September 15th, 2010
07:00 AM ET
Editor's Note: The son of missionary parents, Mark Lutz is Senior Vice President at Opportunity International, a non-profit microfinance organization, and author of the new book UnPoverty: Rich Lessons from the Working Poor.
By Mark Lutz, Special to CNN
Poverty is not an issue. It's people.
We hear about it, but do we really understand it? Myths about poverty abound, particularly among those of us bent on following Jesus' teaching about the poor and oppressed.
Myth 1: People are poor because they are lazy or stupid.
Poor people work incredibly hard, under harsh conditions, frequently seven days a week. With no welfare programs and no social networks, if they don’t work, they don’t eat. That’s reality.
My work in microfinance has taken me to some 50 countries. I’ve watched men making bricks in equatorial sun from morning till night in exchange for $10; women hauling five-gallon containers on their heads and in each hand every morning to water their garden-size farm; children rifling through trash for recyclables to exchange for a meal.
Despite their efforts, these hard-working people cannot get off their economic treadmills; they pass their generational poverty onto their children and grandchildren. Getting to know them as sisters and brothers, I can vouch that they are anything but lazy or stupid. The only reason for their life of misery and mine of relative luxury is where we were born.
Myth 2: Poor people want handouts.
We assume that a hungry person wants us to give them something to eat. Sure, if a mother’s children are hungry she’ll gladly accept a free meal. But what that person would much rather have is the opportunity to work and feed her family. Each time she accepts a handout she exchanges a portion of her dignity.
In the Bible, God instructs farmers not to harvest the corner of their crops, but to leave it for the poor. God didn’t tell them to reap it and give the money to the poor, but to leave it for the poor to pick and eat. They need food, but they also need and want an opportunity to work.
Every day some 25,000 people die from starvation. Disturbing as that may be, the real tragedy is that for 90 percent of them, there is no food shortage. They just can’t afford to buy available food. The appropriate response is not relief but development, including opportunities to work.
Myth 3: Our foremost responsibility is America’s poor.
The number one objection I hear to our work in the developing world is that we must first solve the problems in our own country. Yet half of humanity barely survives on $2 per day. And they don’t live here.
We live in a generous country where last year more than $300 billion was given to charity from voluntary donations. As grand as that is, less than five percent goes to international work, leaving 95 percent in our own country for our churches, university endowments and symphonies.
These are worthy causes, but charities that serve the wealthiest nation. I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant when in Matthew 25 he told his followers to serve “the least of these.”
Myth 4: Jesus said we will always have extreme poverty.
What Jesus said in Mark 14:7 was: “The poor you will always have with you.”
Jesus recognized that some will always have less than others. But the kind of abject poverty that over one billion people endure—those living on $1 per day—wouldn’t be tolerated by Jesus and should not exist today.
I honestly believe we can eradicate extreme poverty. And if we can, then we must.
Myth 5: Jesus was concerned primarily about spiritual poverty.
I grew up in South Africa, surrounded by missionaries. There was a subtle message that eternity is a lot longer than life. If someone is saved and bound for heaven, it doesn’t much matter how hungry their children are.
But when Jesus began his public ministry, he read his mission statement: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor… To set free the oppressed.” (Luke 4:18).
Though we must read on to understand the full gospel, if we seek to follow his example and teaching, we must bring good news to the poor and set free the oppressed. More than 2,000 verses in the Bible deal with the poor. Jesus had special solidarity with the poor and told us that if we love him, we will show it by caring for them.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mark Lutz.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.