A Response to Backwoods Presbyterian

To: Backwoods Presbyterian : Thanks for your comments and for being willing to engage in discussion about this issue. Your citations from Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, however, aren’t quite applicable to poverty as we see it in third world countries and in the inner-cities of America today. If you read quickly through the rest of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, the “idleness” he’s protesting is that of Christians who assumed Jesus was going to return in a matter of days. “If Christ is coming again, then why waste time working in this life?” Paul corrects that, though, by reminding them that no one knows when Christ will return (1 Thess 5:1-2). His point is not that everyone should work to be independent or even to produce income – it is that we should be about the work of the Kingdom and other work which supports it in this age because we do not know when Christ will return.

Unfortunately, many people who are privileged with a comfortable American life don’t realize how hard it is for others who live in poverty. I agree with you also that poverty does not mean “not having a tv”. Poverty is deeper than that. It’s not being able to feed your children because the man who got you pregnant at sixteen ran away and your own parents are drug addicts. Poverty is dropping out of school because you’re afraid of gang violence and then never being able to get a job that pays a living wage. Poverty is an African woman infected with AIDS because her husband visited a prostitute and their country doesn’t have the resources to teach people how to prevent or treat the disease. I don’t believe any of these people are “idle” by choice, and they certainly aren’t being idle for the reasons Paul is challenging in the letters to the Thessalonians. Rather, I think it is our ignorance and our own desire for personal comfort that stops us from helping them. Our ignorance and our complicity is the problem, not the laziness of others. Perhaps we’re better off citing James 5 in this discussion: “1 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.”

  1. Backwoods Presbyterian said:

    1st Response:

    I feel a little background information on me is necessary to help further our discussion.

    Education-as you state-is the key to “ending” poverty. We must fight ignorance at every level of human society. Dealing specifically with the case of an inner-city child scared to attend school because of gang violence is something that affects children steps away from our gated community in East Liberty. How can we fight to end this? Culturally we must find a way to change the perception of education that is pervasive in African-American culture. I point to African-American writers and thinkers such as Walter E. Williams , Thomas Sowell , and others who claim the problem lies in cultural discrimination, better known as the “acting white” pejorative. When your only cultural context is poverty, crime, abandonment, etc… you are already way behind the curb and the only way out is through education. Unfortunately two of my nieces and nephews are subject to this life. Their African-American “father” is verbally abusive and has virtually abandoned them. Their mother (my sister-in-law) works 3 jobs and my Mother-in-law has given up her own life to make them have as normal a life as possible. Even through their hard work my nephew-who is 6-is already exhibiting violent, verbally abusive behavior that he undoubtedly learned from his father. It goes without saying that my nephew’s father grew up in the same environment.

    Now will more funding for education alone solve his problem? Of course not, if we have learned anything from our past throwing money at a problem never solves it. Changing mindsets, expectations, and standards do.

    Here are two personal examples of the effect of poverty and poor education in my life.

    My grandfather grew up in a company town in south-central West Virginia named Prince in a truly backwoods area of my home state. His father-a miner-drank himself to death when my grandfather was only 12. His mother was in-and-out of rehab throughout the 1940’s and 50’s and 60’s etc. He was a “trouble-maker” as a child always living by the seat of his pants. After graduation from high school he went from job-to-job until one night-drunk-he and a few buddies joined the Army and were sent to Korea. After his return he was introduced to Christ by his grandmother and my grandfather had a Pauline-type conversion, turning his life from poverty to middle-class success. He went on to lead a successful life.

    Personally, I graduated High School in a very rural part of West Virginia. My home was a modest 3-bedroom trailer. The total population of my county was 7,500. The total land area for this county is 940 square miles thereby making it about 9 persons per square mile. A small percentage of my classmates had little-to-no running water in their homes. An even larger percentage did not have access to regular electricity. Some even had dirt floors in their home. My high school’s teachers have the lowest average salary of any high school in West Virginia. Our school was taken over by the Federal Department of Education because of its low test scores. This situation instead of depressing me into hopelessness drove me to rise above my situation. One reason was we never felt like we were in “poverty”. My father never moped around the house feeling sorry for himself and the situation his family found itself in. My mother ensured we did our work and went out of her way to supplement our awful education. Now if our school had received more funding do you think it would have changed much?

    Of course there are many other reasons for my understanding but I hope this helps a little.

  2. Backwoods Presbyterian said:

    2nd Response:

    I agree that on our city on a hill we often look over those who are oppressed and have little. As I said before how do we respond as Christians? Biblically, what is our example?

    But first, I do have a question in what you meant by complicity. Does this mean that we-as Americans or WASPs-are fully responsible for the poverty in the third-world? I would counter with how responsible are the corrupt governments of those nations? We can only blame colonialism for so long until the focus must be placed on the corrupt governments themselves. It has been 50 years since the vast majority of colonial governments fell in Africa and well over 100 years since they left Central and South America. Of course we could blame “greedy” corporations for their problems (By the way I noticed you mentioned a “living wage” in your reply. I will tackle that in a later response) and their insatiable desire for profits at any cost.

    Having served in the United States Marine Corps I had the privilege to spend time in south-east Asia and the more remote areas of the South Pacific (specifically Guadalcanal). What I saw were governments taking advantage of their people. Some were supported monetarily by the U.S. Government and from my limited political science background also politically. This reliance on U.S. currency to prop up government’s who suppress their people begins the problem. These governments have no need to build up their own economy if we provide the bulk of their GDP and their people have little recourse through national elections or the courts to change the empowered governments supported by the U.S. Now this being the political reality how does a Christian respond?

    I propose this to be an answer.
    1) There must be better oversight of U.S. and other countries monies that are given to countries that oppress their people.
    2) That we no longer give money to state-supported aid-programs but only to organizations that will physically use the money we donate to actually help people who need it.
    3) We recognize oppression in all its forms. I.e. – recognize not only the oppression of blacks in Africa but also the oppression of whites in Zimbabwe and other central African countries. We must also not forget the active-slave trade in Niger, Mauritania, and other Western African countries.

  3. Russell Smith said:

    I won’t jump in to the theological discussion here — you two are doing well at hashing this out. I would like to contribute a thought about an organization that is addressing poverty through microlending — Kiva (thanks to Michael Kruse for pointing me to this group). See my earlier post for more info on how this is a truly compassionate way of addressing poverty. And keep up the great conversation.

    Soli Deo Gloria

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