eyes to the differences between being poor – a lack of financial resources – and living in poverty – a survival system with its own rules, language, and social dynamics.

Educator, antipoverty activist, and author of the textbook used by the class I took, Dr. Ruby K. Payne uses the tags “situational poverty” and “generational poverty” to differentiate between what I’m calling being poor versus living in poverty. She explains:

Situational poverty is defined as a lack of resources due to a particular event (e.g., a death, chronic illness, divorce, etc.). Unlike generational poverty, it is focused largely on monetary resources and can be a temporary situation. Individuals in situational poverty usually have other resources intact, including cultural and social capital, along with the ability to use formal register. Generational poverty, in contrast, has its own culture, hidden rules, and belief systems. A culture tends to be self-reinforcing – and includes a set of values transmitted from parent to child.[8]

As I wrote above, I am not qualified to provide a comprehensive picture of poverty nor do I have the knowledge base to work out all the data and theories into a detailed solution’s based manner that carries a lot of epistemic authority. Simply put, for all my training and experience dealing with poverty’s effects, I am not an expert on poverty. My objective is to confront us with the fact that we probably don’t understand poverty, even if we think we do. If you doubt that, read the quote from Dr. Payne again; doing so should raise questions in the mind of the astute reader – a few example questions: what rules of poverty are hidden from me? How does the ability to use the formal register differentiate those in situational poverty from those in generational poverty? Generational poverty has a belief system?!?

Because of questions like these, Christians and churches who desire to minister to those living in poverty need to be willing to be honest about their own inadequacies and strive to utilize local resources that can help them serve people in tangible ways. One such way is education on poverty and its effects for those involved in the mercy ministry. Although it’s true that I am not qualified to teach classes on poverty nor to head up ministries focused on those living in poverty, my experiences should hopefully illustrate the complexities of the issue and the need to seek outside help. For example, many middle-class Americans are unaware of the differences in how interpersonal communication works between them and those living in poverty. Remember the mention of the formal register in the Dr. Payne quote above?

One of the ways this plays out in everyday life is when well-intentioned people urge someone living in poverty to attend job fairs or when they even go so far as to “helpfully” secure the person living in poverty a job interview. I’m a negative example of this.

During my time living in the world of poverty, one of my roommates had his car repo’d. Since he was a pizza delivery driver, losing his car meant that he also lost his job.

While a high school dropout, this guy was bright and inquisitive in ways that separated him from most of the rest of our roommates, friends, and acquaintances. Out of all the people in my current situation, he was the one with whom I could best relate and communicate, and he and I became friends.

At the time, I believed that the pathway out of poverty could be reduced to information followed up by acting on the new and better information. And, so, armed with a well-intentioned savior complex, I decided to help my friend. After getting him a job interview with the owner of a café that I frequented, I coached him through the interview process.

My instructions included things like wear clean, ironed, and semi-professional clothes to the interview and make sure to list “being punctual” as one your good qualities. Common sense things. Or, rather, common sense things for those of us not trapped in poverty. At the time, I didn’t realize that his seemingly positive response to my instructions were more a product of him being polite within the social dynamics of poverty and less a product of him understanding the dynamics of a job interview. Even less helpfully, I didn’t know, much less understand, that the dynamics of a job interview, especially at a place like a boutique café with a well-educated and artistic customer base, were beyond my friend’s reality, culture cues, and language.

Since he didn’t have a car, I drove him to the café and sat a couple of tables away from where the interview was being conducted so that I could hear and watch what was happening. Proud of myself for doing a good deed and giving a helping hand to an underprivileged friend, I settled into my chair to observe my good deed come to fruition. Except, predictably for anyone who understands poverty, my feelings of self-satisfaction were quickly replaced with horror as I watched my friend crash and burn.

The first clue that something was amiss was my friend’s unwillingness to look the owner of the café in the eyes. Slouched in his chair, eyes cast down, my friend mumbled his answers. At the time, having no understanding of the world of poverty’s social dynamics, specifically, in this instance, regarding deference, I was aghast and found myself becoming angry at my friend for making what, to me, was an obvious faux pas. Things got worse.

One of the first questions the owner asked was, “So, why do you want to work here?” A softball question for those of us privileged enough to live in a socioeconomic status of middleclass and higher. The thing is, my friend thought that it was a softball question, too. The problem is that in his world, responses to questions take a different form and require different content than those of the owner’s world.

Still mumbling with his gaze constantly shifting so as to avoid making eye contact (which is a survival mechanism in the world of poverty), my friend launched into a woe-is-me tale about his car being repossessed. Throughout, my friend peppered his story with direct questions to the owner of the café, questions designed to underline the shared experiences between speaker and listener – shared experiences that my friend didn’t realize didn’t exist. In his story, my friend painted himself as being oppressed and victimized by the greedy bank. In his mind, the expectation that he pays his monthly bill on time was unfair and unrealistic; the bank should’ve known that he would’ve gotten them money whenever he had any money to spare. In his mind, because of his socioeconomic context, that’s how money and bills work.

Now, and this is an important point of application, before you judge my friend too harshly, ask yourself if you have enough of an understanding of his cultural language and expectations to adequately understand what he was saying. I’m not saying that the bank was wrong and that my friend’s perspective was right. The bank had every right to repo the car and my friend was wrong to feel victimized (not to mention the obvious point – to me and you – that his answer to the interview question was completely inappropriate). As I sat in that café, I did not understand the complexities involved in unpacking all of his expectations, language, social dynamics, societal rules, etc. that had been frontloaded by the worldview of poverty; his was an existence of survival, and survival in the world of poverty comes with different epistemologies and ethics than those of the middle and higher classes. To get him to understand the wrongness of his answer, not to mention the wrongness of his answer’s perspective, would take much more than mere data and information – data and information that people in poverty interpret and contextualize differently than those of us not living in poverty.

For example, not only do those living in poverty tend to lack a formal register when speaking, their use of the casual register is shaped by their world’s social dynamics, values, and survival objectives. After pointing out that the world of poverty doesn’t value a formal register and that, as a general rule, its inhabitants don’t have it in their interpersonal communication toolbox, Dr. Payne explains that for those living in poverty, “The casual-register story structure begins with the chronological end of the story or the part with the greatest emotional intensity. The story is told in vignettes, usually with audience participation in between. The story ends with a comment about the character and the character’s value. The most important part of the story is the characterization.”[9]   

From his perspective and understanding of the world, my friend answered the question correctly. In fact, as we were leaving the interview, which didn’t get any better, by the way, my friend happily commented that he thought he was going to get the job.

To my shame, I responded in anger.

My friend listened quietly as I berated him for failing a simple interview. His responses were deferential, and I wrongly assumed that I was getting through to him. What I didn’t understand at the time is that owing to facts like me having a dependable means of transportation, a steady job, and access to entertainment options, our circumstances fit within the social dynamics of poverty to create a hierarchy between the two of us. In moments of crisis, even in disagreement, his survival (from his perspective) was dependent on deference and submission. He wasn’t listening to me, much less comprehending what I was saying, he was surviving.

Years later, after I had left the world of poverty, that same friend’s approach to me drastically changed. The deference was replaced with a cold smugness that betrayed the belief that he was superior to me. As odd as this will be for most of you reading this, his perspective of me is now the same one I had of him while I watched him bomb that interview. I am now a sucker who lacks the requisite survival skills. The only times his previous deference and warm comradery return is when he needs something from me. He is surviving.

That changing social dynamic is real and not unique to me and my friend. Another friend, a highly successful individual who is safely counted among the 1%, has commiserated with me about his family and past friends and their changed relationship with him.[10]

My friend was born and raised in Appalachia. Raised among the working poor by “salt of the earth” parents and kin, my friend was fortunate enough to encounter a variety of circumstances that placed him on a different path than those around him. Having escaped poverty, you would think that his family and friends would be proud of his success, which, to be clear, is immense (you’ve seen him on TV). But that’s not the case. When he returns home, he is derided and mocked; they look down on him because of his success.

Success in the ways that the middle and upper class commonly define it is a unicorn for those trapped in poverty. It exists on their TV screens merely to serve as entertainment. When my friend’s family and old friends see him, they don’t see success; they see betrayal. His leaving (his “escape”) upended their fragile community. For those trapped in poverty, individuals are resources that only have value as part of the social dynamic. His “escape” was a loss of resources needed to aid in the community’s survival, especially his family’s. While, no doubt, they have moments of bragging about his position, especially with him being frequently seen on their TV screens, in their minds, he has abandoned them.

My friend has laughingly, albeit sadly, confessed to me that when he returns home, even with all of his wealth, success, and power, he struggles with insecurity. While home, he feels shame. When hanging out with his old buddies, he feels like their inferior.

Make no mistake, these social dynamics, rules, and expectations (and ones I haven’t mentioned) if not properly understood and accounted for, are obstacles when discipling and counseling members of our congregations who live in poverty. When we operate under the assumption that the person we’re trying to help has the same perspective on relationships, finances, and interpersonal communication as we do, we can end up doing more harm than good. This was hit home for me just a couple of years ago while seeking to minister to a man trapped in poverty.

I’m not going to share many details, but, like most trapped in poverty, this man is trapped through no fault of his own. Not only is it a generational thing, other variables completely outside of his control have conspired against him. Needless to say, his perspective on the world is shaped and controlled by poverty.

Those of us who worked with him were constantly struggling with the tension between the immediate and the long term. That tension was exacerbated by some of my ministry partners’ failure to grasp the deeply embedded effects poverty has on people. One of the basic things we worked with this man on was creating a budget and sticking to it. Two main points of tension quickly rose to the surface among those of us seeking to serve him.

As we developed a budget for his meagre income, I insisted that a minimal amount be set aside every week so that he could go to McDonalds or Starbucks, favorite hangouts of his when he wasn’t working. One of the men involved was aghast that money that could go towards debt or be put into savings would be squandered on luxuries. While working through the budget, I attempted to help this ministry partner understand that this man’s perspective on finances are not the same as ours and, while I agreed that his perspective should be reshaped, forcing him to accept a perspective completely foreign to him would be setting him up for failure. Getting him to stick to a budget was going to be hard enough, I knew. Asking him to ignore everything he “knew” about money and finances without also doing the long and hard work to reshape his perspective would move a highly unlikely outcome into the impossible.

Whether we may think it’s a foolish and unhelpful perspective, those living in poverty view money as immediate. Since there almost always assured that they’ll never get enough to get ahead, when they do have money, they spend it. And since their life is hard and they have the expectation that it will always be hard, entertainment take priority. In the mind of an individual toiling in poverty, he’s never going to get ahead anyway, may as well make the most of the moment as possible. This is why people in poverty are often indignant when politicians pass bills banning welfare from being used on things like movie tickets and alcohol. And I’m not saying that tax dollars should be used to pay for entertainment options, I’m just trying to help us see that a different perspective on money exists, whether we like it or not. This perspective on money also partially explains aversions to banks and the subsequent use by those living in poverty of options like payday lenders and money orders that are financially harmful in the long term.[11]

Throughout my time discipling and counseling this man, it was a constant battle to prevent any financial assistance by the church from being connected to expectations that the man was ill-equipped to accomplish. As best I could, (and I wasn’t the only one) I tried to find ways to help the man without running too far ahead of him. Over time, my own inadequacies weighed heavily on me and I realized, apart from Divine intervention, that for me to be effective when discipling/counseling those trapped in poverty, including this man, I would need a lot more training combined with assistance from professionals. If you remember, that’s my second objective with this post: Pastors and Christians who desire to serve the poor need to be aware that apart from specific training, they are most likely ill equipped to serve people living in poverty in ways that will produce long term fruit. Paying their rent, buying them food, and helping them find work, etc. may be immediate necessities, but doing those good and right things will not tackle the underlying issues that cause people to be trapped in poverty.  

Instead of proof texting Scripture to justify our preferred economic theories, churches need to be busy ministering to those in need in ways that serve them, and that includes ways that don’t simply serve our conscience. Being guided by Christ’s law of love, including preferring others above ourselves and recognizing that our resources are not ours but are Christ’s and are to be used in his service, should be a nonnegotiable. Shamefully, much of the discussion among conservative Christians in this country about poverty centers on defending our rights. Thankfully, though, when it came to serving us, Jesus didn’t consider his rights but gave of himself, even to the point of death. As his followers, we should be busy living out the Kingdom’s ethics, and the Bible isn’t unclear about the fact that our Creator expects His people to serve and minister to the poor and afflicted. And we should be willing to sacrifice our rights for the sake of those trapped by poverty.

Pastors and fellow Christians, please do not buy into the lie of the self-made man. By God’s grace, fight the urge to expect those trapped by poverty to escape through their own efforts. In obedience to Christ, be willing to roll up your sleeves and toil alongside hurting Image Bearers. Be willing to commit to the long game. In doing so, recognize that you will most likely need to submit yourself to further training as well as depend on the expertise of professionals, both inside and outside of your congregation. Above all, by the power of the Holy Spirit, be committed to fighting the scourge of the Fall called poverty.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Chris Arnade, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (New York: Sentinel, 2019), 1.

[2] Arnade, Dignity, 2.

[3] Arnade, Dignity, 282.

[4] Yes, Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin and became POTUS. But most people’s understanding of what took place during the presidential election of 1860 is reduced to the bare facts they learned in wide-lens history classes. In reality, the events and personalities involved are incredibly fascinating and complex. Even a cursory understanding of the necessary and sufficient causes that culminated in Lincoln’s election reveals a unique event that is unrepeatable.

[5] D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (TPNTC): (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 430.

[6] Don’t misunderstand, education is a very important factor in helping people escape poverty. My point is that the way many of us commonly understand/define education will have a hard time affecting real change because our understanding/definition of education fails to account for the holistic effects of poverty on communities and individuals within those communities.

[7] For those that don’t know, for a school to qualify as Title 1 and the subsequent extra federal funding that helps pay for the programs like the one I was involved with, a certain percentage of the students have to qualify for free or reduced lunches. In other words, a certain percentage of the students have to live below the poverty line. There are different levels of Title 1 schools, and I don’t remember them all, but the schools I worked in were all on the worst tier. It was not only eye opening but heartbreaking for me.

[8] Ruby K. Payne, A Framework for Understanding Poverty: A Cognitive Approach for Educators, Policymakers, Employers, and Service Providers, 6th ed. (Highlands, TX: aha! Process, 2015), 61.

[9] Payne, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, 36.

[10] J.D. Vance deals with some of this social dynamic in Hillbilly Elegy.

[11] During a different discipling/counseling situation, one of my fellow pastors was baffled by money orders. He couldn’t wrap his brain around why the woman we were helping insisted on using money orders. From his perspective, he was 100% correct; in fact, I didn’t disagree with him. He was right. The problem is that people in poverty don’t tend to have the same perspective. I explained to him why those living in poverty use money orders, but I don’t think I was ever able to get him to view the situation through a different perspective. For one thing, as I’ve noted multiple times in this post, my knowledge and understanding is limited.   

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