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Poverty Exposed (Part 2)

Following from Part 1

Some years ago, former Russian President, Mikhail Gorbachev, asked US President, Ronald Reagan, as they looked down upon all the fancy houses while flying from Andrews Airforce Base in Maryland to the White House in Washington, D.C. ,“Are these houses the homes of your leaders?” Gorbachev asked. Reagan replied, “No, these are the homes of our citizens.” Gorbachev was flabbergasted! “Your citizens live like this?” Gorbachev’s assumption was very telling.

He assumed the houses were owned by government officials. Ironically, that tends to be true in developing countries. The leaders have the upscale houses and the people do not. Why is that? At first, one might rashly suggest that leaders have stolen all the money. No doubt corruption is rife in many, if not all, developing countries. But I’m reminded that many politicians in developing countries are actually democratically elected by the people. Could it be that the problem is with the people or the way they think?

I remember a young Kenyan high school student who raised his hand during a lecture addressing world powers, and challenged somewhat defensively his British teacher with a question, “If communism is so bad, why is China so wealthy?” I was video- taping the class at the time and had no right to interrupt and answer, so I didn’t. But I remember thinking, “He thinks communism built modern-day China?

Where would he get an idea like that?” I wanted to explain to him that China, under communism, never resulted in prosperity, but rather the brutal death of millions. This student’s question began in me an intense interest in a biblical approach to economic theory and opened the door for numerous conversations with other students. I discovered they had many unscriptural views, especially about the right to private property. Our conversations would often go something like this: “Do you think it is moral for the government to fix the price of maize?” (the staple food in Kenya). Students always responded: “Yes, because if you don’t fix the price, the poor will not be able to afford it because the farmer will exploit them.” I would always respond with a question: “Why is it then that whenever the government fixes the price it creates a shortage, and then there is not enough for everyone?” They knew my facts to be true, but they never had an answer.

I later spoke with a Kenyan high school economics teacher who believed similar ideas as the students. I asked, “Do you not think it is a violation of the eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal”, to tell a private farmer, who grows his own maize, pays his own employees, and invests his own savings into his crops which he plants on his own property, the price he can charge for it?” He replied, “Well he should not overcharge for it.” I then asked, “Who defines an “over-charge”, the customer who votes with his shillings or a government official who would need to install a computer in his brain to keep up with the ever-changing costs involved in growing maize?” He didn’t seem interested in continuing the conversation, but I persisted respectfully! “Did you ever consider that you don’t have a right to that farmer’s maize? That he is not your slave! That he is not required by law to even grow maize? Do you know why he grows maize? He has done so to make a profit to provide for his family, perhaps help a charity with his personal funds, and give to the work of God at his local church. Did you ever consider that?” I discovered that these were questions many Kenyans had never considered.

My colleague Joanne saw the same mindset while teaching Religious Education to Kenyan high school students. She discovered that nearly all students equate wealth with greed and believe that an individual’s excess wealth should be taken and distributed to create equality among all people. In the students’ minds, to do otherwise was sinful, selfish, and stealing from the poor. To be sure, God commands us to be charitable, and even to help the poor, but the poor have no right to use their poverty as an excuse to lay claim to another person’s private property. Joanne wisely stood up to them and said that the eighth commandment would make no sense if a person was required to give over his “excess” wealth to another.

Joanne later showed me the government curriculum from which all schools were required to teach, and I was shocked to read what seemed to be elements of Marxism: “Having wealth therefore requires responsibility to share it with others . . . Sharing means giving oneself and their time to the community as well as other resources. Therefore, there are those who are expected to give according to their means and those who do not have receive according to their needs.”

Clearly these ideas come from the economic theories of Karl Marx, who in 1875 popularized the slogan: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Although I didn’t know it, I was faced with these socialistic ideas on my first day in Kenya when a gentleman from the church came to my gate and handed me a Harambe card and asked for money. “I’m going to raise money to buy land, and I’m calling the community together to help.”

I later looked up the word “Harambe” and saw that it was a Swahili word that means “all pull together.” Of course, to be fair, we can certainly be charitable to one another; the Bible commands that when one has a need, we should help. But Harambe, I discovered, was one of the three pillars of socialism upon which Jomo Kenyatta founded Kenya after the Mau Mau rebellion—a class struggle along Marxist lines. Harambe quickly developed into a supposed right to other people’s stuff.

Both Joanne and I, who now labor in Liberia, West Africa, have noticed the same mindset here. Most Liberians not only expect their family, friends, and community to give them excess wealth, they believe they have a right to it. Employed family members suggest using the “excess” wealth to start businesses, but the idea finds little interest.

One of our Liberian workers, whom we have employed for three years, has finally decided to move from his home because several young men in his extended family regularly join him for dinner. He can no longer afford to feed them and nicely explained that to them. They angrily accused him of greed and now despise him. Christian economist Barry Asmus, in his book, The Poverty of Nations, quotes David Maranz in African Friends and Money Matters, who says that this mindset pervades all of sub-Saharan Africa, and it is one of the main factors contributing to the downfall of the continent.

“It is a general rule that people expect that money and commodities will be used or spent as soon as they are available. If the possessor does not have immediate need to spend or use a resource, relatives and friends certainly do. To have resources and not use them is hoarding, which is considered to be unsocial. The unwritten rules governing the loaning and sharing of money and goods, and the extreme social pressure on individuals to conform to these rules or face sanctions, serve as leveling mechanisms to keep people from getting ahead of others . . . and basically act as a brake on economic development” (pp. 301-302).

The efforts to keep others from getting ahead is the heart of egalitarianism (the idea that everyone should be equal). This ideology is responsible not only for most of the poverty, but also for many of the wars that pervade much of the African continent. While it is correct to be hospitable and share with those who have legitimate needs, it is not correct to encourage this unbiblical worldview. Marxist ideology is theft and covetousness masked as benevolence. Scripture removes the mask, but because of the subtilty of the deception, Christians need to humbly seek the Lord for discernment and courage to stand for truth. From the account of Naboth’s vineyard, to the admonitions of Paul to the Thessalonians about the need to work, we learn that God’s people have a responsibility to teach believers a biblical worldview. It is the righteous who are commanded to consider the cause of the poor; the wicked wish to know nothing about it.

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David DiCanio

By David DiCanio

Rev. David DiCanio is serving in Liberia, under the FPCNA Mission Board.