What do we mean by 'Poverty?'

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Unfortunately, when dealing with the term poverty, one is limited by language. The word poverty has many different meanings and is expressed in many different ways. These meanings and their subsequent expressions often seem to contradict one another, so it is important to understand the correlating concepts in order to impact individuals affected by poverty.

The biblical worldview, shaped by the original languages of the Scripture, understands poverty in very concrete ways. The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism published a report detailing the various Hebrew words for poverty and the poor. Among their conclusions was the following observation:

The language of poverty in the Old Testament indicates an understanding that demands the attention of Christians. The poverty of “the wretched of the earth” is clearly shown to be caused by injustice. They are oppressed and downtrodden, subjected and dependent, powerless, defenseless and exploited, yearning for justice and dignity. The economic poverty they experience is the result of a prior social poverty that is politically structured and maintained. Biblically, they are powerless and poor because others are powerful…they are kept dependent to conserve the position of the privileged.

In this article, I would like to develop three distinct expressions of poverty.1 I use the term “expression” to communicate both of its meanings: first, as the phraseology of a definition or term; second, as a realization expressed or demonstrated in real time and space.

I propose that poverty is expressed as:
1) The lie of false identities that infects the spiritual condition of humanity;
2) The imposition of oppression in the kingdom of man;
3) An accepted value to be celebrated in the Kingdom of God.

Spiritual Condition of Humanity

A proper starting point for examining issues of poverty begins with understanding the poor. Understanding who the poor are requires understanding who we are. Who we are begins with an understanding of the terms dignity and identity.

Chris Sugden and Vinay Samuel analyze this language and address its implications. According to Sugden and Samuel, dignity speaks of our worth while identity speaks of who we are. They comment that, “Identity answers the question ‘Who am I?’, while dignity answers the question ‘What am I worth?’” This distinction is very important in order to understand and accept a Kingdom understanding of dignity and identity.

This assumes the certainty that we are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27, 9:6). John Stott reflects, “it is the divine image in man which gives him an intrinsic dignity or worth, a worth which belongs to all human beings.” Being created in God’s image implies an intrinsic dignity that can be tainted by the bad decisions we make but cannot be challenged by its very nature. The worth of a person is directly related to the fact that he or she is created in the image of God. Sugden states, “Identity is a gift of grace. It is to be found in the family of God. Dignity and identity depend on a truly biblical doctrine of man.” This fact is the foundation on which all other discussions pertaining to issues of dignity and identity must be built. This fact of reality must also press the church to define and defend the image of God in the poor since, according to Leonardo Boff, the poor are the “disfigured image of God.”

Sugden writes, “While identity must not be confused with dignity, dignity in a Christian view assumes identity.” In the kingdom of man what we are (identity) points to what we are worth (dignity). In this kingdom, being worth more makes us more valuable.

In the upside-down Kingdom of God, what we are worth (dignity) points to who we are (identity). In other words, dignity validates identity. Looking to the cross of Jesus, the Scriptures tell us that we are worth the blood of God. We are worth the very life of the Giver of Life. Understanding our worth should cause us to be more able to realize who we are, and in turn, who the poor are.

Dignity and identity are not earned but ascribed. The Kingdom of God ascribes dignity and identity, even if it is not consciously accepted, and being is valued over doing, giving is valued over having. All the right things need not be sought after, but only accepted, because they are freely available to God’s children.

As individuals who find ourselves pinned between living in both of these kingdoms, we erroneously apply the principles of the world to our relationship with God. Our tendency is to do so that we can be. We think that we need to do the right things to earn His love and acceptance. For many, seeking to earn this approval is much easier (though impossible) than simply receiving the approval that is already available.

Understanding who we are in relationship to how God sees us is our starting point to understanding poverty. With that in mind, it can be argued that poverty is the lie of false identities that distracts us from embracing how God sees us.

Poverty as the lie of false identities is an essential part of the reality of the human condition. Submission to and belief in these lies contributes to the imposition of poverty as oppression by creating a platform for marred identity. When we claim our true dignity and identity in the Kingdom of God, we begin to move away from a reality that would nurture and perpetuate the oppressive expression of poverty in our lives. The lies of false identity precede oppression and therefore are to be taken very seriously.

When a person believes these false identities, that person has been open to a reinterpretation of his or her reality. The person whose history is marred by false identities can only expect a skewed future infected with the progressive distortion of these lies. The distortion of identity, both of the oppressed and the oppressor, allows poverty to be imposed.

This perception of poverty also allows people to make choices that can cause a disempowered sense of poverty. The consequences of these bad choices (i.e. substance abuse, promiscuous sexual activity, addictive behavior, etc.) further infect the identity of the person by enhancing the bondage that destroys the spiritual identity of the victim.

Imposition of Oppression

The second expression of poverty can be understood as the imposition of oppression in the kingdom of man. I define oppression as:

the complex spiritual and material network of compounded factors resulting in an imposed state of powerlessness, thereby causing persons and/or communities to lack sustainable access and availability to resources 2 and opportunity 3; also, the condition that is caused by and perpetuated by injustice and disparity, disqualifying the victims of poverty from full participation in the culture, society, structure, system, or political process by which the victim of oppression is being impoverished, consequently demanding a holistic response from the non-poor. Poverty in this sense, imposed upon a person, structure, or system, is not only degrading, but also dehumanizing.

Power for the poor is the ability to change their circumstances. Part of understanding poverty may include the inability to change one’s circumstances. Thus, power for the poor is freedom.

Amartya Sen explores the concept that poverty viewed as unfreedoms causes development to take the form of providing freedoms for the poor to choose the kind of life that they desire. This form of empowerment celebrates both the process and the opportunities that such freedoms afford to the poor. This kind of power provides opportunity and reawakens abilities that the powerless poor have had stolen from them through oppression. Power in the hands of the poor becomes a tool in their process of empowerment when power is understood as a value that produces freedom for all.

Poverty understood as the imposition of oppression does not include the poor who suffer the consequences of their own bad decisions. This view of poverty acknowledges that most of the world’s poor have not chosen and, given the choice, would not choose to live the way they are forced to live. This understanding of poverty also acknowledges the role of institutional, systemic, political, economic, and social factors that aggravate poverty situations.

When one is unable to embrace his or her God-given Kingdom dignity and identity, then imposing a false dignity and identity on the vulnerable is the precursor to oppression.

A Kingdom Value

Finally, poverty can be seen as a value to be celebrated in the Kingdom of God. This form of poverty must be voluntarily accepted. Intentional acceptance of this expression of poverty always leads to redemption.

The Church, for the most part, has mistaken God’s material and financial provision as individual blessing rather than as resources with potential for Kingdom development. Thomas Merton writes, “Poverty is not merely a matter of not having ‘things.’ It is an attitude which leads us to renounce some of the advantages which come from the use of things.” Renouncing these “things” allows them to become available to the oppressed poor who may not have access to them.

As a Kingdom value we refer to the example of the King, “who for our sake became poor, so that through His poverty we might become rich” (II Cor. 8:9). Poverty in the life of Christ was not something imposed on Him, rather something taken upon Himself. Philippians 2:6 tells us that He “emptied Himself, taking on the form of a servant.” This self-emptying process re-defines and reverses the poverty paradigm of the kingdom of man.

Kingdom poverty causes reflection on the redefined values and the reversal of reality that contrasts with that of the kingdom of man. Jayakumar Christian writes concerning the concept of power, “in the Kingdom of God the slain Lamb is the paradigm of power (Rev. 5:5, 9, 12).” This reversal of power, as understood through powerlessness, illustrates the redemptive nature of Kingdom poverty.

The slain Lamb as a Kingdom paradigm of power is the present reality-future hope of His Kingdom. For us to understand the past we must understand the future. When the future reversal of power is accepted as powerlessness and poverty, history then becomes clear as its focus illuminates these values in the life of Christ.

Accepting the slain Lamb as the personification of power validates the naked and bloodied Savior on the cross who, in what is perceived as humiliation and defeat, can forgive His executioners. From a place of powerlessness, His power is extended through His mercy. Accepting the slain Lamb and the correlating reversal of understanding power allows the vulnerable and weak to stand among us as guides and teachers. He called a child into His presence as an example of humility, not of weakness as the kingdom of man perceives it, but as weakness that leads to strength through Kingdom poverty. Accepting the slain Lamb as the model of Kingdom power explains the unlikely substitution of a manger instead of a palace, a group of shepherds in the place of angels, ministry in Galilee rather than ministry in Rome and a donkey instead of a stallion.

In this Kingdom, the powerful, proud, and prestigious seem to be of lesser consequence than the poorest. Even the King humbles Himself in this Kingdom. Jean Vanier notes in The Broken Body,

“[He] begins to make the passage from the one who is healer to the one who is wounded; from the man of compassion to the man in need of compassion; from the man who cries out: ‘If anyone thirsts let him come to me to drink,’ to the man who cries out: ‘I thirst.’ From announcing the good news to the poor, Jesus becomes the poor. He crosses over the boundary line of humanity which separates those whose needs are satisfied from those who are broken and cry out in need.”

Jesus’ identification with the poor is a voluntary sacrifice for all of humanity. The poverty of Christ is a step toward solidarity with a world marred by false identities. It is through His self-imposed limitations that the oppressed and the oppressor find freedom. Miroslav Volf writes, “The theme of solidarity with the victims is supplemented by the theme of atonement for the perpetrators. Just as the oppressed must be liberated from the suffering caused by oppression, so the oppressors must be liberated from the injustice committed through oppression.” How ironic that through His confinement we find our freedom.

Jon Sobrino builds his conclusions on understanding poverty as a Kingdom value from Christ’s illustration of the “perfect man,” the good Samaritan. The Samaritan was “moved by pity” or, in other words, he responded out of mercy. Sobrino speaks not of “‘works of mercy,’ but rather of the basic structure of the response to this world’s victims. This structure consists in making someone else’s pain our very own and allowing that pain to move us to respond.” This understanding of mercy can also be understood in terms of compassion and justice. In The Principle of Mercy, he writes,

“In principle, the discovery of the reality of the poor is the origin of solidarity, because this truth is a primal call to the human dimension within any person and a challenge based on the fact that each of us is socially a part of all humankind. It brings with it a demand for change and conversion, for persons to recover their true identity underlying a falsified identity. And it provides the opportunity to recover this identity through co-responsibility for the poor.”

Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador, reiterates this reality: “Thus, the poor have shown the church the true way to go. A church that does not join the poor, in order to speak out from the side of the poor against the injustices committed against them, is not the true church of Jesus Christ.” This finds completion in knowing who we are and to whom we belong. The issues of poverty and injustice are consequences of a church that is yet to understand Kingdom dignity and identity. From the perspective of the upside-down Kingdom, the truth about us comes not from a place of power but from a place of poverty. Sobrino writes,

In order to comprehend our human essence, it is necessary to do so from the point of view not of the powerful but of the poor, and on their behalf (The Principle of Mercy).

To contrast these expressions of poverty, let me restate their essence. Poverty in the kingdom of man is a lie that dehumanizes the very essence of humanity by marring identity and dignity. Poverty in the Kingdom of God releases and enables our identity and dignity to be found in the slain Lamb. Poverty in the kingdom of man is offensive. Poverty in the Kingdom of God is redemptive. Poverty in the kingdom of man is imposed; the poor do not choose their poverty, it is forced upon them. Poverty is embraced in the Kingdom of God; Jesus became poor that we might become rich.

As Kingdom people, it is imperative for us to find our true dignity and identity in Jesus. Part of this process will include overcoming the false identities that hinder us from knowing God, finding our dignity and identity, over-coming false identities, and claiming the truth about ourselves, allows us to secure justice by affirming the dignity and identity of the poor.

I close with the words of Jean Vanier, who has given his life to the mentally and physically disabled through the l’Arche communities,

“At l’Arche we might have come to serve the poor, but we will only stay if we discover that we are the poor, and that Jesus came to announce the good news, not to those who serve the poor, but to those who are poor! It is the broken ones who lead us to our brokenness, and to the knowledge that we need a healing Saviour. Thus they lead us to Jesus, to healing, to wholeness, to resurrection” (The Broken Body).

Chris is the International Executive Director of WMF, living in Omaha, Nebraska. He and his wife, Phileena, spend much of the year traveling for speaking engagements and pastoring the WMF international communities.


1 There are more than three ways to express an understanding and/or a definition of poverty. Poverty is much more complex than this over-simplification, however, I have intentionally omitted developing forms of poverty that are caused and perpetuated by the consequences of wrong decisions and bad choices.

2 Resources include but are not limited to:

1) Financial: Economic resources, adequate income, a sustainable financial base, financial credit, access to capital.

2) Communal: Solidarity based in family, community, and societal support; social security nets; partnership and support provided in the context of free participation; security and protection (i.e., just and reliable legal system).

3) Social: Respect, identity, dignity, realistic sense of self-worth, psychological stability and emotional well-being.

4) Medical: Dietary sustenance, safe drinking water, sufficient caloric intake, access to health care.

5) Residential: Adequate housing, protective shelter.

6) Educational: Basic education, literacy, access to higher education.

7) Spiritual: Access to a supportive and nurturing community of faith, freedom of religious expression, availability to spiritual truth, spiritual wholeness.

It can be assumed that these resources are available in limited supply, but often the poor are unable to acquire them.

3 Opportunity may include, but is not limited to: access providing the ability to participate in the utilization and application to the noted “resources.”