Cause and effect. A simple concept. We have a condition we call poverty that we want to address as a matter of Christian charity. Poverty is a problem, a condition characterized by suffering. And one of the logical ways of addressing it is by viewing poverty as an effect of some cause(s). Then if we address those causes, we think that we will alleviate or even eliminate the effect – the poverty.
Makes sense. Very logical. At this level, and in these terms, it’s even rather simple.
But that is about where the simplicity ends. Getting behind the effect of poverty and down to the root causes, it turns out, quickly becomes daunting. It would be easy to blame the poor and say they are just lazy. If they would get a job (like the rest of us), then they would make money and not be poor. It would be easy to say that, and there is a strong urge to do it. But there is a Christian sensitivity to the fact that even though laziness no doubt factors in for a few people part of the time, it is not the only cause. After all, the ranks of the poor swell when the job market tanks, which happens ever so often.
But there are other causes too. Catastrophe can strike and wipe out individuals, families, sometimes villages or whole nations. These catastrophes might be medical, environmental, economic, natural or human-made – or some or all. And some of them are quite complex in and of themselves. Addiction frequently plays a role, and that alone proves morbidly complex.
Then there are matters of inter-generational poverty. Poverty as a learned lifestyle passed down through generations of dry-land farmers, migrant workers, or welfare recipients who learn from their parents to make more money by having more illegitimate children, and then they pass this lesson on to their illegitimate children.
What about race? What about racism? What about language barriers? What about lack of education? What about debts too big to pay? What about mental illness? What if a person was sued and lost a fortune?
A poor person might suffer any combination of these causes, each with their entrenched complexities. And most of them have nothing to do with laziness – which is an easy stigma to put on the poor that helps the rich to blame them and walk away without a care.
Have I named all the causes of poverty?
I am sure I have not. But like I stated above, this shows the simplicity is short lived.
But my Christian friends want to address these complexities. After all, we started with a simple premise that if we address the cause(s) of the effect we don’t like, then we can change it. But immediately past that, we bog down in complexities. And one of the recurring themes I hear amid the feedback from my classmates in the Seeking Shalom class is that it is all so overwhelming!
Let me make this one caveat before I offer my rebuttal: The very simple idea that when we change the cause(s), we will thus change the effect is all well and good. If the new widget factory opens up at the edge of town, then many unemployed people will surely get a good job next year, and that surely will help. And I would even be in favor of it. (Never mind all the complexities inherent in even that simple scenario, because I have seen plenty of small towns grow to regret bringing Walmart or that prison in with exactly that idea.)
Right off, my observation is that Jesus himself loves, touches, and heals the lowly and afflicted as a standard feature of his ministry. Mobs of needy people cling to him, follow him, run ahead to rendezvous with him, reach out just to touch the hem of his shirt and all but crush him as he moves about his daily business of bringing salvation to the world. And those of us who claim the name “Christian” universally consider Jesus as the top authority who sets the standard for love and care in the world – certainly as it is expressed to the poor.
So even though there is such a strong, simple, logical case to be made for considering and addressing the causes of poverty, I wonder where Jesus does this. Does Jesus ever sit the disciples down and explain all this? Perhaps he says, “Today I want to take you up on a mountain and preach to you a sermon on the causes of poverty and how to address them. They can be so devastatingly complex, so you need to know how God deals with it so you can too”. But if he does this, it is not recorded in the New Testament.
In fact, Jesus is quite clear about what to do. He very plainly instructs us in simple blunt terms in numerous places, but he never tells us to consider the causes and address them in anyway like the class I am taking. On the contrary, he says “Give”. Give food, water, your mere presence even… oh and throw parties. He never suggests that we should be concerned about the “effectiveness” of our charity. I note that when he heals 10 lepers, only one returns with gratitude, and by Friday night of Holy Week, all those people who found life in him are no where to be found. How’s that for “effective” charity?
The Bible does, in a round about way, address the causes of poverty in a few cases. But I note that in Proverbs, laziness is blamed – simply blamed. No attempt to fix it, except to warn against it. But this is not a major biblical theme. I don’t mean to discount it, but I do notice that the Seeking Shalom course does in fact set it aside since it is only a minor contributing factor AND is an easy way to blow off the poor with stigma, which we want to avoid.
The other cause I find addressed is the manipulation (or possibly the lack of care) from the rich! Even Jesus says “Woe to you who are rich!” He also tells us it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God. Amos along with other prophets from time to time has a lot of warning and strong words against the rich, all of which comes very near addressing causes of poverty by blaming the rich! Yet none of that is the curriculum in the Seeking Shalom class.
My thought is that all the examination of the causes of poverty does not serve Jesus, despite how logical and simple it seems. And on the contrary, I think we would do better to look closer at whether alleviating, and especially eliminating, poverty is even a goal Jesus would endorse. And I know this concept is very counterintuitive, but if we listen, really listen, to Jesus and take him at his word, and trust his authority on this subject, then this is a worthwhile line of thought to pursue – especially since he actually tells us that we will always have the poor with us, and we can do good to them whenever we like.
But ultimately, I am troubled that somehow in all the complexity of causes of poverty a smoke screen seems to blind us to the simple fact that while we were yearning so sincerely to care for the poor, we failed to give – to simply give as Jesus says – because we convinced ourselves that giving like that does not adequately address a cause, but rather “enables”. The smoke screen blinds us from noticing that we locked “the least of these” outside in the cold of night yet again, all the while aching over the complexities of the causes that put them there. I think we should cut out the smoke screen of this discussion and listen to Jesus.
But you really have to listen to him to come to terms with this. Oh… and trust him too.