This is a long read and I will not leave this up permanently as this is not what this blog is for. But there are a couple of people I would like to have read this essay, and this is the simplest way. It is also a good explanation of why my blogging is way down this year. Forgive!

Marks of Woe:
The Marred Identity of the Poor

“I wander through each chartered street/Near where the chartered Thames does flow/And mark in every face I meet/Marks of weakness, marks of woe”
William Blake “London”


William Blake, England’s poetic social conscience, wrote a scathing and concise description of the social ills of his day in his immortal poem, “London.” In sixteen fiery lines Blake castigates both church and state for their oppression of the children whose cries “every blackening church appals,” and the soldier whose “sigh/runs in blood down Palace walls.” His condemnation runs deep, piercing to the moral fibre of the city and its how its treatment of the poor marks not only their faces, but their very identity with its “mind-forged manacles” (Blake).

Writing two hundred years later Jayakumar Christian’s God of the Empty-Handed takes a similar approach to poverty and oppression as typified by those “mind-forged manacles” that Blake addressed. Christian explores the effects of poverty as a marring of human identity as forces beyond individual control seek to capture the poor in a web of lies and disempowerment. According to Christian, in order to reach down to the roots of their poverty the holistic practitioner needs to see the state of the poor as one that includes a poverty of being: the poor are people whose identity has been marred; a poverty of relationships: the poor are people whose relationships work against their well-being; and a poverty of purpose: the poor are people who have forgotten their true vocation. (Christian 1999: 139-144). Mitigating the effects of poverty at this level is not a simple task, for we need to assist the poor to recognize their true identity; to restore their right relationships; and to recover their true vocation. Poverty is fundamentally a spiritual issue (Myers 1999: 15).

Poverty of Being

Bryant L. Myers in Walking with the Poor writes, “the deepest form of poverty is poverty of being, ontological poverty” (Myers 1999: 130). This is a situation where the poor have come to believe that their poverty is ordained by God, and is “immutable and unchangeable,” they are therefore valueless, worthless human beings. The phrase Myers uses comes from the article “African World View” by Augustine Musopole who wrote, “This is where the African feels his poverty most: A poverty of being, in which poor Africans have come to believe that they are no good and cannot get things right” (qtd. in Myers 1999: 76). In an earlier article, Musopole discussed the relationship that ought to exist between God and His creation, “If humanity is at the center of creation spirituality, then God is the over- arching reality embracing the whole creation … to assert that out of this felt- kinship-relationship with God, humanity recognizes God’s greatness or God’s all sufficiency” (Musopole 1992: 255). But this relationship either never existed or has been broken for those who see themselves as worthless.

Compounding the problem are the non-poor who assume the place of god in the lives of the poor. They seek to bind the poor in the immutable present that has no promise of a better future, in a pervasive power structure that cannot be challenged within a worldview that emphasizes the importance of power, and the prestige of those who wield it. Christian calls this a ‘god-complex’ and explains, “These god-complexes operate throughout all the domains of poverty relationships, including the religious system, to perpetuate powerlessness” (Christian 1999: 123). It is not simply that the poor feel worthless; it is the studied contrivance of those with god-complexes that they do so. In this they are assisted by ‘principalities and powers’ that empower such misuse of other human beings. As Walter Wink writes in Engaging the Powers:

It is characteristic of the Powers that, though they are established, staffed, and perpetuated by people, they are beyond merely human control. It was the experience of a total system operating (as it seemed) autonomously and even, at times, malevolently, that gave rise to a perception of the role played by the Powers in human destiny… The Powers are the structures and institutions, in both their outer and inner manifestations, that embody the Domination System in any historical moment.” (Wink 1992: KL638-642)

Wink and Christian are on solid Biblical ground, for Paul writes about these same forces noting, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).

The effectiveness of this ontological oppression of the poor is evident in their own reflections, collected and published by the World Bank in its remarkable collection, Voices of the Poor. The authors report that insecurity and vulnerability are deeply imbedded in those who are poor and note,
Together these generate worry and fear: of natural disaster, of violence and theft, of loss of livelihood, of dispossession from land or shelter, of persecution by the police and powers that be, of debt, of sickness, of social ostracism, of the suffering and death of loved ones, of hunger and of destitution in old age (Narayan-Parker 2000, 36).

It is this overwhelming combination of woes that lead those who experience these extremes of deprivation to say that “Life is like sweeping ash,” or “life is like sitting and dying alive,” or “life is like being flogged” (Narayan-Parker 2000: 33).

Poverty of Relationships

In seeking to underline the importance of relationships to our understanding of the poor, Christian writes, “Poverty is relational. Similarly, power is relational. Social power is an interactive process that resides within social interactions and relationships” (Christian 1999: 121). However, in many instances – rural isolation, social discrimination, public mistrust – the poor are cut off from access to social networks that could help them alleviate their problems and seek redress for their grievances. Both flawed and fewer relationships are characteristic of the poor. As John Friedman points out in his insightful analysis of what he calls the “disempowerment of the poor,” due to the difficulties of obtaining food, water, fuel, and medical services, and the time taken for work, transportation, and domestic chores, surplus time is limited, and “Without access to surplus time, household options are severely constrained. It is the second most prized base of social power” (Friedmann 1992: 68); and one that like many other resources, one of which the poor are chronically short.

These feelings of social rejection are also brought to light in Voices of the Poor. An old man in Nigeria reports, “We poor men have no friends. Our friend is the ground” (Narayan-Parker 2000: 35), and a woman in Bulgaria explains, “Young people have nothing to do here. You can’t imagine how I feel, as lonely as the dawn, but I was the first to prompt them to move to the city. I would have felt even worse watching them waste their lives here” (Narayan-Parker 2000: 35). Christian writes, “There is one reason, I believe, that there is a greater appreciation among the poor for expressions of love…Flawed relationships involve hurt. This hurt further weakens the poor and destroys any potential for a security net” (Christian 1999: 131). These hurts, this loneliness further mars the poor and traps them in their poverty. This situation is not helped by societal attitudes that see the poor as ‘lazy’ or ‘dirty,’ or by the institutionalization of the poor by social constructs such as the caste system.

Christian then discusses the self-destructive behaviours of the poor and how they further isolate and embed them in a vicious cycle of oppression:

The poor do not have the same options that the non-poor have. Therefore the devil, the well-known tempter entices the poor to choose destructive options. When the poor respond to their frustrations under the influence of the devil, death and destruction follow. Compulsive habits or behaviour then results in the further socioeconomic captivity of poor households (Christian 1999: 152).

It is these limited options that the non-poor then seize upon in further labelling and enslaving the poor in a worldview that is toxic to their welfare.

Poverty of Purpose

A third area of marring occurs in what Myers calls ‘vocation.’ He writes, “I believe that poverty mars both parts of the identity of the poor. The result of poverty is that people no longer know who they are, (being}, nor do they believe that they have a vocation of any value (doing).” (Myers 1999: 77). A poverty of purpose is not unique to the poor. Rick Warren published a very successful book addressed to the well-heeled congregant in the West, to whom he writes, “You have dozens of hidden abilities and gifts that you don’t know you’ve got because you’ve never tried them out” (Warren 2002: 251).

From the perspective of the poor, however, these “dozens of hidden abilities” simply don’t exist. Voices of the Poor captures some of this inadequacy. A poor man in Ethiopia reports, “A bad life is where you cannot find employment and have no money and no useful knowledge” (Narayan-Parker 2000: 245). A young man in Jamaica is more fulsome, “Poverty makes us not believe in ourselves. We hardly leave the community. Not only are we not educated, but we also don’t have a street-wise education” (Narayan-Parker 2000: 246). Another in Ecuador reports, “An uneducated man can be dominated just with bread and water” (Narayan-Parker 2000: 260). These comments are indicative of a life that has been ground down by exigent circumstances to a point where a poverty of uselessness, of unknown vocation and unseen purpose coalesce in a feeling of worthlessness that further mars the identity of the poor and demonstrates the depth to which the poor have internalized the oppression visited upon them.

Under this oppressive regime, the poor become nothing more than objects to be purchased. Paolo Freire writes, “In their unrestrained eagerness to possess, the oppressors develop the conviction that it is possible for them to transform everything into objects of their purchasing power” (Freire 1970: 44). Trafficking in people as sexual objects, engineered economic slavery, and the forced displacement of millions of people for ‘economic development’ projects (a ripe, Orwellian phrase if ever one existed) are the natural consequences of such obliteration of purpose. Dealing with the consequences of such dehumanizing behaviour and structures is not for the faint-hearted, nor the “gifted amateur with his heart in the right place” (Myers 1999: 2), as Myers points out. Addressing these issues calls for academic thoroughness and the centrality of a Biblical-grounded approach.

Recovering Identity

If poverty is at root ontological, then its solution must be ontological as well. Unless and until we confront the issue of ‘being,’ then all other solutions are temporary at best. The Psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1).This is not a statement of greed or arrogance, nor is it a declaration of wealth and power. Rather this is the triumphant cry of Heavenly Liberator who declares to the wretched and weak ‘You are not bound to systems of slavery. You are My dearly Beloved and I am for you!’ (Isa. 41:10). Sharing with those whose lives have been marred by poverty that they are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) is a powerfully liberating tool in the process of development. Jayakumar Christian writes, “When god-complexes perpetuate the powerlessness of the poor, the kingdom of God is the only viable alternative spelling true and complete liberation for the powerless poor” (Christian 1999: 214-215).

We also need to be aware that this captivity of the poor in the depths of their being does not simply have a horizontal cause; there is a vertical dimension as well. The god of this age does not want to see the poor liberated and works feverishly to ensnare them in the world of evil spirits. As Paul Hiebert points out “Most people see the world as full of beings (spirits, ancestors, humans, unborn, animals, plants, and earth spirits) and forces (magic, mana, witchcraft, evil eye, fire, gravity), visible and invisible, that interrelate in everyday life” (Hiebert 1999: KL 493-495). In addition Hiebert points out that “In South and Southeast Asia there is a widespread belief in karma, the impersonal cosmic moral law that governs the universe, rewarding good deeds and punishing evil ones. A person’s present state is prescribed by the deeds done in his or her previous life” (Hiebert 1999: KL1082-85). These twin evils, spirits and karma, form a powerful ally with the forces of earthy evil to enslave the poor and keep them in their place. The horizontal dimension – obeisance to ancestor spirits, the structural discrimination of the caste system, the enslaving and demeaning doctrine of karma – in a sense mirrors the vertical dimension of slavery.

“If poverty and powerlessness are about the captivity of the poor to god-complexes, should not the response to powerlessness be defined as establishing the kingdom of God?” (Christian 1999: 125). However appealing this might seem from a Christian perspective, to those long oppressed it can seem like an impossible hurdle. Bryant Myers recounts the story of a tribal group in India cursed by its story of origin into believing that their destiny is poverty. He writes, “The tribal group has been deceived, and this deception is the most fundamental cause of the people’s poverty” (Myers 1999: 221). Nevertheless, escape from deception can only be the declaration of the truth. The Psalmist says, “I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139: 14). The essential dignity of man is reinforced throughout the Bible and is our fundamental Christian heritage. This is the unique and transformational truth that alone can break the bondage of the poverty of being.

Restoring Shalom

When the shepherds were out in the fields ‘abiding,’ they heard the angels say “Peace on earth, and good will towards men” (Luke 2:14). To use an Old Testament word, the angels said ‘shalom.’ Shalom means more than peace and good will, however. It also means justice, restoration, freedom from want, harmony, and blessing. It is perhaps most completely defined by Christ Himself when He announced His mission in Nazareth “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18-19). In other words He said, ‘I have come to bring shalom.’

However, not only does God have a ‘preferential option for the poor,’ in Gutierrez’ poignant phrase (Gutiérrez 1973), but He is at root a relational God, as expressed most fundamentally in the doctrine of the Trinity. “Essentially Yahweh is described in Scripture as a relational God, yearning for relationship both with the people and with society he has created… The work of Satan is seen as the work of domination, of power over people and nations” (Linthicum 2003: 83). Satanic forces much more powerful than our puny efforts are at work seeking to keep the poor in this web of lies and disempowerment, and these forces have the rich and powerful as willing allies. To share this truth in the face of such forces of evil can mean death. Christian notes that we strive against “cosmic personifications that disguise the power arrangement of the state [and the] mystification of actual power relations that provide divine legitimacy for oppressive earthly institutions” (Christian 1999: 123).

Since this is at heart a spiritual issue, the spiritual deception runs deep. Myers recounts the story of one woman who responded to the gospel story by saying, “she could believe that God would let his Son die for a black man, but she could never accept the idea that God would let his Son die for a San woman” (Myers 1999: 76). Nor are feelings of worthlessness the only spiritual trap. Christ’s sacrifice is often taken as a model of how the poor are to accept their lot, rather than an act of liberating them from it. Latin American Christian writer De La Torre notes, “Forgetting that the cross is a symbol of evil allows for the easy romanticism of those who are marginalized as some sort of hyper-Christians for the ‘cross’ they are forced to bear. Such views tend to offer honour to those who are suffering, encouraging a form of quietism where suffering is stoically borne” (De La Torre 2004: 93). De La Torre argues that this is misinterpretation, since “the importance of the crucifixion lies in Christ solidarity with the poor” (De La Torre 2004: 94).

This passivity in the face of suffering is examined by another Latin America writer Gustavo Gutiérrez, who in his masterful exposition of Job observes, “The language of [Job’s responses] restores vigour to the values of popular faith by strengthening them and enabling them to resist every attempt at manipulation. It thus prevents the distortion that turns these values into fruitless resignation and passivity in the face of injustice” (Gutiérrez 1987: 95). As Gutiérrez points out, Job is rebuked for failing to give God His due, but never for appealing for justice.

Christ came for justice, to “set the captives free.” We honour Him by following in His footsteps and seeking to restore value and shalom to relationships by offering salvation through Christ and seeking justice for grievances. Though long deferred in evangelical thinking, the idea of social justice as a necessary adjunct to the gospel of salvation seems finally to be coming around again to its historical importance. David Korten notes:

Life has learned over billions of years the advantages of cooperative, locally rooted self-organization. Perhaps humans might be capable of doing the same. Such insights are a key to recognizing that there is a democratic, market-based, community-serving alternative to the unappealing choice between a socialist economy centrally owned and administered by government and a capitalist economy centrally owned and administered by an elite class of wealthy financiers and corporate CEOs (Korten 2006: 14-15).

Without addressing structural inequity at its root, our solutions remain partial. For this only our Saviour’s sacrifice will avail, for “The cross is the only power in the world which proves that suffering love can avenge and vanquish evil” (Bonhoeffer 1959: KL2031).

Realizing Potential

Paul the Apostle addressed the issue of vocation in his first letter to the Corinthians, teaching that God is the author of all good things and that through the Holy He gives gifts to men for their benefit and for the benefit of others (1 Cor. 12). James reinforces this elemental Christian doctrine, that God is the author of the gifts He gives, writing that “every good and perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of Light” (James 1: 17). The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah captures what this feels like when he writes, “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For He has delivered the life of the needy from the hand of the evil doer” (Jer. 20:13).

And how does the Lord do this? The Lord is not bound. It can be miraculous intervention, it can be divine enabling, but more often than not it is through the hands and feet of those He has directed to help. “God needs people who ask for his will to be done; if no one is interested in it, he must leave his work on earth undone. But if there are people who stretch out their hands to him in longing, asking and seeking for his will to be done, then he can do something in this world” (Arnold 1997: KL176-180). Nor is He restricted to using Christian agency. Cyrus, who allowed the Jewish nation to return to Jerusalem, was not a believer; neither is Noble Prize winning economist Mohammad Yunus.

Dr. Yunus is the founder of the Grameen Bank through which 8 million people, mostly women, have been helped in Bangladesh. He searches out those who need to be enabled to escape from poverty, challenging them to identify what small gift our talent they possess and then funding them to start a business through microcredit. But for Yunus, it is not just about the money “The credit we offer the poor is not just a matter of entries in a ledger book or even a handful of bills handed over to a person. It is a tool for reshaping lives, and neither the staff of Grameen Bank nor our borrowers ever lose sight of that reality” (Yunus 2007: KL156-161). Yunus’ approach, to determine what the poor have to offer by way of vocation, is systematized in what Myers and others call Appreciative Inquiry. Myers writes, “The starting point for Appreciative Inquiry is the belief that a community that is alive and functioning … If we can determine what is for life and what is generating well-being, we can imagine its expansion” (Myers 1999: 175).

Chambers echoes this concern for determining from the poor themselves the strengths that they themselves see. He writes, “PRA (participatory rural appraisal) is a family of continuously evolving approaches … [that] seeks to enable local and marginalized people to share, enhance and analyse their knowledge of life and conditions, and to plan, act, monitor and evaluate” (Chambers 2007: 190). This seeking out and strengthening what the poor have to offer by acknowledging, affirming and supporting it, is one of the most useful strategies for development in this part of the world.
However the key to this approach appears to be women. Myers comments, “It is commonly agreed that women carry out a disproportionate share of the productive work relating to the community and are critically involved in areas that are key to development change” (Myers 1999: 190).

Mohd Yunus would agree. In fact 97% of the loans from Grameen Bank go to women (Yunus 2007: KL1006). Nor should we stop there, for as Myers points out “Just as women in families are in a position to influence the other family members, so too are children” (Yunus 2007: 191) He encourages his readers that “We need a change in thinking that allows us to see children as agents of transformation” (Myers 1999: 191).

The Holy Spirit of God is the power of God to transform lives. He is the One that gifts and equips the beloved of God to minister to His creation (1 Cor. 12). Through His agency, and the hands and feet of those He equips and sends, the poor can be led to realize their potential to escape from the web of lies and deception that the Evil One and his human agents have spun around the poor.

Drawing Conclusions

Just before His death Christ said, “The poor you will have with you always” (Mark 14:7). Rather than succumb to a simplistic and unbiblical fatalism regarding this statement, let us compare this to another He said after His resurrection, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15). Why? Could not God, who is all-powerful and who has a multitudinous host at His command, simply send His angels into the world and announce this? Why use us? For the very good reason that God has chosen to walk at three miles an hour, the speed that humans walk (Koyama 1980). He wants us to partner with Him in the work of salvation. In a similar way God seeks to partner with us in the elimination of poverty. Why? For the very good reason that we need the poor just as much as they need us. We need to exercise our faith, or compassion, our sacrificial service and our devotion to justice and shalom. This is how the world will know that we are His; and how we will know as well. This is why the poor will always be with us until His return.

There is huge inequality between the developed and the developing world. Even as some poor in the developing countries have been catching up to the West, some – those identified by former World Bank researcher Paul Collier as “the bottom billion” – have been falling further behind. In these countries Collier notes, “Seventy-three percent of them have been through civil war, 29 percent of them are in countries dominated by the politics of natural resource revenues, 30 percent are landlocked, resource-scarce, and in a bad neighborhood, and 76 percent have been through a prolonged period of bad governance and poor economic policies” (Collier 2007: 79).

This picture is fleshed out for us in Poor Economics, whose writers note that the average poverty line among the 50 countries where most of the poor live is 36 cents a day. But since goods are generally cheaper in these countries, that equates to around 99 cents a day. “So to imagine the lives of the poor, you have to imagine having to live in Miami or Modesto with 99 cents per day for almost all your everyday needs (excluding housing). Can one live on that? And yet, around the world, in 2005, 865 million people – 13 percent of the world’s population – did” (Banerjee 2011: KL190-210). Some may argue over the actual numbers of the desperately poor, but as Jayakumar Christian points out, “Poverty is not about numbers. It is about inequality, and specifically about inequality in power relationships” (Christian 1999: 121).

But there is another dimension to the ‘problem of poverty’ and it is us. Charles Van Engen writes, “Without mission, theological education may be a professional finishing school or an entryway to graduate school, or a department of religious studies, but it is not formation for the manifold ministries of Christ and his church among the people in the world” (Engen 1999: xxi). In other words, without reaching out to a world in need, our faith becomes a mere intellectual exercise, a study in the art and science of phrenology or the caloric theory of heat.

Mission is the living heart of the church, and as Christopher Wright points out “Where else does the passion for justice and liberation that breathes in these various theologies come from if not from the biblical revelation of the God who battles with injustice, oppression and bondage throughout history right to the eschaton?” (Wright 2006: KL454). If we are sincere about our faith, then seeking to liberate the poor from the demonic and carnal forces that enslave them is not an option for us, for “Commitment to the alleviation of human suffering, and especially to the removal of its causes as far as possible, is an obligation for the followers of Jesus” (Gutiérrez 1987: 101). As Jayakumar Christian so convincingly points out, poverty has marred the image of God in the poor. It is our responsibility as those who affirm the image of God in humankind, to seek to restore that godly image.

References Cited

Arnold, Heini Hutterian Brethren. 1997. Discipleship : Living for Christ in the Daily Grind. Farmington, PA: Plough Pub. House.

Banerjee, Abhijit V. Duflo Esther. 2011. Poor Economics : A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. New York: Publicaffairs.Kindle Edition.

Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Project Gutenberg.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1959. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Macmillan.

Chambers, Robert. 2007. Ideas for Development. London; Sterling, Va.: Earthscan.

Christian, Jayakumar. 1999. God of the Empty-Handed : Poverty, Power, and the Kingdom of God. Monrovia, Calif.: MARC.

Collier, Paul. 2007. The Bottom Billion : Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can be Done about It. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

De La Torre, Miguel A. 2004. Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

Engen, Charles Edward Van Thomas Nancy J. Gallagher Robert L. 1999. Footprints of God : A Narrative Theology of Mission. Monrovia, Calif.: MARC.

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder And Herder.

Friedmann, John. 1992. Empowerment : The Politics of Alternative Development. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. 1973. A Theology of Liberation : History, Politics, and Salvation. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. 1987. On Job : God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

Hiebert, Paul G. Shaw R. Daniel Tienou Tite. 1999. Understanding Folk Religion : A Christian Response to Popular Beliefs and Practices. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books. Kindle Edition.

Korten, David C. The Great Turning from Empire to Earth Community. Berrett-Koehler ; Kumarian Press 2006. Kindle Edition.

Koyama, Kosuke. 1980. Three Mile an Hour God : Biblical Reflections. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

Linthicum, Robert C. 2003. Transforming Power : Biblical Strategies for Making a Difference in Your Community. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press.

Musopole, Augustine C. 1992. “Toward a Theological Method for Malawi.” Encounter No. 53 (3):247-259.

Myers, Bryant L. 1999. Walking With the Poor : Principles and Practices of Transformational Development. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

Narayan-Parker, Deepa. 2000. Crying Out for Change : Voices of the Poor. Oxford; New York: Published By Oxford University Press For The World Bank.

Warren, Richard. 2002. The Purpose-Driven Life : What on Earth am I Here For? Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.

Wink, Walter. 1992. Engaging the Powers : Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, Christopher J. H. 2006. The Mission of God : Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic. Kindle Edition.

Yunus, Muhammad Weber Karl. 2007. Creating a World Without Poverty : Social Business and the Future of Capitalism. New York: Publicaffairs. Kindle Edition.