For the least of these
A book with 12 contributors looking at a Biblical answer to poverty
The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that Jesus calls on us to care for the poor. What is not at all clear, however, is the best means by which Christians living in a modern industrial society — particularly one in which state has built large departments devoted to solving the problems of poverty — can and should carry out Jesus's directive.
The book 'For the Least of These' (other booksellers available) takes on the challenge of beginning to answer that question. 12 contributors - PhDs, theologian, economists, international business people - examine Biblical and market perspectives on the poor and poverty and poverty alleviations that have worked.
Over the course of the 20th century, the relief of poverty went from being a function of charity to a function of the state. Administered not by people giving their time and treasure and talent to their fellow man, out of compassion, religious duty, or moral obligation, but by an administrative state, distributing the funds of others collected through taxation. Once you remove the principle of voluntarianism from the equation, virtue is hollow. This leaves Christians in a difficult position. While they are called to help the poor, it is unclear how they can best fulfil this injunction. Particularly when the State claims to be doing this on their behalf.
So how can Christians fulfil their responsibilities? What insights can they gain from economics and from theology that could help them be better carers of the poor?
There are also questions about our capitalist system as well. Should we oppose it as a force that harms the weak, or support it as a vehicle for prosperity? There's never been an economic system that does more for what Jesus called "the least of these" than capitalism and free enterprise. Let's take the example of two hundred years ago in Europe. Life expectancy was short. One would probably work six to seven days a week earning an income that paid for only of the barest necessities of life. You'd probably be illiterate. You'd never stray more than a few miles from the place you were born. You would work until your death, which was likely to come by ill-health, disease or unnatural means.
The industrial revolution changed all of this for the poor. Markets, and trade, and capital accumulation, lifted people by the millions out of grinding poverty. Enough wealth was created so that people could share through voluntary means with those that were left behind. Even the definition of poverty changed. We see a similar cycle playing out in the developing countries today. In the past 40 years, 80% of the world's worst poverty has been eliminated. This is not because of foreign aid, or global socialism. It's because countries have embraced markets and trade. If we believe we're called to help the poor, we must understand not only economics, but also the theology of poverty alleviation. For the Least of These is written to provide an alternative perspective for addressing the problem of poverty from both a biblical and economic point of view, presenting a framework that allow us to become better stewards of the scarce resources, and simultaneously, to bring about a flourishing society.
The best way of alleviating, long term, poverty is not giving people money and welfare etc., but providing opportunities through markets, for them to provide for themselves. In the last 20 years, 25 countries have virtually eliminated poverty within their borders in this fashion. However, other 'developed' countries have created dependencies that are enslaving the poorest to a life of welfare, with no hope of personal fulfilment. These programmes are managed by a secular bureaucratic state, and in spite of the best intentions, are unable to address the individual's issues, unique and special, created in the image of God with intrinsic dignity. As such they have trapped the poorest amongst us in a lifelong cycle of despair, because we're not embracing the biblical narrative of work and its value for personal fulfilment, honouring Christ and creating value through service to others.
In situations of desperate need, aid must be provided, and there is a place for the government to provide a safety net, so that people do not starve and health needs do not go unaddressed. However, we need to also make sure that people live in an opportunity society, where they can be contributors to the common good.
The book has three sections. The first section looks at the Biblical Perspective on the Poor, and there are five contributions from academics looking at:
Who Are the Poor
Poverty and the Poor in the Old Testament
Remember the Poor: A New Testament Perspective
Does God require the State to Redistribute Wealth?
Evangelicals and Poverty: The Voluntary Principle in Action.
The second section is Markets and the Poor, and that consists of four contributions looking at:
Markets and Justice
Fighting Poverty through Enterprise
Why Does Income Inequality Exist?
The Moral Potential of the Free Economy.
Then the last section is Poverty Alleviation in Practise, which is, has three chapters:
A Poverty Programme that Worked
Alleviating Poverty in the Abstract
"Stop Helping Us": A Call to Compassionately Move Beyond Charity.
The editors hope that each section can contribute to your understanding. The book can be read as a text, or a course where individual chapters could be used for assignment reading on different topics. As well as stimulating you to think deeply about the problem of poverty through biblical glasses, it is hoped that your response will not stop there. Each will have different callings. Some will be called to work full time addressing these issues, others may be motivated to contribute money and resources. Still, others may be moved to set up businesses that employ people in need.
What will your response be?
"This valuable volume provides solutions to poverty that really work, in contrast to many well intentioned but harmful solutions that are popular in matter of society today. It contains a wide range of practical and biblical insights, from the accumulated wisdom of experts who have spent the last period of their lives developing expertise in how economies actually function in the real world, as well as many useful theological sociological insights on the problem of poverty." Wayne Grudem, Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary.
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