Recently, my friend Shane Claiborne and I took part in a debate on Christian responses to poverty. To call it a debate might be a bit of a stretch, especially when the prevailing image of a “debate” is rancorous TV personalities angrily shouting over each other.
Still, in the midst of our discussion, we hit on a particularly provoking concept: Is one person’s wealth the result of another person’s poverty? And is a system of redistribution the loving, biblical response to poverty?
The idea of a system of redistribution as the way to care for those in need seems supported by the example of the Early Church in Acts and verses like 1 John 3:17, which says, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”
There is no question that God calls us to radical generosity, particularly toward the most vulnerable. Even a cursory reading of the Bible can leave no doubt: We are called and compelled to care for those who are hungry and orphaned, trafficked and enslaved, widowed and sick, broken and marginalized and living in poverty.
As men and women designed to incarnate the God who came to serve a world hemorrhaging from sin’s piercing wounds, our hearts are to reflect that same relentless love and pursuit of others. Our words and actions are to point an aching world to Jesus.
So, it’s right that stories of human suffering grieve our spirits and move us to action. We are to “spend ourselves” on behalf of others.
But here’s the thing—I believe that, as followers of Christ, it is our responsibility not simply to act, but to act in wise, strategic ways that are actually effective in alleviating suffering.
It is because I follow Jesus—not in spite of it—that I cannot simply ignore the evidence showing that systems based solely on the redistribution of wealth never work. Historically, they promise utopia and deliver misery. As I once heard economist Jay Richards say, “Systems of forced redistribution don’t just fail to promote freedom—they fail at producing food.”
More importantly, systemic redistribution misses the beautiful truth that God created a world in which there is the possibility to create—and that as God’s image-bearers, we are to be co-creators.
Wealth is not a fixed pie from which we must shave off meager slices but something that can be multiplied. Instead of focusing on cutting up a single pie, what if we focused our efforts on working together to make more pies?
God demonstrated this most basic principle in a common seed. In God’s economy, you can take a seed and plant it in the ground. If you take care of it, the seed will grow and bear fruit, which will produce more seeds. You can then take those seeds and open a store to sell them, or perhaps turn them into flour, which can then be used to bake bread to share with others.
When we depend on systematic redistribution as the solution to poverty, our focus will be on cutting slices from a limited pie and divvying out increasingly smaller pieces to men and women who are capable of much more. Not only is that approach grossly ineffective, but it also robs the recipients of life-giving, dignifying opportunities to create and grow.
I don’t want to miss breathtaking stories of human flourishing, as people mirror our Creator by creating. The more I travel around the world, the more I’m convinced of the overwhelming capacity and creativity of all people in all nations.
If you want to care for those in need, then it’s time to help make more pies.