An article, “To the Poor, Poverty is More Than Material,” posted on the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics's website lifted an excerpt from a multiauthor volume called For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty. The lengthy quote comes from Peter Greer's essay, “A Call to Compassionately Move Beyond Charity.” I was impressed by the reflection on how the poor view themselves and it reminded me of Matthew's “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). So many take Matthew's reference more broadly to mean those who have a good attitutde and recognize their “poverty” before God. You know, individuals who are humble and not arrogant. These interpretors make a difference between Luke's simple “Blessed are you who are poor" (6:20) and Matthew's “poor in spirit.” However, this is a rationalized, poor rich reading of Scripture that basically strips the poor out of “poor in spirit.” The excerpt from Peter Greer's essay gives us a basis for understanding that living in poverty is more than just a material matter and reminds us that the poor are indeed poor in spirit.
In the 1990s, World Bank surveyed over sixty thousand of the financially poor throughout the developing world and how they described poverty. The poor did not focus on their material need; rather, they alluded to social and psychological aspects of poverty. Analyzing the study, Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development said, “Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness.” The study highlights that, by nature, poverty is innately social and psychological . . .
In my book, Wasted Evangelism: Social Action and the Church's Task of Evangelism, my definition of “social action” takes into consideration that those living with the effects of poverty are subject to systems and structures, that is the powers, that make poverty more than just material.
Social action, therefore, is principally the means by which one group offers alterative means to an end for another group, taking action or advocating for action to address social issues and community life. Within the context of poverty, social action is not merely charity, alms-giving, or the transfer of wealth. It is actions taken to address relationships between the poor and the non-poor and, as well, the relationship between the poor, the social structures that can cause or promote poverty, and individuals or groups whose actions create those social structures. Social action is, therefore, associated with actions taken by individuals or groups on behalf of others, in particular advocating on behalf of marginalized or powerless individuals or groups whose access to the systems of power are limited or nonexistent.
We must understanding that being poor is more than the lack of something material, but is living with the effects of poverty upon the whole person. This will help temper our judgments about the poor and why they are poor—and perhaps move us as Christians to relocate ourselves into the lives of the poor. This way we will experience and recognize what it is to be “poor in spirit.” Then, we might very will gain insight and appreciate why Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.