September 15th, 2010
07:00 AM ET

My Take: 5 myths about poverty that Christians should renounce

The author with a Ghanaian woman who received an Opportunity International loan to run a daycare center and primary school.

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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Opinion • Poverty

soundoff (335 Responses)
  1. Idalino da Silva

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    January 26, 2011 at 11:20 pm |
  2. WWRRD

    Jesus was most definately concerned about the plight of the impoverished. The bible is litterred with versus' about the dangers of valuing money over spirit and the welfare of the poor. It is no accident that many christian based groups do significant work with the poor. The abject poverty in the third world makes the US poor seem wealthy in comparison. Most Chritisna based group go there sincerely to reduce sufferring. The mission work they do secondary. It is hard to talk to people that are starving and dying from disease about their faith.

    Lastly, Republicans on average give a bigger proportion of there income to Charity, fiath based and others than Democrats do. In fact, I do not think you can be a moral republican or a christian republican and not give genererously to the poor. Being Republican doesn't mean indifferrence to the poor. It means believing that it is not the role of government to care for the poor. There is a substantial difference. Republicans who don't give to charity, and lobby for an end to government aid are simply heartless, cruel people. The US is blessed to have many great churches, faith based charities, and non-faith based organizatins. Study them to fine the best and most efficient and give generously, It is what Jesus would want.

    October 13, 2010 at 8:31 am |
  3. cpmondello

    Conservative Christian = Capitalism = "Profit Before People" = "Anti-We The People"

    September 28, 2010 at 8:12 am |
  4. CJ

    Maybe we should ask the Pope for money to help the poor; http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2010/09/21/vatican-bank-faces-money-laundering-probe/

    September 22, 2010 at 5:26 am |
  5. steve

    Well I'm afraid I don't know any Christians who believe that everyone who's poor is either lazy or stupid. I suppose I should have the author introduce me to these people as he seems to have surrounded himself with them. I'm not sure which god he obtained his license to pass judgement on all Christians from, but I'll have to ask him to display it for me before I accept his condemnation.

    September 22, 2010 at 4:27 am |
  6. Shelou

    When Jesus knows that he will soon be crucified, I am moved by Jesus' final appeal to Peter. With not much time left, he repeated three times ,feed my children, feed my children, feed my children. I am most concerned by those whose politics is a true believe in the survival of , even, "unethical" fittest and who support those who make their profits by duping anyone for the sake of a profit, i.e.banks running shell games. Their believe in, even, unethical commerce as the American way and a necessary and acceptable strategy for survival with little tolerance for the imperfections of the US democratic citizen government to the point of its demonization. It is the believe in and support of "unethical" fittest that grow the number of poor in the US. Ironically, it is not fiscally responsible to dupe anyone, it costs millions for recovery and protection.

    September 20, 2010 at 9:03 am |
  7. Iqbal khan


    September 19, 2010 at 10:44 pm |
  8. michael crawley

    If all religions would embrace the tenets and beliefs they share and focus less on their differences they could pull together and work in harmony for the good of those who are trapped in extreme poverty. Too often theological beliefs break down along ethnic lines or by geographical regions with intolerance being the outcome. The major religions waste both time and money competing with each other. If even a small portion of that effort could be redirected towards actually helping people who are without hope it would be a tremendous benefit to humanity.
    It is difficult to understand how someone who professes to believe in any of the world’s great religions can go about their lives and totally ignore the horrific suffering of a billion people. Where is the compassion? Where is the unselfishness? Where is the love? How can people claim to follow the teachings of their God, but still look the other way as millions die needlessly each year? Does their faith not implore them to take care of the sick and the needy? Does their faith not call them to action in order to relieve the suffering of their brothers and sisters? Does their faith not require them to save the life of a dying child? http://stopextremepoverty.com/2010/07/20/religion-and-extreme-poverty-part-1/

    September 19, 2010 at 5:09 pm |
  9. pistolpete

    Sadly, there is a large population that hates and fears the poor. But the author of this article is right on concerning the myths that many harbor regarding the poor. Those of us with much have a moral obligation to help the poor.

    September 18, 2010 at 12:46 pm |
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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.