Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 2, no. 1 (February 2011)

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Reflections on Poverty and the Gospel in Peru

Abraham Olivera

The majority of people in Peru are Native Americans, and this group has more poor people than any other ethnic group in the country.

Peru has one of the highest rates of social inequality measured in terms of income, standard of living, and access to resources.  The nation’s unemployment and underemployment rates are high, including many people who work “independently” (that is, they are self-employed) and participate in an “informal economy.”  Thousands of these people eke out a living on a hand-to-mouth basis, pay no taxes, and have no social security, medical care, water, or electricity.  Most of these people live in the rapidly expanding barriadas, or shantytowns.1

The Peruvian poor suffer from political inequalities. In particular, the illiterate peasants are excluded from political decision-making processes. In spite of these things, the poor have entrepreneurial abilities to survive and emerge in the midst of the sorts of heartless capitalism or dictatorial socialism that have governed Peru. The social dynamics in Peru have been characterized by a relentless process of “invasion” from the rural areas to the cities. “These emerging popular sectors have demonstrated their ability to become social and economic actors without the tutorial paternalism of Marxist parties and their outdated theories.”2

Leaders, missionaries, and scholars among Churches of Christ should not only identify with such people but, like Jesus, become “poor” to help the poor, thereby offering an alternative to Marxism, capitalism, and other ideologies. This seems to be a task of impossible dimensions, but it is essential for reaching out to the Peruvian poor. Here, in identification with the poor, is the key that sociological, psychological, and political endeavors to help the poor often fail to grasp. Certainly, Christian modes of mission, from liberation theology to evangelical missiology, and even other political or economic ideologies, should be evaluated continually in light of Jesus’ way of doing missions.

My approach to this article is not based on academic analysis or any particular field of study among the social sciences. My approach is guided by practical and biblical concerns. I am an elected representative in one of the suburban communities that grew up from having no water or electricity—a town of poor people. I am in contact with neighbors who are alcoholics, elderly without social security or health care, and so on. Among my neighbors are poor people whose precarious situation challenges my faith and vision as a Christian. This article reflects my understanding of poverty and its possible solutions based on my experience, other experts’ input, and personal contact with the insights of the poor. My main thesis is that people of the gospel face a challenge in light of other secular/earthly ideologies, and with Jesus as our example we have the best alternatives to liberate the poor into the richness of God’s kingdom.

The God of the Bible and Poverty

The Gospel and the Poor

The gospel centers on the person and work of Jesus, whose main purpose is to save humankind, which even includes salvation or liberation from all kinds of poverty. The gospel includes the news of the transformation of our whole being (bio-psycho-socio-spiritual) in this age and the next. Beyond these essential dimensions, Scripture demonstrates a special emphasis on the gospel’s relation to poverty. For example:

  • In 2 Cor 8–9, Paul appeals for financial generosity on the basis of the gospel. In particular, 8:8 speaks of generosity to the poor as proof of a grace-changed heart. Then in 8:9, Paul points to the self-emptying of Jesus, vividly depicting him as becoming poor for us, both literally and spiritually, in the incarnation and the cross (the substitutionary atonement).
  • Matthew 25:34–46 teaches that people will be accepted or condemned by God depending on how they treat the poor. The heart’s attitude to Jesus is equivalent to the heart’s attitude to the poor, or vice versa.
  • Micah 6:8 requires that a man “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”3 Care for the poor comes from a sincere love of God (1 John 3:17–19).
  • In James, works are the marks of saving faith: caring for widows and orphans (1:27), showing the poor respect (2:2–6), and meeting the needs of the poor for food and clothing (2:15–16). But those who close their hearts to the poor are mistaken (2:15–18). James concludes, “Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful” (2:13). Mercy is strong concern for the poor.

These are some means by which I perceive the gospel in relation to the poor. The gospel is disseminated in the proclamation of what God has done and is doing, and the gospel message must be cast in cognitive truths to be believed and obeyed. Yet, it never remains cognitive but becomes incarnate through Christian praxis, particularly in our relationship toward the poor.

The Church and the Poor

The church reflects the social righteousness of the old covenant but with the greater vigor and power of the new. A special class of officers—deacons—is established to coordinate the church’s ministry of mercy. The first two sets of church leaders are word-leaders (apostles) and deed-leaders (the servants of Acts 6). By the time of Phil 1:1 and 1 Tim 3, officers oversee word-ministry (elders) and deed-ministry (deacons). The ministry of merciful deeds is a required, mandated work of the church just as is the ministry of the word.

In Jesus’ famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), the ministry of mercy is carried out even outside the covenant community. In Luke 6:32–36, Jesus urges his disciples to do deed-ministry to the ungrateful and wicked because that is the pattern of the grace of God. In light of this, the church’s action might include, as Dan Martin suggests:

  1. Relief: direct aid to meet physical/material/social needs like food, medicines, etc. Relief programs alone can create dependency.
  2. Development: bringing a person to self-sufficiency. Development includes education, job creation, training, and reinvestment of social and financial capital.
  3. Reform: Social reform seeks to change social conditions and structures that aggravate or cause injustice: unfair wages, corrupt businesses, and legal systems that favor the rich.4

We will return to more concrete actions after discussing the nature of poverty in Peru.

Evangelism and the Poor

Evangelism must be given priority in the church’s ministry. While saving a lost soul and feeding a hungry stomach are both acts of love, one has an infinitely greater effect than the other. In 2 Cor 4:16–18, Paul speaks of the importance of strengthening the “inner man” even as the outer is aging and decaying. This is true, not because the so-called spiritual is more important than the so-called physical (we must be careful not to fall into a Greek-style dualism), but because the eternal is more important than the temporal.

In Jesus’ ministry, healing the sick and feeding the hungry were inseparable from evangelism (John 9:1–7, 35–41; Matt 11:1–6; cf. 1 John 3:17). Kingdom evangelism is holistic as it transmits by word and deed the promise of Christ for body and soul. Several times in Acts, Luke makes a very close connection between economic sharing of possessions with those in need and the multiplication of converts through the preaching of the Word (Acts 2:41, 44–45; 4:32–35). The resurrection shows us that God not only created both body and spirit but will also redeem both. The fullness of salvation that Jesus will bring will include liberation from all the effects of sin, spiritual and physical. Our evangelism should therefore reflect this truth.

Jesus and the Poor

The incarnate God identifies with the poor and becomes poor. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40). In Matt 25, God identifies with the poor symbolically, but in his incarnation and death, God identifies with the poor and marginal literally. Jesus was born poor. At his circumcision, Jesus’ family offered what was required of the poor (Luke 2:24). He said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matt 8:20). At the end of his life, he rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey, spent his last evening in a borrowed room, and when he died, was laid in a borrowed tomb. They cast lots for his only possession, his robe; on the cross he was stripped of everything. This gives new meaning to the question: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked or in prison?” The answer is—on the cross.

Understanding Poverty in Peru

All poverty is multidimensional. It encompasses economic issues (such as low income or unemployment), basic social services (education, health, sanitation, housing), cultural and subjective issues (such as discrimination, self-esteem), political dynamics (exclusion from decision-making, oppression), and, fundamentally, spiritual aspects (indifference to and ignorance of our eternal divine-human dimensions). These are best discussed in relation to three broad points of reference: spiritual aspects of poverty, the global economic system, and the role of national and local government.

Spiritual Aspects of Poverty

When considering poverty, it is necessary to avoid extremes of asceticism and materialism. Scripture teaches three principles: (1) wealth itself is not condemned, (2) people are condemned for the means by which their riches are obtained, and (3) the effects of wealth (for example, pride and selfishness) are most important. Inversely, Scripture also teaches:

  • The first cause of poverty is oppression, fraud, and the search for pleasure. Proverbs 28:3 is one passage among scores that recognizes the problem of oppression: “A ruler who oppresses the poor is like a driving rain that leaves no crops.”
  • The second cause is misfortune, persecution, or judgment (Eccl 5:13–14).
  • The third cause is laziness, neglect, or gluttony. Some are poor because of improper habits, apathy, or worthless pursuit (Prov 10:4).
  • The fourth cause is the culture of poverty. Prov 10:15 says, “The ruin of the poor is their poverty.” Poverty breeds poverty.

The Global Economic System

It is also important to recognize the global system as the context from which poverty stems, directly or indirectly. In this regard, here are some statistics that show us the unjust system in which we live. In 2000, Sarah Anderson and John Cavanagh published a report stating:

1.2 billion people (24 percent of the total world population) [live] in ‘’severe’’ poverty. . . . While the sales of the Top 200 [corporations] are the equivalent of 27.5 percent of world economic activity, they employ only 0.78 percent of the world’s workforce.

Between 1983 and 1999, the profits of the Top 200 firms grew 362.4 percent, while the number of people they employ grew by only 14.4 percent.

U.S. corporations dominate the Top 200, with 82 slots (41 percent of the total). Japanese firms are second, with only 41 slots.

Of the U.S. corporations on the list, 44 did not pay the full standard 35 percent federal corporate tax rate during the period 1996–1998. Seven of the firms actually paid less than zero in federal income taxes in 1998 (because of rebates). These include: Texaco, Chevron, PepsiCo, Enron, Worldcom, McKesson and the world’s biggest corporation, General Motors.5

Here is another diagnosis of our unjust world, last updated in September of 2010:

  • Almost half the world—over three billion people—live on less than $2.50 a day.
  • The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the 41 Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (567 million people) is less than the wealth of the world’s 7 richest people combined.
  • Nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names.
  • 51 percent of the world’s 100 hundred wealthiest bodies are corporations.
  • The wealthiest nation on Earth has the widest gap between rich and poor of any industrialized nation.
  • The poorer the country, the more likely it is that debt repayments are being extracted directly from people who neither contracted the loans nor received any of the money.
  • In 2005, the wealthiest 20% of the world accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption.
  • In 1960, the 20% of the world’s people in the richest countries had 30 times the income of the poorest 20%—in 1997, 74 times as much.
  • An analysis of long-term trends shows the distance between the richest and poorest countries was about:
    3 to 1 in 1820
    11 to 1 in 1913
    35 to 1 in 1950
    44 to 1 in 1973
    72 to 1 in 1992
  • For every $1 in aid a developing country receives, over $25 is spent on debt repayment.
  • The world’s low income countries (2.4 billion people) account for just 2.4% of world exports
  • The world’s billionaires—just 497 people (approximately 0.000008% of the world’s population)—were worth $3.5 trillion (over 7% of world GDP), [while] low income countries (2.4 billion people) accounted for just $1.6 trillion of GDP (3.3%)
  • Approximately 790 million people in the developing world are still chronically undernourished, almost two-thirds of whom reside in Asia and the Pacific.
  • A mere 12 percent of the world’s population uses 85 percent of its water, and these 12 percent do not live in the Third World.
  • The total wealth of the top 8.3 million people around the world “rose 8.2 percent to $30.8 trillion in 2004, giving them control of nearly a quarter of the world’s financial assets.”
  • In other words, about 0.13% of the world’s population controlled 25% of the world’s financial assets in 2004.6

Our developed nations spend more money on war than on education, health, or food. It is estimated that the total cost for the invasion and occupation of Iraq will be around $3 trillion.7 It would appear that the philosophy of Adam Smith is powerfully at work among the world’s economic powers today. He said centuries ago, “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is, in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.”8

In order to understand the historical problem of poverty, we must take into account the global economic situation in which Peru is embedded—a very few obscenely rich people owning companies and corporations that have seized political power. Latin America, of which Peru is part, is the backyard of developed nations. As Eduardo Galeano states:

The international division of labor consists of some countries specializing in winning and others in losing. Our region of the world, today called Latin America, was precocious: it specialized in losing ever since the distant times at which the Europeans of the Renaissance rushed over the sea and sank their teeth into its throat. Centuries passed, and Latin America perfected its functions. This is no longer the realm of wonders, where reality defeated the fable, and imagination was humiliated by the trophies of the conquest, the deposits of gold and mountains of silver. But the region continues to work as a maid. It continues to exist to serve the needs of others, as a source and reserve of oil and iron, copper and meat, fruits and coffee, raw materials and foodstuffs destined for the rich countries that profit more from consuming than Latin America does from producing. The taxes the buyers charge [their customers] is much higher than the prices that the sellers receive; and in the end, as Covey T. Oliver, coordinator of the Alliance for Progress, declared in July 1968, “talking about fair prices today is a medieval concept. We are in the open season of the free market.”9

This pattern extends throughout the world through globalized free-market policies, unchecked by democratic principles.

John says that this world is governed by the evil one (1 John 5:19). It seems that the global economic system described briefly above is a reflection of John’s diagnosis. These “rulers and authorities,” as Paul would put it (Col 2:15; Eph 6:12), are a significant component of understanding poverty in countries like Peru.

The Government and the Poor

In this context of international webs of injustice, it is almost impossible to implement ideal laws in favor of the poor. Still, the whole society, particularly the government, should defend the poor and fight oppression by establishing laws and statutes that prohibit and punish injustice. Moreover, we need a welfare system to promote work and initiative rather than foster dependency, laziness, and poor work habits.

The Peruvian Constitution recognizes the human person as the supreme goal and specifies its duties and responsibilities. This approach involves recognizing that poverty violates rights. Poverty also means lack of skills, which is why government should implement enabling policies and more opportunities for development. In Peru, government does not adequately promote:

  1. A comprehensive approach that articulates economic objectives in relation to social ones.
  2. Participation in decision-making processes.
  3. Access to health services, education, and employment.
  4. Skill acquisition, supporting the generation of economic opportunities.
  5. Combined forms of representative democracy with means and mechanisms of participatory democracy.

Therefore, a specific and comprehensive platform should:

  1. Provide immediate and effective protection of children
  2. Make effective the Plan of Reparations to victims of political violence
  3. Implement measures in situations of serious health risks
  4. Raise the level of learning in logical-mathematical reasoning, integrated communications, and civic values
  5. Increase the minimum wage
  6. Promote employment for the youth linked to local development
  7. Eradicate family violence
  8. Stop pollution
  9. Strengthen public safety10

These are the challenges and tasks that require the participation of the whole society, including the Church of Christ.

An Attempt to Address Poverty

Today, our Western world can be proud of scientific and technological advancements, but it should be ashamed of being unable to gain any significant ground in the area of hunger and poverty. We live in a world where the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen. Yet, governments seem to focus on issues of less importance.

Similarly, in our churches many ministries become so intent on poverty alleviation that evangelistic zeal is lost while others mistake “holistic” for comprehensive and fragment themselves by trying to run too many programs. Some see the poor as simply “in need of values” and descend into moralizing. Balance, wisdom, and a realistic approach are needed.

Reframing the Poverty Question

“How can the poor be made to prosper?” When a problem-focused approach is taken, which concentrates on analyzing why people are poor, it is clear that the causes of poverty are numerous, deep, and complex. This may lead to a search for someone to blame, framing the poor as innocent victims or valueless incompetents, or the generation of powerful but useless emotions such as outrage or hopelessness. The supposed “solution for poverty” for many has been aggressive and reactive legal action, mass protest, revolution, and even terrorism. However, these have not helped the poor to prosper. Attempts to deal with poverty need to be placed in a different framework. Although justice can be sought to some extent through reform, the ultimate solution will not be found in a politico-economical context without reference to the gospel. In Peru, for example, there are many cases of political reform movements spiraling from outrage into aggression, which subsequently engenders greater reaction and repression from the powerful. At the same time, the need for justice cannot be denied. Yet, justice must be sought from within a restoration of our divine image.

Assuming the transforming power of the gospel as a framework, there is wisdom in an emotionally controlled and highly professional approach that avoids the anger and the helplessness of reactive ones. It involves developing an initiative using the best possible people, resources, and legal avenues available at the local, regional, national, and international levels; non-govermental organizations; and sympathetic media outlets, for example. These can be an effective means to change laws and structures and seek mechanisms that will stop injustice.

Restoring the divine image, in which we are all created, also has to do with potentialities: How are the poor already finding ways to prosper? What are they already doing that is working for them? How can they do more of it? This approach takes advantage of their resourcefulness, acknowledges their informal economy, and empowers them by giving their current solutions some dignity. Then, moving forward: What else can be done to help them to prosper? How can business and economic opportunities be generated? How can employment outcomes be improved? How can they find access to cheap capital, training, resources, and markets?

Let us not forget that it is God who gave Israel the power to generate wealth (Deut 8:18). Better said, all people are created in the image of God, so we have the divine potential in our being to grow and be fruitful. Those who serve the poor can concentrate on empowering them as image-bearers while the injustices and larger issues are being addressed.

Also, in the kingdom of God, we are, as image-bearers, to be good stewards. In the end, “image” as divine representative and steward implies that the stewardship is conducted in a way consistent with God’s own character. In simple terms, the solution for poverty is money. Yet, it is not handouts or windfall cash that is needed but rather the ability to create wealth on a consistent basis with dignity and purpose within a righteous and just lifestyle. If a poor community is given the ability to make substantial wealth on a consistent basis, then very soon it will find ways to address poverty.

We must be careful of the “compassion only” motivation that leads to paternalism and patronizing and the “justice only” motivation that leads to great anger and rancor. We need balance and wisdom to avoid falling into political or philosophical reductionisms.

Practical Suggestions for the Church

First, in the area of capital investment, churches should develop a mercy fund to help those in need. Christians should distribute their own financial resources. Second, Christians should use their gifts and abilities to help those caught in the web of poverty. Doctors, educators, businesspeople, and others have much to offer. Third, Christian involvement can lead to spiritual conversion. Second Corinthians 5:17 says that we become new creatures in Jesus Christ, thereby restoring our marred divine image. Fourth, Christians can call people to responsibility. We are to rebuke laziness and poor habits (2 Thess 3:10). The church can help those addicted to alcohol or other drugs and help to heal broken families.

Keeping the Goal in Mind: Well-Being

Well-being in the Old Testament is signified by a group of words in the shlm family, such as shalom and shalem—meaning peace and wholeness (Isa 26:3; 48:22; 57:21). Shalom and wholeness flow from the blessing of God to those who fear him and abide in his commandments. It is in God’s blessing to the nation and city that individuals find their blessing.

Well-being comes from wisdom, diligence, well ordered relationships, appropriate personal boundaries, paying attention to the means of production, being cautious in expenditure, and righteous living, among other things. Our restored divine image manifests itself in a life characterized by shalom. Shalom includes spiritual, relational, and corporate aspects. The poor should both find riches in Christ through evangelism and discipleship and be given the power to make wealth. However, wealth is a secondary good, while Christlikeness and well-being are primary. Though issues of reform and empowerment are important, shalom should be the foundation to build true prosperity.

Conclusion

Capitalism and communism alike, when taken to extremes, have had disastrous consequences in Peru. Both ideologies, as with all economic ideologies, have negative side effects in regard to the poor.

Capitalism, on the one hand, raises the individual above the masses and stresses the importance of private property, free markets, and a democratic model for government. Heartless corporations thrive at the expense of millions of regular people. Laissez-faire capitalist countries, such as certain Latin American ones, are notoriously poor and overrun by corruption.

Communism, on the other hand, stresses the importance of collectivity, frowns upon private property, aims to control the world markets so as to better the lives of the whole, and sees socialism as the best model for government. There is no need to pretend that communism is any better for the poor than capitalism, because it has already failed miserably. Most of Eastern Europe was communist until the Berlin Wall fell. The fate of these countries under communism was widespread poverty and corruption. Many living in Latin American communist experiments would attest to a similar failure.

In Peru, it is clear that none of the politico-economical systems of the world can fully address poverty. Does the church of Christ have something unique to offer in the fight against poverty? Is the kingdom of God the solution? Is the gospel the alternative to the world’s answers? I believe so, but we know that the kingdom is not fully among us, which is why we cry out with John, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20). In the meantime, the members of the church of Christ have a mission to join. With Jesus as our liberator, example, and master we endeavor to love and save the poor and all of humankind.

Abraham Olivera has completed the program at Sunset International Bible Institute and holds a BA in Bible from Lubbock Christian University. He is currently finishing a degree in psychology at the Universidad Nacional de San Agustin in Arequipa, Perú. He serves as the elected president of his urban community’s local political orgainzation and works as an evangelist and church planter. Contact him at abraham_oli@hotmail.com.

1 Christine Hunefeldt, A Brief History of Peru (San Diego, CA: Checkmark Books, 2004), xiv.

2 Emilio Antonio Núñez C. and William David Taylor, Crisis and Hope in Latin America: An Evangelical Perspective, rev. ed. (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1996), xii. Peru’s popular sectors were attracted to José Carlos Mariátegui’s dialectical and historical materialism. Mariátegui founded the Socialist Party of Peru in the late 1920s. Unfortunately, radical Marxist groups like Shining Path and the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, along with police and military repression, were responsible for the death of 26,829 people and economic losses exceeding 26 billion dollars in the decades of the 80s and 90s. See Peru’s Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, http://www.cverdad.org.pe/ for information on those crimes. “Popular sectors” have made their own way socially and economically in the aftermath of these political experiments.

3 Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.

4 Rod Earnshaw and Dan Martin, “Renewal for a Broken Culture and Good News for the Poor?” http://holytrinitygateshead.org.uk/ministersblog/59/2010/07/09/renewal-for-a-broken-culture-and-good-news-for-the-poor.

5 Sarah Anderson and John Cavanagh. “Top 200: The Rise of Corporate Global Power.” Institute for Policy Studies. http://www.ips-dc.org/reports/top_200_the_rise_of_corporate_global_power.

6 Anup Shah, “Poverty Facts and Stats,” http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats.

7 “The Three Trillion Dollar War: Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard Economist Linda Bilmes on the True Cost of the US Invasion and Occupation of Iraq,” Democracy Now, http://www.democracynow.org/2008/2/29/exclusive_the_three_trillion_dollar_war.

8Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 2 vols. (London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1776), book V, ch. I, pt. II, par. 12. You can read it on line at: http://www.online-literature.com/adam_smith/wealth_nations.

9 Eduardo Galeano, Las venas abiertas de America Latina (http://www.aahora.org/doctos/LasVenasAbiertasdeAmericaLatina.pdf), 5; translation by Abraham Olivera and Greg McKinzie.

10 Mesa de Concertación Para la Lucha Contra la Pobreza, “Afrontar los desafíos que permitan superar la pobreza desde una estrategia integral,” Pobreza en el Perú, http://www.mesadeconcertacion.org.pe/contenido.php?pid=157; translation by Abraham Olivera.