Systems and Poverty

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about 5 ideas for us to keep in mind when it comes to The Poor, especially at the beginning of a new political season.  This week I am going to write about number 2 on my list:

2. Poverty can have a systemic cause.

As I talk with people I find a number of folks who see this as being a very liberal perspective that there are systems around us that lead to people being in poverty as well as keeping them in poverty for the long haul.  Next week I’ll also address the more conservative stance of poverty being a personal issue.  In my opinion to make these liberal or conservative is to politicize the issue rather than trying to seek God’s perspective on it as potentially a both/and truth.

When I look at this issue, I see the presence of systemic causes for poverty all around us.  The brokenness of our relationship with the creation which entered the world through The Fall leads us into brokenness playing out through structures, systems, classes and politics which more often than not wreak havoc on the lives of the poor.  An example that many of us in The US would have at least heard of the effects of systems, cycles and power on poverty for  those living in the inner city.

If we consider latitude however, we see another form of brokenness come into view.  There is band of poverty that wraps around the world based on geography.  Consider a child who is born into a poor slum area or an extreme remote area of Africa or Asia or South America.  There are not options for hygiene nor food nor water nor education and the list goes on and on.  All of a sudden the thing that really separates me from my fellow human beings on the other side of the world is that I was born in a time and place that is much different than the time and place that they were born into.  Simply by where I came into this world geographically meant that I was “more privileged.”

The systems of poverty then kick in.  Based on my privileged birthplace I start pulling ahead.  Poor maternal health leads to low birthweight leads to delayed development coupled with high prevalence of disease, high infant mortality, low nutrition, poor schooling (if any), death of parent(s), lack of hygiene, lack of value, high unemployment, poor government policy, lack of options, lack of rains, class differences, ethnic superiority, corruption, poor technology, low wages, lack of healthcare, etc.  It is not difficult to see how systems become stacked against the poor.

But, what about us as Christians?  Should we care about the systems of poverty?

Here are a few reasons from scripture for why I think it is important for you and I to care about the systems and cycles that disempower the poor for generations.

1. The Old Testament principle of Sabbath and Jubilee.  Without going into much discussion here, there were provisions given by God which provided a release for those whom had been enslaved, a canceling of debts, a return of land to those who previously owned it and a year of rest for the land.   These principles counteract some of the effects of systemic poverty.  There was a hope for the cycles of poverty to be turned upside down as once again those who had lost freedom and land over time would be granted freedom and resource once again. What does God’s heart in Jubliee and Sabbath mean for us as His followers in response to the poor today?

2. Consider Jesus’ proclamation in Luke 4 where he announces that part of His mission was to “declare the Year of The Lord’s Favor.”  Now, many believe that to those in the 1st century awaiting The Messiah, these words would have immediately drawn to mind The Year of Jubilee.  For them, Jesus words brought to mind the re-ordering of the systems of power and wealth as God had intended for it to occur every 50th year, but now it was a lasting reordering in which the oppressed would be released.  As Jesus’ followers how do we live in the place of partnering with Jesus in the activity of this pronouncement today?

3. The Old Testament principle of gleaning shows us God’s heart for overcoming the broken powers and systems stacked against the poor.  He did not give the right to extract everything that the land could produce for one’s own gain.  Rather, there was the command to leave parts of the field unharvested so that the poor could  harvest for themselves.  He seemed to counteract greed that would further harm the poor by providing a system for provision for the poorest of the poor through the practice of restraint by land owners.  How are we called to exercise restraint while making resource available?

4. Consider Jesus’ cleansing of the temple.  Why does Jesus act with so much passion as he clears the temple?   It is known that the religious system of the day was stacked against the poor as they had to acquire the right kinds of sacrifices at great financial cost simply to enter into worship of God.  The religious and economic systems were stacked against the poor – blocking access to God for them. Into this system comes Jesus’ cleansing and His harsh words to those holding power in the day.  What is our response today?

5. As a practical example, consider God’s call to His People in Leviticus 19 about how to treat the foreigner.  Of course, immigration is a hot topic these days, yet it was a hot topic back then, too.  Lev 19:33 -35 reads, “‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity. Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin.I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt.”  Both in the “how to” of dealing with foreigners or how to be just in business, God appeals to the Israelites to respond as people who understand what it means to be foreigners and to have been treated unjustly and then to respond with justice and mercy towards others.  God calls them to show His heart, rather than a get ahead mentality or a perpetuation of injustice based on the fact that I have been shown injustice in my past.  A relinquishing of power, control and me-centered justice has been turned on its head.  How does this apply in our dealings with the powerless, voiceless and vulnerable today?  How does this apply to the foreigner and perceived enemy living among us today?

We could also turn to Job 29 and Job’s practice of “breaking the fangs of the wicked” or Proverbs 13:23, Proverbs 14:31 or Amos 2 or Luke 4.  We could even look at Jesus’ own birth into poverty as Mary and Joseph present the offering at His dedication that was the offering of the poor, not the rich.  I mean, what does it mean for us that Our Master was born into poverty, chose to live in poverty without a home to speak of and died without any earthly possessions to speak of only to be buried in a borrowed tomb prior to being resurrected 3 days later?

Fortunately we view all of these systems and powers and cycles in perspective with the hope that Paul speaks of in Ephesians 1:19 – 21 “That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” Jesus, may all of these systems, powers, rulers and authorities which You have ultimate authority over, continue to come in under your rule today…and may we do all we can to partner with you in it.  Your Kingdom come, Your Will be done…in this day and at this time. Amen.

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