Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What Drives Poverty – Fire in the 'Whole'?

As a seven year old boy, I sat at the kitchen table anticipating the taste of my grandmother’s fried chicken.  Suddenly, I was traumatized by the eruption of a grease fire.  As my grandfather tried to douse the flames with water the fire flared up, nearly igniting the cabinets above before it could be smothered.  If this had been a wood fire, water would have killed the flames instantly; however, a grease fire poses a danger of a completely different nature.

Poverty can be compared to this – sometimes a fire of wood, at other times, one of grease.  The traditional means of dousing a wood fire will only exacerbate a grease fire.  This might be helpful in explaining the perplexing explosion of poverty despite government’s massive attempts to quell it.

Before 1960, the prevailing view of society saw bad circumstances (floods, tornados, etc.) and bad character (e.g., laziness) as the root causes of poverty.  The logical remedy was relief and opportunity for the victims of bad circumstances, and apathy toward those of bad character.

In the early 1960's, the prevailing view had evolved with the awareness of oppression (racism, etc.) beyond a person’s control – this was positive.  However, the notion of bad character was simultaneously dubbed “politically incorrect,” certainly a negative.  Thus, bad circumstances were seen as the sole cause, and relief, liberation and opportunity were seen as the “one-size-fits-all” remedy.  For those who legitimately suffered bad circumstances, this approach efficiently extinguished poverty like water poured on a wood fire.  For those impoverished by other causes, it worsened poverty’s effects.  The 1964 “War on Poverty” began pouring water on poverty indiscriminately, successfully extinguishing wood fires while causing grease fires to flare.  We still see the effects of the conflagration today.

I am not implying a one-on-one correspondence between bad character and poverty.  On the contrary, character flaws plague us all; one can be prosperous with bad character, or impoverished with good character.  Looking back, however, I believe that both the pre-1960 and post-1964 views of poverty’s causes and cures were naively simplistic – despite the awareness of oppression.  Neither view took into consideration the “elephant in the room,” namely culture.

With the reality of a “culture of poverty” so well documented, why didn’t the framers of the government-funded anti-poverty programs take this into account?  Furthermore, if culture were a part of the equation, on what basis would they have been able to assess the culture of poverty’s value systems?  The Bible provides a clear and cogent basis for assessment, but biblical wisdom had already been jettisoned by the purveyors of public policy for the sake of political correctness.

A view of poverty based on biblical wisdom would take into account all three causes; circumstance, character, and culture (or some combination thereof), leading us to fashion appropriate remedies for each.  A remedy for poverty caused by bad circumstances would continue to take into account disaster and oppression while providing relief, compassion, liberation and opportunity.  Bad character would take into account laziness and dependency, while ending enablement and promoting character development through spiritual formation.  A remedy for poor cultural values would recognize a faulty value system and introduce biblical values through discipleship, not indoctrination.  This is a three-pronged approach for which the church is uniquely prepared, and it’s beyond time for us step up wholeheartedly.

If our society insists on staying subservient to political correctness, then we should not be surprised to see poverty's grease fire continue to flare up as we pour on more 'one-size-fits-all' water.   We won’t have the luxury of surprise when deficit spending continues to spiral out of control, driven in part by well meaning but ineffectual “anti-poverty” programs. 

Could today’s grease fire one day engulf this nation in a GREECE fire? 

Is it hot in here?   Or is it just me?

Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr. is a theological anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, TX.  Follow Dr. Ellis on Twitter: @CarlEllisJr


  1. It's hot. For sure. Excellent post and thank you. Can you comment on how you think church planting fits into the puzzle? I know it's a broad question-but I'm interested in your "baseline" on the topic.

    1. It depends on the mission of the church and where the church is planted. I cover a lot of the issues involved in my audio blog, “Discipling Urban Men,” posted earlier this month. Hope it helps. CE

  2. Thanks for sharing this post. People can rely on their bill protection insurance in case of poverty. but, what happens after the said policy expires? People should also learn how to be more prepared should poverty and unemployment strikes.