Basics for Poverty Reduction

The Bible recognises poverty. Deut 15:1-11 prescribes generosity toward the poor ‘brother’ and the passage concludes with, ‘For the poor will never cease from the land…’. Jesus quoted this statement in John 12:8. At least 10 to 22 per cent of the population of the Roman empire lived at or below starvation level.[i] In 2013 around 11 per cent of the world’s population lived in ‘extreme poverty’.[ii]

During the reign of Solomon, namely, '... Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under his own vine and his fig tree…’ (1 Kin 4:25).[iii] Grapes and figs were central to the economy of Israel and were symbols of peace and prosperity. They were the output of a production system. Land, water and work were the critical inputs, and these are explicitly referenced in Old Testament Law. ‘The Lord will open to you His good treasure, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season, and to bless all the work of your hand’ (Deut 28:12a, italics added). This statement is consistent with the Edenic blessing set out in Gen 2:8-15 in which feature a garden (equivalent to land), a river (equivalent to water) and tending and keeping (work)[iv]

Ownership of the means of production (land) was central to the Law, and fair compensation for work was demanded. ‘I will be a swift witness… against those who exploit wage earners…’ (Mal 3:5). In 1 Cor 9:9-10 the writer quotes from Deut 25:4 in relation to not muzzling the ox and explains that this is written for ‘our sakes’ (cf 1 Tim 5:18). Also, ‘The hardworking farmer must be the first to partake of the crops’ (2 Tim 2:6).

The biblical framework for poverty reduction entails peace, private ownership of means of production and work (for just compensation).

Private ownership of the means of production need not relate to land only, but to private property more widely. The essential underpinning of private property is the freedom to dispose of it. With respect to land and other non-human assets, legal title is necessary; with respect to physical and intellectual capacity, just employment contracts are necessary.

A cultural attitude favourable to work is necessary. God commanded Adam and Eve to work in the garden (Gen 2:15-18). Gen 1:26-29 also ties work to humanity with words like ‘subdue’, ‘dominion’ and ‘yields’. Just compensation for work is demanded, either as owner or wage-worker, for it is God’s intention that we be happy when we ‘eat the labour of (our) hands’).[v]

Finally, peace is a community matter, and this is acknowledged in Rom 13:1-7 where ‘(R)ulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil.’ Evil has existed since original sin and revolves around wanting something one does not have. The sin of Adam and Eve was to want something they did not have (see Gen 3:1-7).

Considering recent history, we know that extreme poverty in the world has fallen significantly and fast since 1990. According to the World Bank nearly 1.1 billion people have broken out of extreme poverty between 1990 and 2013.[vi] Much of the drop in global poverty is attributable to India and China. Research suggests that it was changes in government philosophy that encouraged wealth creation through privately-owned businesses and opened their countries to globalisation that explains the reduction in poverty.[vii] ‘In short, the best way to help the poor, to love them, in part as neighbours, is to enable them to participate more fully in new and expanding global markets.’[viii]

[i] Walter Scheidel and Steven Friesen, ‘The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire,’ Journal of Roman Studies 31 (2009): 61-91. Quoted in Kar Yong Lim, ‘Paul the Economist? Economic Principles in Pauline Literature with the Jerusalem Collection as a Test Case,’ Evangelical Review of Theology 41:1 (2017), 19-31.

[ii] accessed 1 March 2018.

[iii] This expression also appears in 2 Kin 18:31, Is 36:16, Mic 4:4-5.

[iv]  See also Ps 104:14-14, 23.

[v]  See also Ps 128:2, cf Ecc 2:24.

[vi] ibid

[vii] Laurence Chandy & Geoffrey Gertz, 2011, Poverty in Numbers: The Changing State of Global Poverty from 2005 to 2015, 2011-01, The Brookings Institution, Washington, DC.

[viii] Brent Waters, 2016, Just Capitalism: A Christian Ethic of Economic Globalization, Westminster John Know Press, Louisville, KY, p. xi.

Questions for reflection

1. In the Roman Empire there was a significant divide between the rich and the poor. Does the passage quoted from 1 Kings have any implications for time in which Jesus lived and/or for contemporary nations.

2. Do you think the Bible is generally favourable to private  ownership of the means of production?

3. Do you agree that the major purpose of government is to create conditions of peace (both internally and externally)? 

4. What implications does your response to question 3 above have for he 'size' of government?

5. Discuss the importance of work in poverty alleviation.