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Is “Poor” the New “Rich”?

Scott-NeesonThis info-graphic has recently been shared around on Facebook. The man pictured  is  Scott Neeson, former head of 20th Century Fox International. Neeson sold his mansion, Porsche, and yacht, and left Hollywood for Cambodia’s garbage dumps. There, he’s sought to provide food, shelter and education to destitute children. The former studio exec now cares for more than 1,000 Cambodian children and their families.

Neeson is viewed as a hero, a great humanitarian. And to those Cambodian children and their families, indeed he is! But everyone can’t be like Scott Neeson. And I think that’s a good thing.

American Christians’ views about wealth and poverty have changed lately. We used to applaud the believer who, through hard work and wisdom, left a life of debt, deficit, failure or poverty, rose above their disabilities or disadvantages, and became a “success” of some sort. They graduated, were drafted onto a professional sports team, started their own successful business, multiplied some talent, etc. It was the Protestant work ethic in motion. But things have changed. Now we applaud the entrepreneur who sells everything to build an orphanage, feed the hungry, or live among the homeless.

A while back, one of my pastor friends mulled this new phenomenon and wrote THIS on his Facebook status:

I see this pattern at conferences and church events, where the speaker, or staff member is introduced as someone who was “a rising star at a fortune 500 company, but left their promising career and six figure salary for (insert current ministry role).” I’m not sure why this narrative seems to be repeated in Christian circles. I’m sure it belies some underlying perspective or value, but I can’t put my finger on it yet.

Though my pastor friend is not necessarily making the same point I am here, his observations highlights an important sea-change in the American church. Evangelicals seem to have replaced a preoccupation with modernism for a preoccupation with monasticism; whereas we once used to idolize prosperity, now we idolize poverty. Our hero is no longer the Christian businessman who has “stepped up,” but the Christian businessman who has “stepped down.”

Nowadays, the preferred testimonial is about “the rich man” becoming “poor” for the sake of the Kingdom, not “the poor man” becoming “rich” with the help of the Kingdom.

In my mind, both are equally skewed.

In her book Giving 2.0,  Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen notes that the United States is the international leader in kindness, both on a corporate and individual level. Americans are more likely to volunteer time, donate money, contribute to causes, and help strangers than any other people on the planet. We are also the wealthiest nation on earth. And it shows in our giving.

So is our prosperity a good or a bad thing?

Poverty-of-NationsIn reality, the wealth that Scott Neeson acquired — the wealth that many well-meaning Christians now eschew — is the very tool he is leveraging in his fight against poverty.

In their book The Poverty of Nations Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus argue that foreign aid has not reduced global poverty. In fact, nations that receive the largest amounts of foreign aid tend to remain deeply entrenched in poverty. Of course, there are numerous factors involved, such as the corrupt governments who receive said aid. Nevertheless, the point stands. While selling everything we have to give to the poor can be a great, noble, very spiritual thing to do, poverty is not solved through long-term aid. Rather, the authors argue that capitalism is, in essence, the answer to global poverty. Respect for property, hard work, creativity, personal incentive, opportunity, entrepreneurial freedom, financial wisdom — these things will ultimately lift people and nations out of poverty.

Abandoning wealth is not the answer to fighting global poverty. Creating wealth is.

Yes, we need the Scott Neesons of the world. God bless him! But if we all became him… who would support us?

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{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Jay DiNitto September 17, 2014, 6:35 AM

    If you look at the life of a modern entrepreneur, there are some parallels with monastic life. It generally doesn’t fit well with image memes because it doesn’t generate the proper feels. There’s no dark continent blight or orphans for the needed photo op, and if the entrepreneur is successful there is monetary reward, but we don’t usually see the years of relative poverty and uncertainty they go through.

    Random second point:

    Random third point: Do we know the job losses incurred

    • Jay DiNitto September 17, 2014, 6:37 AM

      Screwed that up.

      Random second point: Due to the currency exchange rate, Neeson might be monetarily more wealthy than he was in America.

      Random third point: Do we know the job losses incurred when Neeson pulled his money out of the film, etc., industry?

  • Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) September 17, 2014, 7:49 AM

    Admit it, Mike: the narrative of leaving wealth to become poor and help the poor is closer to the arc of our lord and savior Jesus Christ. And we are commanded to be of like mind in Phillipians.
    That said, the Bible also does say that we are to work quietly with our hands to make enough money to support our families and give to the poor.
    And: the president of Rwanda announces often that he does not want aid for his country, he wants investment.

    • Gary Whittenberger September 17, 2014, 9:08 AM

      Investment is a nice idea, but in the end somebody has to buy something in order for investors to be interested.

      Through our government we need to tax the wealthy at higher rates (and close their loopholes) and then use the resulting money to encourage investment in projects to provide jobs. This is the main way to defeat poverty.

  • Gary Whittenberger September 17, 2014, 9:03 AM

    Mike, you said: “Rather, the authors [Grudem and Asmus] argue that capitalism is, in essence, the answer to global poverty.”

    This is too simplistic. I think capitalism is part of the answer, but so is socialism. The countries of the world which have the least poverty and the least disparity in wealth are the ones with economic-government systems with a well-balanced combination of capitalism and socialism.

    You also said: “Abandoning wealth is not the answer to fighting global poverty. Creating wealth is.”

    I think that redistributing wealth to guarantee jobs to people is the best answer to fighting global poverty. All countries have the lower, middle, and upper classes. Countries differ in their wealth disparities. For example, the USA is among the top five countries in the world in wealth disparity. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer (see the Pikety book among others). A good start to fighting poverty in our own country would be to pass a constitutional amendment (state, national, or both) which guarantees all citizens able and willing to work a job. For any unemployed person seeking work, the government would try to first secure a job in the private sector for the person, but if no appropriate one could be found, then it would secure a job in the public sector for the person. The government should create new jobs to rebuild infrastructure, build green energy systems, provide preschools for younger age children, etc. Where will the government get the money for these new jobs? By closing tax loopholes and increasing progressive tax rates so that the rich are paying their “fair share.” Christians need to get behind these kinds of progressive programs. I’m pretty sure this is what God wants, if he exists.

    Your values of respect for hard work and opportunity are commendable, but these are just words unless backed up by action.

  • Mirtika September 17, 2014, 12:45 PM

    Let’s be clear: Anyone who devotes themselves to helping the poor is doing something great, be they middle class or Hollywood Rich or Bill Gates. 😀

    But this guy is not poor. His charity pays him 90K per annum. Are we gonna say 90K a year is poor? In Cambodia? Over there, that goes a long, long way, farther than in the US. And in the US, that’s 39K above the median US household income. So, poor? Not so much.

    Sacrifice? YES! He obviously felt led, felt dissatisfied with the high Hollywood life, and he wanted to do something that improved the lives of folks. Good for him.

    Why he had to start a charity is my issue. So many charities already. So many folks making darn good livings heading these charities to the third world–the CEOs of these can make half a million bucks a year.

    He was a Hollywood player. Telling me he couldn’t get support from all those very wealthy folks in his Hwd network? They couldnt’ support an outreach to his Cambodian communities? It has to be an organization?

    He’s helping folks. That matters and that gets props.

    I just aways wonder why it has to end up a formal organization asking for donations.

    You wouldn’t have folks giving donations supporting ministries and charities if…there weren’t folks working at the usual, mundane, unglamorous, un-media-focused jobs. It’s the janitors, plumbers, mechanics, nurses, teachers, social workers, etc who write the checks taht keep charities like this Cambodian one going. But Mr. Neeson gets the credit….and 90K a year.

    If everyone ditched their jobs to go work among the unemployed and poverty-stricken, who would buy the food, medicine, diapers, clothes, clean water, etc, that these folks need?

  • Jeanette O'Hagan September 17, 2014, 5:53 PM

    Hi Mike – you make some interesting points though I wonder if this is really and either/or situation in that different people may be called to respond to the needs of the neighbour in different ways. Certainly Jesus does challenge some to give away what they have to the poor (the rich young ruler), others in NT give generously (Barnabus for instance) while Paul encourages generous giving with hard honest work, looking after one’s own family etc. Wealth creation has often been a ‘side effect’ of conversion because of changes in lifestyle and values and wealth in itself is not wrong, yet there are a great many warnings in both NT & OT not to make wealth creation our primary focus (especially if it is at the expense of others) and to be generous to those less fortunate (the widows, orphans and foreigners of OT).

    I was surprised about the claim that ‘foreign aid has not reduced global poverty.’ When aid is given in the form of hand outs that and does not address underlying causes of poverty or focus on community development, it may be true that it disenpowers communities – but this is not the only form of aid. For instance appropriate technology, microeconomics and community development all focus on enabling people to look after themselves and to overcome the often paralyzing circumstances and attitudes that can keep people poor.

    But more importantly, I have seen a number of reports/articles that in fact state that global poverty has been reduced significantly in recent years through both ongoing aid efforts (that have improved health, education, other infrastructure and employment opportunities) as well as more trade opportunities. For instance, you might like to check out this link http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/mar/17/aid-trade-reduce-acute-poverty

  • Jill September 17, 2014, 8:58 PM

    Clearly, production is what fuel’s a nation’s economy. Without production, you can’t keep an economy afloat. All those maligned capitalists are doing us a favor by providing something of value so that we can keep our plethora of jobs in education and healthcare, which are basically meaningless without a foundation economy underneath. However, a capitalist who has an individual epiphany to give away his wealth at a certain point is doing his own soul a favor. As Andrew Carnegie noted, it was a man’s duty to create wealth in the first half of his life and to find a way to help others with it in the latter half. He wasn’t a Christian, yet understood this principle, eventually giving up about 90% of his wealth to philanthropist projects. He was one of the wealthiest men in modern history. Industry is very important and the ability to create it a blessing from God. And on that note, I’ll finish by saying that God has not called all of us to the same task in life. Some of us are called to serve, heal, or teach. We should be thankful to those who are. But we should also be thankful for capitalists.

  • Mike G September 19, 2014, 9:40 AM

    One person lives on a farm. He lives free from urban anxieties. He eats fresh, wholesome food. He loves his family. He is healthy from his daily activity level and sleeps like a baby at night. But his bank account is small and the land he owns has little retail value.

    This man is poor.

    Another man lives in a condo. He works seventy hours a week at a company that routinely lays off its less productive workers. The food he eats is processed. The relationships he has are shallow. His blood pressure is dangerously high and he rarely sleeps without pills. But he has put together a diversified portfolio and the combined total these accounts numbers in the seven digits.

    This man is “rich”.

    Wealth is a concept word. And this concept is open to interpretation. In New Testament times the Romans had begun to trade debt instruments (which worked like checks). We take this system of trading debt for granted now, not realizing that the Hebrew world could not reliably trade debt since debt forgiveness was supposed to take place at regular intervals (every seven years) and so had a different concept of wealth. They traded items thought to have intrinsic value — like gold and barter goods and were far more concerned with expending resources to display hospitality than we.

    I say this only to point out that the Bible does not prescribe capitalism, socialism, or any of the rest because all of those ‘isms’ are rooted into a idea of wealth that is not found in its pages, and cannot be fully reconciled with its ideals.

  • D.M. Dutcher September 19, 2014, 7:21 PM

    Yeah, and the worst thing is that it’s often a fake poverty. Real poverty is not happy peasants eating farm-fresh produce on organic farms. It winds up being a pose of authenticity more than an actual good.

    Only way we can ever change things is to have the resources to do so. Poor people don’t change anything, they adapt, suffer, and die.

  • Dawn Wessel September 20, 2014, 9:07 AM

    We didn’t have much to give up but as one who “lived by faith” (depending on God/largely the donations of others and our own creativity) to fund our Christian drug and alcohol rehab center for over fifteen years, I can honestly tell you that it was a struggle all of the time – and our staff at the time will tell you the same. God was faithful when we were really backed against a wall but the lack of funds created major stress (and disunity) – and – we were really committed people. It created a misleading “everything is free” mentality in those we were trying to help – which was contrary to the very thing we were trying to do, which was to help people become whole and independent. For sure it’s good to help people but the very best we can do is to help people become self sufficient. If one person gives up everything to serve the poor they create a situation that others might feel they have to live up to – and in the people they try to help they create the “the rich man from across the sea is going to come and support us”. It’s not good to create a situation of dependency. I believe the way to really help people in whatever country is to help them establish their ‘own’ local businesses so they can make an income for themselves; out of that develops their creativity and this alone will alleviate poverty.

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