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Material Poverty, Spiritual Poverty, and Tony Campolo

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During my seminary days at Asbury Theological Seminary, Tony Campolo spoke at a chapel service and offered a litany of denunciations of greed and corporate America. However, one thing he said especially caught the attention of a professor of mine. During his talk, Campolo equated material poverty with spiritual righteousness. Later in the day during class, while the rest of the campus was still gushing over Campolo’s visit, the professor rebuked Campolo rather harshly. He said he stood with him until he started declaring the poor were righteous because of their poverty. We were of course reminded eloquently and emotionally that our righteousness was in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30).

In Campolo’s zeal for building a new kingdom for the poor on earth, perhaps he did not mean to imply that righteousness is found apart from Christ, but he gave a window for a wise professor to impart correction.

Having graduated from a Wesleyan seminary, I was fortunate to hear many stories about the holistic care for the poor that is at the heart of Methodism. Nevertheless, John Wesley always understood first that the spiritual condition must be changed if the social condition was to be improved. Even when Christ heals somebody physically, there is a deep spiritual symbolism with somebody like a paralytic. Paralysis in the gospel represents the crippling power of sin and the inability for man to change not just his physical condition, but his spiritual condition as well. Blindness, leprosy, death, the woman with the issue of blood, deformities, deafness, sickness, and Jesus’ healing of those maladies all carry deep spiritual symbolism about mankind.

Just as I talked about the problem of reducing Christ to political activist in “Jesus as Budget Director?,” there is also a danger in reducing “poverty” to just the material and stripping it of its spiritual components. This is especially true with a glib and partisan quote like “What Would Jesus Cut?”, in a budget-cutting context.

Many Great Society programs point to the unintended consequences of ignoring the spiritual components of poverty for the material. One such example being the crumbling of two parent homes, especially modeled by what has occurred in American inner cities over the past forty plus years. It is always essential to think holistically and spiritually about poverty. The state is unable to do so, and is ultimately not able to address any deeper needs. At the Acton Institute, we understand the main way that poverty is alleviated is through enterprise and access to markets. We also understand that there are important moral foundations for a society and that it is essential that one is a moral agent within the market.

During our discussions last week in the office around some of the issues of “What Would Jesus Cut,?” I also posed the question “What Would Judas Cut?” It was in part for humor, but there is an important lesson there too. It was a question I formulated with the help of my pastor when we were discussing the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign. If we strip the Gospel of its spiritual source in addressing these issues and hardly discern the holistic need of the poor, we are making demands for the poor with the wrong intention (John 12:4-8).

In his evangelistic fervor across 18th century England, John Wesley brought the Gospel to the poor and marginalized. The man who encouraged him to take his ministry outside of church walls was the fellow Methodist evangelist George Whitefield. There is a story about Whitefield that is one of my favorites. Whitefield first took the gospel message to the poor working class coal miners of Kingswood, England. They were disliked for their rowdy unclean ways and disdained by society. After preaching from Matthew 5: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Whitefield recorded the scene in his journal: “Miners, just up from the mines, listened and the tears flowed making white gutters down their coal-black faces.” One miner declared, “I never knew anybody loves us.”

Jesus is the “Bread of Life” and a social gospel without him or one that dilutes his saving power ultimately leads back to the same spiritual maladies symbolized so well in the scripture.

Ray Nothstine is opinion editor of the the North State Journal in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.


  • paul grubbs

    Thank you Brother Ray as I am going to steal your lil’ comeback to “What would Jesus cut?” Perhaps it is just as important to consider what the enemy would have us cut. Social Justice champions social agendas but too often throws the baby Jesus out with the bath water. Big government uses big money to set our priorities. Many benevolences are considering turning down government monies for this very reason. Yes government issue outreach programs want to enlist our soft hearts and loving concern for “the least of these” but those same programs want to dictate what we can say and do to help the unfortunates. It irks me that some will question my heart and motive just because I dont completely share their viewpoint and zeal for “social Justice.” God can do better! He wants our help.

  • John Flaherty

    For all that I understand the idea behind Mr. Compostelo’s argument, I think it fair to suggest that the professor’s objections may have been right on the mark.
    In my lifetime, I’ve known exceedingly few impoverished people who demonstrated a genuinely virtuous attitude. If anything, most “poor” people strike me as being every bit AS greedy as the wealthy people they accuse. Sometimes they’re actually worse.
    It’d be nice if the Church would admit that being wealthy and being greedy and being virtuous are three separate states of being. One need not inherently imply the other.

  • Roger McKinney

    My personal experience has been that the poor and the wealthy have the worst values. There is a reason both groups hate middle-class values.

  • David Miller

    You rightly note the spiritual dimensions of poverty. But you seem to imply that this is a one way street and end up blaming those who may also be victims of crushing systems and not merely reaping the effects of their own sin.

    We are given the gift of a tension between Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the beatitudes. While Matthew indeed declares the “Poor in spirit” to be blessed – Luke refuses spiritualizing and declares blessing are the poor – and woe to you who are rich.

    Wesley, indeed, called for spiritual renewal poor laborers – and – the changing of child labor laws. He did not pit one against the other or hold that one needed to be secured before the other could be taken on. He famously noted, that there is no holiness but social holiness.

    We should do no less.

  • Ray


    I am not blaming anybody for poverty or misfortune. I am not sure what thought caused you to imply that. As for the quote from Matthew, that was the text Whitefield preached from at Kingswood. I wasn’t trying to subtract from Luke’s Gospel. Luke’s account is certainly no less significant. Luke’s account of course stresses or symbolizes the reversal in values with the coming of the Lord. I doubt we disagree there.

    As for Wesley, Wesley was particularly tough on those with wealth. Sometimes his criticism misses the mark, as I pointed out here: But his purpose was to spread “Scriptural Holiness across the land.” Of course that meant to encompass all of our life. And I stressed that care for the poor and vulnerable is essential in Methodism.

    Acton’s president and co-founder, Rev. Robert Sirico, stressed to all of us in a talk not long ago, saying about our call to the poor, “We should not minimize the demands of the Scripture but we should embrace them.” I think my point is that there is always a spiritual reality that is deep, surrounding these issues. Holistic care for the poor can’t be separated from the Word of Life.

  • John L. Kelly

    I think it is telling that Jesus healed the sick very often, but did nothing directly to alleviate poverty. Nor did he extoll the “virtues” of poverty. He did not say that poverty was to be alleviated by almsgiving either. Rather he either said and implied that poverty was the result of disobedience to God’s economic Law. After he spoke of the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air, he did not say that God would provide; He said that we are to seek the kingdom of God. He, and his audience (but not us) knew that through God’s economic Law, there would be food, clothing and proserity, naturally distributed to all memebers of the society. They knew what God’s Law was. We don’t.
    Jesus and His Father have both told us that everything we need is to be found in his Law. So why not research it, and push for its implementation, rather than continue a guilt-based forced or voluntary charity ethic which we know and can see does not work?