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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 of force.

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 4:3).

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 cultural system

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 sin.

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 fatalism.

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 them.

Bryant Myers, "Poverty as a Disempowering System," MARC Newsletter, #98-3, September, 1998, pp. 3,

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