I’ve been reflecting on some things over the past couple of months relating to poverty in the world … every day 35,000 people die from starvation – they will die today, and another 35,000 will die tomorrow, & so on … until some people do something about it …..

A few days before Christmas (last year), I suggested in ‘ideas from the edge’ that Christmas was a great time to remember Jesus, friends & family, & the POOR.

I had been reading “Exiles” by Michael Frost (I still haven’t finished it – I get distracted by books like “When Bad Christians Happen To Good People” J .. a book worth looking at just for the title).

Mike Frost in Exiles says that every culture has ‘gods’, whether they are overt or hidden. He suggests (I agree) that one of the main ‘gods’ in the west is materialism (& selfishness) … he says we need to confront / challenge this ‘god’ … particularly by living counter-culturally. We ‘rich’ Christians are typically as rich & materialistic as the ‘not-yet-christians’ around us … or at least there aren’t overt, highly visible differences between us ….

Could you spot who are the Christians in NZ / US / UK society by only looking at their use of $, spending on themselves, the poor etc???? … I suggest that this would be very difficult … as typically ‘we’ aren’t much different (apart from possibly giving $ to our organised church, which spends typically 90% on providing wonderful ‘services’ for our own use – a bit like golfers paying to be part of the golf club etc) … we’re not radically counter-cultural enough to draw the world’s attention to our different allegiance & values …

So … just before Christmas I offered a challenge (for us all) “…. for christians who are called to love the poor, give to the needy who can’t repay etc etc …. Can you / we / I … spend as much on helping the poor this Christmas as we spend on giving to the rich (our selves, friends & family) …. OR … if you / we / I don’t have enough $ to do it that way around, what about trying to only spend as much on the rich as we’ve already spent on the poor ….. (ie give to the poor first …)

A friend came back to me re this & said … ‘thank you very much – a good challenge – but it would be better if it came with more warning/time, rather than just a few days before Christmas .. as they had already spent their Christmas $. He had a good point … so I thought I’d issue the challenge again, with a bit more warning, for Christmas …. (10 months warning … remember its only 310 days to Christmas … J )

Is it possible for us to care for the poor as much as we do for the rich? Is it possible for us to spend as much on the poor at Christmas as we do on the rich? Personally, we’ve been trying to move further that way … our children & relatives are getting used to being given goats & pigs & toilets & orchards for Christmas … through the gifts for the poor programs of World Vision & Tear Fund … a couple of years ago my mother-in-law said the goat she was given was the best present she received (she got a photo of a goat which was given to a poor family somewhere) – she now looks forward to something similar each year

In January, Margaret (my wonderful wife) said ‘so how did we personally do’? We sat down & did the sums, & figured we needed to give a bit more money away … & then we had managed to meet the challenge. Maybe the challenge needs to be extended beyond Christmas … is it possible this year to spend as much on the poor as we do on the rich? (on the unnecessary luxury things)

I took 3 of our kids + lots of unicycles to Parachute Music Festival in January (a large Christian music festival). At Parachute, there was a debate on world poverty – I didn’t get to the debate, but recognized one of the debators as a former bible college student I had taught. I bumped into him later & asked how it went, & whether there were any conclusions. He said that one of the conclusions was that poverty couldn’t be stopped in our lifetime. I was surprises, & I’m sure a lot more good things were said in the debate … but I’ve been thinking about this statement ‘poverty can’t be stopped in our lifetime’, & have decided I disagree.

Poverty could be stopped in a year or 2 if everyone in the world decided they would do everything they can to eliminate poverty (including the unjust rulers, billionaires, criminals, ordinary people etc). But if it was only the Christians who focused on it, poverty could easily be eliminated in our lifetime … if all, or lots, of rich Christians decided it was a priority.

But we know it won’t happen (& maybe this is what the debate concluded). WHY – because all christians won’t do it …. Why not – probably for a variety of reasons including selfishness, materialism, lack of understanding of the biblical mandate, different priorities, dualism (ie wrongly thinking that the spiritual & material can be separated, & that the spiritual realm is more important) etc etc

BUT – we can still each, personally, do lots (& lots more) to help the poor.

I had a conversation with another friend who is a minister – we’ve talked lots over the years about the $ spent on churches vs the $ going to help the poor. He argues that if all Christians gave generously to their churches (rather than only the 20% of people who tithe to their church), then there would be plenty of $ left over to help the poor. I disagree … it seems to me that most churches are very good at spending all (or most) of what they get … if the income to a typical local church doubled, it would probably quickly find ways to spend that extra income (on new programs, better equipment, buildings, staff etc etc) … rather than on the poor. As Tom Sine says “Let’s quit kidding ourselves; we even tithe to ourselves. Everthing we put into our churches we take back. We are not, as Bonhoeffer said, ‘the church for others’; we are the church for ourselves.” (as an aside – I am convinced that tithing as it is taught in many churches is biblically inaccurate & wrong)

So .. if a church really cared for the poor, maybe it could give the first part of its income to the poor …. Or what about a church which gave ½ of all income to the poor? Surely actions like this would indicate that the church (church leaders & members) placed priority on the poor.

I met another old friend at Parachute. Following a comment I made about how I love house churches because they are financially cheap to run & hence can potentially free $ for other things (like helping the poor), he said ‘our church is cheap to run – it has a building with no mortgage, & a budget of about $100k pa for 250 people’. Reflecting on this later … I figured that the building is probably worth $1m, & hence could generate about $100k pa income … so the total cost of running the church is about $200k pa (+ volunteer time) … $200k each year could save a lot of lives – I dusted off my calculator & worked out that its enough to start 20 micro-enterprise banks each year, which each make about 350 loans every 3 years, & affect 3000+ lives, & carry on long-term. So my friends church, over 10 years, could potentially spend $2m on itself – or start 200 micro-enterprise banks, making 128,000 loans, affecting 1,100,000 lives … & this would carry on long-term.

We also heard Tony Campolo speak last week – he was great (I’ve only seen him on video before). Part of what he said, as he gave impassioned encouragement to sponsor children, was that its not about generosity, its about justice. We Christians (& others) do generosity well (eg the response to The Tsunami & Hurricane Katrina was great), but we aren’t good at long-term justice issues (eg the 35,000 dying every day). We live in an unjust world, where we are fortunate enough to be the rich ones, and we supposedly serve a God who clearly commands us to give generously to the poor & to work to right injustice.

Tony spoke well, encouraging everyone to sponsor a child. I think he could have pushed people a bit further … if you sponsor one child, why not stretch & take a second one, or if you have 2, why not stretch a bit & sponsor a third. I know of university students on very tight budgets sponsoring 2 children, & high school students earning $6/hr for casual work sponsoring one child … quite a challenge for those of us who earn real wages.

To quote NZ singer Brooke Fraser in her song ‘Albertine’, “Now that I have seen, I am responsible. Faith without deeds is dead”. We have seen – we are responsible – what will we do about it?


David Allis