Matt Bird recently wrote an article titled Be for the poor, but not against the rich. According to Matt, God’s material riches of Solomon is evidence that ‘God is not opposed to wealth or the disparity of wealth’.
He chastises a development charity for describing as ‘unacceptable’ the fact that the richest eight people in the world have more wealth than the poorest three billion combined. Such inequality, it would seem, does not matter as long as those billionaires continue to create jobs and give away significant proportions of their income. If they do this, they are to be ‘applauded’ rather than criticised.
The kind of argument that Matt Bird presents is increasingly gaining ground in certain Christian (and especially evangelical) circles. I don’t disagree with all that he has written. I think he is right that trade and business are the ultimate solutions to poverty rather than charity. While aid may be necessary in the short-term, it does not provide the long-term solution that jobs do.
However, my difficulty with his argument is that it doesn’t address the way in which the wealthy often contribute to the problems of the poor. As Christians we need to be aware of how the biblical prophets saw poverty. As Donald Gowan put it:
“For Old Testament writers the cause of poverty which produced the most concern and true indignation was not what the poor do or do not do but what others have done to them … There were ways to deal with the problems of being hungry and ill-clothed and homeless; but all of them could be thwarted by injustice, and it is that against which the Old Testament rages.”
Gowan puts his finger here on what is at the heart of the prophetic lament: social injustice. It is not that the rich are not being sufficiently charitable or philanthropic, it is that the rich and powerful are exploiting and oppressing the poor. This theme returns time and again throughout the prophetic books (e.g. Jer 7:5-7; Amos 4:1-2; Zech 7:9-11).
There are a number of reasons why the prophets may have made the exploits of the rich their primary concern. Firstly, following their return from exile, the economy of Israel changed fundamentally with the development of large agricultural estates. There was a sharp growth in inequality and predatory loaning became a way the haves could exploit the have-nots.
Secondly, there also exists archaeological evidence of increasing disparities in house sizes during this period. Before the exile, most houses in Israel were of a simple four-room design. In contrast, after the exile, there was a rapid and marked transformation whereby these 4 room houses disappeared to be replaced by estates staffed by peasant or slave workers.
The prophets speak of increasing inequality arises precisely because those with power and authority are exploiting the poor and the powerless. They build wealth for themselves at the expense of the less well off.
The prophetic perspective is that the problem lies in the exploitation and oppression of the poor – if only the rich and powerful would get off their backs then the poor could enact their own solutions to poverty:
The people of the land have practised extortion and committed robbery; they have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the alien without redress. (Ezek. 22.29−30)
Matt Bird downplays the role of the wealthy in contributing to poverty. He doesn’t acknowledge that the so-called generosity of the wealthy can sometimes be just a smokescreen for trade practices that continue to keep the poor in poverty.
At one point, I engaged with the philanthropic wing of a major mobile phone company from whom I was seeking funding for a healthcare project in West Africa. On the surface, this company was in Matt’s terms being very ‘generous’ and helping ‘to alleviate the poverty and suffering of others’.
However, what I hadn’t realized initially was that the same company was depriving the same West African country of millions of pounds of tax revenue through its trade mispricing activities. So while the company very publicly donated thousands of pounds in ‘charitable’ activity, it was also taking away in illicit financial transactions a far greater amount (see here and here for recent reports on this issue).
Caution about wealth
Matt’s argument would appear to ignore this reality. He would seem to believe that wealth creation never involves exploitation of the poor. While it may not always do this, the sad truth is that the rules remain heavily stacked against the interests of the poor. We should not be anti-the-rich, but as the prophets indicate we should certainly be very cautious about wealth. And this is a theme continued in the teaching and example of John the Baptist, Jesus and the early church.
Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning’s light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it. They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes, they rob them of their inheritance. (Micah 2.1−2)
Justin Thacker is the author of the newly published Global Poverty: A Theological Guide