When it comes to the causes of poverty there’s usually a lot of disagreement. The classic liberal rhetoric will blame social structures (lack of jobs, poor educational opportunity) while the conservative will blame personal decisions (laziness, dropping out). There is truth on both sides, and both sides are mutually reinforcing, i.e. poor educational opportunity leads to a higher dropout rate.
But the Bible says the root cause of poverty is something altogether different, oppression. In Elsa Tamez’s thorough study of the Bible in over 90% of the cases that poverty is mentioned and the cause for it is known, that cause is oppression.
Of course, the fact that oppression was the cause of poverty in Biblical times doesn’t prove that it’s the cause of poverty today, but it certainly seems like something the thoughtful Christian should consider.
The poor are a forgotten class in our news media and political rhetoric. Both parties claim to be for the middle class. References to the working class are as close as any politician will get to the poor, the obvious reference to work being a way to avoid the now assumed cultural default that the poor are lazy. When the census reported that 1 in 7 people in the United States now live below the poverty line it did not even make a full 24 hour news cycle.
Oppression remains as part of the reality of our economic system. The extractive (mining) industry exploits both people and environment in the name of profit. The environmental and social destruction that is being reaped upon Appalachia would be unacceptable (or at the very least newsworthy) in any other region of the U.S.
As Jeff Goodell wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed, “…mining is destroying vast swaths of Appalachia while providing fewer well-paying jobs. From 1984 to 2004, the average coal miner's per-shift productivity more than doubled, while wages declined by 20 percent (adjusted for inflation). If we simply increase consumption, we will be condemning large areas of the country, including eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia, to national sacrifice zones.”
We are all linked to and complicit in this destruction. You can enter your zip code here and learn which mining operations are powering your home.
International mining is even less regulated and more destructive of the environment, individual workers, and entire social fabrics. The phrase ‘blood diamonds’ has made it into the general social consciousness, but the mining of coltan remains largely unknown. Coltan is a mineral that is used in many electronic devices, particularly cell phones. Danish Church Aid reports:
The largest reserves of Coltan are to be found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and much of the finance sustaining the civil wars in Africa, especially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is directly connected to Coltan profits. Coltan is extracted under terrible working conditions in mines in Eastern Congo.
The United Nations reports child labour in Africa has significantly increased in Coltan mines. In some regions of the Congo, about 30 percent of schoolchildren are now forced to work in the mines.
Eastern Congo is the site of the most lethal conflict since WWII with over 5.4 million killed and that number rising by 45,000 a month (International Rescue Committee). Rape is commonly used as a weapon of war in the conflict, and thousands of women have been raped by armed soldiers.
Last month I attended a panel hosted by the Mennonite Central Committee. One of the speakers was Rev. Rose Lala Biasima, a member of the National Parliament of Congo and the Associate General Secretary of the Department of Women and Family of the Church of Christ in Congo. I vividly remember her telling us, “When you hold a cell phone, you hold Congolese blood in your hand.”
I immediately thought of Isaiah 1:15 “When you stretch out your hands I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”
The blood and suffering of the poor in the Congo and in our own backyards of Appalachia is cutting us off from God. Jeremiah condemned King Jehoiakim saying, “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages;” (22:13). Jeremiah goes on to say that to do justice to the poor and needy is to know God. (22:16)
Today Jeremiah might declare woe to those who power their house by unrighteousness and communicate with friends and family by injustice. Woe to those of us who make our neighbor's children work in mines and do not give them living wages. Oppression is not the only cause of poverty, but denouncing oppression remains as much the concern of the Christian today as it was for the Isaiah, Jeremiah, all of the other prophets, and Jesus.
Isaiah spells out what we must do to repent and wash ourselves clean. We must turn away from the systematic exploitation of our neighbors and our planet and instead seek justice and defend the cause of the powerless. (1:16-17)
Wash yourselves; make yourselves
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.