Justice, Poverty, and Jesus

by Howard Glass

The word "justice" has been getting a lot of use in Christian circles lately. Though it means different things to different people, one of the ways we may pursue justice is by helping the poor. Usually the first and most convenient idea we have is to give them money.

Having grown up in an alcoholic home, I learned firsthand about poverty. And I have known plenty of poor folks throughout my life. In America, at least, poverty is rarely simply a lack of money. People are poor in different ways, some in several ways. Having no money is often a symptom of the "disease," not the disease itself.

Though well-intentioned, it can be nave to satisfy a call to justice by simply giving money. Usually something more is needed. This is why organizations like AMG International include education in their aid to poor children and encourage them to take advantage of opportunities. Hard as it may be to believe, poor people often ignore opportunities before them. Virtue does not spring up lightly. Aristotle said it requires precept, example, and habit, ideas that echo richly through the Book of Proverbs and are proven by the character of Christ.

Sadly, among the poor we often find little appetite for the virtues that lead to prosperity. People who grow up poor usually have a distorted self-image. Unrealistic ideas about life often stifle their ability-even their desire-to strive toward something better.

American economic and political culture is not helpful. The trend is more and more toward entitlement and socialism. My guess is that everyone reading this knows people who are riding in the wagon when they ought to be pushing it! Our government is poorly suited to discern where aid is well placed and where it is wasted.

Moral malaise is inevitable in a climate like this because people are too easily relieved from the consequences of sin. In a world where sloth is often interpreted as some kind of illness, hard work, diligence, and the willingness to delay gratification become infrequent virtues. This is especially bad news for the poor.

Helping the poor may require getting personally involved with them. That is why helping can be hard. We wisely avoid people whose lifestyles might drag us down. You cannot help the poor by becoming poor yourself, any more than you can pull a tractor out of the mud by driving another one into it.

But relationship precedes influence. Missionaries know this and sometimes spend years developing trust so that they can have influence. Many people can point to a time when the direction of their lives changed-for better or worse-because of one conversation with an influential person. Remember James' teaching about the power of the tongue.

Further, people dislike being patronized. Because it points out their sense of inferiority, the poor usually despise it. So any effort to assist the poor must be done with genuine humility. Helping the poor must be for Jesus sake, not to make us feel good about ourselves. Beginning any difficult work will cause our true motives to rise to the surface.

Helping the poor is often discouraging. It can seem fruitless. But it is definitely the Christian thing to do. It may be helpful to remember that as Christ's disciples we are not responsible for results, only for making the effort.

Howard Glass is a freelance writer who serves as a small-group leader at
the East Main Street Presbyterian Church in Grove City, Penn.

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