A Cultural Treasury
There is no single Christian way of fighting poverty. Christians are called to serve in numerous ways, and good people will disagree about a host of prudential questions when addressing poverty. But if we are to do more good than harm, we must begin with a biblical vision of the human person. This is a challenge for all of us, wherever we fall on the political and economic spectrum.
This is not a call to embrace a spirituality detached from physical reality. Just the opposite; the God of the universe is concerned about culture, is concerned about history, is concerned about physicality because He is concerned about the humanity that He made. Good intentions are not enough. In the words of philosopher Etienne Gilson, “piety is never a substitute for technique.”
To be clear, Christianity is principally concerned with saving souls and making disciples of all nations. But this in no way negates the fact that God also calls us to help the poor escape the ravages of material poverty. Moreover, we know that our earthly vocations have a double task, to fill the earth and rule over it, and this universal calling of God urges us to create space for rich and poor alike to live out their freedom and responsibility as stewards of creation.
It is also important to emphasize that a Christian approach to development does not preclude our working with people from other faiths and traditions. Many non-believers of good will share core beliefs with us about human dignity and the root causes of poverty. We need Christians working within and beside secular organizations focused on alleviating extreme poverty. This is honorable work. But the call to approach poverty alleviation from a fully Christian perspective does place certain demands on Christians working in development. Many development organizations are shaped by mistaken visions of the person. Sadly, even some Christian groups end up advocating programs that clash with foundational aspects of the Christian theological and moral tradition, such as the call to protect human life at all stages. As followers of Christ, we must guard against unwittingly adopting the current secular framework.
Christians have been the largest and most powerful force for helping the poor the world has ever known, and many of the institutions of both charity and wealth creation sprang up from the soil of the Christian tradition. It is important to cultivate a robust appreciation of this tradition and to emphasize the effective tools in our cultural treasury for helping the poor to flourish. These include:
- Development is about more than GDP; it’s about integral human flourishing. With its rich vision of the good life and by emphasizing the everlasting destiny of the person, Christianity steers us away from both hopelessness and arid utilitarianism.
- Every human person possesses inherent dignity and worth. The Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that all humans are made in the image of the Creator. We are, therefore, beings with a transcendent destiny, beings of purpose, reason and creativity, able to make free choices. Although many Christians throughout the centuries have ignored this fundamental teaching, it continues to call people to recognize the inherent dignity and worth of every human person, including those outside our own clan, tribe or nation.
- We cannot create Heaven on Earth. Guided by sound ideas and principles, as well as a rich moral culture, we can greatly reduce global poverty. But Scripture, the Christian tradition, and the reality of human sin warn us against any worldly plan that promises to fashion “a new man” and achieve a perfect society. Within human history the ideal situation will never exist. There will always be poverty because there will always be tragedy and sin. This does not justify complacency toward our fellow man, but it should warn us against any plan that promises to “end poverty” or any political ideology that promises perfect equality or justice. As history has shown us, every political promise of the perfect society leads not to liberation but enslavement.
- Although made in the image of God, humanity is fallen. Many approaches to fighting poverty take too little account of human sinfulness, leading to a lack of accountability and, with it, corruption, waste and more poverty. We must avoid a utopianism that ignores the reality of sin.
- Honest labor, including the work of business, is a dignified and moral activity. As creatures made in the image of God, creative labor helps us develop our full humanity. This extends to enterprise and business. While the Bible warns of the dangers, since ancient times the parable of the talents and other biblical passages have encouraged the Church to view honest business, including making a profit, as an opportunity for human flourishing.
- We should practice effective compassion. Business enterprise is the normal way that poor communities move from poverty to prosperity. Yet the need for almsgiving to assist the poor will always be a component of development, even essential in certain circumstances. Here effective compassion is vital. We must avoid being satisfied with making visible, feel-good charitable gestures, not least because the Christian tradition insists this is not enough. Christianity calls us not only to give to those in need, but to do so in an intelligent way, so that our giving does not do unintended harm. A heart for the poor is important, but one also needs a mind for the poor.
- No human ruler is above the law. Christianity teaches that the ruler is subject to the divine moral order; neither power nor consensus equals truth. This is crucial for political and economic freedom and human flourishing.
- Government has an important, limited role. Christianity emphasizes the core competency of government—securing justice for rich and poor alike, which creates space for human flourishing. This translates into upholding rule of law and private property rights, and allowing for free association, and free and honest exchange. While government is important, Christianity emphasizes that it is not the only entity that gives society its identity. Individuals, families, churches, private organizations, businesses, charities, and government all play essential roles in building a healthy society and must act according to the principle of subsidiarity.
- We are stewards of creation with freedom and responsibility. The earth is a gift to be developed responsibly. The stewardship approach to creation encourages holistic and sustainable development. On the one hand it cautions us against crass and hedonistic exploitation of the natural realm. On the other hand, it warns us away from viewing nature as divine, or the earth as a sanctuary to be left undeveloped.
- The family is a core building block of society. Empirical data from numerous sources show that strong families are crucial to sustainable economic development. We must be careful not to promote approaches to development that lead to family breakdown. Christians, along with people from other religious traditions that emphasize strong families, should counter the excessive individualism of Western secular culture, an individualism that sees the family as inessential or marginal to integral human development. Christianity helps to steer us away from this costly error by showing that the family is a pre-political institution, ordained by God from the beginning.
- Vibrant communities and private associations are essential to liberty and the common good. The Christian tradition emphasizes the principle of subsidiarity. This is the idea that social and economic problems should be solved by those closest to them whenever possible (i.e., the family, the church and neighborhood, the community), making temporary recourse to more distant levels of assistance only when necessary and with deep awareness of the dangers of institutionalizing detached and distant forms of bureaucratic assistance. Strong communities and voluntary associations—not linked to the state—play a key role in making economic development humane and sustainable.
- The rights and responsibilities of private property must be supported. One of the crucial lessons of development economics is that the poor cannot create wealth for themselves and their families without secure property rights. The Judeo-Christian tradition provides powerful resources for encouraging the property rights of rich and poor alike. It shows that private property is not an artifact of greed and possessiveness, as many believe, but rather a legitimate institution rooted in our role as stewards of what God has entrusted to each of us.
- Culture matters. Christianity reminds us that poverty alleviation is not primarily a resource problem. Wealth creation requires a cultural context. Corrupt regimes in developing countries stifle initiative while developed countries all too often manipulate and cripple poor countries, sometimes by means of the very aid programs we had hoped would break the cycle of poverty. Societies that enable human flourishing require cultures that promote trust, honesty, reasoned discourse, and respect for the dignity of the person.