Poverty and Religion

What does the “Occupy Wallstreet” movement have in common with anti-poverty movements around the world? They both tend to blame much that is intrinsic to Western culture for their woes. Though the economic and cultural model of the West only poorly reflects the goodness, wisdom, and compassion of God, it is a start in the right direction and not to be rejected.

Last night, I watched a documentary entitled “The End of Poverty?” on Hulu. I highly recommend it to those who wonder what motivates so much of the world to blame the West for poverty and oppression. As with most arguments, the documentary mixes a selected body of facts and links them into cause/effect relationships to prove that the West, through centuries of empirical domination, capitalistic exploitation, and religious subversion destroyed the local economies and enslaved (literally and figuratively) the populations of currently poor nations to serve the financial interests of the West. What makes this rather tedious documentary valuable is that it reflects what others are learning, both in poor nations as well as in the West… it is even reflected in the “Occupy Wallstreet” movement.

Since the “age of exploration,” as the movie argues, have Western nations abused other nations? Have abuses taken place in the name of Western Christianity? Can the corporate structure of the global market place overlook (and even abuse) local impoverished populations? I say, “Yes” to each charge. But this concession is incomplete and unqualified!

To blame Western culture for poverty, the case must be made that the “invaded” peoples were previously prosperous and that they would have continued to prosper had they been left alone. Contrary to the premises of this movie, neither of these requirements can be demonstrated. Why? Because poverty is mostly ideological, and few ideologies have led to general prosperity.

The groundbreaking research of respected sociologist Rodney Stark and others has demonstrated the link between Christianity and the growth of reason, science, morality, liberty, and other qualities we associate with healthy society. We may dream of peace and prosperity for all people and
assume that it is within the reach of all peoples regardless of religion or creed, but this assumption is refuted by current and past history.

Both the selfish nature of the human heart and the limited understanding of the human mind have proven inadequate to the prosperous development of meaningful society.
Every heart and mind is shaped by some ideology, and Christianity, the ideological source of the West, has led to the most humanitarian, prosperous, free, and technologically advanced societies.

Surely, the West has (and does) represent much that is counter to Christianity, but in general, the activities of the West have increased the welfare of the rest of the world. It is easy to
presume that the poor of every continent and island would have prospered if only saved from the influence of Western government and ideology, but we must remember that war, disease, political domination, and poverty of the masses have been the norm for all societies through history. The ideologically based deficits that first made peoples susceptible to the influence (and even domination of the West) lack the resources to lead their people out of poverty. Thus, though Western government, capitalism, and religion do not represent a panacea, they imperfectly reflect the social out-workings of Christianity, and are more to be thanked for raising the dignity of human life, defending human rights, inspiring compassion, educating children, delivering peoples from oppressive governments, and nurturing wholesome human character rather than bringing poverty and oppression to the world.

But the above defense is not all that is needed. Our mission and duty as Christian educators and parents is to work to shape this culture that imperfectly reflects our God. The body of Christ, as the majority faith, cannot divorce itself from our culture. Rather, we need invest our lives within our sphere of influence to make the goodness and wisdom of God more clearly visible so that others will love, trust, and follow Him, too. Central to this calling, we must teach our children to live and think as Christians in every area of life. In the end, may the blessings God bestowed upon the West (and more) be made available to every person on earth through Jesus Christ!
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