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Biblical Perspectives on the Causes of Poverty
Many people, including Christians, wrongly assume that poverty usually stems from two major factors: 1) Shiftlessness; and 2) Victimization through some kind of personal trauma or crisis. The causes of impoverishment, according to the Word of God, however, are often much more complicated and nuanced than the reasons noted just above.
In a December 17, 2009 Restoration Quarterly article entitled: The Challenges of Poverty to the North American Church,” Michael L. Landon examines a number of Biblical perspectives on the root causes of poverty. I have used the Biblical references that Mr.Landon has cited and have expanded on the perspectives that he has expressed.
In the Book of Exodus the Israelites are described as poor because they were relegated to slave labor and were exploited because of their ethnic background and their subservience to the ruling Egyptians.
Moreover, poverty is sometimes caused by disobedience to God (Judges 6:1) and relegation to the control of foreign armies (Judges 6:1-6). The presence or absence of occupying forces was contingent on the Israelites’ degree of obedience or disobedience to the Most High God.
In addition to ethnic prejudice, oppression, and disobedience, poverty is sometimes caused by famine, as evidenced by the impoverishment of Ruth and Naomi described in Ruth 1:1 or by the loss of one’s spouse and/or children as stated in Ruth 1:5 and 2:2. The prophet Nehemiah had to fight against the ravages of poverty wrought by war (Nehemiah 1:1-3) and the destitution caused by the harassment of the Israelites by neighboring peoples (Nehemiah chapters 4 and 6). This type of harassment also occurs today as soldiers from the DKBA (Burmese Army) will often cross the Thai border to hound Karen refugees, and other tribal groups, who have fled persecution in Burma (Myanmar) and who have sought to find safe haven in Northern Thailand. Poverty is also sometimes caused by usurious interest rates and exploitive tax rates imposed on the poor by the powerful and wealthy of the country, as was the case in ancient Israel (Nehemiah 5).
Other Causes of Poverty as Set Forth in the Bible
The Israelites were sometimes sold into slavery which caused them to be indigent (Amos 2:6, 8:6; Joel 3:3). Sadly, this also occurs in poverty-stricken nations today when desperately poor parents, who are heavily in debt to unscrupulous lenders, sell one or more of their children into slavery to pay off their debts. Female Israelite slaves were sometimes forced to engage in illicit sexual activities (Amos 2:7, 24) as is the case in a number of poverty-stricken nations and regions of the world today where girls as young as six are sold into the sex-slave trade.
In addition to the hideous practices of the slavery and sex-slave trades, the court and justice systems of ancient Israel were often strongly biased against the poor (Amos 2:7; 5:7, 10; Zechariah 5:3-4; Habakkuk 2:6-8). In 21st century society, as well, the courts and legal systems of countries such as China, Vietnam, Laos, Burma (Myanmar), Iran, and Zimbabwe, among others, are strongly slanted against the poor, the oppressed, Christians, minorities, and foreigners. Moreover, poverty-stricken people in ancient Israel would sometimes have their property illegally seized (Habakkuk 2:6-8; Amos 5:11). Lest as Americans we become critical of ancient Israel, we should take a long reflective look at ourselves in the proverbial mirror.
Since the autumn of 2007, many people throughout the U.S. have been unjustifiably foreclosed upon because of unscrupulous lending practices and shady loan contracts fueled by greed. Though “technically legal,” in some cases, a number of foreclosures have skated very close to the fine line of illegality and have, at the very best, been unethical. Nothing in the 6,000 years of written human history has changed in terms of our (general human) propensity to condone or carry out evil behavior.
In ancient Israel, as well, business and economic power brokers and the wealthy cheated and exploited the poor (Hosea 12:7). Additionally, laborers were sometimes defrauded of their wages (Malachi 3:5) as sometimes happens in the U.S. when unscrupulous labor brokers exploit illegal foreign workers by charging them exorbitant fees to sneak them into the U.S. and by withholding their wages to pay the exploitive fees.
God is scathing in His denunciation of injustice and holds people strictly accountable for trammeling on the human rights of the poor and the oppressed (Isaiah 58; Isaiah 61, Micah 6:8; Luke 4; Matthew 25, and the Book of James, among other portions of Holy Writ). He demands no less than the captives being set free, the brokenhearted being comforted, the wounded being cared for, the poverty-stricken being empowered, and the oppressed being afforded justice. Though the causes of poverty are complex, as Christians we must move forward humbly but boldly, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to tackle and rectify issues of injustice, exploitation, greed, dishonesty, and manipulation that directly contribute to the creation and perpetuation of poverty. All people, though deeply flawed, are made in the image of God, and need to be treated fairly and justly as a result.
Source: Landon, Michael L. (2009). The Challenges of Poverty to the North American Church, Restoration Quarterly, December 17, 2009. http://www.acu.edu/sponsored/restoration_quarterly/documents/Landon-poverty.pdf
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