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. joe

    If only members of the Democratic Party could come to understand this, and stop pretending they are gods, and the citizens born criminals.

    September 16, 2010 at 8:41 am |
  2. Dave7

    Do you find most religions ARE believable. According to your logic (oxymoron) if you don't .........
    "In that way you could be seen as just like most religious militants. If you ask Bin Laden he would tell you that most religions other than Islam could be seen as unbelievable."

    September 16, 2010 at 7:19 am |
  3. Dave7

    I rarely use the word "all" as I don't know everything. Using "all" would suggest I knew everything about every religions. I'm sure whatever you believe is the 1 believable on. You made quite a leap from that statement. Do you know Bin Laden well enough to know what he would answer to that question?

    September 16, 2010 at 7:12 am |
  4. Roger

    Today's Christians are way too busy hating Muslims, gays and illegal immigrants to be concerned about this topic.

    September 16, 2010 at 7:02 am |
    • Dave7

      No other groups within groups? Just this one huh? O.K. there Roger, your very perceptive.

      September 16, 2010 at 7:46 am |
  5. Whaat?


    How can you say that? "does it matter what they believe?" Of course it matters! My God, man! Have you no shame?

    September 16, 2010 at 6:51 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      interesting that Dave said "most" religions are unbelievable instead of all .....In that way Dave could be seen as just like most religious militants. If you ask Bin Laden he would tell you that most religions other than Islam could be seen as unbelieveable.

      September 16, 2010 at 7:03 am |
    • Dave7

      What I mean is they are feeding the starving and preventing suffering, that is good. That's all. If they believed whatever it is you believe and helped others in this way I would feel the same way. Have you no shame?

      September 16, 2010 at 7:06 am |
    • Dave7

      I rarely use the word "all" as I don't know everything. Using "all" would suggest I knew everything about every religions. I'm sure whatever you believe is the 1 believable one. You made quite a leap from that statement. Do you know Bin Laden well enough to know what he would answer to that question?

      September 16, 2010 at 7:14 am |
    • Dave7

      Do you find most religions ARE believable. According to your logic (oxymoron) if you don't ...........
      "In that way you could be seen as just like most religious militants. If you ask Bin Laden he would tell you that most religions other than Islam could be seen as unbelievable."

      September 16, 2010 at 7:20 am |
    • Cautionary Tale

      @Mark from Middle River

      Way to feed the carpetbombing troll, dude. Now I can't hardly stand to look at this thread any more.

      September 16, 2010 at 7:30 am |
  6. Sic Sempter Tyrannis

    How about Christians dispelling the biggest myth – that there is an invisible all-powerful sky daddy in the clouds who will reward or punish you after you die for believing in him. Your god sounds like one mean, insecure cretin. Thankfully, his son seemed to turn out okay and offered some good advice.

    September 16, 2010 at 5:53 am |
    • Dave7

      Most religions are pretty unbelievable. If they help people rather than harm people, does it matter what they believe?

      September 16, 2010 at 6:13 am |
  7. Mojud

    All the religions have been serving the poor for thousands of years, and poverty goes on growing. Is this authentic service? Then in thousands of years poverty should have disappeared. In fact, you are feeding poverty.

    Real service will be that the poor should be told that "You are being exploited, and you have to revolt against the vested interests." Unless the poor understand that their poverty is caused by a few people who are exploiting them, sucking their blood ... It is not caused by your past lives and bad acts, it is caused by the social system which depends on exploitation.

    The religions have to be made aware of the fact that they have been doing this service for centuries. What is the result? - because a tree is known by the fruit; if the fruit is rotten, the tree is not worth much. Service seems to be a beautiful word to hide an exploiting social structure. It appears so good – serving the poor – it seems a great virtue.

    But why are the poor there in the first place? Who has made them poor?

    On the one hand you go on serving the poor and converting them into Catholics. The service is not in the service of the poor, the service is to increase the power of the Catholic church. You go on finding orphans and converting them. How have Catholics increased to over a billion? – by serving the poor. The service is motivated.

    If you are really interested in destroying poverty you will look into the roots. You treat only symptoms. Giving food to the poor, or clothes to the poor ... how is it going to help? It will only keep them at survival level, and it will allow the vested interests to continue exploiting them. You see the vicious circle?

    The capitalists go on donating to the church. The church goes on helping the poor at least to live, because laborers and slaves are needed. Even slaves were fed by their masters. That was not service. If you don't feed your horse, if you don't feed your cow, you will lose much money. If you don't feed the poor, the capitalist will disappear. Who is going to work for him? Whom is he going to exploit?

    So it is a very cunning game. The rich man goes on donating a small portion of his exploitation to the church. The church goes on bringing up the orphans, aboriginals, poor people, to the survival level. They are needed alive, because without them the whole system will collapse.

    So on the one hand, the capitalist goes on giving money in charity; on the other hand, he goes on exploiting the poor. And between the two, the priest has his own percentage – he is a mediator – so he is living beautifully. Millions of missionaries are there around the world, but they are serving the exploiters in the name of service...


    September 16, 2010 at 2:18 am |
    • dalis

      Sounds like you are proposing...a modest proposal?

      September 16, 2010 at 3:45 am |
    • Simon


      Telling the poor what they already know is a waste of time. And there are many types of poverty.

      I would also like to say that I think that you are missing some rather large "root causes" in your post.
      But that's okay, I do not require perfection from my fellow human beings. 🙂

      Exploitation is not the only cause of poverty, nor is it the root cause, but I honor your efforts on the behalf of the poor, who have little enough as it is.
      The strong must protect the weak, but the strong are themselves among the weak. There are no guarantees and no safe places to go.

      The truths to be found in human motivations do not often bring peace...nor are they as clearly written as we might like.


      September 16, 2010 at 3:54 am |
    • Simon


      Sorry for sounding like such a pompous ass in my previous post.
      I hope you can find something worth using in my post.
      I swallowed a large dose of empty philosophy as a child and it has damaged my phlogiston.

      September 16, 2010 at 4:21 am |
  8. Darwi


    The love is there, jojo.

    September 16, 2010 at 2:15 am |
  9. jojo

    wheres the love people

    September 16, 2010 at 2:02 am |
  10. SuzyQ


    Jesus loves rednecks and Appalachians too!!

    September 16, 2010 at 12:49 am |
    • Dave7

      What part of the country have you felt/heard all this hostility and negativity towards Appalachia? I've lived in several different parts of the U.S. and have not experienced this. I don't doubt you, I'm just curious.

      September 16, 2010 at 5:47 am |
  11. SuzyQ

    By the way, I worked for World Vision, and Christian non-profit. WV primarily had programs over-seas but they also had programs to help Appalachia. I talked to one of my colleagues about her visits to Appalachia to help and she said it was just like her travels to the third world. People in rotting houses, with no dental care, no medical care, no running water, old clothes, and no food, practically starving to death. But, people in the US primarily overlook them because they are red-necks. What hypocrisy.

    September 16, 2010 at 12:46 am |
  12. SuzyQ

    Furthermore, we do have pockets in the United States that are like the 3rd world– Appalachia for example. But because these people are "red necks" we don't give a darn about them. It's more en vogue to have a bleeding heart for Haitians and the like. It's more fashionable to care about Ghanaians while your 'brother' next door freezes to death– because after all, he's a red-neck and they're not fashionable.

    September 16, 2010 at 12:43 am |
  13. SuzyQ

    I am so sick of people focusing on how to send money over-seas. Yes, I am one of these people who believes that we should eradicate poverty in America before we focus on poverty over-seas. You cannot help others until you help yourself. And like they say in the airplane, "Put the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping the person next to you".

    September 16, 2010 at 12:40 am |
    • Dave7

      I think it's cool help wherever you can. People are people.

      September 16, 2010 at 6:30 am |
    • Brenda

      Agreed, Suzy. That's the point I was trying to make myself. It seems like there are "fashionable" charities and countries.

      September 16, 2010 at 9:38 am |
  14. Michael Wong

    It's amazing how hard Christians can work in order to convince themselves that they need not lift a finger to help those in need.

    September 16, 2010 at 12:11 am |
    • Dave7

      Please elaborate.

      September 16, 2010 at 6:31 am |

    Appaently Christians need to be constantly reminded that we live in a secular nation and Americans are not obliged to share their wealth internationally anymore than our secular tax dollars already do, simply because HE is a Christian.

    As an American, I want my people taken care of first. If you want to go spread jesus overseas and give polio vaccines, good for you. None of my business, but the fact that we even NEED to give aid to fellow Americans is more a travesty than international poverty.

    Your faith does not rule this country alone.

    September 15, 2010 at 10:13 pm |
    • dalis

      You do know that diseases don't pay attention to political borders. If you want to ignore the rest of the world, fine, but it will soon be on your doorstep whether you like it or not.

      September 16, 2010 at 3:48 am |
    • Dave7

      What is your point? I don't think people read this and then thought they were obligated to send money internationally. But thanks for making sure we knew.

      September 16, 2010 at 6:39 am |
  16. jdPG

    Thank you, Mr. Lutz for your insights. I find that your comments should help us open our hearts to needs of others, not just in our country, but also for those who find themselves in a downward spiral that was never of their making. I too have been to countries where there is a real danger of starving to death if you don't have an income and it changes the dinamics of how people treat each other.

    September 15, 2010 at 10:10 pm |
  17. dalis

    A lot of people on here seem to want to have the corner on Christianity via their particular political brand, but are you guys on God's side as much as you presuppose He's on yours. The Christian message is a challenge to Republicans and Democrats. Republicans, the former party of entrepreneurialism morphed into the party of bailed out corporations to big to fail. Democrats, the former party of the American worker morphed into the party of welfare. But, where is the party of a living wage for a day's work? It remains to be seen.

    September 15, 2010 at 9:57 pm |
    • Dave7

      There's just one party and the corporations own it. They've had the republicans and they're getting there with the dems.

      September 16, 2010 at 6:29 am |
  18. Alice

    This guy was offering his opinion, based on his own experience. He seemed to be speaking from the heart. I don't get all the attacks. I do not profess to be a Christian, but I found a lot of value in what he said. As many friends of Bill W. like to say: "Take what you like and leave the rest." And as somebody in the Bible has said: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

    September 15, 2010 at 9:24 pm |
    • Dave7


      September 16, 2010 at 6:25 am |
  19. Ian

    Guys, hate to break it to you, but I don't think God really cares about what political party we vote for.

    September 15, 2010 at 9:16 pm |
  20. D'Jiim

    Thank you, Mark, for giving me hope that abject poverty can be eliminated in my life-time.

    Mel Gibson's, 'The Passion' comes to mind. Remember the scourged carpenter hanging by nails? Did you notice the eyes of the soldiers who used the hammer? Recall the well healed religious leaders, scoffing, "save Yourself!"? Remember the thugs on either side – both joining in ridicule?

    And then ... what a contrast ... one of those thugs called for mercy ... and mercy came running! The Carpenter announced they would be friends forever. My word, for that whole miserable company Jesus offered one simple request, "Father, forgive them."

    That led me to ask one question, "why am I not more like this amazing man?" I'm not particularly religious and don't care to promote "Christianity" but I think I want to promote the Ways and Worth of this amazing "Person" who could look bitter enemies in the eyes and cry, "God forgive them!"

    Neither am I a blogger – honest, this is a first for me. And so I confess to being perplexed by the level of acrimony expressed on this blog. Is blogging always like this? Are we all enemies? Why have we forgotten the Ways of this Jesus, who turned the other cheek and taught us to do the same? Please don't misunderstand me; I'm no saint; you could find plenty of dirt on me too. But there's a longing in me, to be more like HIM.

    Anyone out there share my longing?

    I'm SO attracted to this "man" who gave and forgave and ... I want to be like Him. Don't you?

    Perhaps, then, I would find giving to the poor as easy as He found giving His life.

    September 15, 2010 at 9:00 pm |
    • Dave7

      I hope you don't mean more like Mel Gibson. Ha.

      September 16, 2010 at 6:24 am |
    • Frogist

      @D'jimm: Yes, people can be extremely mean on these blogs. And I'm glad you long to be kind and are inspired to do good things. It's important that we take the inspiration to be good people wherever we find it.

      September 16, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
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