In my latest reading of Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?), Michael Eric Dyson discusses different views regarding the causes of poverty. Some blame the poor individual, as if he or she is at fault for not working hard enough. Some blame society for the lack of opportunities. Still others appeal to luck as an important factor. According to Dyson, there are many who may carry around in their minds more than one of these views. Someone from the African-American middle-class, for example, may pat himself on the back for the hard work that he believes brought him to where he is, and yet he also recognizes that there is structural racism that was a barrier for him, and that is a barrier for other African-Americans.
On page 196, Dyson has a paragraph about the role of religion in influencing the self-perception of some poor people. Some poor people feel bad because the prosperity Gospel says that those whom God blesses and favors will be materially prosperous, and they look at themselves, see their lack of material prosperity, and wonder if God loves them, or if they are doing something wrong. Others consider their poverty a blessing or as God’s good will. Still others believe that God wants to help them to fight for an improvement in their social or economic condition, “if not for themselves, then for their children’s sake.”
I thought about the Book of Proverbs as I read this. I have been reading Proverbs for my Daily Quiet Time, and what I notice is that it manifests a variety of attitudes about the poor. It conveys the message that those who do not work hard will likely end up poor, yet it acknowledges that oppression and injustice often hold people down economically. It is optimistic, however, that God will intervene and punish the oppressors. Does God intervene by helping the poor in their political or organizational push to improve their conditions, according to Proverbs? I haven’t seen that in Proverbs so far. The idea in Proverbs seems to be that God unilaterally steps in and punishes oppressors. It does not favor people sitting back and letting God do all the work, however, for it promotes charity and generosity for the poor as something that pleases God, and that God will likely reward.
There are times when the Book of Proverbs appears to romanticize poverty, as if it is part of a simple, humbler lifestyle, which contrasts with the pride and the strife among the rich and powerful. But there are other parts of Proverbs that are quite honest about the misery of poverty, especially in terms of the lack of social support that poor people have because people scorn them for their poverty. This may be to promote compassion towards them, to encourage people to work hard so they don’t end up poor (and what about the working poor?), or both.