Religion & Liberty Online

Beyond a material understanding of poverty

As we continue to encounter the adverse effects of particular forms of foreign aid, it becomes increasingly clear that solving complex social and economic problems requires a level of care, concern, and discipleship not well suited to detached top-down “solutions.”

But just as we ought to be more careful about the types of solutions we create, we ought to be equally concerned about the nature of the needs themselves, which are no less complex or difficult to discern. Most typically, those blind spots begin with an overly humanistic, materialistic perspective on poverty.

“We tend as Westerners to think of life in material terms,” says Brian Fikkert, author of When Helping Hurts, in a lecture for Made to Flourish. “And because we tend to define poverty as a lack of material things, our solutions to the poor tend toward providing material resources to them.”

This isn’t to say that material poverty isn’t an issue, or that material solutions aren’t needed. But it’s only one component or dimension of human deprivation, and we owe more than one-dimensional solutions to multi-dimensional human persons.

If we hope to offer those solutions, we’d do well to recognize the complete picture of the problem. This means not just a better discussion of “needs” but of God’s grander design for humanity and the sacrifice that saved us. “Poverty is the inability to fully experience image-bearing,” Fikkert explains, intersecting with the social, the psychological, the spiritual, and plenty else. “In order for the human being to flourish, their individual personhood must be whole.”

Poverty is ultimately about human brokenness and the brokenness of relationships, between man and man, and man and God, whether stemming from individual brokenness, systemic injustice, or demonic forces. And if that’s the case, Fikkert asks, who is actually “poor”? The answer often points back to us, and it certainly cannot be determined by an economist’s index or Western preferences about convenient or comfortable living.

Once we approach the problem from this direction, it shifts our perspective not only when it comes to those in faraway places, many of whom are surely facing extreme material lack and socio-economic crises. It also opens our eyes to the deprivation that haunts even the most “free” and “prosperous” corners of the West, whether social, spiritual, material, or otherwise.

The good news is that Jesus has already set us free, which is why the first step is actually rather simple: Embrace and elevate the good news of the Gospel and all that it unlocks for the human person. “We’ve got to repent of our material understanding of the world,” Fikkert explains. “We’ve got to repent of our God complexes.”

As Fikkert explains:

The goal is not to turn the poor neighborhoods in Kansas City into the wealthy neighborhoods of Kansas City. The goal is not to turn Kampala, Uganda into Kansas City. The goal is to turn the whole thing into New Jerusalem. It’s a different goal. You’re not the goal. I’m not the goal…

Jesus Christ is reconciling all things. To reconcile is to put into right relationship again. Poverty is rooted in broken relationships, and the hope of the world — the hope for those who have HIV AIDS, the hope for those who have malnutrition, the hope for kids in crummy schools, the hope for little girls being sold into brothels — is not “Star Trek Jesus” who beams our souls up out of here…

…Jesus dies for the whole thing. He dies for the common good. He’s solving my broken humanist problem. He’s addressing the broken systems. And he’s conquering the demonic forces.

Jesus already redeemed us from that brokenness on the cross, and it’s up to us to grab hold of that gift. From there, kingdom seeds can take root, whatever our civilizational context, and our efforts to “alleviate poverty” completely change in their aim and arc.

Once we grab hold of the gift he’s given, we begin to see things as God sees them, finding new pathways, as he’s already done, not just for “assistance” or “alleviation,” but for partnership and collaboration, for investment and exchange.

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.