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    Shanty Town in Rio de Janeiro

    Fight Wealth Not Poverty

    After decades serving the poor, I’ve realized that the problem and the solution lie closer to home.

    By Claudio Oliver

    April 22, 2024
    • Robert Schwartz

      I agree with many points in your article. Having said that, you very dangerously misquote and misinterpret Matt 5:3, the centerpiece of your argument. Literally, Scriptures says "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." This passage is in no way speaking about financial poverty, but spiritual poverty. Those who understand they are sinners and cannot enter into heaven on their own merit are "poor in spirit". It is they who possess "the kingdom of heaven" (by God's grace through faith in Christ and not of themselves, that no one can boast! Eph 2:8-9). Again, you make many good points here, but misrepresenting Scripture should never be a means to an end...

    • Gale Hemmann

      I have worked in the grants world over the years and what's interesting is that in years of economics classes, from traditional to social justice oriented ones, grants are never mentioned as a stream in the economy. You can't find a book or article on their role in the economy. Yet, they're running the tiny bottleneck through which the wealthy control the fate of nonprofits and the pressing human needs they serve. They are decision-makers over nonprofits (from diaper banks to shelters) stay afloat or can provide full services. Is your shelter open 6 days a week or 7? There are formal grants processe but much of the work relies on private relationships and the abilty to ifluence those at the table - tax benefits are provided to grant makers, and other simliar nonprofit supports available through philanthropy. It's a primary social engine for the wealthy. Still very little studied at an above-ground leevl because people who work at nonprofits are stlll ... in the trenches. It's grants that can provide, for example, a quick response to food bank needs during a pandemic (federal grants are typically much more delayed). Who is polished and can most easily access the funds provided by grants? You guessed it ... those who look like the philanthropists themselves. There's just now starting to be some change in the industry, but it's stunning how unacknowledged this issue is outside it.

    • Matt Pound

      Thank you for this thoughtful article. It was challenging to read and meditate on. I work in a similar context in Southeast Asia, and am constantly wrestling with these kinds of questions. I wonder if there is a middle ground somewhere we could agree on. I think of the prayer in Proverbs 30:8“Lord, give me neither riches nor poverty…” Excessive wealth and excessive poverty are both harmful and dehumanizing in different ways. We should remember are speaking of a moral ideal, which is something we cannot and should not try to compel others to observe (as communism has often tried to do with terrifying results) but something we can model ourselves and try to persuade others of. As for top-down service, I think it is the wrong distinction. We all have things we can share with others---from the “top”---that is for a position of greater experience or knowledge. We are equal in value, but not in knowledge or experience. As far as I can see, it isn’t wrong to occasionally offer help from the top down, so long as we remember that the poor also have much to teach us (sometimes they are on “top”). After all, Jesus taught that to whom much is given, much is demanded. John the Baptist said anyone who had two tunics should share with anyone who has none. It is natural and right that those with more should give to those with less in terms of resources. There are distinctions, based on ability and resources. We just need to everyone has something to contribute. Teachers for example, have many valuable things to give their students. This doesn’t mean they don’t also learn from the students, but nor does it mean they learn “equally” from each other. It can be an arrogant assumption on our part to think money is what the poor need most. But it can also be an arrogant assumption to dictate to the poor what they ought to want or value. The world is sick in many ways because of greed and selfishness, but it is also sick because of poverty. Domestic abuse, malnutrition, child abuse, child exploitation are all higher among the very poor. Let us be careful not to romanticize extreme poverty. It is brutal and dehumanizing. In my experience, the only people who criticize wealth are the wealthy. If we say capitalism has led to suffering, I assume we mean it has led to jobs that seem disagreeable to us. If children are mining elements for cell phones and women are sewing clothes, what would they be doing without those jobs? Would they be better off or worse off? Maybe we can’t know, but they should be allowed to choose. If they choose those jobs over their previous poverty, aren’t we playing God to say they would be better off without those jobs? We can agree we want better conditions and pay for those people perhaps, but to blame the source of the jobs as wrong in itself seems a bit short sighted. I am troubled by the consumerism in myself and others around me, but capitalism and free markets have done more to lift people out of poverty than any other system or earth. I agree with you about extreme wealth. What is the point of amassing so much? Billionaires make easy targets. But most of them do not have huge piles of money in secret rooms. That money is invested in the economy, in companies allowing them to hire more people, to create new jobs, creating new and greater wealth. Maybe this is the real issue: Do we believe that the planet can support a “middle class lifestyle” for all the people who live on it? I don’t know. But I am not sure we have a right to deprive or discourage the poor the opportunity to pursue such a life for themselves. I like your comments about the human condition. Mother Teresa called all such inner emptiness and loneliness poverty too, even among wealthy people. But I want to be careful I don’t minimize the suffering of the physically poor, by saying we are “all poor.” My loneliness as a part of an individualistic culture is very different from the starvation faced by a child in India. Having some wealth has a tremendous impact on quality of life. I don’t believe we need much, but we do need some. It can be easy to romanticize poverty, but there are very real evils that come with it, as I am sure you are aware from your own experience. Where I live there is a museum run by the government documenting how transformative the schools, hospitals, and western medicine were that were brought by missionaries many years ago. Capacities and resources have a place, and can have a very real positive effect for millions of people. We don’t need to deny that, but we do need to have humble hearts to know how to use them well. Jesus did not command us to fight wealth, but he did warn the rich strongly, and He called all of us to sell our possessions, give to the poor, and come follow Him. It is tempting to simplify things with an ideology like fight poverty or fight wealth, but His command seems both higher and harder. It requires a daily questioning and wrestling: How do I use the “talents” he has given me well for His Kingdom? What does he want me to do today? Am I keeping too much? Seeking too much? Giving too little? Thank you again for sharing this. It made me think, and this are just some of my thoughts to add to the discussion. Thank you for your years of service to the “least of these.”

    • Linda Heath

      I agree the author and the two commenters. There are several threads in my life since 2017 that have led me to similar conclusions. Commercial lending as a banker watching the system increasing wealth for those who have large enough incomes to afford single family houses to buy and rent out - while the gaps in affordable housing gap in our community just grow. Read Redeeming Capitalism by Ken Barnes and learned that the board of a giant family business asked themselves "When is enough, enough?" and revamped their supply chain to push more of the profits down to the cacao farmers - not just in pay but in schools, water, infrastructure in their villages. Have supported missionaries and microbusinesses to help them support their families while out in the bush discipling and evangelizing. Have been reading Plough for about 5 years. At age 70 went on my first mission trip in February 2024 to Niger, Africa to lend a hand and see the "fields" first hand. It was eye-opening to read this article saying that the poor and rich have the same distorted view of what we need and seeing it outside of our Heavenly Father. But it rings true. As a former banker, now consultant, I will most likely have access to some of the wealthy. This article arms me, but I'm not sure what to do next. How may I stay in touch with the 3 of you? (

    • Christian

      I disagree. It’s a free market and to say the wealthy are the problem has historically proven very, very dangerous.

    • Jodee Keller

      Loved this article !!

    • Melissa Dodson

      Claudio, what you’ve written deeply resonates with me as, years ago, I served as a missionary in an economically poor country. I’ve reached similar conclusions about the importance of recognizing my own inner poverty & my own greed, though my path to those conclusions differed from yours: Many of the local people in my midst were devout believers & they daily modeled for me rightly-ordered priorities & trusting in God’s provision. Being there, among them, God revealed to me my own sense of entitlement & my self-reliance. Thank you for reminding me of these truths in your bravely- & vulnerably-written piece.

    • Barry Lillie

      I could not disagree more with this article. Poverty is not encouraged in the Bible. The Kingdom is now available to the poor, but being so is no virtue. What the poor need are more opportunities to be productive members of the economy thru job creation and small business creation. Decreasing political corruption and monopoly power is what Brazil needs. A strong middle class is a better goal, achieved through incentives to increase investment in the means of production. Taking from the rich will do nothing....

    • Linda wilson

      I have believed for a very long time that wealth is an addiction, like opiates and the like. The wealth do not need another tax cut, they need a 12 step program. Cordially, John Wilson, Jr.

    • Mary Sharon Moore

      I have long wanted to invite the "extreme wealthy" into a better conversation--one of justice, and generosity, and yes, joy. But I personally don't know any "extreme wealthy." Where can I find the door that can open to better conversations with those who seem fortressed against anything that might erode their many forms of security? At age 74, this is the one desire that grows stronger in me by the week.

    • Jim Dowling

      A catholic worker friend, did not like the slogan "make poverty history". He said a much better slogan would be "Make wealth history!" I agree.

    Already as a teen I was consumed by the idea of fighting the extreme poverty, hunger, and injustice that were rampant during two decades of dictatorship in Brazil. I married a likeminded woman, and for forty years we have had the opportunity of serving in various contexts: slums, feeding people, encouraging underprivileged students, helping beggars find work, and developing blighted neighborhoods. Attuned to practices that don’t create dependency, we have been mindful to “empower” people, modeling microenterprises and urban agriculture, helping poor families manage their finances, making connections between rich and poor, and giving people opportunities to discover vocations and transform their lives. 

    So why, after all this, have I given up serving the poor and stopped fighting poverty?

    At key moments in my life, I have paused to ask myself this question most frequently: Does what I am doing make sense? Are my heart and work aligned with God’s will, or am I missing the point? More than once, this has led me to relocate and start all over just when I thought things were going well. And it has meant putting myself and my family in very insecure situations. Along the way, I have seen many sincere friends come and go. They start out excited about serving but soon get preoccupied with personal issues, doubting that God will take care of them, and eventually they burn out or move on. I have seen others paying someone else to fulfill God’s service, moved by real sincerity from a distance but without personal involvement.

    I have also seen how much poverty takes over the lives of those who are financially poor, and how much it reveals their unfulfilled desire to own and consume. Their situation is reinforced by the same things that seduce and destroy the rich: individualism, selfishness, self-gratification, and ownership as a simulacrum of happiness. Rich and poor have the same conviction: that what they need is something the market, the government, or some other agency can offer. That they will be happy with ownership, a full stomach (some with bread and meat, others with croissants and caviar), and a constant flow of money, thought to be the one and only mediator that solves everything.

    Shanty Town in Rio de Janeiro

    Favela da Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photograph by Donatas Dabravolskas.

    There are well-intentioned people who extend a hand to include others in the lifestyle they have achieved, believing it to have been an act of mercy and calling this stretched-out hand from top down “service.” The very position of serving the poor, from a commitment to “liberate” them and give them access to consumption, is filled with a sense of superiority, usually not perceived. Giving others what I have assumes that what I have is what they need. This can be seen in the subtle arrogance of the politics of inclusion, always trying to fit more people inside the box that is the middle-class lifestyle called “the American way,” with no reflection on the planet’s limits.

    To fight against poverty may be honorable, but it is missing the point. The world is not sick because of poverty; I am sure it suffers from a more dangerous disease: billionaires. Capitalism has led to the suffering of the Yanomami people in Brazil, the Congolese children mining rare minerals to be used in cell phones, the Bangladeshi women sewing for fast-fashion chains, while concentrating wealth in the hands of a few. For example, six individual Brazilians hold the same amount of resources as 50 percent of the country’s population, the 110 million poorest Brazilians.

    Jesus didn’t bring good news to those who serve the poor from a secure position in life; he brought good news to the poor.

    Instead of fighting extreme poverty, Christians ought to be fighting extreme wealth. With Jesus we must raise our voices to say: “But woe to you who are rich!” (Luke 6:24–25). Instead of endorsing an endless war on poverty, we should direct our “Woe” at greed, the cause of the poverty, climate change, and the destruction of populations and the environment.

    To be clear, when I say I am no longer fighting poverty, I am not advocating a retreat to the side of the wealthy and the comfortable. I do not want to join those whose lives are separated from contact with the poor, the sick, the hungry, the naked, the ugly, the smelly. I do not want to join those who are not aware of the damage they are doing to creation, who feel money gives access to a secure and unconcerned life. What these wealthy and comfortable people call security, Jesus calls madness (Luke 12:16–34).

    In the early 1990s I used to go into the streets with a bunch of teenagers seeking out the homeless. The motto we used was “meet Jesus in the poorest poor.” Feeding and clothing Jesus was our motivation: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40). But we discovered that in these encounters with a camouflaged Jesus, we saw ourselves mirrored. We realized that we often use the same manipulation, excuses, and lies to get what we want that we saw in the desperate poor. We discovered that, in a deep sense, we were them. In the end, we discovered ourselves as pathetic, poor, and empty.

    And we learned a hard truth: Jesus didn’t bring good news to those who serve the poor from a secure position in life; he brought good news to the poor. He has nothing to say to other saviors who compete with him for the position of Messiah. He brings a message for those who recognize themselves as poor, naked, hurt, tired, overburdened, needy, and hopeless. For the rest, he has little to offer.

    The only way to remain with the poor is to discover that we too are miserable, to recognize ourselves, however well we are disguised, in the suffering neighbor before our eyes. When their misery reflects our own, when we realize our own neediness and desperate need to be healed and restored, then Jesus can help us. God is not manifest in our ability to heal, but in our need to be healed.

    Encountering the poor and finding myself in them, rather than serving them from my privileged position, has also made me more aware of the misery that lurks in the well-structured lives of the rich. I understand better this Jesus who talks to lepers and religious leaders alike. Identifying with each person regardless of class or social status, he saw what perhaps no one else did: the universal misery and poverty of the human condition. As I reencounter my own poverty, I start to better see each situation of misery and get in touch with each person’s inner pain. From there, I pray for mercy, healing, restoration, freedom, and community – for myself and others.

    From Jesus to Saint Francis, from Thomas Aquinas to Mother Teresa, we are taught that poverty is a gospel virtue. In the very first Beatitude, Jesus tells the poor to rejoice in being poor, because theirs is the possibility of having lives guided by God. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20; Matt. 5:3). Jesus is not calling us to empower the poor, but to become poor and powerless ourselves!

    The way of Jesus is a way of kenosis, or emptying oneself. “He made himself nothing …” (Phil. 2:7). Jesus demonstrated this in his life, not only in his ultimate sacrifice but also in his daily interactions with lepers and beggars and with synagogue rulers and centurions. As Isaiah writes, “By his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). Jesus emptied himself of power to the point of dying, thus opening the door of resurrection for us. The power that Jesus uses to heal us does not reside in his access to universal power, but in becoming one of us, living a life of human frailty, and dying on a cross.

    The power Christians bring to bear on the suffering around us is not the power of our capacities and resources, but a power that depends on our personal weakness (2 Cor. 12:9–10), which we have disguised with our possessions and stability. Whoever serves out of the sense of having something to offer, serves from the top. Jesus calls us to place ourselves under him as powerless dependents, to give up trusting our own capacity and let him meet our wounds and pain.

    And so I invite as many as possible to experience this power that comes from being less and not more, which only comes when we stop serving the poor and acknowledge our own poverty. If there is still a fight to be fought, it is to renounce our own habits of consumption, to denounce the concentration of wealth, and to fight against the source of these problems in ourselves: the love of money and power.

    Contributed By ClaudioOliver Claudio Oliver

    Claudio Oliver is a pastor and the founder of a Christian community, Casa da Videira (House of the Vine).

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