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Christian ethical response to poverty

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Millions of people are living in extreme poverty, in many cases they are denied access to proper services, energy, water, health, and above all the opportunities to improve their economic and social outlook. There is always the question of who is poor and how do we describe poverty? According to Bunting, the poor are those who struggles or barely survive with total lack of necessities of life (1995, p.677). Rogers in his words refers to poverty as “the absence of qualities, attributes or resources, but particularly to the absence of material and economic resources” (1967, p.264). Using the relative deprivation theory of poverty, Gordon and Nandy argue Poverty as “people whose resources are so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are, in effect, excluded from ordinary living patterns, customs and activities” (1999).

In the 21st century, poverty is not defined only in terms of food, education, portable water, health services or lack of fundamental human rights in the developed countries because the human right laws has protected the general provision and accessibility of such amenities. To have a better discussion of this subject it must include ethical questions of inequality and fairness.
For the purpose of this essay it is imperative to identify two classifications of poverty: absolute poverty and relative poverty.

Absolute poverty
It is defined as “the lack of sufficient income in cash or kind to meet the most basic biological needs for food, clothing, and shelter” (Singer, 1993, p.220). Robert McNamara, described absolute poverty as “a condition of life so characterised by malnutrition, illiteracy, disease, squalid surroundings, high infant mortality and low life expectancy as to be beneath any reasonable definition of human decency” (Singer, 1993, p.219). To ignore this problem will be morally wrong. Gordon and Spicker have used the human rights framework to develop a deprivation index, he argued that “if the household or individual does not have access to a particular basic need, they are defined as ‘deprived’.

Those who are deprived of two or more of the seven basic need indicators are defined as being in ‘absolute poverty” (1999). Apart from these framework indicators by Gordon, deprivation can be assessed in other ways. Wolff’s et. al review article (2015) argue that “there are various ways in which individuals can suffer deprivation such as through disability and discrimination, even if you have access to a reasonable level of resources”.

Relative poverty
Relative poverty is more of comparison with others giving a particular community’s accepted standard of good living condition. Therefore in relative poverty, the poor are not simply those who fall below certain level of subsistence. A good example of these is found in the industrialised countries raising the question of inequality and fairness. Singer explained it as a case study of a community where some citizens are poor relative to the wealth enjoyed by their neighbours (1999, p.218).

Poverty as an Ethical Crisis
The Lord Yahweh said to the Israelites “However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you” ( Deut. 15:4), the condition of this promises is based on true obedience to His command. But if at all anyone is poor the Bible says how they should be treated, “do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards them. Rather, be open-handed and freely lend them whatever they need (Deut.15:7-8).

Poverty is not only an ethical problem in the OT but also in our present world. Our understanding and proof in the 21st century has revealed poverty as a challenge and an ethical issue that cannot be ignored. Below are facts about the poverty situation in UK which can be found online (21st century challenges, 2015): 2.1 million: The number of children in Britain currently living in poverty in working households, where at least one adult is working. 60%: The percentage of poor adults who live in working households in Britain 10.9 million: people identified as ‘poor’ in Britain in 2008/9 based on their household income before housing costs.

London is one of the most unequal places in the UK (raising the problem of inequality) 2.2 million: The number of pensioners who currently live in poverty in Britain Britain has a higher proportion of its population living in relative poverty than most other EU countries (Sources: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2010, IPPR, 2010, Oxfam) From the ethical perspective, ClĂ©a and Elma in their review article relates poverty to inequality and injustice. They insist that poverty condition can be seen “as the result of an unfair distribution of goods, benefits and resources” (2007). The justice concept was first conceived by a great philosopher Aristotle in Ancient Greece. Wolff’s review article (2015) suggest the solution therefore “is to redistribute income”.

A good understanding of the moral problem of poverty can be most appreciated by looking at various approaches to the issue and the cause. Christopher J. H. Wright’s Biblical approach to the cause of poverty, In his biblical approach to the cause of poverty, Wright insist the root causes of poverty are indeed identifiable from the Old Testament texts: natural disasters, laziness, and oppression (2004, p.169-72). Natural disasters: After the account of the fall of man in Genesis chapter 3, the earth was cursed. Wright therefore says the “result of living in a fallen world in which things goes wrong for no reason” is why there is poverty (2004, p.169), in support of this argument, he made reference to the famine in Genesis 47.

Laziness: The writer of the book of proverb 12: 11 says “Those who work their land will have abundant food, but those who chase fantasies have no sense”. Also, further reference to chapter 14:23; 20:13 substantiated the claim by Wright. He argues “laziness and squandering can lead indeed to impoverishment, and hard work is often conducive to economic prosperity” (2004, p.170).
Oppression: Using various example from the Old Testament Wright explains that the greatest cause of poverty is oppression, exploitation of humans by human. He writes “exploitation of others by those whose own selfish interests are served by keeping others poor” (2004, p.170). In an illustration on this attitude, Singer, gave a picture of ‘absolute affluence’ against the picture of absolute poverty that McNamara had described in his definition of absolute poverty.

He states that “he was not making an ethical judgements about absolute affluence of some western states but was merely pointing out that it exists” (Singer, 1999, 221). Furthermore, Wright enumerated various ways in the OT where oppression was recognized: Exploitation of the socially weak (2 kings 4: 1-7) Exploitation of the economically weak (Exodus 22:25; Deut. 15:7-9; 24:14-18; 1 Samuel 8:10-18) Exploitation of the ethnically weak (Exodus 22:21; Lev. 19:33) Royal excess, corruption and abuse of power (1 Kings 11:12; 21; Jeremiah 22:13; Ezekiel 22:6, 25, 29)

Judicial corruption and false accusation
Barnand in his article (2016) argues that Wright did not elaborate on whether it would be reflected in the experience of the poor in the 21st century. After a survey conducted, he concluded that a “biblical model of the causes of poverty is consistent with the experiences of today’s poor with some further alterations”. Further on Biblical approach, Anderson in his article (2017) rather identified four factors as the biblical cause of poverty: Oppression and fraud: According to the OT book of proverb, many people were poor because they were oppressed by individuals or governments (Prov. 14:31; 22:7; 28:15).

Misfortune, persecution, or judgment: God’s judgement of sin or disobedience can lead to poverty (e.g., Ps. 109:16; Isa. 47:9; Lam. 5:3). Job is a good man according to the account in the book of Job chapter 1 but God allowed him to be tested by Satan, he experienced great misfortune and lost all his property.  Laziness, neglect, or gluttony: Improper habits and apathy can lead to poverty (Prov. 10:4; 13:4; 19:15; 20:13; 23:21).

The culture of poverty. Proverbs 10:15 says, “The ruin of the poor is their poverty”. My reasoned argument against this approach is that poverty is a result of the ongoing sin and not original sin from the Genesis account of the fall. Absolute poverty experienced in some parts of the world is caused directly or indirectly by action of the some ‘rich countries’ in the west. Exploitation of resources and colonisation of countries in Africa is a great contribution to the increase of poverty and high mortality in the region, where this is identified in the definition of poverty it is then a moral and ethical problem.

Arthur Brook’s economical approach to Poverty
According to Brook, the government are failing to solve the problem, politically and personally. It is a problem that has been lingering a long time, we have experienced poverty at various times and at various level and stages (2015). Clea and Elma in their review article argues that Poverty is not a phenomenon of our times. They write, “In the history of humanity, it can be found in different ages. But the context and conditions in which we face it today are peculiar. They involve a complex combination of economic, political, social and cultural factors against the background of capitalism and its developments, permitting the construction of a poverty concept based on conjectural conditions”(2017).

Brooks insist from 1970 until today, the percentage of the world population living in poverty has declined by 80 percent.  He pointed out the reason for this great decline “is not the government but it is a humanitarian achievement and it is the first time ever that that’s happened” (2015). To eradicate poverty, goals were set and signed by Leaders of 189 countries and 147 heads of states at the United Nations Millennium Summit.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are eight goals with measurable targets and clear deadlines for improving the lives of the world’s poorest people (Stott, 2006, p.163-164). Brook (2015) argue that it was not the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank that led to this great decline in poverty. “Dozens of such pledges have been signed by world leaders but have never been attained” (Stott, 2006, p.164). According to Brook (2015), there are five undeniable things responsible for the noticeable decline in poverty, namely:

Free trade
Property rights
The rule of law

Brook insist the solution to poverty can be found in ethics and values and morals and culture and philosophy.  A change in our attitude will be a good approach. He strongly agree with the proposition of Cardinal George which states that we all need the poor. In George’s word, “The poor need you to pull them out of poverty.  And you need the poor to keep you out of hell” (2015).
Brook insist George was saying that what is central to our Christian faith is that we all need the poor for our salvation. This support a deontological believe that Persons can be used as a means to an end. In his explanation, he states that “people not built for doles, but built for human potential.  It talks about the dignity of every single person” (Brook, 2015).

The social structure which could bring about a solution to the problem of poverty in a more relative community is one that recognises everyone as having a unique value, not because of anything they have to offer in return. Brook’s hypothesis that it is our duty to look after the poor is a good deontological theory proof that duties are right because they are right, as Christians it is our rightful duty to look after the poor, we will always have the poor among us (Matthew 26: 11) and our response should be to love them as it was commanded by God in Luke 10:27. Paul wrote, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people” (Gal. 6:10).

Christian ethical response to Poverty
A. Giving and denial, a moral equivalence of saving a life:

Using the principle of mutual interest, “it was in the interests of the rich as well as the poor to solve the problem of global poverty. Earlier attempt of response to this problem was the establishment of charitable organisations such as Oxfam (1942), Christian Aid (1953), Tearfund (1968)” (Stott, 2006, p.161-162). Giving to charity may not be acceptable as a rule which is generally valid but Moore’s assertion is that “I am morally bound to perform this act means that the action will produce the greatest possible amount of good in the universe, therefore, the result of acts determine their morality” (Geisler, 2010, p.57).

According to Singer, an ethical response to poverty is “by giving both our time and money to voluntary (charitable) organisations either as absolutely affluent individual or as the government because each of us has the opportunity to do something about the situation” (1993, p.222). Our failure to give to the poor to save life can ethically be proved to be committing murder. There is no difference between killing and allowing to die. However, I believe there is a difference between spending on luxuries and spending to save life because the motive is different. However, a comfortable living which could have been given away to save other people is morally wrong.

Singer argue that “the duty to avoid killing is much easier to discharge completely than the duty to save” (1993, p.223). Our duty not to allow people to die is as easily discharged as our duty not to kill. In the argument by Geisler on euthanasia, either voluntary or not, death can be self-caused or by another, in the latter case it is homicide (2010, p.165). Not giving to the poor or lavish spending can be argued to be an active euthanasia which is the intentional taking of another life, not a result of natural process but humanly initiated deaths. Arguing for euthanasia being different from allowing people to starve to death Singer insist, “when euthanasia is justifiable, death is a good thing” (1993, p.225) but the differences identified does not only explain but also justify our ethical attitudes, for example, in terms of our responsibility to give to the poor, we feel ourselves to be under a greater obligation to help those whose misfortunes we have caused.

Proponents for oversea aids often argue that Western countries are the major cause of poverty because of exploitation and colonialism. Singer argue that any consequentialist “would insist that we are responsible for all the consequences of our actions, and if a consequence of my spending money on a luxury item is that someone dies, I am responsible for that death” (1993, p.226). Singer writes, “to make sense of it as non-consequentialist view of responsibility is by basing it on a theory of rights of kind proposed by John Locke” (1993, p.226).
B. Rights to assist

The Lord said “if one of your brethren becomes poor and falls into poverty among you, then you shall help him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you.” (Lev. 25:35). In helping I believe the bible insist that we provide them with food, shelter and look after the poor. Singer writes, “If it is our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it” (1993, p.229). This ought to win the support of both consequentialist and non-consequentialist. As Christians we should assist those living in poverty, not to help would be wrong. The right to assist may not be of comparable significance to the reduction of poverty by utilitarian but those who support the principle of universalizability, would accept that at least some affluence lifestyle are of far less moral significance than absolute poverty that could be prevented by the money such lifestyle cost (Singer, 1993, p.232)

Poverty can either be reduced or eradicated completely if we all decide to help and support the poor. As Christians, it is our ethical duty and obligation to help others that are poor through aids and charitable giving to safe life despite any ethical view on the subject. The evidence is seen in the recent reduction in poverty globally which was achieved by giving and not government policies.

Rodgers, B. (1967) Dictionary of Christian Ethics. SCM Press Ltd.
Singer, P. (1993) Practical Ethics 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press.
Bunting, I. D. (1995) ‘Poverty’, in Atkinson, D. J and Field, D. H. (ed.) New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology: InterVasity Press, pp.677-679
Geisler, N. L. (2010) Christian Ethics contemporary issues and options. Baker Academic
Wright, C. J (2004) Old Testament Ethics for the people of God. Downers grove, IL Intervasity press.
21st Century Challenges (2016)Available at:
https://21stcenturychallenges.org/poverty-in-britain/ (Accessed: 10 October 2017).

Gordon, D and Nandy, S. (2007) Defining and measuring poverty. Available at: http://www.bris.ac.uk/poverty/definingandmeasuringpoverty.html (Accessed: 10 October 2017).
ClĂ©a, R. and Elma, L. (2007) ‘Poverty, bioethics and research’, Review Journal of Rev. Latino-Am. Enfermagem vol.15 no.spe RibeirĂŁo Preto Sept. /Oct. 2007. (Accessed: 12 October 2017)
Wolff, J., Lamb, E., and Zur-Szpiro, E. (2015) A Philosophical review of poverty. Available at: https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/philosophical-review-poverty (Accessed: 2 November 2017)
Anderson, K. (2017) Wealth and poverty- A Biblical perspective. Available at: https://probe.org/wealth-and-poverty/ (Accessed: 15 October 2017)
Brooks, A. C., (2017) New Approaches to Poverty. Available at: https://faithangle.org/session/religion-economics-new-approaches-poverty/#readTranscript (Accessed: 26 October 2017)
Barnard, P. A., (2016) Journal article on the causes of poverty: Is a biblical understanding reflected in the experiences of today’s poor? Missiology: An international Review vol.44 pp 448-465.
Stott, J. (2006) Issues Facing Christians Today. 4th edition. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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