Justin Thacker

Why being pro-poor may not mean we are anti-rich, but might mean we should be anti-wealth

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In a recent article, Matt Bird encouraged us to Be for the poor, but not against the rich. According to Matt, God’s material blessing of Solomon is evidence that ‘God is not opposed to wealth or the disparity of wealth’. And in the process, 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 (even majority) proportions of their income. If they do this, they are to be ‘applauded’ rather than criticised.

But does such inequality matter? In my new book, Global Poverty, I tackle this topic head on for the kind of argument that Matt presents is increasingly gaining ground in certain Christian (and especially evangelical) circles. It’s important to recognise at the outset that I don’t disagree with all that Matt has written. I think he is right, for instance, that trade and business are the ultimate solutions to poverty rather than charity. While aid and charity may be an absolute necessary in the short-term, they do not provide the long-term solution that jobs provide. 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. Let me explain with this excerpt from the book which begins with a quotation from Donald Gowan.

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. 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 is the refrain that keeps on returning throughout the prophetic books (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 but one of these is evidence of increasing social stratification within the nation. Following their return from exile, the economy of the nation seemed to change fundamentally with evidence of agricultural intensification, the development of large agricultural estates, loan practices no longer being about social insurance and instead amounting to what in effect became predatory loaning. There also exists archaeological evidence of increasing disparities in house sizes during this period. In pre-exilic Israel most houses were of a simple four-room design. There was, of course, some variation in house size with some with larger rooms and some as small as 2 or three rooms, but the degree of variation appears to have been strictly limited. In contrast, in post-exilic Israel, there was a rapid and marked transformation whereby these 4 room houses disappeared to be replaced by estates replete with peasant or slave workers. The picture with which we are painted in these prophetic texts is one in which increasing inequality arises precisely because those with power and authority are failing to fulfil their covenantal duties and in the process exploiting the poor and the powerless and so building wealth for themselves at the expense of the less well off.

We see in the prophets then a very different response to poverty to that which is employed either by the political left or the political right. For too often the main response of some on the political left is essentially that of aid and charity. At the same time, on the political right the response is often to chastise the poor for not working hard enough, being irresponsible or failing to be sufficiently entrepreneurialWhat links both of these responses is that the object of their attention is the poor themselves – on the one hand to help, perhaps in a paternalistic fashion; on the other, to chastise. What both sides ignore however is what the prophets seem to have grasped – that the problem is not the poor, the problem is the rich and the powerful. The poor do have agency and if only they were no longer exploited and oppressed, if only the rich and powerful would get off their backs then they would enact their own solutions to poverty. This seems to be the context in which the prophets write.

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)

The problem then with Matt Bird’s analysis is that he seems to downplay the role of the wealthy in contributing to the poverty experienced by others, and 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 was engaged with the philanthropic wing of a major mobile phone company from whom I was seeking funding for a particular 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 tens, perhaps even hundreds of 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). Matt’s argument would appear to ignore this reality. He would seem to believe that wealth creation never involves exploitation of the poor, and while it may not always do this, the sad truth is when it comes to anyone engaged in global trade, the rules remain heavily stacked against the interests of the poor. This does not mean we should be anti the rich (and to that extent I agree with Matt), but as the prophets of old indicate we should certainly be cautious about, if not anti wealth, for as the prophets appreciated it is not just God who is the architect of wealth, it is also sometimes our sin:

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)

Postscript:

For a more helpful response to comic relief see Ian Paul’s recent blog post here:

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28/03/2017 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment

  1. […] Dr Justin Thacker provides an excerpt from his new book, Global Poverty: A Theological Guide, in, “Why being pro-poor may not mean we are anti-rich, but might mean we should be anti-wealth” […]

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