Posted by: rogermitchell | October 4, 2011

The Deep Structures of Poverty

For those of you who follow me on twitter, you may have picked up on my tweet concerning an excellent working paper on engaging with poverty by Professor Andries du Toit of the Institute of Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) in Cape Town, South Africa. It’s entitled “Nasruddin’s Key” []. In it Professor du Toit encourages us to penetrate the shadows surrounding the popular approaches that analyse poverty in terms of measurement and to see more clearly. His problem with making our evaluation of poverty dependent on simple measurement is that by failing to address the deeper questions it results in strategic actions that don’t change anything in the long term.

Instead du Toit argues for an account of poverty in terms of social relations, which in the modern world of globalised capital consign the poor to social disempowerment and marginalisation. He recognises the complexities involved in this approach, but sees the benefit of confronting endemic issues of world poverty in order to work for substantial change in the political construct of the West. Basically while he acknowledges that the poor are those denied full personhood, he emphasises strongly that poverty is not only about individuals but about relationships and processes.

From my perspective this is right on the mark, and as those familiar with this blog and the thesis behind it will be aware, the Christendom partnership of church and empire has brought about the naked victimhood of the poor by embracing the corporate structures of sovereign power as the supposed means to universal peace. But far from securing the desired peace, it has lead inexorably to the current crises in Western economics, the increasing destruction of the natural environment and the impoverishment of the majority of humankind. In the crucial attempt to recover Jesus’ kingdom way or kenarchy, this blog has suggested that Jesus’ manifesto of political engagement focuses on the poor.

(As a reminder, earlier posts have emphasised five central foci of the politics of Jesus, the other four of which are: working to realise the full potential of children, protecting and healing the natural environment, uncovering and challenging the powers and publicising the radical gospel.) Given that the coming of the Spirit was to facilitate this, there is no need to be daunted by the complexities of analysing poverty in a deep structural fashion. While, as du Toit makes clear, the measurement approach is still of limited use for locating some concrete aspects of poverty, the attraction of his in depth approach is that it exposes the extent of the plight of the multitude.

Jesus centred, Holy Spirit discipleship is the alleged nature of the Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity that is so strong in many parts of Africa on which PLAAS focuses. Given that the poor are properly central to the theological and practical focus ofJesus and the Holy Spirit, then the hope for addressing the deep roots of poverty both within and out from the continent is the great challenge and hope of the African ecclesia at this time. Of course the restoration of the people of God to their true role is a huge challenge, but one which the last three generations of Holy Ghost outpourings are intended and able to equip us for. And as this blog will continue to argue, it is the task of those of us among the Holy Spirit ecclesia who are beginning to understand this, to dedicate ourselves to turning the church into this wind.



  1. You are brave to attempt to bring the church around ‘into this wind’.
    It will be a lengthy season of setting your face like flint and I am so heartened that you find hope in the journey.

    • The fifth chapter of my coming book looks at this in more depth, highlighting the distinction that Grant Wacker makes between primitivism and pragmatism in relation to the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement in his book “Heaven Below” (Harvard University Press 2001). My conviction that turning the ecclesia into this wind is the Holy Spirit’s purpose in the last three generations of visitation is based on study and personal experience. But I’m not only looking to those who see themselves as the people of God to accomplish this. There are many “sons and daughters of peace” who have been turned off by the church or never even considered the possibility that Jesus and his ecclesia were originally about confronting empire or a motivation for action on behalf of the poor! We need to work in partnership together.

  2. as I lay awake in bed after dealing with the latest round of elderly kitty illness, I pondered this blog. I realized it reminded me of something I read years ago about ancient slavery. The writer (an historian who I can’t remember now) asserted that ancient slavery worked because, by definition, a slave was not a member of the human community. In essence to become a slave was to step over a threshold. You moved from being human and part of the human community to being a slave. A person could not be both at the same time. Seems to me, that is exactly what we do with the poor (or those that some gov’t policies seek to make more poor), we remove them from the human community and redefine them. We may not call them slaves any more but the global economy is quite willing to treat increasing numbers of people that way. c.

    • Seems to me that this is exactly what Jesus was getting at when he had compassion on the multitude as “lost and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Far from patronising or belittling them he was recognising what the sovereign powers had reduced them to in sociopolitical terms and was positioning himself and his people with them and for them. His life and death as an outlaw repositions God and his disciples as outlaws within the contemporary domination system for the purposes of reconfiguring a new way of life. What Jesus implies as in the world but not of it or as my friend Mike Love of Leeds puts it, “disregarding” the aspects of the Western world system that stand in the way.

      • Oh my Roger, does that mean the church would have to give up its worship and support for ‘middle class morality’, you know always conforming with the law, supporting the nation state and its militarized forces for state violence (the police), upholding all conservative insitutions except those with radical unions (the teachers especially)? You mean we can’t live like good Victorians any more? You want us all to be outlaws like those first Christians? Well, they paid a high price didn’t they. I’ll have to think about that a bit as I take 3 buses (2 hours) one way to teach, as I sit with the students who often have more money than I do but are also struggling with all sorts of amazing real life, international issues. Yup, I”ll have to think about what it means to give that good ole victorian churchiness that is most often what is really being preached and even socially enforced in the church. c. (the woman who challenged a city to have a landscape that is naturalized, without a lawn, and caters to cheeky chipmunks.)

  3. I went on an day dream today and asked myself some questions that I have never heard anyone talking about before. May the discussion has taken place but I have never heard it and it needs to be discussed.
    “What if we got rid of money?” Not replacing it with bartering or something like that, just got rid of it would the World still turn?

    Here is some of the interesting thoughts that I considered. Because people would have to do things for free in this world. But why on Earth would they? Well it turns out that people do things for free all the time, things they love and want to do.

    Considering farming, who would farm for free? Actually, I think the answer is – farmers. With help from others who more likely would come and go or just help out. Cities can’t exist and factories would be unusual I think.

    But if we lived in a society where people chose their profession on what they loved rather than what paid. A society where a place was given to people instead the best that they could hope for was a job (if they were lucky).

    Could it work?
    Scientists, Academics, Computer Programmers, Musicians, Artists and many others produce things and give them away free all the time.

    How many people long for the opportunity to farm or don’t know that they would love it, but live in the city or life never presents them with the opportunity?

    Soulless jobs would disappear. I don’t think chicken factories would exist, but looking at the industrial food industry, I question whether they should.

    Would mining exist? That’s tough one.

    Some factories can still exist, especially if you need to learn a skill, building it in a factory before learning to design it is a great way to get started.

    But why don’t I ever hear about potential ways to live that don’t involve money which can be so manipulative?

  4. What I like about your question is that it is an example of what I call deep structural. It challenges the whole way the West is organised. Unless we dare ask this kind of question we will never re-imagine a new society. And this we must do, because the present one is imploding. One book that gives a lead on this that I have found helpful is William Cavanaugh’s brief but profound book “Theopolitical Imagination”. It’s worth a look!

  5. Just to say that the acronym PLAAS is also the Afrikaans word for farm, which is in a way an image of what the ecclesia is/should be.

    • Thanks for the helpful note, I didn’t know the Afrikaans factor. Nor the interesting image of the ecclesia that you suggest. What’s for sure is that issues of land are key to poverty, and the way that the land of Israel has been configured exclusively and sovereignly instead of kenotically and generously has had terrible consequences. The idea of the ecclesia as a farm presumably would need to be farm configured for the benefit of the multitude, and not primarily for it’s owner’s profit.

  6. Why should people care about the poor they have always been with us? It’s the demands of the body that should be curbed. There is an apocalyptic horse that rides out with a rider weighing out food followed by a forth Death and Hades that effects a forth of mankind. How does a radical church change something predestined when it cannot feed itself or nurture God’s family with all its differences.

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