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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. vel

    I'm wondering if Mr. Lutz believes in doing something else Jesus said to do, to sell *all* of your possessions and follow him, depending only on God for what you need like the lilies of the field or the birds. I suspect he's say that wasnt' what God "really" meant. I suspect if Christians divested themselves of everything (how much the the Vatican own and the megachurches with their coffee bars?), the poor wouldn't be poor anymore.

    September 15, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
  2. Brenda

    Sorry, but I have to most disagree with #3. So are you saying that starving people in the US can go to hades because they are here instead of a third world country? I do agree that it makes no sense for charity dollars to go to symphonies, universities or similar groups when there are US citizens going to bed hungry every night. But let's do something to change that, not send out money overseas instead. We have our own "least of these".

    September 15, 2010 at 3:37 pm |
    • Susan T

      You have never been overseas have you?

      September 15, 2010 at 7:55 pm |
    • Brenda

      Susan T,

      Yes, I have, and my heart breaks for the abject poverty I see there. My heart also breaks for the people in my own country that don't have a roof over their head, that sleep in cardboard boxes on the street, that can't remember the last time they had a meal.

      I'm not saying that people can't help the less fortunate in other countries. What I am saying is that we can't ignore the problem in our own backyard.

      September 16, 2010 at 9:27 am |
    • Frogist

      @Brenda: I don't think the author said anything about taking more money away from the arts to fund relief in other countries or in this one. The arts and sports and education are what people need to grow and not fall into the trap of poverty. If you take these things away, you reduce the already limited opportunities there are for people to achieve lasting success. As the article says, just throwing money at organisations who give food or money is not the solution. Giving increased and varied opportunities for knowledge is the way to go.

      September 16, 2010 at 4:23 pm |
  3. Tee Kay

    After reading these comments it is obvious that people are no longer educatedand can't think critically. The United States has been transformed from a democracy to an idiocracy.

    September 15, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
    • Richard Scruggs

      Bravo!!!!!!!

      September 15, 2010 at 3:25 pm |
    • Dave7

      Fun/entertaining to read though, huh?

      September 16, 2010 at 4:51 am |
  4. WIll III

    It's interesting how so many can read an article and literally put words that are not in the article into the story or incorrectly paraphrase and attempt to make the author look ignorant and foolish to discredit him....interesting.

    September 15, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
  5. mike

    "Poor" is purely a relatively concept, but Mark Putz is like most evangelicals that try to paint everything in black-and-white absolutes. No matter how much you give, there will always be someone wagging a finger saying you didn't give enough.

    September 15, 2010 at 3:11 pm |
  6. 62Sailor52

    Generalizing all Christians with having these idiotic thoughts is the only thing that is "stupid" here. Everyone has what they call an opinion, but for one person to have the nerve to sit here and tell everybody on this site that this is how Christians think is foolish. I can say that because I boldly confess to my Faith in God and Christ and the Holy Spirit too (if it makes a difference). I don't have those views and now Mr. Lutz, I have to think that you are quite simply an idiot. What was the point of bringing Christians into this anyway, like people of other Faiths don't have the same foolish thoughts. Really, you should get yourself a life and occupy your time in a more constructive way. Be blessed Mr. Lutz.

    September 15, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
    • Sarah

      How can you tell someone to be blessed and then call them an idiot and tell them to "get a life" in the same breath? These are harsh words, not words of blessing. Speaking from experience, bloggers read their comments and I'm sure you've hurt someone today.

      September 15, 2010 at 5:59 pm |
  7. Joe

    Great points. Many non-Christians should read this too. Some of the ignorant comments out there really show that some people have no common sense or compassion.

    September 15, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
  8. Richard Scruggs

    When Jesus said in Mark 14:7 “The poor you will always have with you," He probably was referring to the fact that 2000 years later we'd still be arguing over how, what, when, where, etc. to do with the poor, just as all of the above comments bear out. Between the unrealistic dreamers on the one hand, and the asinine turbo-pragmatists on the other, not enough is getting done, not enough will get done, and in another 2000 years we'll dig up the hard disks on which these articles appear and see that things might be the same then, too.

    September 15, 2010 at 2:53 pm |
  9. allen

    This idiot should leave Christians out of it!!!

    September 15, 2010 at 2:39 pm |
    • Ange

      Im going to assume you are a loving Christian? Well done.

      September 15, 2010 at 5:19 pm |
  10. drg1270

    What a beautiful article. And I am not bothered by all of the negitive comments simply because it seems to be human nature to attack something when it makes one feel uncomfortable. I applaud anyone who strives to give no matter HOW much money they have to begin with. And the added wisdom here in this article, I feel, gives good practicle guidance on where and how to give. I personally prefer to begin at home and give to the local food bank but know it is equally important to not close my eyes to my fellow "neighbor" not in my own country.
    Acts 1:8, in the Bible, gives a good guideline (for those interested) regarding sharing what you have, whether it be in word or deed. Share first in "Jerusalem" which represents what is at home, local, in your neighborhood. Then "all of Judea" which represents ones state or even own country, the in "Samaria" which can represent the world abroad.

    September 15, 2010 at 2:09 pm |
  11. Susan T

    If poor people in third world countries are not stupid then why do they keep having children? They know that their children are not going to have a better life.
    I don't follow organize religion because of people like this author. He makes a six figure salary helping the poor. What kind of sense does that make?

    September 15, 2010 at 2:07 pm |
    • Tyler

      Poor people have a lot of children to ensure one of them will survive and be able to take care of them later in life. Someone making a dollar a day can't exactly invest in a 401k or rely on social security when they're too old to perform manual labor. They wouldn't even have a safe place like a bank to save money if they wanted to. You'd have a lot of kids too if it meant not slowly starving to death as soon as you could no longer perform manual labor.

      As income increases family size decreases and children become a luxury as opposed to a necessity.

      September 15, 2010 at 2:29 pm |
    • Sam

      Thanks for the comment Susan...can the Tea Party put you down for a donation or would you prefer to show up at our next cross burn...er...rally instead?

      September 15, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
    • Dave7

      Susan T
      Do you have kids?

      September 16, 2010 at 4:41 am |
  12. Peanut

    Of all the things mentioned in the article the one I will gladly support 100% is the idea that solving poverty isn't to give money but to give OPPORTUNITY to earn what they need. I've been in one of the poorest areas of Bangladesh- and I will tell you that many of the people chose not to work- PERIOD. They knew they could find stuff in the trash so they didn't bother. Make the opportunity and the gain great enough and you will change these people. After all psychology 101 people don't change if they don't feel they need to.

    September 15, 2010 at 2:06 pm |
  13. theantibush

    Always a white face with a 'poor' person of color, telling them how to 'be happy' and 'succeed'.

    Go home, haole.

    September 15, 2010 at 1:56 pm |
  14. Edward Hutton

    Maybe I am stupid or something, but where in his message is politics mentioned????? I comprehended the article to mean that no one is immune from being poor or simply experiencing rough and challenging economic times. And yes, being born in horrid surroundings is much a component of poverty. It's hard to stand up when there is nothing to stand on... just cannot understand why everything here has to have a political label....what is wrong about simply helping your fellow man or woman??? I do not think that is a political issue, but one of common decency. Thank you for your time.

    September 15, 2010 at 1:55 pm |
    • Dave7

      People who read news websites and then post comments tend to have strong political views. Just one theory.

      September 16, 2010 at 4:39 am |
    • Dave7

      Doesn't mean you're stupid. Probably means your not very smart. You might be stupid, but that post alone doesn't prove it.

      September 16, 2010 at 5:42 am |
  15. Spearwielder

    Amusing that the author feels a need to point out these myths specifically to Christians, given the findings regarding who gives of their time and money to charity (see studies referenced liberally by Arthur Brooks).

    September 15, 2010 at 1:49 pm |
  16. David

    The problem with people is they are always trying to minimize the effects of nature. Nature wants us to suffer and experience strife. That is the norm. That is why 'no good deed goes unpunished'. You do-gooders out there knock yourselves out do gooding. If it makes you feel good, go for it, but it ain't the natural way of things so don't try guilt trippin' the rest of us for lookin' out for ourselves and our own (ie: direct family and friends). Only the rich can afford to be such hypocritical do-gooders, makes me want to vomit listening to y'alls sanctimounious bfs. Nature (ie God or whatever) wants us to be born, struggle for survival, procreate, and then die. Tis that simple people, no afterlife, no judgement, it is what it is and there is no explanantion necessary further than that. Dipwads. Now go back to being scared of dying and becoming nothing someday idiots.

    September 15, 2010 at 1:48 pm |
    • Dave7

      Tell us more oh wise one.

      September 16, 2010 at 4:37 am |
    • wise one

      more

      September 16, 2010 at 10:59 am |
  17. Kate

    You are so good to remind us. Thank you.

    September 15, 2010 at 1:36 pm |
  18. workingmom40

    Thank you for this post. I have read the Gospel many times and it is very clear that Jesus set an example for us in caring for the less fortunate. Even if you are not a Christian, you can learn a lot from Jesus example. Many of his miracles involved feeding the poor and healing the sick. He showed love and respect for the outcasts of society. He even told us to pay our taxes (sorry Tea Partiers) "pay back Caesar's things to Caesar and God's things to God'. He was outraged by the money changers making profit in the temples. AND it was Jesus who said that those who live by the sword will die by it. There are so many twisted versions of true Christianity out there today! Jesus WAS all about unselfish love – he also was the one who gave us the Golden Rule.

    September 15, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
  19. Matt McHugh

    If you are poor, it is because God wills it so. At least that what the rich white guy on TV said.

    September 15, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
  20. Sruti

    Love, charity and helping are common values across all religions. There are many reasons (real not myths) why people are poor and they vary in every continent
    1. In Africa, the countries are run by tyrants who exploit people and they pass off the responsibilities to missionaries to escape wrath of people. These missionaries in turn take money from gullible people here without giving these people a permanent solution. All they achieved was to turn these people to christianity. Thats a fact. These people have been in Africa for the past 100 years. Why is there poverty even now? Tons and Tons of food go to these countries every year.

    2. In some countries people dont follow birth control and have too many babies they cant afford, and this is true in many catholic and Islamic countries. People probably should make rational decisions

    3. In some countries even with good opportunities like India where everything is free for poor kids (food, books uniforms etc), they come and spread lies about how people are oppressing them and thats why they are poor etc.There are plenty of people who have made it to top from nothing. This type of oppression is only true in very few areas. They convert and they are still poor after years.

    People, donate to secular charities and donate to orphanages. May be if these people drop the "christian" tag, more people will be willing to help. Dont donate to people who bring religion as a reason for helping. They just exploit.

    September 15, 2010 at 1:27 pm |
    • Ron

      Sruti- I love how you have somehow tied the "tyrant" regimes in Africa with the christian missionaries...whether you are a christian or not, are you so blind to the idea that some people that serve in christian missionaries are willing to help?
      I love how you speak of the "good" opportunities in India without recognizing the caste system that is there.
      "Dont donate to people who bring religion as a reason for helping". Really...some of these people, I suppose even the lower caste in India, wouldn't care if you came in the name of Barnum and Bailey...They need help! Wake up you high caste and blind fool!

      September 15, 2010 at 2:04 pm |
    • Raj

      @Ron.. Oh the good old caste system. The people who say they are still oppressed because of castes are just fooling idiots like you. The lower castes have more political power and opportunities in India no.w Go Home dude

      September 15, 2010 at 2:38 pm |
    • Ron

      Raj- ok...the caste system does not exist. Do you feel better? Maybe if we say it over and over again it will come true! In fact, you and I will proclaim today, together, The caste system was all make-believe! Furthermore, we will declare all peoples are equal in India! Get your head out of the sand you ignorant buffoon!

      September 15, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Sruti:
      Your assertion that charities drop the christian tag has some merit. A lot of christians and people from overtly christian populated countries do not understand that they are outsiders when they step away from their home soil. But if you seek to help people in other countries you must first try to understand those people and their culture and the community you are going to. If outsiders approach charity the way they did at home, they would not get far. This is why a number of NGOs fail. There is an excellent story about Haiti on NPR illustrating the problems faced by charitable organisations. So while I agree with you about charities possibly dropping the christian tag, it's not because it will bring in more donations, but because their organisations would be better welcomed and understood to those they seek to help. Understanding this, even the Red Cross offered symbols that would be better recognised in other countries, such as the Red Crescent.

      September 15, 2010 at 5:46 pm |
    • peace2all

      @Ron

      And....yet again more ignorant and arrogant responses..... O.K.... Had enough of you... I just needed to confirm what I and, most likely from some of the posts think of you. GO AWAY....!

      September 16, 2010 at 5:32 am |
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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.