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Poverty is not an individual choice, and that's not a Marxist idea

“There is no presumption in Scripture that if a person is poor it was because of injustice Now, we do see in Scripture, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures, people that were poor were abused and treated unjustly, but that’s because being poor made them vulnerable. And so the prophets were speaking against oppression of the poor because they were poor, but they didn’t identify being poor as an example of oppression itself. In fact, the law makes it very clear – I think it’s in the book of Exodus; it might be in Leviticus – and the law says ‘Do not favour the poor in judgment, but rather act justly’. So that’s a very interesting passage in light of the way people often think of the poor. The idea, if I can just toss this out Sean, that people who are poor are poor in virtue of injustice – in other words, any time you see a poor person, you know oppression and injustice has been played out in their lives in some way – that is not a Biblical view. That is a Marxist view.” Greg Koukl, speaking on Sean McDowell's podcast episode 'What was the mission of Jesus? A Conversation with Greg Koukl', 03/03/2022, Timestamp 22mins16secs

It’s been a few weeks since I posted the first two parts of my response to Greg Koukl’s interview on Sean McDowell’s podcast (the first post is here, and the second here). Partly this is because I’ve been very tired: my second niece was born, and I spend a couple of days a week helping to look after her and her older sister. This is far more effort than I am capable of, so it wipes me out pretty much for the rest of the week. I’m not really recovered when it’s time to go again! But partly also I’ve been aware that this response is to a contentious issue which I find emotionally upsetting every time I listen to it, so I’ve been putting it off. I’ve wanted to be in a good enough state physically to handle the emotion, and exhaustion is not that state! But there are other things I want to blog on and read about or listen to, so today I decided I just needed to get on with this blog post.

The statement that concerned me is this: “There is no presumption in Scripture that if a person is poor it was because of injustice…. The idea, if I can just toss this out Sean, that people who are poor are poor in virtue of injustice – in other words, any time you see a poor person, you know oppression and injustice has been played out in their lives in some way – that is not a Biblical view. That is a Marxist view.”

This immediately rankles. So I have to ask, why does it rankle? Am I just a loony lefty who reads the Bible through that lens and so ends up falsely interpreting it to make out that injustice and oppression are prime causes of poverty? What about the various American Christians whose works I read or listen to, who sound far more individualistic and anti-government in their approach to poverty and their reading of the Bible compared to me? Are they more right than me? I want to listen to what they say and let it challenge my own thinking.

What is needed here is a thorough review of everything that the Bible says about poverty. I find myself wanting to go back and read everything all over again in the Bible. I want to read also the various books that I have on this topic; but primarily I want to read the Bible. What does the Bible say? To a large extent I have tried to answer this in my book, Just Worship, which I hope to bring out in the next year or so. This is just a handful of arguments from that study.

God gave the Israelites commands for how to run their economy and society which would, through structural and moral means, eliminate poverty. God positively told the Israelites that if they obeyed all those laws, then there would be no poor people amongst them. If they banned interest on loans; if loans were forgiven every seventh year; if employees were paid well and daily and treated fairly and released with a generous gift; if there was no corruption or bribery or deception; if business owners were forbidden from gathering up all profit to themselves but left it for the needy; if taxes included a contribution to the needy – then there would be no poor people among them.

What we see here is that creating just structures, favouring the poor or less-powerful and topping it up as necessary with individual generosity is enough to end poverty. Commanding the forgiveness of loans isn’t exactly ‘just’ to the lender, nor is the command to give generously to an employee when they leave 'just' for the employer; in contrast, the only law about not favouring the poor when deciding on a dispute applies equally to not favouring the rich or powerful. God says nothing about getting the poor people themselves to buck their ideas up; blaming the poor people for being the prime cause or a key contributor to their own poverty; or saying that poor people should be left in poverty in order to experience the consequences of, learn from, and repent of their bad behaviour and wrong attitudes and choices that caused their poverty.

There is no command here that each individual Israelite is to work hard to provide for him or herself. There are commands to provide for your family and for those in need, but all that says is that if you are poor then you should still be trying to provide for yourself and your family, but that if someone else is poor then there is no command that you force them to work harder, but rather a command that you help them – and there is no mention of whether the person is ‘deserving’. It is solely about need. And thank God for that, for if God treated us as we deserved and refused to help us until we had helped ourselves, we would all still be stuck in the Slough of Despond, dying under the weight of our own sin.

There is no promise in the Old Testament that if you all each individually work hard, then there will be no poverty among you. There is a promise that if you run a structurally just country comprised of individually generous people, then there will be no poverty among you. There is no permission to judge the lives of other people as to whether they merit help or not. There is only a command that you help to enact and maintain justice, and give generously. Never mind what's in their heart. What's in yours?

So statements that say that the idea that people are poor because of injustice is a Marxist (implication: bad) view and not a Biblical view gall me. They gall me because it is a Biblical view: God’s commands are that justice and generosity, not individual hard work, are the solution to poverty. They gall me because I see no reason to claim that when the prophets complain that the rich and powerful amongst the Israelites ‘added house to house and field to field’ (Isaiah 5:8); that they lied, stole, cheated, deceived, defrauded (Hosea 4:2,12:7; Amos 8:5); that they sold the righteous for money (Amos 2:6) and destroyed justice and righteousness (Amos 5:7); that the rich lived lives of luxury and greed (Amos 4:1,5:11,6:4-5); that they so oppress the poor that God calls it cannibalism (Micah 3:2-3) and describes the leaders as wolves who ruin the land (Zeph 3:3).

God’s prophets nowhere say that the rich and powerful waited for someone to become poor before stealing their land, defrauding them of their homes and robbing them of their inheritance (Micah 2:1-2). Indeed, how could they? There is nothing to steal from an already-poor person. It is the act of stealing that makes the person poor. It is the act of injustice that makes, and keeps, people poor, and there is no ending of poverty without ending injustice. And God commands us to act justly (Micah 6:8)

In the above text I have briefly mentioned some conclusions stemming from God’s laws to the Israelites and some of the minor prophets. I have ignored the major prophets, the rest of the minor prophets, the wisdom literature, the historical books, and the whole of the New Testament. Yet I think that there is enough there to be clear that injustice is a cause of poverty; that injustice maintains poverty; and that there is no ending of poverty without ending injustice.

That is just a consideration of what the Bible says. But we can also ask what the current data says. It is possible that in Biblical times, poverty was primarily caused by injustice and greed but that today it is primarily caused by individual failing. And this is where it galls me that it is implied that blaming structural issues for poverty is a 'bad' 'Marxist' take. It isn't 'Marxist' to tell the truth. It's just true. Drop the unnecessary, pejorative labels and ask what the data says.

We know that poverty is often found alongside things like relationship breakdown, ill-health, criminal behaviour and drug and alcohol addiction. But is it poverty that causes these things, or do these things cause poverty? This matters hugely because the right response to poverty depends on what causes poverty. If poverty is caused by people’s choices – by people choosing not to maintain a relationship; choosing to become ill; choosing to develop a criminal lifestyle; or choosing to become a drug addict then maybe the answer to poverty is to punish people when they make these choices so as to deter other people from making the same choices, and make these people so unhappy that they choose to get out of poverty.

It sounds ridiculous to me even as I write it.

Who chooses to damage a relationship that started in love? Some people have had challenging upbringings and respond out of that unhealed trauma in negative ways; but they did not choose to be traumatised, nor to lack access to decent therapeutic support, nor to be so over-worked and under-paid that they hadn’t got the headspace to address any of their own issues or give space to their partner for his or her issues.

Who chooses to become ill? There’s an irony here that one of the most stigmatised conditions – ME/CFS – often happens to people who were over-worked and then contracted a virus, from which they did not recover. There’s an irony in that the jobs at the bottom of the labour market – the ones that are high pressure to work fast, work long shifts, work at night, work at long commuting times from home, work with little to no autonomy, work for little money and few rights – are the ones that actively make people ill, and the poverty that comes with them also makes people ill. You put that much strain on a person’s body and mind, and of course it breaks. Yet we blame these people for their illness, rather than asking why our economy is set up to allow such exploitation, and what measures a government - which has responsibility for all citizens of its country, and for setting the rules of the economy game - can and should take to do something about it.

Who chooses to become a criminal? At most, only those who are brought up in criminal families – who don’t exactly have the choice as children to leave the criminal world. But asides from that, it is teenagers growing up in poor areas seeing no hope for a decent job because there are none; seeing no point in education that focuses on academia (they’re not going to go into a knowledge-based business); truanting from a pointless, boring school and engaging in petty theft to pass the time – and even then it is only those who by lack of enough jobs locally might actually progress into full criminality. When there aren’t enough jobs for everyone, someone has to go without. And when you see your peers who did just as well (or badly) at school be the ones to get their names picked out of the job lottery, and go on to earn money and go out into the world and meet new people, then it is difficult as your job chances dwindle with each passing week and your world constricts to not then try to have at least a little something through stealing. These people didn’t become poor because of criminality. They turned to criminality because of poverty. If you’ve got into criminality, you’re not getting out without help; you didn’t get into it out of totally free and unconstrained choice; and what kind of Christian denies to others a modicum of the grace that he or she has been shown by God?

Who chooses to become a drug addict? It’s a similar story to the route into criminality: the kids who didn’t win the job lottery and saw their peers move further and further ahead, beyond the possibility of catching up, whilst being faced themselves with mind-numbing boredom and stress-inducing poverty. Perhaps some tried milder drugs during their school years, but it’s not that which leads to hard drugs – it’s poverty. And anyone who has the remotest idea about addiction knows that you can’t just stop. You might start intending to only have the occasional soft drug with your mates, because you’re bored and there’s peer pressure (people in groups behave very differently from how any one of them would behave alone), but addiction doesn’t permit you to do that. It doesn’t let you stop. If you’ve got into addiction, you’re not getting out alone. You are as trapped as each one of us is by sin, and we all need God’s grace and God’s intervention to get out. How dare we refuse to others what God has shown in immeasurably more amounts to us?

Who chooses to become poor? No-one (apart from the rare Christian who takes God’s commands to give generously and love as he loved as actual, radical, life-changing commands).

There is strong Biblical evidence that God treats poverty as an issue caused by unjust systems, and unjust and greedy behaviours. There is strong Biblical evidence that God’s remedy for poverty is to build strong justice and laws that favour the poor, and top it up with individual generosity. But there shouldn’t be a need for individual generosity, because obedience to God’s laws would result in there being no poor people.

There is strong evidence that poverty in the UK is not primarily caused by individual behaviour. I haven’t even begun to touch on the differences that a more equal society makes (compare any Scandinavian country to the UK or US); the difference that the economic structure makes (compare the post-WW2 ‘golden’ era to the post-1970s neoliberal era); or the difference that government can make. It’s enough at this point to know that the causal direction between poverty and other negative life situations is not from those situations to poverty (as if poverty were an individual’s fault) but from poverty to those situations (implying that poverty is imposed upon an individual, and they – as we all would or do – struggle with that poverty). More than that, it’s enough to know that God commands us to be gracious and generous to those in need – and that means never taking the right-wing approach of leaving someone to suffer in their poverty so that they learn the need to get themselves out of it. Believe me, poor people want to get out of poverty. They just lack the means.

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