Shalom and the Poverty of Relationships

January 12, 2011 — 6 Comments


Bryan L Myers’ Walking with the Poor is simply excellent. My colleagues and I are spending the next few days discussing the book and its implications for global missional leadership. Andrew wrote a wonderful, probing post on his own work with the poor and pre/misconceptions that he’s uncovered in himself. Chris has written a fantastic post on the shared spiritual poverty that afflicts, and shapes, the poor and non-poor alike. One of Myers’ key themes that both Chris and Andrew pick up on is the relational aspect of poverty and how it shapes one’s worldview.

Myers, early in the book, explains that because we are created as image-bearers of God, we “are intentionally placed in a system of relationships: with God, with self, with community, with those perceived as ‘other,’ and with our environment” (26). Sin, however, as marred all those relationships, distorting them beyond our ability to repair them. Christ, however, serves as the means for the restoration of those relationships and the church he established has as its primary charge the work of witnessing to the restoration of those relationships; that is the essence of the Kingdom of God. Myer’s puts it thusly,

From the day our first parent walked out of the garden, estranged from God, each other, and the earth itself, God has been at work redeeming the fallen creation, its people and its social systems. God’s goal is to restore us to our original identity, as children reflecting God’s image, and to our original vocation as productive stewards, living together in just and peaceful relationships. . . . As Christians, we can no longer simply view the world as a collection of individuals. Instead, we need to view each individual as an encumbered self, embedded in families and communities as well as being participants in the whole gamut of social institutions–economic, political, cultural, and religious. (42-43)

To refer to these restored relationships, Myers employs the use of the word shalom. He writes, “Shalom means just relationship (living justly and experiencing justice), harmonious relationships and enjoyable relationships. Shalom means belonging to an authentic and nurturing community in which one can be true to one’s self and give one’s self away without becoming poor. Justice, harmony, and enjoyment of God, self, others, and nature; this is the shalom that Jesus brings, the peace that passes all understanding” (51, Myers is borrowing from Wolterstorff’s Until Justice and Peace Embrace pp. 69-72 as he develops these thoughts).

One of the factors that limits our ability to abate poverty is that we simply do not have a holistic view of what poverty is–in all its relationships–and therefore lack a comprehensive approach to addressing each of poverty’s relational roots. Myers develops these “blind spots” more in a section on Christian views of the poor in chapter 3. Particularly helpful is the following figure, found on page 60:

View of the Poor Theological Frame Key Biblical Texts Expressions Why the Poor are Poor Christian Response
Poor made in the image of God Creation Genesis 1-2 Poor as Creative.
Poor as work of art.
See God’s hidden glory.
The poor lack skills, knowledge, and opportunity. Enable the poor to be fruitful and productive.
Poor as people in rebellion Fall Genesis 3 Proverbs Poor as lazy.
Poor make bad choices.
God helps those who help themselves.
The poor are in rebellion and their culture keeps them poor. Challenge the poor with the gospel and encourage them to make better choices.
Poor as Christ incarnate Incarnation Gospels Christ in the distressing guise of the poor.
What you did for the least of these…
The poor lack love. Accompany the poor and relieve suffering as possible.
Poor as God’s favorites Prophetic Eschatological Exodus Prophets Blessed are the poor for theirs will be the kingdom. Liberation theology The poor are oppressed by the non-poor. Poverty is structural. Work for justice. Help the poor find their voice and place in socio-political-economic system.
Poor as lost souls Salvation Soteriological Matthew 28 Acts The better future lies in eternity.
Save as many as we can.
The poor will always be with you.
The poor are lost from God, and the kingdom if coming soon. Proclaim the gospel and encourage the poor to respond.


Figure 3-1: Christian views of the poor. (Developed from Mouw, “Thinking About the Poor” 1989, 20-34)

Most Christians have a bilateral view of poverty and its causes, which results in a fairly narrow proposed response. The evangelical tradition of which I have been a part for most of my life tends to view the poor as “people in rebellion” and as “lost souls.” Therefore much of the work that is done with the poor and addressing poverty centers on the proclamation of the gospel to the poor in concert with skills-based training to help “equip” the poor to become more productive members of society. David Platt’s book, Radical is an excellent example of this view of poverty. He especially identifies with the “poor as lost souls” view of poverty and related solutions. I reviewed the book in my last post.

Many mainline churches approach poverty and the poor from the “poor as Christ incarnate” and “poor as God’s favorites” points of view. As a result they have been quite successful in implementing programs to address the needs that surround those in poverty and working to create just systems, but often lack any sort of articulation of the gospel, the “why,” in their work. Neo-Anabaptists are more likely to focus on “poor made in the image of God” and “poor as God’s favorites” which takes shape in work to empower the poor to make their own way in the world economically, socially, and politically.

Myers argues that a shalom-centered view of poverty, rooted in the restoration of all our relationships, must encompass all of these views of the poor as well as all of their responses. The thesis of his work is, “Poverty is a result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings” (86). For Myers the role of the Christian development agency (those working to transform the impoverished and the systems that perpetuate poverty) must be rooted in the restoration of relationships that do work, that are for life, that are harmonious and enjoyable. He puts it this way, “We are to be citizens of the kingdom, people living in just and harmonious relationships with God, self, each other, and the created order” (109).

Not wanting to be misread, Myers takes the opportunity at several points to rightly cast God as the sole agent for change and transformation and Christians and development agencies as His instruments: “While shalom and abundant life are ideals that we will not see this side of the second coming, the vision of shalom that leads to life in its fullness is a powerful image that must inform and shape our understanding of any better human future” (51) and “Care needs to be taken that we understand we are being asked by God to be obedient, not successful” (110).

It is this “vision of shalom” that I find so compelling. I am in need of constant reminder that the Lord’s business is shalom. It is His gift and his promise. It is already and not yet. I cannot bring shalom, yet I can witness to its presence and its coming. I cannot create shalom, but I can be used by God to reveal it. Shalom is for the soul, yes, but it is also for the body, the earth, and our interactions with one another. Any time I work for harmonious and enjoyable relationships in any of those areas, I am proclaiming the gospel, witnessing to the kingdom of God, practicing faithful presence.

Anderson Campbell


  • Chris Marshall

    When I read this in the book: “Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings” I was absolutely hushed. Such a pregnant statement of the story of the Kingdom gospel. Proclaiming and emobdying this shalom to the poor and non-poor, this is our work, and it is at its heart, deeply relational.Thanks.

  • Tim Buechsel

    Great post. I am especially struck by your statement: “Shalom is for the soul, yes, but it is also for the body, the earth, and our interactions with one another. Any time I work for harmonious and enjoyable relationships in any of those areas, I am proclaiming the gospel, witnessing to the kingdom of God, practicing faithful presence.” When I think about the different domains in which my life takes place – shalom – seems to always be one of the key purposes that God has for that area of my life. How powerful it is to have guiding shalom narratives for the different domains in which our life takes place.Shalom#dmingml

  • Rodger McEachern

    Eddie – dense and thorough! Like Chris and Tim I too am taken with Myers’ connecting of poverty with shalom. Eddie, you write and then quote Myers, “The thesis of his work is, “Poverty is a result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings” (86) I have two thoughts on this. The first is the absence of shalom may help explain the saying “You will always have the poor among you…” [John 12.8; Deuteronomy 15.11, NIV]. Only with the arrival of the new heaven and earth will shalom be completely manifested, thus, in this world shalom is incomplete and sadly the marring of creation by sin, of which poverty is one manifestation. The second thought is this, if poverty is the absence of shalom [though I would say not total absence unless one would posit the absence of grace and God’s presence in the world and with the poor], then every person is poor – in varying degrees. I find this helpful ontologically – for example recognising my need for shalom in my relationships, but I will admit I find it less helpful pragmatically in regards to bringing shalom to the poor. If I am poor, and the homeless guy is poor, we only differ in degree of poverty, then who needs the greatest help? I know I am not thorough in my thinking here – there are huge gaps! But lets talk about it. ((tags:dmingml)) #dmingml

  • MIchael Hearn

    Eddie,Great Post! One of the thoughts that I cannot stop from thinking after reading much of this book is the fact that we separate our spiritual life and physical/secular life in most everything we do. In order to bring about shalom…or be a tool in the Kingdom of God in ushering in shalom, we must understand that this division of secular and spiritual is a modern word view that paralyzes us into inaction! In order walk with the poor we can no longer make statements like my Christian friends…and my lost friends. I guess my question is how do we get people to see what they cannot or have not seen as we disciple others with these new insights and understandings. #dmingml

  • Michael Ratliff

    Eddie, thanks for sharing your insights in this thoughtful post. “Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings” struck me in a similar way that I hear Rodger’s comment – we are all poor in some way and to some degree. It is the “degree” that I am reflecting on… Though the completeness of shalom may not be experiences until the culmination of God’s history, is there not space to see/experience glimpses along the way? If not, I fear that it is easy for us to adopt a view that “the poor is always with us,” until God redeems all of creation and there’s not much we can do about it. Or, that we (humankind) will reject God’s timing as not adequate (either consciously or sub-consciously), so we’ll just do it on our own. As I work toward shalom in my relationships and ministry, I want/need to experience it as well.

  • Russ Pierson

    Eddie, I appreciate your deep exploration of what shalom looks like, and it is a concept find compelling as I read Myers, too. I especially like your “bottom line:” “Any time I work for harmonious and enjoyable relationships in any of those areas, I am proclaiming the gospel, witnessing to the kingdom of God, practicing faithful presence.”