While we are called to be radically generous with the poor from our own resources (Lev. 25:35; Deut. 15:10; Luke 3:11), an increasing body of evidence shows that aid relief and handouts are not necessarily the most helpful to the poor in the long run (Corbett & Fikkert, 2014; Fitzgerald, 2014; Lupton, 2012; Miller & Weber, 2014; Miller, 2016). In fact, they can do harm by creating dependency. Increasingly, economists and international development experts are redirecting charitable giving into sustainable development initiatives that do not steal the dignity of the beneficiaries, but instead affirm it.
Community development is a solution directly supported by biblical teaching. God has always wanted the poor to be a part of the solution instead of helpless victims. In the earliest law of God for His people, he commanded the Israelites to leave gleanings from their crops so that the poor could collect food for themselves (Lev. 19:10, 23:22). God notably did not command the landowners to collect the whole crop themselves and then give a part of it to the poor. What kindness for God to provide food for the poor that they could work for! Instead of being shamed by a handout, He wanted them to act even in the limited way available to them: collecting the gleanings for themselves.
Simply giving the poor the material items that they need falls grievously short of commands like “give justice to the poor and the orphan; uphold the rights of the oppressed” (Psalm 82:3, emphasis added) and “seek justice,encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17, emphasis added). Isaiah also adds, “Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people” (58:7, emphasis added). Giving money or things to poor people cannot remotely be said to be giving them justice, upholding their rights, defending their cause, or removing their chains. It is merely a temporary alleviation of their suffering. It does have value, but it is not full obedience to God’s call.
In fact, promoting handouts and ignoring development, justice, and human rights actually contributes to the oppression of the poor in unjust systems by allowing it to continue. Amos accused, “You trample the poor, stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent” (5:11). Allowing the poor to be exploited by broken systems equates to theft in God’s eyes, even if it is not directly done by us.
Responding to poverty only from a paternalistic position shows that we have missed the message of Psalm 74:21: “Don’t let the downtrodden be humiliated again.” It is possible to humiliate others with our endless gifts, as they internalize the message that they are worthless and incapable, needing us to provide for them. In the long-term, this is a message that cripples.
We cannot claim to be Christians while we ignore the plight of those who need our help. Being a good global neighbor means noticing and caring what happens to people, and then acting with them to solve the problems that make them vulnerable. God includes the marginalized in His Kingdom. In fact, He identifies with them so thoroughly that He says what we do for them, we do for Him (Prov. 19:17; Matthew 25:40).
So what are we to do to help the poor? God tells us to invite them in, share life with them, and build community (Luke 14:13). We are not merely to throw things at them from a distance, we are to be in one another’s lives, share hospitality, affirm them, and give them a hand up. We are to empower them and help to solve the problems that make them poor. We are to actually fight for their rights, plead their case, get justice for them, and remove their chains. In short, we have to get up close and really love them.
Quote of the month
""At the margins is the only place the Church will have credibility."