The Poor You Will always Have: A Reflection on Poverty

by Dr Lim K Tham


In her book, This is What Inequality Looks Like (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2018), the sociologist Teo You Yenn gauges that "roughly a fifth of the resident population of Singapore could be defined as poor." This estimate presenting a high proportion of people in poverty is likely to raise eyebrows, given that the city-state in question has been often hailed as one of the richest in the world.


But Teo’s claim is not without basis. It is made, she notes, in accordance with the poverty line defined by some international organisations and scholars—at the level of less than half the median household income of the population.


Whether the poverty line adopted by Teo is too high or too low is a question which is best left to the social scientists, economists, policymakers, and other experts. A related and perhaps more basic question to ask would be whether a poverty line is needed, and it is with this that I wish to begin.


Some people may find it surprising that Singapore is among the few developed countries in the world in which there is no officially agreed upon poverty line. Renewed calls to establish one have been rejected by the government. Explaining the stance taken, the then Minister for Social and Family Development (MSF) Chan Chun Sing writes,

A poverty line does not fully reflect the severity and complexity of the issues faced by poor families, which could include ill health, lack of housing or weak family relationships. If we use a single poverty line to assess the family, we also risk a “cliff effect”, where those below the poverty line receive all forms of assistance, while other genuinely needy citizens outside the poverty line are excluded.


That seems to me plain and satisfactory enough. Even so, one must take seriously the counterpoint that if poverty is not measured, the poor may be inadvertently misrecognised or swept under the carpet. To quote from a study by Irene Y H Ng entitled "Definitions and Measurements of Poverty," the "problem of not recognising poverty as poverty is that less societal redistribution is channelled to them than is needed."


In hindsight and in light of the foregoing discussion, is it not prudent of the early church in Jerusalem to require of Paul and Barnabas only one thing for going forth to preach the good news to the Gentiles—that they "remember the poor"? (Gal 2:10). That obligation, we read, was also the very thing the apostle and his associate were eager to do.


Remembering the poor goes beyond merely thinking about the poor or having sympathy for their plight. The kind of remembering upon which the Bible lays stress, involves social engagement and practical action on the part of the believers.


Throughout the Bible, we find an entrenched tradition of upholding the poor as deserving of special care, attention and solicitude. Indeed, the rights of the poor are viewed as divinely sanctioned. Hence the assertion, "Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God." (Prov 14:31; see also 17:5).


Recall also how Jesus famously taught that whatever we do for the poor we do it for him; and conversely, that if we fail to help the poor we are deemed to have been derelict in the duty of love we owe to him. (Matt 25:40, 45). Even more significantly, in Jesus’ proclamation of the good news, the poor are mentioned as the ones to whom his life-giving message is specifically directed. (Luke 4:18; 6:20; see also Isaiah 61:1).


To be sure, the concept of poverty in the Bible has been treated in a variety of ways and from different perspectives. Different words with a range of meanings and nuances are used to describe the poor and their situation. Being poor is sometimes praised or considered a virtue, but at other times, regarded as a disgrace or even a curse.


All this makes for a confusing or contradictory account of poverty. As a contributor to the Oxford Handbook of Christianity and Economics states, "It would be seriously misleading . . . to suggest that there is either a single or a simple Christian understanding of 'poverty'."


It does not help that certain oft-remembered words of Jesus Christ have been often misread. When Jesus says, "The poor you will always have with you" (Matt 26:11; John 12:8), he is not expressing an attitude of resignation to the persistence of poverty, as though poverty is something about which one can do nothing or very little. Nor is he suggesting a shoulder-shrugging apathy towards the poor.


Those words of Jesus were derived from Deuteronomy 15, one of the most loaded "Jubilee" texts in the Bible. In that chapter, two important aspects of poverty are embodied. The first is a promise that if the people were to fully obey God and keep God’s commands, poverty will be done away with: "[T]here need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you." (verse 4). The second is a command, namely, that since "there will always be poor people in the land" we are to be "open-handed" towards our fellow citizens who are poor and needy. (verse 11).


Both the aspiration that there will be no more poverty, and the instruction to help the poor and the needy constitute the core of a Christian understanding of poverty. So the words, "The poor you will always have with you", I suggest, are to be understood with reference to and against the context of that Deuteronomic source.


This would be good place to point out that the passages in the Bible which deal with poverty can be differentiated between those which have a spiritual significance, and those which refer to a particular social situation.


"Blessed are you poor" (Luke 6:20) is clearly concerned with the former. Other texts, especially those found in the prophets, are about material poverty. A single example among many must suffice here: "The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst." (Is 41:17).

The failure to appreciate such nuances has led some to make light of real poverty, mistaking being poor for a spiritual problem. Some people, on the other hand, have pressed into service materialistic solutions to questions which arise from spiritual poverty.


In discussions about poverty in Singapore, one is often first disabused of the notion that there is no poverty in the city-state, or of the notion that the poor comprise only a very small proportion of the population.


Teo, whom we have cited, sought to do that by her estimation that "roughly" a fifth of the residents live in poverty. Irene Y H Ng whose study was quoted earlier, skilfully begins in the following vein, "Many Singaporeans do not think that poverty exists in Singapore. This might be because Singaporeans think of poverty as extreme deprivation experienced by malnourished and dying children in poor countries."


In reality, manifestations of poverty are all around us; the most disconcerting are the images of elderly men and women eking out a living as cleaners, security guards, tissue-paper sellers, or as collectors of recyclable cardboard. These images can of course be variously interpreted.

What we must not fall for is take poverty for granted or as divinely given. Such a mindset encourages token alms giving while leaving unattended the root causes of poverty.


We have been reflecting on the issue of poverty and attempting to delineate a biblical or Christian perspective within which it may be helpfully understood. I realise I may have treated poverty as if it were a problem that beset only the "other," within a "us-versus-them" dynamic—between those who are rich and can render help and those who are poor and in receipt of assistance.


Such an opposition is furthest from my mind, for the obvious reason that the Christian readers I have in mind can be either rich or poor, even of anything in-between! To my mind, all are called upon to help check the mechanisms and systems by which so much poverty is caused. The rich can take up the cause of the poor while the poor can do the same for those even poorer. At all events, the manner in which we deal with the poor will reflect whether we are in the good graces of God, or not.


[This article was first published by Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.]


Faith with Understanding

by Dr Lim K Tham


The Prince of Wales caused quite a furore when he said that he would like to be known as the "Defender of Faith" rather than the "Defender of the Faith" when he is crowned King. He has since clarified that he will stick to the traditional path and take the latter title. Be that as it may, the heir to the British throne may have unintentionally brought to the fore the two distinct senses in which the word "faith" has been used. What these senses connote and how they interrelate deserve our careful attention.


The first sense in which the word is used is as a shorthand for a body of beliefs which characterises a religion like Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam, to name a few. The royal title—the one with "the" in it—reflects that usage; as do the New Testament instruction "to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people," and the self-incriminating report cited by St Paul that "the man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy’’ (Jude 1:3; Gal 1:23).


Such use of "faith" to refer to a body of beliefs has been quite standard since early times. The reason for this is not hard to see. Religious adherents regard the set of beliefs which their religion teaches or holds to be true in what they claim about the divine, about the adherents themselves, and about the world. It is often the case that such belief systems have a normative role, calling forth religious trust and commitment. Given the use of "faith" in the sense discussed here, some thinkers like Paul Tillich, have argued that atheism too qualifies as faith since it has a set of beliefs, even though included in this set is the denial of God’s existence.


The second sense of the word "faith" indicates the response that an encounter with the divine elicits—that of trust, confidence, and conviction. This involves not only emotions but a commitment to the truth intellectually received. Faith in this "personal" sense is central to the New Testament, figuring prominently in the teaching of Jesus. Such faith is what Jesus requires of those who come to him. To his disciples, he regularly exhorts, "Have faith in God" (Mk 11:22; cf Mt 17:20, 21:21; Lk 17:6). Unsurprisingly, the lack of faith on the part of Jesus’ followers invites his rebuke (Mt 8:26, 14:31); and where it is absent, he is said to be unable to do many miracles (Mt 13:58). In other New Testament writers, the centrality of faith is a regular theme. St Paul, for instance, insists that it is through faith, and faith alone, that one is justified and made right with God.


At this point it is important to note that the distinction of the two senses of faith is not a watertight one. Indeed, they are interconnected. For a person’s faith does not only concern the content of beliefs which he or she confesses and trusts in; faith involves thoughts, emotions, actions, and the like. One may ask why then the distinction? The answer is that it is to help us better explore the idea of faith and understand how faith affects or is appropriated in the believer’s life.


There is a tendency among some religious people to assume that what matters is to have a "personal" faith, of the sort that gives rise to trust and commitment, and not of the sort that implies the content of what is believed. The two senses of faith which we have distinguished are thus set against one another, with "faith" in "the faith"—the belief systems comprising dogmas, creeds, doctrines and so on—deemed of secondary importance.


It is true, as has been pointed out by James (2:19) about the demons also having belief, that a merely cognitive faith is inadequate. Yet, faith in God must involve and rest on right beliefs about God. For as Paul tells us, "faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ" (Rom 10:17). It is through the word that faith is sown. Hence the frequent stress on orthodoxy (i.e. the holding of right beliefs) by Paul, and his rebuke of those who preach a gospel other than the one he has preached. (Gal 1:6).


This leads us to consider an error in the opposite direction of which we may be susceptible. It is to think of orthodoxy as the whole of faith. Accordingly, assent to the church’s doctrines, creeds, and statements of faith is simply mouthed or read off with little or no understanding. The suggested corrective is that we do well to place our trust not merely in the words uttered but in what they denote or express. All this involves a measure of understanding on the part of the believer, even though he or she can never attain complete comprehension. But the attempt to seek more understanding will enhance the whole experience of faith.


We may perhaps come to appreciate that the treatment of faith as having a content and as calling forth a response is helpful. The two aspects are essentially about one thing. An oft-quoted verse by the writer of Hebrews neatly encapsulates the idea of faith as follows: "And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him" (Heb 11:6). What is being insisted upon by that writer is that one must assent to the fact that there is God in order that one can approach or engage him.


[This article was first published by Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.]

How Faith Can Help Navigate Uncertainty

by Dr Lim K Tham

The word “faith” can be used in two quite distinct ways. Firstly, it can mean a body or system of belief. Thus, the expression “many faiths are practised in Singapore” can be understood as saying that the people of Singapore are adherents of a wide range of religions. This usage of the “faith” as religion is, however, not how I would like to use the word here. Rather, I will be using the word “faith” to indicate an inner attitude of trust and confidence in God. In other words, faith to me is about the conviction of a divine reality that surpasses and sustains everything that exists—both the seen and the unseen.

That said, what I would now like to share is how my experience of faith has helped me during the present pandemic. Firstly, and most importantly, faith has helped me disarm fear—the fear of being infected, or even of death. I am not implying that I am somehow immune to coronavirus because of faith. No; for I may well be infected and die. Rather, fear is disarmed because I have the assurance of divine presence. As one scripture writer testifies, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” (Ps 23:4).

The pandemic has presented a second problem: it has caused people to be isolated from others. The upshot is a sense of loneliness. Most of us now pine for company. My faith enables me to deal with this in two ways. One, I recognise that being at a distance from friends is an opportunity for me to get close to God. His presence is a resource for me. Two, I have also come to appreciate that social distancing is—in a sense—an act of social solidarity. How so? Because even though we are at a physical distance from one another, the implication is that we are interconnected. As John Donne famously said a long time ago, “No man is an island…”  At any rate, faith helps me to celebrate the fact that I remain a member of my faith community, a community that transcends time and space. This seems to be the idea behind the apostle Paul’s mind when he writes, “we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Rom 12:5).

As the pandemic lingers on, the inevitable question that presses on us is, “Why are we inflicted with it?” Many answers have been offered, including some not so helpful ones. For me, the best answer is the one that admits that it is not given to us to know the reason why. While I may not understand why people are suffering or dying, I can trust the One I have faith in—the One who loves, and who controls and gives life. I find it more meaningful to ask the “what” question, namely, what does God want us to do in such a time?

Does the way of faith that I and my fellow believers identify with, conflict with science in coping with the current pandemic? The short answer is: it should not. This is because of our belief that “all truth is God’s truth.” It follows that the truths that science is revealing about the virus, about how it spreads, and about how to fight it, should be heeded.

Talk by Dr Lim K Tham given at “Harmony of Faiths Talks” series organised by the National Library Board & Inter-Religious Organisation on Sunday 31 October 2021.