Poverty and Peace

August 27th, 2011
Image © Michael Mistretta | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

In Somalia, 3.2 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, and the United Nations (UN) has declared that five regions are in famine.The UN defines famine as the condition “when acute malnutrition exceeds 30% and when the death rate exceeds two per 10,000 a day.” About 450,000 people are living in Somalia’s famine regions. The UN’s food arm, the Food and Agriculture Organization, predicts that the famine will spread across all of southern Somalia by mid-September and that famine conditions probably will last until December. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled to the Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya, which has already received an estimated 400,000 people and for several weeks has been “bursting at the seams” with over 1,000 new arrivals each day.

The dire situation in Somalia is caused by the convergence of a number of elements: poverty, governmental instability, civil war, ongoing violence, and severe drought. It is a place where humanitarian efforts to address the situation have been greatly thwarted by al-Shabaab, an insurgent group. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has called the crisis a “catastrophic combination of conflict, high food prices and drought.”

Changing Laws and Structures

David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, encourages people of faith to recognize that addressing poverty involves working to change the structures and systems that are at the root of it. In his 2010 book, Exodus From Hunger, he says, “Most churches in this country encourage people to help poor people directly and through charities, but say little about changing laws and structures that keep people poor—even though the God of the Bible insists on just laws and is concerned about the behavior of nations as well as individuals.”

Beckmann describes the struggle against hunger and poverty as “a great exodus in our own time.” He says, “It is like the Lord’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt on a much larger scale, and God did not send Moses to Pharaoh’s court to take up a collection of canned goods and blankets. God sent Moses to Pharaoh with a political challenge: to let Hebrew slaves go free.”

Systemic Causes of Hunger and Poverty

In order to make a significant difference, the systemic causes of hunger and poverty must be addressed. According to Beckmann, “the binding constraint on progress against hunger and poverty is political will.”

“Poverty is . . . a very complex issue and has multiple inter-related problems,” says Bishop Kenneth Carder, professor at Duke Divinity School, in a recent interview. “It is important to note that the primary problem is not scarcity but the inequitable access to the abundance of God’s creation.”

The causes of inequitable access are found in the ways governments and societies order economic life. For example, our global economy benefits some much more than others. We who benefit from globalization may not understand the economic effects that our consumption has on poor and developing nations.

Our faith calls us to understand the systemic economic practices that take advantage of others’ lives. There are a number of factors that contribute to poverty, particularly in poor countries:

  • Limited access to education and jobs
  • Lack of welfare and support programs for the unemployed and for the underemployed
  • Unequal trade relations between poor and wealthy nations
  • Debt in poor countries that diverts resources to debt servicing
  • Inequitable distribution of wealth and unjust economic systems
  • Use of farm subsidies in richer nations that export to poor countries, thus causing those countries to reject their own products
  • Policies of lending institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund
  • Inefficient food production in developing nations
  • Population growth
  • Production of unnecessary goods and services that waste resources
  • War and civil unrest
  • Corruption in governments

Relationship of Poverty and Peace

Bishop Nkulu Ntanda Ntambo of the Democratic Republic of Congo has worked on increasing food security as a way to promote peace in North Katanga, a region of ongoing civil conflict. In partnership with the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the Katanga Conference introduced a sustainable development program that brought new crops and sources of income to the region. In 2004, Bishop Ntambo’s leadership helped to bring a peace settlement to the NorthKatanga region following almost eight years of war.

“Underlying so much of the conflict in the world is the disparity of access to resources. And, the resources spent on weapons of war could eradicate hunger and poverty. Poverty breeds hopelessness and hopelessness spawns violence,” says Bishop Carder.

A March 2011 working paper submitted to the International Monetary Fund provides evidence that in low-income countries, increases in international food prices result in an increase in riots and civil conflict. In other words, the poorest countries in the world—the ones least responsible for changes in international food prices—suffer the most political instability.

Not only do hunger and poverty lead to violence, but violence also spawns poverty. The World Development Report 2011 says political conflict in a country is a barrier to economic development. To address poverty, governments must reform politically.

Equitable Sharing of Resources

Concern for equitable sharing of resources has its biblical foundation in the early law codes of Israel. These codes were meant to create and preserve economic justice for the community that God had delivered from the economic injustice of slavery in Egypt. Having been freed from slavery, the ancient Hebrews were to have the same kind of compassion toward the poor and oppressed of their land. In their understanding, God has special concern for the marginalized of society.

“God defends the orphans, the widows, and the sojourners (landless and immigrants). God identifies with the suffering of the oppressed, the poor, the hungry, the wounded and dying; therefore, one of the motivations for eliminating poverty and war is to relieve the suffering of God as well as the suffering of God’s people,” says Bishop Carder.

Scripture questions many of our society’s economic assumptions. For example, in Leviticus 25, we find the law against usury—the charging of interest on loans (verses 35-38). The earliest sabbath traditions called for the release from debts and slavery in every sabbath (seventh) year and the restoration of all family lands in the Jubilee year—every 50th year (verses 8-17).

Eradicating Poverty

The UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted by UN member nations at the 2000 Millennium Summit. The first of these goals is to “eradicate extreme poverty and hunger” by 2015. Faith communities are important partners with the UN in achieving the eight MDGs.

Here are some actions that local churches can take:

  • Support church and other agencies dedicated to the elimination of hunger locally and globally.
  • Purchase Fair Trade products.
  • Promote World Food Day and National Hunger Awareness Day.
  • Simplify lifestyles, moving away from consumerism and toward caring.
  • Participate in environment-friendly practices.
  • Commit more time and money to programs that address hunger and poverty.
  • Participate in Bread for the World’s annual “Offering of Letters.”

These are but some of the actions people of faith can take to help eradicate poverty, promote peace, and work toward God’s intention that all people share in the earth’s abundance. These are efforts that make for the peaceand well-being of all creation.


This article is part of FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.

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