Predicating poverty; or, how to offend others


A few days ago, a couple evangelical bloggers took some time to write on poverty.  I was pretty unsettled by what I read.  After a while, I realized the problem: they were writing jeremiads and rhetorical scoldings, but I couldn’t find any real, specific person who originally warranted such a rebuke.  It was the problem of predication.  Somewhere, some straw man was being beat up, perhaps for the sins of some other person in the past, a ubiquitous person I like to refer to as the “bigoted uncle.”

What is predication? Recall from grammar that some sentences have three parts: an object, a predicate, and a subject.  The object does something to the subject.  For instance, a girl hits a ball, or a pedestrian judges a homeless man.  To hit, to judge, these are predicate acts.  These acts must fall upon some subject, as in the ball or the homeless man.

Who is that strawman? I think it’s Bigoted Uncle!
Photo credit: Bookmart / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Now the first blog I noticed came in response to a list of habits posted on the website of a famous get-out-of-debt ministry.  Blogging on CNN’s website, author Rachel Evans took the list and its purveyor to task.

If you read the original list, there is no explicit causal claim about the behaviors of “the rich” and “the poor.”  Evans writes:

One need not be a student of logic to observe that Corley and Ramsey have confused correlation with causation here by suggesting that these habits make people rich or poor.

But Corley’s list did not explicitly make the causal connection.  As the reader who interpreted the text’s meaning, it was only  Evans who could make that implicit connection.

In something of an indignant response appended to the original list, ministry leader Dave Ramsey may well have affirmed a causal relationship.  Even still, inferring causation from statistical surveys does not amount to passing personal judgment on “the poor.” That is another implication that only the reader can bring out.  And this is what Evans seems to do (emphasis mine):

A poor family may eat more junk food, not because they are lazy and undisciplined, but because they live in an economically disadvantaged, urban setting where health food stores are not as available: a so-called “food desert.”

The question arises, who exactly called a poor family “lazy and undisciplined” in the first place?  It wasn’t Ramsey or Corley from what I can tell.  Maybe it was bigoted uncle.

Further on, Evans informs us:

And far from having contempt for the poor, Jesus surrounded himself with the needy and challenged the excesses of the rich.

Who actually had contempt for the poor?  It doesn’t seem to be Ramsey and company.  Again, it could have been bigoted uncle.

A few days after Evans’ post, evangelical writer and HBU provost John Mark Reynolds warned against “poor shaming.”  In the course of the text, we never learn who specifically Reynolds thinks has been shaming the poor in virtue of their being poor.  Recounting the overwhelming external factors that perpetuate poverty, he does opine:

One thing we should not do is have rich Christians give advice to the teeming masses from their Olympian sofas.

This kind of biting rhetoric drives me mad.  Who do these writers, a fellow sister and brother in Christ, actually have in mind?  When they lay down their thoughts in writing, each proposition is preceded by an implicit “I think that . . ..”  They are bearing in mind and making judgments either about specific persons or else some useful fiction.  They are predicating many times over, on the rich, the poor, the middle class, Christians, Americans, and so on.

If serious and thoughtful Christians are going to be predicating, let’s be sure we’re doing it with accuracy and precision.  Evans deplores painting with a categorically broad brush, and so do I.  It’s natural to talk in terms of abstractions, as in Wall Street, Main Street, the one percent, the ninety-nine percent, the rich, and the poor.  If it’s bad to judge individuals, why is it any better to predicate uncharitably on some ambiguous social construct that another person may identify as?

“The rich” and “the poor” both might as well be the Hegelian “The Other.”  If your head is spinning after all of this meta-analysis, I’m nearly done.  Now I will be silent for a time, allowing the Other to self-identify and speak for his or herself.

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About cogitating duck
I study Christian apologetics at Biola University and occasionally write on ethics, truth, science and politics.

4 Responses to Predicating poverty; or, how to offend others

  1. So my post was a response to wealthy Christians I have met who say things like the comments I mentioned. Should I Net Shame them by using their names? Should I ignore the common dinner party comments about “the poor?” I did not think either response was good.

    If you don’t know wealthier folk (or even middle class people) who think poor people are poor because they deserve it, then you are fortunate in your friends.

    I favor freedom, including free markets, but think we can be insensitive.

    In any case, thanks for a thoughtful and pointed response. Good fun!

    In the dialectic,

    JMN Reynolds

    • Thanks for stopping by and clarifying your intent; that is going the distance.

      I found your Apologetics315 interview with Brian Auten some months ago, where you counseled discretion in public discourse, to be inspiring.

      As for me, I am an odd duck; a mixed race son of a Cold Warrior and a “bootstraps” immigrant, the idea that advocating work ethic could be perceived as shaming or blaming always hits me a little too close to home.

  2. jungleboy says:

    I think it’s ironic that in his effort not too offend individuals he personally knows, Mr. Reynolds penned an article that implies- intentionally or otherwise- that ALL rich Christians are privileged and judgmental (resting on “Olympian sofas”) and ALL have disdain for the poor (the “teeming masses”). Like Mr. Reynolds, I know Christians like that. However, I also have the blessing of knowing rich Christians who do not have that type of bigoted attitude, who are generous, sometimes sacrificially, to the poor, and who were, in some cases themselves born in poverty and hardship. If Mr. Reynolds knows no such rich Christians, I would be happy to make some introductions.

    There is another, I think more basic problem. When I hear an argument I disagree with, especially from someone I don’t like, do I base my judgment of someone’s argument based on the facts and logic they use? Or do I base my evaluation of the argument upon who the arguer is? Too often, I do the latter. The Duck will be able to tell you the name of that Logical Fallacy, (Ad hominem, perhaps? Or poisoning the well?) I fear Mr. Reynolds falls prey to it, also.

    I am by no means an expert on poverty, but I know that people are poor for any number of reasons. I have met refugees forced out of Burma, tutored inner-city children in California, was raised in a village with the children of blacksmiths and other Hindu untouchables, lived next door to the mud huts of Zambian widows, and a good family friend was sold as a child bride. All these people were poor through no fault of their own. But I’ve also met people whose poverty has been increased or caused by their poor choices. I have laid awake in bed and heard wives and children cry with hunger while their husband/father drinks his earnings away. That fathers’ actions increased his family’s misery; if he had chosen too, he could have fed them, no one forced him to drink. I have other examples, but this post is already too long!

    There is always a complex network of reason for poverty, and it needs to be approached cautiously, and with compassion. Criticism should be thoughtfully applied. But, if the evangelical church labels ANY criticism of the decision of the poor “poor shaming” we cut off the potential for people to understand the power of their actions, and to make better ones. More importantly, and this makes me VERY angry, we turn them into helpless victims. They are not. The poor are actors in their own right, imprinted with the Image of God, capable of bearing the responsibility and the dignity of making their own decisions. The Bible clearly states that we all, rich and poor alike, will be held accountable by a just God. Acknowledging that responsibility and that dignity, that personhood, means, at times, and hopefully lovingly, making criticisms. And denying that responsibility is often nothing short of paternalistic- a sin God has convicted me of partaking in.

    • Thanks jungleboy for bringing your globe-spanning wisdom to bear. I share your frustration that a general aversion to shame and stigma robs the subjects of our pity of dignity. To tip toe around the fact that they too bear some responsibility for outcomes in the world, and have the capacity to better their own and others’ lot, dehumanizes them. As a person of color, who is represented by organized labor, I feel this oppression of good intentions myself. It does undermine knowledge of the creative force in all accountable persons, that is to have been made in the Image of God. Please, a hand up, not a hand out!

      Now, as for Mr. Reynold’s sofa comment, I don’t think he is necessarily implicating all rich Christians as being aloof like uncaring Greek gods. But to use such a charged characterization does threaten to reinforce negative stereotypes in readers predisposed to have them. I don’t think Reynolds is making a formal or informal argument. Rather, as many bloggers do, he is offering a personal rhetorical reflection. But it is true that “Olympian sofa” tends to poison the well somewhat. Thanks again for cogitating with me.

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