Acton Institute Powerblog

PBR: The End of Poverty

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This Sunday I’ll be giving a talk at Fountain Street Church on the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His unfinished Ethics is a tantalizing work, full of insights and conundrums. Here’s what he writes in the essay, “On the Possibility of the Church’s Message to the World,” with regard to the church’s engagement in social justice:

Who actually says that all worldly problems should and can be solved? Perhaps to God the unsolved condition of these problems may be more important than their solution, namely, as a pointer to the human fall and to God’s redemption. Human problems are perhaps so entangled, so wrongly posed, that they are in fact really impossible to solve. (The problem of the poor and the rich can never be solved in any other way than leaving it unsolved.)

This kind of perspective flies in the face of the arrogance of so much of the contemporary transformationalist social justice movement among Christians. It allows us to see the possibility that the brokenness of the world is not meant to be solved in the end by anything other than God’s own redemptive work in Jesus Christ. It provides a boundary against any kind of post-millennial triumphalism.

One of the charities my wife and I make a point to support is Compassion International. There are a great number of things that could be said about the work of this ministry. But I want to point out a piece by Tim Glenn, Compassion International’s U.S. Advocacy Director, called “Why We Can’t End Poverty.” In this post you’ll find none of the high-handed presumption that the only thing keeping us from “making poverty history” is our political will to do so: our governments just aren’t giving enough.

Instead, Glenn discusses the end of poverty within a framework that agrees with that presented by Bonhoeffer above. “I don’t think we’re called to end poverty. I do think we’re called to be obedient to God’s command,” writes Glenn. “I think God allows poverty so that His glory may be shown … through His people doing His work … obeying that command.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Roger

    I became interested in economics after visiting Africa and discovering its shocking poverty. Later, I earned a masters degree in economics and my favorite class was on third world economic development. While interesting, I still didn’t know the answer to why poverty exists. It took me at least another decade of further reading in economics to understand.

    Historians of economics say that the standard of living of most of mankind changed very little from the time of Adam and Eve to Adam Smith. The size of the middle class was tiny, as was the nobility. 95% + of people were on the verge of starvation and famines killed millions on a regular basis. Instead of business cycles, they had famine cycles when the population would outgrow the food supply. There was very little difference in standards of living between nations.

    Why did God allow such poverty for most of our history? Clearly, it comes from the curse God placed on the earth after He kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden. That curse made it difficult to grow enough food to support a growing population. The 19th century economist Malthus wrote about the problem.

    Then something unusual happened: the Dutch Republic was born. In the late 16th century Dutch Protestants created a new society based on Biblical principles. In the sphere of the economy, they emphasized private property because the Bible places great importance on it. In fact, the prohibitions of theft and covetousness are two of the Ten Commandments. Both are the negative form of the positive command to respect the property of others.

    Ironically, the intellectual source of Dutch thinking came from the Catholic scholars at the Spanish school of Salamanca. Leonardo Lessius brought scholastic thought on economics to the Dutch before the revolution. The Dutch created institutions to protect private property of the poor from the rich and from the state. Very quickly, the Dutch became the wealthiest and most powerful nation in Europe without having attacked and looted its neighbors. And the Dutch were the first people in world history to escape the Malthusian cycles of famine. Their institutions spread to England and the US and became known as capitalism. Eventually, Western Europe and the US became enormously wealthier than the rest of the world. But they did not get their wealth by taking it from others as the Spanish had stolen the gold of the Incas. Under capitalism, the West created new wealth; they increased the total wealth of the entire world.

    Unfortunately for the rest of the world, the West grew tired of capitalism in the late 19th century. As a result, capitalism did not spread much beyond it. The poor people of the world, such as those in Africa, were stuck in pre-capitalist systems. Today, their standards of living are slightly better than those of Europeans before capitalism. The solution to poverty is capitalism, but socialist ideology, primitive religions and greed on the part of the ruling class prevent its adoption.

    Capitalism requires the assumptions, institutions and morality of Protestant Christianity to survive. Capitalism is much more than just free markets. A free market is just one institution that protects property rights. Capitalism also requires the rule of law, honest courts and police and government to protect against fraud and theft. It’s no coincidence that socialism has ascended in the West as Christianity has declined. Poverty is sad, but even sadder when you realize how unnecessary it is.

  • Tracy

    Thanks Jordan and Roger for a great blog discussion.

  • Ken

    Great comment Roger!

    At our church there is an effort to support a region of Sudan where some of the “lost boys” have returned and assumed religious denominational leadership roles. One of the tragedies of the African continent is the rarity or reliability of drinking water. Wells are not prohibitively expensive — $2,000.00 U.S. — but the reality is that without some assurance of protection, a village would lose access to their new well with its seizure by bullies with guns who would then charge money for access or purchase. And we in the West would shrug our shoulders with news of another lost opportunity. Few would ring up that loss to an absence of the rule of law as outlined in Roger’s comment.

    That is why the brief history he outlines is so important to repeat and repeat. It has practical application in the battle we are in against the renewed effort by governments in the West and in the U.S. to imprison their citizens in regulation, taxation and laws against the keeping of arms. C.S. Lewis advised that the way to fight the bully is at the moment he attacks on the schoolyard — or at the legislative session.

    Lovers of truth and markets are going to have to be more forceful, more confrontational and perhaps combative in this. And with the help of well crafted summaries such as Roger’s, and armed with facts that support our positions and lead others to the truth, we will succeed in informing those now lost in relativism. But what a big job ahead!

  • Roger

    Thanks for the encouragement! Your story about the water wells is incredibly sad. It reminds me of a story from the UN in one of its development reports a few years ago. The UN wanted to give oxen to Ugandan farmers to use to increase their productivity in farming. They were farming with just hoes. Oxen would increase their productivity to at least the level of Europe in the Middle Ages, but nowhere near the levels obtainable with mules, let alone with tractors. Still, the Ugandan farmers wouldn’t take them. They said their neighbors would steal and eat the oxen in the night, so it wasn’t worth the effort. Very sad.

    Because of the lack of the rule of law in Africa, Africans send about $90 billion annually to the US and Europe for safe keeping. That’s considerably more than goes into Africa in aid.

  • Neal Lang

    When Africa started to de-colonialize in the 50s and 60s they decided to follow the socialist model instead of the capitalist model. Of course, much of the problems in Africa is a result of artificial geo-political borders established by European colonialists that do not comport with ethic and tribal “kingdoms” that existed in pre-colonial times. This causes internal strife and violence, which keeps many African countries in turmoil that prevents the necessary societal unification that breds good government. Probably the best example of this Rwanda and the surrounding countries where tribal violence disrupts economic and political progress. Many believe, including myself, that this the means by which their former colonial masters keep them tied to them. Note that when a country in Europe, Yugoslava, began to come apart along ethnic lines, the Europeans supported and encouraged this split. When the same occurs in Africa, the European wont even consider it.

    In Nigeria, Sub-saharan Africa’s most populous country, the population is composed of three separate dominate tribes, the Hausa-Fulanis in the North, which are mostly Muslem; the Yoruba in the Southwest, which are a mixture of Moslem, Christian, and animist; and the Igbo in the Southeast, which are mostly Christian. The vast majority of Nigeria’s wealth comes from oil, most of which is located in the area dominated by the Igbos. In late 60s and early 70s, Nigeria was embroiled in a bloody civil war known as the Nigerian-Biafran War where the states dominated by the Igbos decided to secede from Nigeria and form their own nation. Virtually every European nation, including Russia, supported the Hausa-Fulani/Yoruba faction, the exception being the Irish Republic, who supported the Igbo. The death toll was in excess of 1 million, and the wounds from this conflict still haven’t totally healed.

    As for poverty in Nigeria, it is interesting to note that the Fulani, a tribe composed of mostly nomadic cattle herders who drive their herds over the same grazing areas in Niger, Nigeria, and Cameroon that their forefathers had from before colonial times, are some the most wealthy people in Nigeria.

  • Neal Lang

    Regarding African capitalism Kano, Nigeria was a thriving trade center in the 7th and 8th Century. At that time caravan routes across North Africa had their terminous in Kano. The people of Kano produced a fine cloth and blue dye that was much sought after by the desert Bedouins as far East as Arabia. This trade flourished for centuries and lead to the Islamic conquest of much of West Africa.

    Another interesting fact about the Nigeria economy is that during colonial times and before, Nigeria was a net exporter of food. However, after the colonial times Nigerian agriculture collapsed to the point where the country spends substantial hard currency on imported food. While there are many causes for this shift, most of the problems with Nigeria agriculture can be traced to short-sighted governmental policies such as subsidizing food imports by overvaluing their currency, the Naira, and by price fixing the market price for locally grow foods.