Can we end global poverty? The short answer is no. It might be a great slogan, but if in the end we can’t the risk is that we are fostering a generation of short-term campaigners who will give up once they see the real difficulty of the task before us. What we need instead is a motivation for poverty alleviation that remains even when the task seems endless.
The Poor Always with You?
Jesus’ statement in the house of Simon the Leper that we would always have the poor with us (Mark 14:7, Matt 26:11) is one of the most frequently disputed amongst Christian politicos. Some on the right have claimed that in light of Jesus’ words there is no point in seeking to end poverty. A few in the US have even found a justification in Jesus’ statement for the removal of welfare services for the poor. In response, some on the left have argued that such a view fails to take account of the context in which Jesus said these words. Jesus point was not about the inevitability of poverty, but about the social location of the church – in and among the poor.
Sin Always with Us?
But it strikes me that both sides are missing the point. Imagine for a moment that when Jesus was in the house of Simon of Leper he hadn’t made a comment about poverty but instead had made one about sin, namely that there would always be sin among us. It is unlikely that anyone would argue with such a truism. Indeed, we would consider it absurd if someone suggested that because sin is inevitable we should put no effort into minimising it, or that because Jesus said there would always be sin, we are justified in stopping efforts to reduce it. At the same though, we would also consider it strange to argue that sin can be ended, and we can do it, perhaps by arguing that Jesus’ point was about the social location of his followers rather than about the inevitability of sin. So if Jesus’ comments had been about sin, both sides would have readily agreed that yes there will always be sin, and yes we should do all we can to minimise it.
The Ethics of Poverty
Given this, it seems strange to me that we don’t reach the same conclusion in respect of poverty. Yes, it will always exist and yes we should do all we can to reduce it. This is particularly the case given that Jesus’ words were an almost direct quotation from Deuteronomy 15:11. Moreover, that chapter makes it abundantly clear that the reason there will always be ‘poor in the land’ is because there will always be sin, and that our response should be to address it.
The impact on motivation
Accepting this is what provides the kind of long-term motivation for poverty alleviation that is actually required. There is a strange paradox in the fact that when our motivation for poverty reduction is centred on what we can do then the poor are no longer the focus of our efforts, but rather our own achievements. The danger in this is that our efforts become dependent not on the actual needs of the world, but on our own sense of success. This is a recipe for short-termism, or what some have called clicktivism (social activism limited to one’s activity on social media). But the poor deserve far more than that. What we require is a motivation that isn’t just activated when social media or the news has pricked our consciences, but one that is active irrespective of the results.
That motivation comes when we keep as our central focus not our achievements (which are fickle) but the ongoing need before us. When we keep the poor continually in focus, and especially when we see poverty for what it is – a manifestation of a sinful world – then just as we seek to minimise sin in our own lives then we should also seek to minimise the expression of sin that is poverty. In saying this, I am not remotely suggesting that somehow poverty experienced by any individual is the direct result of their own sin but rather that poverty in general is the result of our collective failure to honour God in the way that we should. And just as one day sin will be no more, so one day, poverty will end. But until that day comes our responsibility seems pretty clear. It is not to misuse scripture to offer either a justification for ongoing greed and injustice or to promise a false utopia, but instead it is to remind us that we are in a long-term war with sin, death and yes, poverty. This war will one day be finished by Christ, but until that day comes we need to remain steadfast and focused on the need before us: the lives of the 1.3 billion people who continue to live in extreme poverty.
To purchase Justin’s latest book, Global Poverty – A Theological Guide, please follow this link.