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. Holly Golightly

    chelseakee, I agree with you. there is nothing wrong with being a Christian and being rich. it's your heart at which God looks. Are you helping others financially and spiritually? I believe that's what God wants. And it's a misnomer/stereotype that all pastors are "rich". My father was a minister and we lived from middle class to lower middle class. We struggled a lot. A lot of snarky people said things to me as a child like, "Your dad is just in it for the money." and "Preachers shouldn't get paid money at all." Preachers and their families have to put up with ALOT!

    September 17, 2010 at 5:09 pm |
  2. Dr Bill Toth

    We each must do our own part..everyday...to eliminate poverty in our mindset, in our home, in our family, in our community.
    Mr Lutz makes some very good points and seems to be providing an excellent service and I believe the greatest myth perpetrated ever is that "it is a virtue to be poor". So for me it comes back to; We each must do our own part..everyday...to eliminate poverty in our mindset, in our home, in our family, in our community. Live With Intention, DrBillToth.com/blog

    September 17, 2010 at 7:33 am |
  3. Ariel

    This article isn't about Christianity! It is about Republicanality and Imperialism!

    September 17, 2010 at 2:45 am |
  4. David Grant

    Equality is a tangible outcome of the gospel of the kingdom and is highlighted in Jesus' teaching about separating the sheep from the goats. Matthew 25. Paul took that teaching and applied it wherever he shared the gospel. 2 Cor. 8.

    September 17, 2010 at 2:15 am |
  5. Peter Wolfe

    In the United States of America, you have to be a republican to be a christian. There is no budge in this matter. I see this mentality on display whether baptist, nondenominational or at a local catholic church because they are bent on consumerism (e.g. capitalism) which doesn't serve the interest of christianity. In fact, the American Dream isn't christian either for that matter. Look you own a house, two cars, swimming pool, vacations and three or so children with excessive usages of money at fast food restaurants. The other people who do without out in our backyards screww them they are lazy asses.
    I love how the christians have used us for so long. I have a disability and have been called roughly a welfare recipent and just in general assumed lazy cause of my disability. Tired of this bs of a nation and would very much like to mov e to another more spiritually driven nation not a propoganda filled materialistic wasteland of creatures unknown. All christians must be bla is this nations default of destruction. Good riddens is what I say to them and their organized mafia style of christianity.

    September 16, 2010 at 10:25 pm |
  6. dnsmith

    Many of the posters missed a very important point. That being that we, by living with "charity begins at home", we tend to ignore the billion or so who are so much more needy all over the world. My point being that no one human being is worth more than another or deserves more comfort in life than any other no matter where he lives.

    I do believe we should help the truly needy in our country. But I also believe that we must work to equalize (create parity) the economies of the world. This will not only eliminate the "call to eliminate outsourcing" but will create a much bigger world market. In addition, once there is parity in world economies, labor revolutions will eliminate many of the world's current bad labor practices (a reason some give to denounce outsourcing.)

    September 16, 2010 at 2:20 pm |
  7. Mark Lutz

    As the author of this blog post and the book UnPoverty, thanks to each of you who took time to share thoughtful insights and comments. The poor who typically have no voice are getting some airtime! With nearly half of humanity living on $2 per day, it’s wonderful when those of us on this side of the tracks consider their plight. “Us” includes anyone privileged enough to have access to a computer and participate in this dialogue. “They” depend on us to make the effort to become informed, to right our biases about poverty, and then to take strategic action on their behalf. In the book UnPoverty, I tell stories about amazing poor people I’ve met, and I share why I believe we can end extreme poverty during our lifetime. For those of you looking for action steps instead of words, I suggest 8 ‘best buy’ charities, each addressing a different dimension of poverty in the developing world. Opportunity International makes small loans to very poor people so they can start micro businesses and feed their families. But poverty has other dimensions as well. You can go to http://www.unpoverty.org and be directed to the charity that addresses the area you’re most concerned about. There’s nothing in it for me. The arrangement I set up is that 100% of your contribution goes to the charity of your choice; while 100% of the profits from my book sales are donated to the poor as well. No skim, commissions, royalties or monetary gain. Though my annual salary is not what one post claimed, I am blessed with far more than I need, and my sole objective and life’s calling is to mobilize resources that empower under-resourced people to climb out of the poverty pit in which they were born.

    I do this as a Christian, trying to follow the teachings and example of Jesus. In no way do I mean to imply only Christians care about the poor or affect societal change; or that all Christians harbor each of these myths. However, there are some Christians who believe evangelism is the sole calling of the Church, and my hope is to highlight that caring about the whole person—particularly a desperately needy person—is part of our role as "salt and light". Whatever your faith—or if you have none—please take action, here or somewhere, that will help end extreme poverty. Thanks.

    September 16, 2010 at 1:59 pm |
  8. cliff

    As far as I know, he is "out there doing something" and we are sitting her either backing his work or badmouthing him because of POLITICAL reasons.
    People amaze me today. They will give to feed some animal yet won't make sure hungry children, IN THEIR OWN COMMUNITY, get fed.
    Way to go America!

    September 16, 2010 at 1:33 pm |
  9. Craig

    Thank you, Christians, for taking something we are all called to care and do something about and turning it into another debate about policy and politics. This way, rather than focusing on suffering people and how we, personally, can help, we can comfortably continue to go about our lives, harden our hearts further, and do nothing.

    September 16, 2010 at 1:26 pm |
  10. Jack

    The myths are specific to America, but the author wants to pretend they extend to the world, and that's just plain wrong. America's poor are primarily self-induced or suffering mental illness. It's the self-induced folks on welfare, committing crimes, and staying stoned for whom we have little sympathy. These "poor" are far richer in both income (however obtained) and opportunity than the $1 a day laborer overseas. As for the mentally ill, they're the victims of liberal policies decades ago that declared mental illness a "right" and opened the doors to the mental hospitals dedicated to treating them.

    September 16, 2010 at 1:22 pm |
    • Doug

      How exactly do you know that? Have you been poor? If so, how did you get there and out?

      September 17, 2010 at 12:46 pm |
  11. Mark B

    This is not a very good representation of Christian Thought ,Not all nor close to a percentage of Christians think or say these things. I see someone( the author) trying to once more make Christians look like bad guys and fools. A true Christian knows that Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This article is just more slander and mud slinging....and should read 5 myths about poverty that Americans should renounce. And How about this ..a letter from a doctor to the president about his treatment of a "Poor" person......Dear Mr. President:
    During my shift in the Emergency Room last night, I had the pleasure of evaluating a patient whose smile revealed an expensive shiny gold tooth, whose body was adorned with a wide assortment of elaborate and costly tattoos, who wore a very expensive brand of tennis shoes and who chatted on a new cellular telephone equipped with a popular R&B ringtone.

    While glancing over her patient chart, I happened to notice that her payer status was listed as "Medicaid"! During my examination of her, the patient informed me that she smokes more than one pack of cigarettes every day, eats only at fast-food take-outs, and somehow still has money to buy pretzels and beer. And, you and our Congress expect me to pay for this woman's health care? I contend that our nation's "health care crisis" is not the result of a shortage of quality hospitals, doctors or nurses. Rather, it is the result of a "crisis of culture" a culture in which it is perfectly acceptable to spend money on luxuries and vices while refusing to take care of one's self or, heaven forbid, purchase health insurance. It is a culture based in the irresponsible credo that "I can do whatever I want to because someone else will always take care of me". Once you fix this "culture crisis" that rewards irresponsibility and dependency, you'll be amazed at how quickly our nation's health care difficulties will disappear.

    If you agree...pass it on.

    September 16, 2010 at 1:02 pm |
    • Rachel

      Mark– it seems to me that MOST Christians don't have it correct about Christianity and what Jesus really meant in his teachings. Much of what most "Christians" today consider the Holy Word of God is nothing more than a heavily edited and censored text. Not to mention the fact that your reply is just a red herring for facing the truth that most of the poor people on this planet will never be able to reach beyond their poverty no matter how hard they work. And yes, I do believe most Christians are bad guys and fools. You are the perfect example.

      September 16, 2010 at 9:08 pm |
  12. Holly Golightly

    Dave7 you are cool. Finally someone who shares my viewpoint!

    September 16, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  13. Pete J

    Forget pointing fingers at politicians, political parties, etc. The question it what have YOU YOURSELF DONE OR GIVEN to the poor, most specifically those that will not be taken care of in some other way if you do not act? What have YOU personally done?? O.K., then get off this site and do something now before you get distracted by yet another silly argument.

    September 16, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
  14. David Shank

    CNN article telling Christians what to think? That's priceless!

    September 16, 2010 at 12:44 pm |
  15. craig

    Great article. All points are accurate. It gives me pause to consider what I am doing to represent Jesus to those in need.

    September 16, 2010 at 11:50 am |
    • Jason B.

      I agree. Regardless of what religion you believe in (or don't), the article should really make you stop and think. Are you judging others because of where they live or what they have? When is the last time you helped make a difference in someone's life? If we'd all take one minute to sit back and think about these things, we'd all be much more humble.

      September 16, 2010 at 2:17 pm |
  16. Bethany

    Wow. Way to miss the point, people. The long list of comments exhibited here are a great example of why poverty is so widespread in this world. Poverty is the direct result of people who would rather spout their political and religious beliefs and prejudices than help their fellow man. To quote my friend Hollie, "What makes me lose faith in humanity? Historical atrocities? Pollution? [POVERTY?] No. It's blog comments."

    If you call yourself a Christian – or even if you don't and you just care about humanity in general – then read Mark Lutz' book, "UnPoverty: Rich Lessons from the Working Poor."
    Whether you agree with everything he says or not, I think we can all agree that he's right when he says that if we really tried, we could end poverty.

    Think about it – if every person that comment on this post was instead a donation to charity, WE COULD FEED HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE.

    September 16, 2010 at 11:35 am |
  17. Katie

    If people truly believe these myths, it's not because their Christians, but because their uneducated.

    September 16, 2010 at 11:30 am |
  18. texaslady2

    One big reason that we have so many in abject poverty is overpopulation. When people can't feed, clothe or house, much less educate, even one or two children, it is absurd for them to continue having more. If we really want to reduce poverty in the world, we need to promote birth control, especially to women, who often are given little say in the matter. Since so many women in the Third World are illiterate, it would probably be best to use something that didn't require a daily dose (and would be less susceptible to male interference), such as Norplant, IUDs, etc. As long as the "poor" feel obligated to overbreed, there is really not much that we can do for them; they will remain trapped in poverty and their children will too.

    September 16, 2010 at 10:22 am |
    • Pete J

      People have been beating the overpopulation drum for well over 100 years as the population has increased 10 fold. It is not a population problem, poverty is an economic, and human care (one aspect of morality) problem. If the world had only 1 million people, yet the ineffective political and economic system of say Haiti, there would be starving people. Haiti eats only because thousands in prosperous lands care!! Abortion is most certainly not the answer and overpopulation postulation not a salve to soothe that injury to humankind.

      September 16, 2010 at 12:57 pm |
  19. Ben Miller

    When Jesus said, "The poor will always be with you..." he sort of disproved the author's next myth in his next phrase "but me you will not always have," referring to the fact that he would not be physically present in just a few months (though he would send the Holy Spirit). Thus, in Jesus statement, he points to the fact that he was indeed primarily concerned about spiritual poverty. However, this is not to negate the fact that he was also concerned about physical poverty. He constantly charged people to care for the poor, and his message was consistent with the rest of the Bible.

    As for the myth about America's poor, the author is sort of on, but I think has mistated the myth. The myth should rather be that "charity" in general is obeying Christ's command to care for the poor. Donating to symphonies, universities, etc. should be secondary in a Christian's interest to obeying Christ's command to physically care for the poor in a way that clearly ties such care to an understanding of Christ's love. Whether it is America's poor or international poor, it shouldn't matter as long you aren't overlooking the poverty that is so apparent.

    September 16, 2010 at 9:34 am |
  20. Cautionary Tale

    5 myths that Christians should renounce.

    1. The Bible is God's Word
    2. The Gospel is Truth
    3. The stuff Jesus supposedly said
    4. The universe was created in 6 days
    5. That legislating morality works

    September 16, 2010 at 9:02 am |
    • Ben

      I'll agree with number 5 because I think it is provable. However, you would have to disprove the rest in order to truly call them a myth. The author above at least made an attempt at doing so about the myths in this article. This reply is simply to get your agenda across.

      September 16, 2010 at 9:20 am |
    • Cautionary Tale


      My agenda? No, sorry. I was just trying to make a few points. I've never sat down and made an agenda. If I did, it would probably be as detailed and comprehensive as possible. Whole forests would disappear in my quest for an agenda.
      Strong men and women would weep. The sky would open up and the deluge would wipe everyone off the face of the earth. Then God would appear.

      Ok, ok, I'm exaggerating a little. 😛

      So what do you mean when you reference number 5? Do you agree its a myth or do you agree that legislating morality works? I must admit to some curiosity as to what you really meant in your post.

      September 16, 2010 at 9:38 am |
    • Ben

      I agree with you that # 5 is a myth. Legislating morality doesn't work. People are sinful... no legislation takes that away. Only faith in Jesus Christ, who paid the death penalty we all deserve for even the smallest of sins we've ever commited, can give us any hope. Up to that point, we might be able to manage morality... make ourselves think we're ultimately good by doing more good than bad, but it won't change the fact that compared to the absolute perfection of God, we are indeed sinful from birth. Thus, no amount of legislation will ultimately help, though I do believe God has given authority to the government to maintain order and punish wrongdoers. Still, how they handle that authority is ultimately imperfect and tainted by their own sin.

      I'm sure you think I'm crazy for holding this belief, but it's what I believe. No apologies... take it or leave it.

      (and I'm glad to hear it wasn't pushing an agenda... just seemed like an odd comment to leave in relation to the article above).

      September 17, 2010 at 11:27 am |
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