When evangelical Christians are asked about the cause of poverty, they believe that a lack of efforts, rather than uncontrollable circumstances, are to blame, the Washington Post reported last week. Citing the results of a recent survey of 1,686 American adults conducted in partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation, religious reporter Julie Zauzmer wrote, “Christians, especially white evangelical Christians, are much more likely than non-Christians to view poverty as the result of individual failings.”
The poll results found that “46 percent of all Christians said that a lack of effort is generally to blame for a person’s poverty, compared with 29 percent of all non-Christians.”
Many other news sources picked up on the chance to condemn Christians. Newsweek ran an article titled, “Why are people poor? Because they’re lazy, say almost half of Christians in the U.S.” David G. McAfee, an atheist, had a similar interpretation for Patheos: “Nearly Half of Christians Blame Poverty on the Poor.”
While the tone of the WaPo article was gentler than others, the article still took the opportunity to point fingers at Christians for their supposedly insensitive beliefs. Even though a “statistical analysis of the data showed that political partisanship is the most important factor in views on the causes” of poverty, religious identity is highlighted rather than other demographics.
We Can’t Reduce Poverty to a Single Factor
The polling question sets up a false dichotomy, and as an evangelical Christian, I find it impossible to answer. Povery isn’t caused exclusively by one or the other; poverty is too complex to easily isolate one cause. There are some decisions and behaviors that can lead to a person being poor, and there are some circumstances that lead to it as well. When it comes to poverty, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to what is causing it and what will alleviate it.
Zauzmer quoted Albert Mohler, a prominent Southern Baptist voice and the president of Southern Theological Baptist Seminary, on why he believes Christians answered as they did:
There’s a strong Christian impulse to understand poverty as deeply rooted in morality — often, as the Bible makes clear, in unwillingness to work, in bad financial decisions or in broken family structures. The Christian worldview is saying that all poverty is due to sin, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the sin of the person in poverty. In the Garden of Eden, there would have been no poverty. In a fallen world, there is poverty.
But Mohler also asserts the fallen nature of man has corrupted everything. He recently said, “Christians would be amongst those who must admit that there are structural imbalances and inequalities in this society and in this economy that are not entirely due merely to the moral decisions made by individuals.”
Mohler is stressing the biblical belief that original sin is the cause of all suffering on earth. A child born into poverty isn’t to blame for his circumstances: he is born into poverty because he lives in a fallen world that needs redemption. But we also know that following the biblical principles for work and establishing a family—that is to reserve sex for marriage, thus marrying before having children—significantly reduce the likelihood of living in poverty.
Human Depravity Absolutely Affects People’s Wellbeing
During 15 years working in contexts with people in poverty, I’ve seen how human depravity affects structures, institutions, families, and individuals, contributing to people living in poverty. The roles my husband and I have had are varied: we’ve held full-time and part-time jobs working with people in poverty, and we’ve also volunteered in various roles. We even moved our family for three years to a poor country to work with an organization trying to bring hope to the poorest people group in Europe, the Roma. Our experiences have shown us that poverty can look really similar in America, central America, and Europe—but each story of poverty is unique because it is part of the story of a human.
While the media is trying to paint a picture in which the church is callous towards the struggles of poverty, a deeper divide is being ignored. Evangelicals reject the idea that human institutions alone can eradicate poverty. The Bible teaches that only through the restoration of one’s relationship with God can poverty truly be alleviated. In the helpful book “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… And Yourself,” authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert address how to think about poverty:
Many of us learned as children in Sunday school that Adam and Eve’s sin messed up absolutely everything, implying that both individuals and systems are broken. Hence, Christians should be open to the idea that individuals and/or systems could be the problem as we try to diagnose the causes of poverty in any particular context. This much we learned in Sunday school. Unfortunately, what few of us seem to have learned in Sunday school is that Jesus’ redemption is cosmic in scope, bringing reconciliation to both individuals and systems. And as ministers of reconciliation, His people need to be concerned with both as well, the subject to which we now turn.”
This Doesn’t Give Christians An Excuse, Either
Through the gospel, oppressors’ hearts can be changed; laziness can stop impeding work; the hands of the rich can be opened in generosity; righteousness is sought instead of immorality. So what is the church to do? Corbett and Fikkert commission the body of Christ:
What is the task of the church? We are to embody Jesus Christ by doing what He did and what He continues to do through us: declare—using both words and deeds—that Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of lords who is bringing in a kingdom of righteousness, justice, and peace. And the church needs to do this where Jesus did it, among the blind, the lame, the sick and outcast, and the poor.
If we’re really concerned about poverty, we aren’t going to waste our time with polls. We’re going put ourselves in the paths of people living in poverty and try to help them.