Poverty as a Lack of Freedom to Grow

In the book “Walking With The Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development,”  Bryant L. Myers points out the following:

Dr Ravi I. Jayakaran’s framework for poverty as limitation echoes John Friedmann’s observation that, “while we do not know what a “flourishing human life” is, we “can know what inhibits it: hunger, poor health, poor education, a life of backbreaking labor, a constant fear of dispossession and chaotic social relations” (Friedmann 1992, 12). The response is to help the poor lose their limitations, a phrase that Ted Ward often used as he consulted with development agencies in the 1980s. This echoes Amartya Sen’s proposal that the goal of development is to increase human freedom as both the means and the end of development. Jayakaran goes on to point out that behind each of these “bundles of limitations” lies powerful stakeholders, people whose interests are served by the limitations and who have a stake in sustaining the illusion that such limitations can never be changed. We discover these limitations when we ask the critical diagnostic question: Who is doing what to whom?

 I’ve added some important links to the people and the works mentioned above.  I’d encourage you to visit them at your convenience.

Myers goes on to point out that Jayakaran says:

The micro-expression of these stakeholders is usually local and obvious: moneylenders, local traders and business people, police, government officials, and priests or shamans. The macro-expressions are often harder to name because they are located elsewhere, usually close to where decisions affecting the poor are made. In addition to being harder to find and identify, the higher-level stakeholders usually control the micro-level ones.

“Jayakaran adds to our understanding of poverty in two important ways. First, he locates the causes of poverty in people, not in concepts or abstractions. This is important and is frequently forgotten. It is easy to blame greed, systems, the market, corruption, and culture, but these are abstractions and cannot be directly changed. People—the poor and the non-poor—have to change. Second, Jayakaran alerts us to the fact that these stakeholders, the sources of oppression, are often themselves operating within “bundles of limitations” kept in place by still-more-powerful stakeholders. The local non-poor are also the poor held in bondage by another group of non-poor who are operating at a higher level in the system. This staircase of oppression goes all the way from the village to the area, to the nation, and to the global level. Robert Linthicum calls this “systems above systems” (Linthicum 1991, 19).”*

This is the nature of poverty and oppression. Everyone is sinner and sinned against.

What I find most interesting in this brief reference from Myers’ book is that it has the potential to obliterate most of the common misconceptions about poverty relief.  I find the graphic extremely thought-provoking.  A holistic approach to poverty can not be attempted with what I would call a Contra-Kingdom theology or philosophy.  Any “world-view” that doesn’t presuppose a world which God made (Acts 17:24) (Genesis 1:1), a world which we are not of (John 15:19) (1 John 2:15), and a world that Jesus was sent to save (John 3:16) (John 3:17) will fail miserably in poverty relief and in Kingdom transformation.  Ultimately, the beginning of the solution to the poverty problem is simple.  Stop sinning against others.  You may ask, “how am I sinning against the poor whom I don’t even know?”  It’s when you pray “Thy Kingdom Come,” and fail to take part in making that a reality.  Inaction only reinforces the same ideologies that keeps poverty in place.

I can’t say that we at Pathways International have this all figured out.  Nor can I say that we haven’t made our mistakes along the way.  What I can say, is that we have a desire to see people in the region where we work find relief from mental, social, physical, and spiritual oppression.  


For Related posts, see:

A Theology of Poverty & Praxis – Part I

A Theology of Poverty & Praxis Part II – Church Charity First, then Everyone Else?

A Theology of Poverty & Praxis Part III – Which Comes First, Their Need or Our Creed?

A Theology of Poverty & Praxis Part IV – Redistribution of Wealth vs. Charitable Contribution.






*Bryant L. Myers (2011-11-09). Walking With The Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (Revised and Expanded Edition) (Kindle Locations 3195-3200). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.


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    1. In the past, I have often swung between two extremes. Thinking either I can do nothing because the “problem” of poverty is so big, or thinking that I must go off to the worst example that I can find and singlehandedly slay the giant of poverty. Both of those extremes put the emphasis on what I could do and is humanistic in nature. What you have pointed out, is that the problem has a spiritual component and it takes BOTH the love of the Father and our love for Him and for others. Our love will compel us to stop sinning against others and begin loving them — both at our own locality and in other parts of the world. GREAT post, that I will be thinking more about!

      • Clif,

        Thanks for the comment. I’m thinking that “going to extremes,” is a sign of our own spiritual condition. Almost like being “tossed to and for” (Ephesians 4:14). I say almost, because our reaction to poverty is just one of the spiritual effects of being:

        Unstable (James 1:8)
        Double Minded (James 4:8)
        And, of Divided Heart (James 1:6)

        I am not saying that you are any of these things, but I am saying we all have a predisposed inclination to move into those extremes and recoil from them with equal force. It does seem amplified when it comes to poverty though.

        • Miguel, insightful observation on “going to extremes”! I USED to resemble that remark, but after experiencing grace and the Father’s love my life has radically changed. Now I don’t need to be told to love the Father and love others — I want to do so. Your blog and your life lived openly has encouraged, edified and comforted me. THANKS!

    2. Thought provoking. I suspect that among every people group, in every culture, in every nation there are systemic patterns of oppression and hierarchy that flow out of our sin nature. And in any collective of people, the shape of the oppressive system that results will necessarily be unique locally and open to unique forms of distant (global) oppression as well.

      There is no freedom from these systems that are created by sin that does not have at its center the breaking in of the kingdom of God that overpowers and overthrows the sovereignty of sin for the sovereignty of God. From one angle, the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer of radical revolution. When we pray for his will to be done on earth AS IT IS IN HEAVEN, we are praying for the radical in breaking of Kingdom values. That single phrase is a prayer that looks to the overthrow of all kingdoms of this earth and all of their systems for the radical Lordship of Christ as King of Kings.

      How could it be otherwise? So it is impossible for us to pray such prayers without calling the people of God to a radically different expression of love and compassion and mercy than what any government or NGO can give. We are a cross-bought people. Our expression of the cross-bought beginning of our faith and life ought to be a cross-shaped lifestyle, i.e. a sacrificial giving and living for the other rather than ourselves.

      I have written briefly about some of this line of thought in chapter 22 of the Dr. John Fuder and Noel Castelanos edited book,

      (Moody, 2010). I am presently preparing an essay for Kindle release on some of these themes. Perhaps it will be helpful to you.

      Thanks for the information on Myers book. I will look it up.

      • Marty,

        Thanks for your in depth comment. I took the liberty of linking your Fuder and Castelanos book to the Amazon Kindle version. I will go add it to my wish list as well.

        I fully agree with your statement, “That single phrase is a prayer that looks to the overthrow of all kingdoms of this earth and all of their systems for the radical Lordship of Christ as King of Kings.”

    3. We have seen a visible answer to this complex question in Acts chapters 2-5 the ekklesia had all things in common, neither was their any (unmet) need among them. Prior to the arrival of the Ekklesia of Christ (the kingdom of God) in Acts 2, we have Jesus and the disciples as our example. You will always have the poor with you. It was obvious that distribution of finances to the poor was a regular habit of Jesus and His closest followers, but it did not solve the wide spread financial poverty of the day. Because, absent the arrival of the spiritual and then physical kingdom of God, the problem was unsolvable, until the greater problem of human falleness was solved.
      Today, as we hear His voice, and answer the call to come under Christ’s authority alone, we are being built into a house, a habitation of God through the Spirit, to be the people of God. This is not theoretical but actual occurrence.
      In these communitas of Christ, the transformation of the heart and soul, the renewal of the Holy Spirit is happening. We are learning to call no property our own, there are no authoritative leaders, except the Holy Spirit, there are not titles only functions.
      Saying all of that to say, until we get the foundations of the kingdom built, there is only doing what can be done. Just as Jesus himself did. With the arrival of the kingdom of God, foundations are being built, hearts and souls are transformed, and the very deepest needs of mankind will be met as we follow the Holy Spirit wherever He leads us.

    4. “Ultimately, the beginning of the solution to the poverty problem is simple. Stop sinning against others. You may ask, “how am I sinning against the poor whom I don’t even know?” It’s when you pray “Thy Kingdom Come,” and fail to take part in making that a reality. Inaction only reinforces the same ideologies that keeps poverty in place.”

      I agree, Miguel. Also – privilege tends to blind those to whom it has been given to all it confers on them; as a friend of mine put it, the privileged really seem to believe they are their own little islands of industriousness, as if that had everything to do with where they have landed in life (not discounting the importance of hard work, of course, but it is a myth that poor people are poor simply because they don’t work hard).

      Similarly, the privileged often do not comprehend the very real obstacles the poor must face and attempt to overcome to even begin to participate in a different life story.

      My dilemma (one that I suspect is shared by many Christians) is HOW to stop sinning against my neighbor in the manner described and take action in a way that is Christ-centered (so it doesn’t become yet another narcissistic I’m-gonna-do-this-for-God moment) and makes a meaningful difference (the already/not yet reality of the Kingdom). Praxis, right? Doing it – living it.

      The usual answers (pray, give, etc.) are valid and not to be laid aside, but I am uneasy at times with how little is asked of me. Uneasy with the status quo. And afraid of what it might mean if He should ask more. (Can I be honest?) Is it enough to stand in line at church to sign up for (and at times, be herded through) an “experience” of helping or doing? You know, doing my part? Or is there some part of this that has gone missing?

      Just some stuff I wrestle with, I guess.

    5. Thought provoking post. I have been working with low-wealth communities here in Richmond for 8 years and honestly it all still baffles me to some extent. The most powerful thing I have seen move people toward freedom is to connect people together and give them voice and control over their own future. It is not simply to stop sinning but to start loving each other and encouraging healthy relationships among people. When people come together in a loving environment where their gifts, talents and abilities are valued, they are less likely to allow others to devalue them. When people discover their value and are given a voice, they can take ownership of their future.

      Sadly so many people have been so deeply wounded that they can not enter into authentic relationships. i agree with Brian FiKKart, poverty is a relationship question more than a wealth question. Those unwilling to enter into healthy authentic relationships are the folks I see trapped in poverty. Those willing to enter into genuine healthy relationships with others tend to be the ones who fair better. So the goal of the church in my mind is to create safe, healthy places where people can discover how precious they are and can discover their gifts, talents and abilities. When we treat the poor as “needy” and don’t see their value we further wound people or in your words sin against them by not seeing their Christ-likeness.

    6. Wendy,
      What wonderful insights. The Ekklesias Christ builds are first and foremost relational.

      “So the goal of the (called out communitas of Christ) in my mind is to create safe, healthy places where people can discover how precious they are and can discover their gifts, talents and abilities. When we treat the poor as “needy” and don’t see their value we further wound people or in your words sin against them by not seeing their Christ-likeness.”

    7. Jesus’s giving sight to the blind, making the blind to walk, healing the sick and preaching the good news to the poor was given as evidence that He was the Christ. The early church was notable for its dedication to these people. However, in 35 years as a christian, I’ve only ever seen a handful of the disabled in the church. Across the world, they are the poorest of the poor, the most abused, the most ignored. I’ve often heard of unreached people groups and it seems to me that the disabled and their carers (if they are fortunate enought to have them) are probably the largest unreached people group on the planet. I feel that their need is an opportunity for the expression of God’s love in word and deed, the Great Commission and the Great Commandment in unity. it’s heartbreaking to hear christian’s use the statement ‘you will always have the poor with you’, as an excuse to do nothing or next to nothing. I think that when we really love, genuine nothing held back love like Christ’s love that had no other agenda but to reveal the glory of God in these people….then we’ll see the glory come down.

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