The Bible is a good starting point, because it's among God's better teaching tools, connecting us with ancient civilizations sufficiently different to challenge our assumptions – as well as being remarkably like our own in ways we are likely to miss.
Poverty, and wealth, and the power relations that bring them about, were universal features of these civilizations.
Farming entailed risks, and the need to borrow. Village and family solidarity would sometimes cover the need; but when it did not, a borrower might have to pay interest and put up collateral – a family member's labor, his land, his own freedom. Interest, as a customary practice, was generally ruinous. For a trader with a reasonable expectation of using the money profitably it was a fair cost of doing business. For a small farmer it was a recurrent risk of homelessness and enslavement.
Michael Hudson, a financial economist with an active interest in the history of economic thought, says (in michael-hudson.com/1992/03/the-lost-tradition-of-biblical-debt-cancellations/) that: “discoveries of Bronze Age Near Eastern royal proclamations extending from 2400 to 1600 BC throw a radically new light on [the Biblical debt] laws... Mesopotamian royal edicts canceled debts, freed debt-servants and restored land to cultivators who had lost it under economic duress. There can be no doubt that these edicts were implemented, for during the Babylonian period they grew into quite elaborate promulgations, capped by Ammisaduqa's Edict of 1646. Now that these edicts have been translated and their consequences understood, the Biblical laws no longer stand alone as utopian or otherworldly ideals; they take their place in a two-thousand year continuum of periodic and regular economic renewal.
“Radical as the idea of canceling debts and restoring the population's means of subsistence seems to modern eyes, it had been a conservative tradition in Bronze Age Mesopotamia for some two millennia. What was conserved was self-sufficiency for the rural family-heads who made up the infantry as well as the productive base of Near Eastern economies. Conversely, what was radically disturbing in archaic times was the idea of unrestrained wealth-seeking. It took thousands of years for the idea of progress to become inverted, to connote freedom for the wealthy to deprive the peasantry of their lands and personal liberty. ”
Whenever, wherever the Torah took its final form -- Its laws on debt and property were based on practical ancient custom. But as David's monarchy was established, with the aid of a small professional army, the need for a large peasant infantry was lessened. From here on, we find prophets increasingly denouncing an elite class whose wealth is apparently gained at the expense of their poor neighbors. In the one example of jubilee practice we're specifically told of, Jeremiah convinces King Zedekiah [faced with a military threat from Babylon] “that every one should set free his Hebrew slaves, male and female, so that no one should enslave a Jew, his brother... but afterward they turned around and took back the male and female slaves they had set free, and brought them back into subjection as slaves.” After which the Babylonians return to conquer.
After the Exile, tension between needy neighbors, greedy neighbors, and Torah continued. Deuteronomy had said: “You shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take heed lest there be a base thought in your heart, and you say, 'The seventh year, the year of release is near;' and your eye be hostile toward your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and it be sin in you.” But in Herod's day, Rabbi Hillel had to institute the prosbul, an arrangement that allowed borrowers to sign away their traditional rights, because in actuality the poor were not finding anyone willing to lend without interest and the option of foreclosing. And under Roman administration, their Hellenistic economic practices – which were dispossessing their own small farmers in Italy – became the rule in Israel as well. By Jesus' time there were many of his people dispossessed, indebted, eking out a desperate living by agricultural itinerant labor until malnutrition and illness reduced them to beggary.
It was these people Jesus spoke of when he said, “Blessed are the destitute, for God's reign is theirs.” It was their debts he went about promiscuously forgiving, most often their diseases and injuries he healed, their petty crimes he overlooked. The story he tells in Luke, about 'Dives and Lazarus,' suggests that poor people have a nicer afterlife than rich ones...
And now I'm in this adult Christian Sunday school class, discussing 'What are the most helpful ways of helping poor people?'
This is very rich, for one assumption has been that we should be “developing” their economic possibilities, “curing” them of poverty. Not even Jesus tried to do this...
What do we want to accomplish? – Why? – What should we?
We can't doubt that poverty is a bad thing. The material lacks, the intellectual deprivation that normally accompanies it, the associated emotional pains and afflictions all demand to be alleviated. But if, by some wild stretch, we should make a significant difference in poor people's lives, do we want them to seek to achieve what our own culture calls success?
Shouldn't we want this? Should we be sentimental about “the poor”, romanticize them and their ways of life? Are they better than us; does God like them better? What have they got that we don't? Only poverty.
What's that about? The theological difference, between 'rich' and 'poor' is elusive. But church traditions from James to Dorothy Day, including some profoundly confusing observations from Jacques Ellul, insist that it matters.
Certainly poor people aren't “better.” In general they “play the same games” as the rest of us, merely for different stakes. If some of them will give their last dime to help a person who needs it, some will eagerly rob or cheat him of it.
Does God like them better? That's not it either. We may need to give the poor preferential treatment, because they need more help and have a harder time getting any at all, but from a larger perspective this is merely correcting an imbalance. While Jesus does imply that rich people's “wealth” reflects mistaken priorities, poverty is no sign of freedom from misplaced greed.
Rather than think of “two sorts of people,” it helps to think of two states of life in one fallen world.
Both states do, as our book insists, belong to God's perfect Creation; but this Creation is the sort of perfection that develops, like a plant or a growing child; and while it remains immature we remain subject to death. That subjection takes many forms; one is our addiction to violence. Another is the desire for forms of “wealth” that imply poverty for other people. Dorothy Day rightly described the resulting state of affairs as “this filthy, rotten system.”
When the “rich” game the system to perpetuate unfair, unproductive advantages – while the system works to reward that kind of behavior – we have what is called 'systemic injustice'. John D Crossan sees this concept as underlying Jesus' first beatitude: “If... we think not just of personal or individual evil but of social, structural, or systemic injustice—that is, of precisely the imperial situation in which Jesus and his fellow peasants found themselves—then the saying becomes literally, terribly, and permanently true. In any situation of oppression, especially in those oblique, indirect, and systemic ones where injustice wears a mask of normalcy or even of necessity, the only ones who are innocent or blessed are those squeezed out deliberately as human junk from the system’s own evil operations.”
A church can offer people help toward escaping poverty – but escape into what? The system we're embedded in is neither humane, just, honest, very much functional – or even guaranteed to remain viable for the next twenty years. We ought to take care, not to fall into or promote illusions about finding anyone a secure place in it. And yet – this system does not permit anything or anyone to exist freely outside itself.
I've been forced to concede that 'the rich' and 'the poor' include good people and bad, happy and unhappy, sophisticated and clueless, with a wide range of blessings and afflictions... and that both conditions entail being implicated in “this filthy rotten system,” whether securely within it or painfully entangled. What then, is the difference?
Jacques Ellul – like William Stringfellow – considers money to be 'a Power.' That is, 'Money' is a spiritual influence which people can quite literally worship. When Jesus says that we can worship God or Mammon – but not both – this is precisely what he is talking about.
We pray to God, participate in worship services addressed to God. We don't do anything of the sort for money. But which object of worship do we devote the most time to? Which do we worry most about, take most seriously as a force of practical import in the world? Which do we most rely on for our security?
You are 'poor' in the sense Ellul values: when you can rely on God for your security, knowing you have nothing else to depend on. This is not a theoretical sort of knowledge, but something people recognize deeply and automatically – or not. The people we call “rich”generally feel, and often believe, that they have something else to keep them safe. The actual amount of money anyone does, or doesn't have – while significant in other contexts – is not the issue. “Wealth” works to blunt this awareness; while poverty renders it obvious.
A friend wrote me once, that “hardships and suffering of many kinds have left me with an unshakable faith – in Something.”
That is not a recommendation for hardships and suffering, but it does serve to clarify their purpose. That “unshakable faith”, so far as we can acquire and convey it, can do far more to promote happiness and mitigate suffering than anything more concrete we have to provide. That is, a church can and should serve whichever needs people find most pressing – but its specific mission is to promote the distribution of spiritual goods. Why is that so much harder than handing out bread?