Poverty as a Disempowering System
by Bryant Myers
Last year I shared a
reflection on the nature of poverty, making the argument that
poverty is understood best as relationships that donít work. Iíd
like to take that discussion a little further by sharing the work of
my friend and colleague, Jayakumar Christian.
Christian is a long-time
development promoter in India who recently took his Ph.D. at Fuller
Seminary in intercultural studies. Christians suggest that the poor
live in a complex framework of interacting systems, including a
personal system, a social system, a spiritual/religious system that
is both personal and social, and a cultural system.
These systems work interactively
in ways that disempower the poor. Each part of the system creates
its own particular contribution to this disempowerment through what
Christian calls captivity to god-complexes of the non-poor,
deception by the principalities and powers, inadequacies in world
view, and suffering from a marred identity.
Let me explain what Christian
means by these terms.
Captivity to god complexes of the
non-poor - the social system
We are well aware that the social
system in which the poor live reinforces their powerlessness by
exclusion and exploitation, but Christian goes deeper than this. He
points out that the non-poor understand themselves as superior,
necessary, and anointed to rule and that this creates a temptation
to play god in the lives of the poor. They play god through their
use of religious systems, mass media, law, and government policies.
The non-poor create the narratives, structures, and systems that
justify and rationalize their privileged positions. The result is
that the poor become captive to these god-complexes of the non-poor.
According to Christian, the
non-poor create their god-complexes by:
- Seeking to absolutize themselves in the lives
of the poor.
- Citing the "eternal yesterday" as the
justification for influencing the "eternal tomorrow"
of the poor.
- Influencing areas of life that are beyond their
scope of influencing. For example, the landlord chooses the
names of the children or decides who will marry whom.
- Claiming immutability for their power over the
poor by assuming their can never be power sharing.
- Interacting with other non-poor in ways that
safeguard and enhance each otherís power.
This captivity finds its concrete
expression in the interactive outworking of the social, political,
economic, religious, and cultural systems by constructing a web of
lies and deceit that mediate power over the poor, often with no need
In addition, this systemic
captivity operates at many levels. The local police, landowners, and
religious leaders form the micro expression. They in turn are linked
to, and usually subservient to, regional and national business,
political, judicial, and religious leaders. They form the macro
level of the god-complexes. In turn, these are imbedded in global
systems represented by transnational corporations, the international
financial institutions (World Bank, IMF, etc.), the UN system, and
the like, who also play god in the lives of the poor, albeit from a
distance. Finally, Christian reminds us that all these levels exist
within a cosmic system in which the principalities and powers work
out their rebellion against God and Godís intentions for human
life in creation.
Building on Walter wink, Christian
goes on to point out that these god-complexes, especially at the
level of systems and structures, have an ideological center, an
inner reality that governs and holds together the structures,
systems, and people who inhabit them. This inner reality provides
the inner logic and interpretations for ultimate values of life and
events. Transformational development that fails to assert the truth
of God over these justifying narratives leaves the structural side
of poverty and its causes untouched.
Deception by principalities and
powers - the spiritual system
While acknowledging the impact of
the Fall and sin on individual human beings as a spiritual problem,
Christian alerts us to another result of the Fall, the continuing
deception by the principalities and powers. The powerlessness of the
poor is reinforced by the fear and deceit created by the "god
of this age that has blinded the minds of unbelievers" (2 Cor.
4:4) and the "trap of the devil who has taken them captive to
do his will" (2 Tim. 2:26). Both the poor and the non-poor are
"in slavery under the basic principles of the world" (Gal
The primary expression of this
deception is through the ideological center or inner reality of the
systems, structures, and legitimating narratives through which the
non-poor play god in the lives of the poor. But there is a deeper
truth as well.
Christian also is affirming that
it is not simply human beings, and the social systems within which
they live, that create and sustain poverty. There is a cosmic
adversary who also is working against life. This adversary is
"a liar and the father of lies" (John 8:44). Any account
of poverty that ignores the reality of the Evil One lacks the full
explanatory power that the Bible offers
Inadequacies in worldview - the
Christian moves on to the
powerlessness that is reinforced by what he calls inadequacies in
worldview. Christian points to the disempowerment idea of karma
within a Hindu context that tells the poor that their current
condition is a just response to their former life and something that
must be accepted if they are to have a better life the next time
around. when the poor are invited to try and change their present
condition, their worldview tells them that they are being invited to
In another example of a worldview
supporting oppressive social relationships., the Brahman learn from
their Hindu tradition that they were made from the head of god and
so are suppose to rule. The harijan are taught that they were made
from lower parts of god and are thus inferior by nature.
Every culture has beliefs that
disempower people, discourage change, and label oppressive
relationships as sacrosanct and ordained. This is what Christian
means by inadequacies in worldview that disempower the poor.
The marred identity of the poor -
the personal system
Christian concludes his
explanation by showing how the identity of the poor is marred by
this deceptive constellation of poverty by disempowering through
captivity to god-complexes, deception by principalities and powers,
and inadequate worldview understandings. This happens in two ways.
First, the poor systematically are
excluded as actors. The voice of the poor is regarded as
"damaged goods." The powerful do not expect the poor to
have anything to offer, since they have been labeled, usually by the
non-poor, as lazy, ignorant and superstitious. Sadly, sometimes the
development agency and its practitioners are so full of their own
expertise that they treat the poor in a similar way.
Second, a lifetime of deception,
captivity to god-complexes, and exclusion is internalized by the
poor in a way that mars their identity in a deep, profound, and
tragic sense. The poor forget who they are and can no longer recall
their true vocation. They believe they are less than other human
beings and are truly god-forsaken. This is the deepest expression of
poverty. The poor come to believe that they are and always meant to
be without value, without gifts.
Internalization of the grind of
poverty and the messages of non-value from the non-poor and social
systems result in what Augustine Musopole, a Jesuit from Cameroon,
calls a poverty of being. "This is where the African feels his
poverty most: a poverty of being, in which poor Africans have come
to believe they are no good and cannot get things right."
So deeply imbedded in this kind of
poverty that good news is no longer believable. Sitting at a
campfire in the Kalahari Desert, I heard a San woman say, in
response to hearing the news that the Son of God had dies for her
sins, that she could believe that God would let his son die for a
white man, and that maybe she could believe that God might let his
son die for a black man, but she could never accept the idea that
God would let his son die for a San. This is spiritual and
psychological poverty of the deepest kind. It is the root of
When the poor accept their
subhumanness as normative and immutable, their poverty is complete
and permanent unless the issue of their marred identity is addressed
and they are helped to recover their identity as children of God,
made in Godís image, given gifts by God so they could fulfill
their true vocation as productive stewards in the world God made for
Bryant Myers, "Poverty as a
Disempowering System," MARC Newsletter, #98-3,
September, 1998, pp. 3,