Skip to main content

Poverty, the Limits of Materialism, and George MacDonald

March 7th, 2012 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Christianity Today recently put together a peculiarly insufficient list of ways to help the poor that was ably and summarily criticized by Peter Greer, whose work with Hope International stands somewhere in the nexus of awesome and jaw-dropping.

But they also in the same issue ran a particularly good piece by my friend Mark Galli, in which he rightly points to the role governments play in making macro-economic decisions.  While he didn’t quite specify closely enough that their role should be to free up enterprise to create jobs, the alteration wouldn’t be foreign to the piece, even if an improvement.

But what really caught my eye was this bit:

Thus the church’s most characteristic antipoverty efforts are those that are utterly personal. I believe we instinctively understand this. This is why among the many antipoverty interventions offered, we evangelicals are so fond of child sponsorship, for example. It is not only a proven strategy for making a difference—it works—but more importantly, it is very relational and very personal.

Mark’s point here is perceptive, and unwittingly echoes a line from George MacDonald that has haunted me since I came across it:  “We are infested with a philanthropy which is the offspring of our mammon worship.”

The line is, frankly, worth repeating.  Read it slowly, and then again:  “We are infested with a philanthropy which is the offspring of our mammon worship.”

The alternative to that is aptly summarized by MacDonald’s protagonist who utters the remark, Robert Falconer:

“But it is right to do many things for [the poor] when you know them, which it would not be right to do for them until you know them.  I am amongst them; they know me; their children know me; and something is always occurring that makes this or that one come to me.  Once I have a footing, I seldom lose it.  So you see, in this my labour I am content do the thing that lies next to me.  I wait events.”

Or as he says it elsewhere, “No desire for the betterment of the masses, as they are stupidly called, can make up for a lack of faith in the individual”–a faith, presumably, in Falconer’s world that is not gained through the abstracting notions of humanity, but rather the intimate acquaintance with particular people.  “We must do,” after all, “before we can know.”  That was Falconer too.

That to say, there is a humanity contained in the personal relations that the exchanging of gifts or monies can only approximate, but never truly capture.  Beyond jobs, and on their way to them, many folks in poverty need a helping hand that isn’t strictly metaphorical:  someone to watch the kids or help out with the chores.  As Mark points out, the types of giving that Christians are often drawn to attempt to integrate this dimension into our charitable efforts.  And so much the better.

But even still, a degraded and reductionistic materialism is ever at the door, seeking to erode our sense of the humanity of those involved by the abstract nouns of “social justice” and “end of poverty.”   And, for that matter, “job creation.”  The patterns of speech have a way of distancing ourselves from the situation, or more accurately, from the people who are in it.

Our charitable efforts must be person-first, if they are to be properly “ours” at all.  The only other alternative is to perpetuate the very materialism that often sits near the headwaters of the problem itself.