Poverty & Theology

With the growing gap between the rich and poor in New Zealand, poverty is becoming an increasingly relevant issue. There is ongoing media coverage of issues like a living wage, the housing and property market, child poverty and food in schools.

Throughout the Bible there are many references towards poverty, often with instructions or critiques of different actions and views on the handling of poverty.

In the case study for this course, we looked at an article written by Steven Friesan which outlines four different approaches to poverty in the first century CE. Three of them are New Testament Biblical canon and one Biblical apocrypha. During this time much of the known world of the authors was under Roman control, an imperial and aristocratic power structure which channelled wealth up the pyramid.

1 – Revelation

The book of revelation is an apocalypse (disclosure or revelation of knowledge) written to seven specific assemblies in the Roman province of Asia Minor. It is rich in symbolism and allegory, from which some interesting interpretations can be drawn regarding poverty.

The text reveals a universal condemnation of Roman imperial power, international politics and commerce. It paints a picture of Rome as a great oppressor drunk on power and greed.

The 7-headed, 10-horned beast that comes from the earth represents the provinces of Rome, upholding the Empire’s power and enforcing economic injustice (Rev 13).

Later (in Rev 17) this same beast is carrying the prostitute of Babylon, often viewed as being Rome itself, the centre of the earth. The provinces prop up Rome’s power.

Rev. 18 shows how four different groups take part in this corruption and injustice: Rome, the kings of the earth, the merchants, and the people.

The theological view here is that Satan is behind Rome’s debauched drunken greed; the Empire is blasphemous because it claims to be ‘king of kings’ on earth. Satan controls the world through political alliances. The nations ally with Rome to maintain the power structure, and oppress and exploit the people. This political alliance favours the wealthy because it allows international trade and the free flow of goods around the Empire. Local leaders partake in corruption ensuring that the trade benefits the wealthy.

The people are awed, deceived or intimidated into compliance, which keeps the system going. Many are caught-up in participating through the illusion that they too can grasp power and fulfil their worldly desires, deceived by Satan into pursuing achievement within the corrupt system.

The theological action or instruction from this reading of Revelation is for a complete withdrawal and rejection of the Roman Empire, and its political and economic system. It is corrupt to the core and an abomination before God. John tells people to remove themselves from the system even if it means death, as this will be martyrdom and God will avenge their deaths in the end.

It is interesting to remember this piece was written in the 1st century CE, yet many parallels can (and have) been drawn with modern political and economic order. We live in an age of international politics, free-trade  and rampant consumerism. This resource driven greed has lead to military posturing in order to protect and maintain the hegemony of an economic system which keeps wealth flowing to the increasingly wealthy rulers.

What I found astounding is that several people in this class were totally unfamiliar with this interpretation of Revelation. They saw it entirely as a mystical vision of the end times, rather than a coded, symbolic condemnation of Rome’s might, economic power and worldly greed.

2 – The Letter or James

This letter is also an admonishing of the Roman economic system, but not as radically as in Revelation. Here the author is writing more in the vein of the traditional Hebrew prophets. He criticizes social status being built on wealth, the way the rich manipulate justice (James 2:1-2), and the exploitation of workers by landowners (5:1-6). This exploitation is viewed as disregarding human frailty and God’s sovereignty over the earth.

The theological response in this letter is:

  1. Renounce a system of prestige built on wealth (1:10-11).
  2. Practice mercy towards those who suffer (2:13) – “mercy triumphs over judgement.”
  3. Compassion for widows and orphans (the extremely poor in the context this was written in) (1:27).
  4. Patiently wait for God to act on their behalf at the end.

While James acknowledges inequality and injustice, he does not advocate complete withdrawal and rejection of Roman. Rather, he advocates that people refrain from acting corruptly. We are instructed to show compassion and mercy.

3 – The Acts of the Apostles

The book of Acts reveals some interesting points regarding poverty, as well as some discrepancies between Acts and the letters of Paul.

  1. There is no critique of the Roman system of inequality in this book. This is evident by the way Roman officers are portrayed as sympathetic characters, when in reality they were upholding the Roman system. It does not attribute poverty to systematic causes.
  2. The concept of economic sharing present in the early Christian community (Acts 2:42-45; 4:32-37) is relegated to an idealized past, and only in the community in Jerusalem.
  3. Acts seems to ignore, or perhaps even suppress, Paul’s collection of money for the poor. This is inconsistent with Paul’s letters, where this collection is described as a process of sharing.
  4. Christian communities are presented as wealthier than in Paul’s letters.

This reading of Acts sees it as being sympathetic to the Roman system. Acts seems far less focussed on poverty and sharing than what we can gather from Paul’s letters. It could even be argued that it hides the issue of poverty by overstating the wealth of the early church and its followers.

Rather than admonishing the Roman system and advocating communal sharing of wealth, the times of economic need it does acknowledge are to be taken care of through charity and hospitality.

4 – The Shepherd of Hermas

This book is Biblical apocrypha, meaning it is not in the Biblical canon. However, is was present in earlier codices and considered canonical scripture by early church fathers.

It is another apocalypse, containing allegories that clearly reveal their stated meaning. Like Acts, it does not analyse the causes of poverty nor condemn the economic system of its time. Inequality is treated as a fact of life.

Wealth is seen as an ambiguous gift from God, a blessing as in prosperity theology / prosperity gospel. It is an ambiguous gift because it can also lead to temptation and loss of faith (much like in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, Matthew 13:22).

This letter advocates frugal self-sufficiency. Even if one is blessed with wealth beyond their needs, they should live simply. Their extra wealth is to be used to help others through charity.

This book deals with charity by focussing on the rich. It could be said to marginalize the poor. They are not discussed and it could be taken that are meant to demonstrate to the rich that they deserve charity, and not “opportunists who live on handouts.”

Friesan demonstrates four Christian scriptural responses that show a vast difference in perceptions and attitudes towards inequality. Yet all were written around a similar point in history and contextual background.

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