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Is There A Biblical Answer To Poverty?

For the Least of These makes it clear that we should stop talking about work as a stick, and instead view it as a carrot.

I’ve often heard conservatives called “anti-poor” (take this Atlantic article). While the term “compassionate conservative” was highly prevalent during and after George W. Bush’s presidency, conservatives’ adherence to free market principles sometimes gives them a perception of apathy and even ruthlessness toward the less fortunate.

But these perceptions are sadly faulty—and thankfully, The Institute for Faith, Work and Economics has just released a book that may help change such perceptions: titled For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer To Poverty, it’s a series of essays from Christian conservative thinkers, explaining the ties between free-market economic principles with biblical commands to care for the poor. The book shows that Christian conservative theory empowers and helps the poor in a way the welfare state does not, and that a conservative understanding of vocation is crucial to a right understanding of the free market. But most of all, the book is a call to conservatives: stop talking about the problem, and start fighting it.

The book does offer an important caveat: as contributor Robert A. Sirico puts it, “The free market is not inherently moral; what it produces is not necessarily moral; and those operating in it are not necessarily virtuous.” It’s easy to applaud one economic or political system above another; but if we blindly applaud the free market without keeping in mind its faults, we make an important mistake. While Americans on left and right tend to blame or champion a certain institutional model for fixing societal problems, a truly conservative approach looks past the institution, and understands that our problems lie within the weakness of humanity. We are not perfect. Sinful people create and run the “system,” whatever the system may be. There are always going to be human tendencies—like greed and power-lust—that tend to make our institutions less free.

However, as R. Mark Isaac writes in his essay, “Any human institution is subject to the effects of sin, but that does not mean that we can shun all human institutions.” We still need a system and structure of philanthropy and government, even if our system is faulty. And the free market encourages a sort of decentralized and localized philanthropy that offers greater accountability and greater connection. In his essay at the beginning of the book, contributor Glenn Sunshine writes, “Governmental institutions are subsidiary, or secondary, to more immediate groups in finding solutions to problems.” If a situation is “sufficiently widespread or intractable,” government should help out—but on a local level. “The principle of subsidiarity thus does not reject governmental involvement in poor-relief out of hand, but argues that it should be a last resort after other institutions prove unable to provide solutions,” says Sunshine.

Several authors in the book point to the Mosaic law’s “safety net” for the poor, described in passages like this one:

“When you reap the harvest of your land,

Essayist Walter Kaiser, Jr. points out that the Bible offered help the poor and needy, but with limited government intervention: “The emphasis was more on the local level and on the need for individuals to respond, rather than leaving the work for the government to pick up.”

This brings us to the subject of work, often championed by the conservative as the solution to all questions of poverty. The quote “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” comes to mind: it’s a common response to the nation’s homeless problem, in particular.

But For the Least of These makes it clear that we should stop talking about work as a stick, and instead view it as a carrot. We need to stop bashing people over the head if they’re not working their way to wealth; life is complicated and unfair, and many people worldwide lack the resources at our disposal. That said, unjust circumstances don’t negate the importance of work. Vocation is vital to the very nature of humanity: we were made to work, and to enjoy work. It makes us happy and fulfilled.

In his excellent essay at the end of the book, Peter Greer references a World Bank survey from the 1990s, in which surveyors asked financially poor people throughout the developing world how they would describe poverty. “The poor did not focus on their material need,” writes Greer. “Rather, they alluded to social and psychological aspects of poverty.” They referenced poverty in terms “shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness.” 

Greer believes work overcomes these feelings of isolation, vulnerability, and powerlessness. Fighting poverty will require not merely handing out paychecks—money cannot fix these social and psychological issues. As Greer puts it, “If poverty is not only a material deficit, but also not knowing one’s potential, abilities, and strengths … then traditional charity neglects to address the root causes of poverty.” 

Work, rather than aid, serves to empower the poor. Sadly, the word “empowerment” is used more often by people on the left than the right—yet the ability to bring home a paycheck, to provide for oneself and one’s family, to build property and security: these are some of the most empowering experiences humans can have. We need to change the way we talk about work, from language of condemnation to words of empowerment and support.

A culture in which work is justly rewarded will foster human flourishing; but aid, when offered by itself, only assures people of their inferior status and vulnerability. “Though the West’s efforts through international aid have been well-intentioned,” says Greer, “They have often done more harm than good. By focusing on what the poor lack, instead of what they have, the underlying message sent to the poor is this: you are incapable.”

But encouraging people to work isn’t meant to give the rich a “way out” of philanthropy. The authors emphasize our role—as conservatives and as Christians—in fighting poverty. They write that we must not expect an institution or system to fix poverty. People help the poor, not governments or markets. The more we talk about such problems in the abstract, the less proactive assistance we offer. We ought to invest personally—and as Sunshine reminds us, “Giving involves more than money; it includes our time. If we are too busy to help others, we are too busy.”

But how do we help the poor? We must fight poverty with an attitude of compassion—but we must be wary of a smug, better-than-thou demeanor. Contributor Marvin Olasky points to the work of Civil War-era charity executive Mary Richmond: her hardest task, writes Olasky, was in teaching volunteers to abandon their “kindly but condescending attitude.” They had adopted what Richmond called “a conventional attitude toward the poor, seeing them through the comfortable haze of our own excellent intentions, and content to know that we wish them well, without being at any great pains to know them as they really are.” Sadly, this is a common demeanor amongst both conservatives and liberals.

Richmond believed the principle of subsidiarity could fight this tendency: “Relief given without reference to friends and neighbors is accompanied by moral loss,” she said. “Poor neighborhoods are doomed to grow poorer and more sordid, whenever the natural ties of neighborliness are weakened by our well-meant but unintelligent interference.” In other words, the “little platoon” is the best method to fight poverty. We must help our own neighbors, first and foremost.

This reminded me of the classic parable of the Good Samaritan. When asked the question, “Who is my neighbor,” Jesus responded by telling the story of a man who helped with an immediate need: when he saw a man robbed, beaten, and left to die, he reached out in compassion.

And then Jesus said to the crowd, “Go and do likewise.”

Gracy Olmstead is associate editor at The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter.

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