The Place of Christianity in Fighting Poverty

Christianity Today features a compellingly counter-intuitive take on the efficacy of Christian charity. In the post, author Mark Galli begins by pointing out the dramatic recent reductions in global poverty, and then takes a look at the causes:

Not large donations, microenterprise programs, or child sponsorship, but rather sheer economic growth, has effected this change. With massive populations, the two nations made a number of interrelated decisions that opened their countries to globalization, which in turn has led to remarkable economic performances, where we’ve seen GDP growth rates (except for 2009) stay above 6 percent since 2003. The wealth has indeed trickled down to the lowest economic strata of their societies.

So, if pure economic growth is the magic bullet for poverty, what does that mean for Christian charitable efforts?

What these latest findings demonstrate is the church’s relative ineffectiveness and impotency at helping the poor. Some Christian activists have been trying to motivate us to care for the poor by pointing out how they are neglected by society. The state is a clumsy and arrogant institution, they argue, and not doing its job. So the church must step in to make a difference. That means that (1) churches should create their own anti-poverty initiatives (like microfinance), and (2) churches should lobby governments to do better. 

These recent economic developments suggest that both of these strategies are either insignificant or relatively ineffective. It is not Christian activism that has created history’s greatest poverty reduction initiatives in India and China. And it is not micro but rather macroeconomics that really makes a difference.

So Christians should stop reaching out to the poor? Aha! Wrong, you heartless cad! Maybe this just means they should adjust their motivation.

We are not called to obey Jesus only if our efforts are guaranteed to make a difference. As the article “Cost-Effective Compassion” shows, when it comes to poverty, impact is indeed one important criterion for how we invest ourselves. But who and how we love can never finally be decided on effectiveness, for otherwise we would neglect all those for whom we can make little practical difference—those in hospice care and nursing homes, those with mental disabilities, and so forth. 

In fact, if this becomes our primary motivation—to change the world—we risk sabotaging the uniquely Christian approach to poverty. 

What I mean is this: In pragmatic America, we are often enamored of and motivated by pragmatism rather than simple obedience to Jesus. We are too often tempted to justify our existence on this planet by doing something “significant,” by “making a difference in the world,” so that we can go to bed at night feeling good about ourselves. But the Christian message is about a God who judges and loves us in our insignificance—that is, when our selfcenteredness has sabotaged our ability to make any fundamentally sound contribution to our lives or to others’. This God speaks to us the frank word that not only do we not make a difference in the world, day to day we threaten to make the world worse by our sin. But in Jesus Christ, he has judged and forgiven us through the Cross, and now he uses even our insignificant efforts to witness to his coming work in Jesus Christ.

 This is remarkably clear-eyed about the limits of pure charity. And wise in saying that limitations don’t mean that charity isn’t a proper activity for Christians.

The only thing I would add is that China and India haven’t gotten richer because their governments have suddenly gotten good at macroeconomics. Nations get richer when they unleash the economic potential of individual initiative in a free (or free-ish) market. The best thing a government can do to alleviate poverty is get out of the way.

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