When Hurting Helps 3: Redefining Poverty

Read Part 1: A Popular Call to Some Good Things
Read Part 2: Ignoring Churchplanting and Evangelism

When Helping Hurts bases all of its practical tips on the first third of the book. It is refreshing to read a book that starts logically with clear definitions—much more difficult to critique if you can’t understand. Chapter 1 defines the mission of the church in light of Christ’s mission as “making all things new.” The error here is to broaden the definition so wide that anything becomes mission (or missions) rather than the more narrow emphasis of the NT and especially the book of Acts on planting churches in lesser reached areas.

Fikkert’s grasp of the church’s task fits hand in glove with chapter 2: What is poverty? And the stakes are high, “Defining poverty is not simply an academic exercise, for the way we define poverty—either implicitly or explicitly—plays a major role in determining the solutions we use in our attempts to alleviate that poverty (52).” I agree.

The plot thickens with a chart from an academic source published by a Catholic press (58). And this chart is vital to explaining that there are many kinds of poverty: “a poverty of spiritual intimacy, a poverty of being, a poverty of community,” etc. (59). That list follows on the heels of the only definition of poverty stated in the book (that I could find), “Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings (59).”

How did he get here? Mainly just assertion, but he did use that most favorite hermeneutical friend of the 21st century exegete: Biblical theology (54). Rather than citing proof texts (Is anything less fashionable?), these various kinds of poverty are derived from a loose comparison of the grand narrative of the Bible with our contemporary experience. If this sounds like the primary means of interpreting the Bible to you, then you just scored an A on the “Am I a post-modern?” quiz. By blending relationships and story, they may have hooked their target market, but they have not accurately interpreted the text of Scripture.

And why would they try to base their definitions on something as illustrative as the story of redemption? Three reasons come to mind that have already been hinted at. First, stories provide more wiggle room than propositions. People can hold multiple views without being clearly wrong when we are proving points with stories. Second, the spirit of the age wants warm, feeling narrative, not cold, cutting logic. Third, it takes some of the sting away from being poor. If the first two observations above are right, then we are all poor in some sense. So, no one has to feel ashamed as if they are in a category by themselves being poked and examined. The authors are very concerned that poor people do not have hurt feelings (53, 61, 62, 64, 75, 101, et. al.).

But we haven’t even looked to see if the sting is necessary to actually helping the poor. Guarding the feelings of the poor is such a major part of the book and recurs so repeatedly in little phrases that the majority of the final post will treat this reflex of the authors.

Back at the definition though, who talks that way? Other than academic evangelical authors who want to be published by friends of the Magisterium. In short, “poverty of being” is pop psychology eisegesis, not something that should be lauded by speakers at T4G as foundational for ministering among the poor.

They did tell us in advance that their definition would effect their applications. And just a few pages later, we have this shocking example of Biblical interpretation, “Poverty alleviation is the ministry of reconciliation [spoken of in 2 Cor. 5:18-20] (74).” Here is that passage:

18 Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Having bolded the relevant phrases, if one of my students had interpreted Paul’s words as “poverty alleviation” I would have filled his paper with red ink and asked him to rewrite. Do I need to point out the obvious? This passage is about freedom from sin, not poverty. “Not counting their trespasses against them” is one among several clues. The verse before and the verse after are two of the most powerful gospel, regeneration, justification verses in the whole inspired corpus. There is zero evidence that Paul was thinking of raising the standard of living for the poor at Corinth when he wrote this.

Unfortunately, this is the usual kind of exegesis that the book carries on each text it dissects. See the discussions of Luke 4 (31-32) and Colossians 1:15-20 (33).

Still within the same bowl of stew is the term “the poor.” Who are these people? On 40, Fikkert says,

“Indeed, throughout the New Testament, care of the poor is a vital concern of the church (Matt. 25:31-46; Acts 6:1-7; Gal. 2:1-10; 6:10; James 1:27). Perhaps no passage states it more succinctly than 1 John 3:16-18:

16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”

Again, the first principles of Bible interpretation tell us to ask who is writing and to whom. “Our brothers and sisters” are to be the primary objects of our compassion ministries. The same holds true when we look at the OT. The passages about the poor in the Law refer almost entirely to those within the nation of Israel. The Jews were not responsible to go around the world eradicating poverty. The parallel in the NT is explicitly stated in the NT “especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”

Before we draw up big plans, shouldn’t we find out if the people are brothers in Christ? And shouldn’t we ask what effect our poverty alleviation plans will have on creating fake converts? We’re right back to the gospel again. Evangelism and church discipline should be at the forefront of poverty-fighting ministries. Without those tools, how will you know who the brothers are? And each of the passages cited above has that inside-the-family wording.

But this book does not have time for such basic distinctions. Let us tell the truth about poverty even if it hurts. Yes, we can talk about a “poor imagination” or those who are “poor in spirit,” but the most common way this term is used when referring to the differences between people groups today is material or economic. Therefore, poverty is a relative material lack due to sin or acts of God.

Acts of God refers to the devastation of tidal waves, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Sin refers to that person’s or someone else’s failure to obey the law of God. If everyone obeyed the Bible, the poor would not exist. Zimbabweans are poor in part because their government is full of corruption, laziness, and lying. Yet, they are also poor in part because of their own moral choices.

A really interesting book would explore the balance between those two categories answering questions such as, How can we determine if this man’s poverty is caused by himself, his society, his government, or other men? But this book is not that interesting. In fact, as disturbing as it is to those of us who live among the poor, sin as a cause of poverty was barely even mentioned.

And to that most crucial argument, I shall now attend.

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3 Responses to When Hurting Helps 3: Redefining Poverty

  1. Pingback: When Hurting Helps 1: A Popular Call to Some Good Things |

  2. James Buchanan says:

    When I read the comment about the ministry of reconciliation, my jaw dropped. Thanks for your work in reviewing this.

  3. Duane Cook says:

    I had read this book back in 2011, but not with nearly as critical an eye (I’m using critical in a good way). My recollection of the book was its emphasis on how our American paternalism is destructive to building any lasting effect on the mission field.
    This morning the combination of reading this review and reading your coworker’s October update on The Masculine Church was both thought provoking and encouraging. Im looking forward to your continued comments. God bless you.

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