Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Condition affecting those who do not possess the means to ensure an adequate quality of life by local societal standards. Poverty is thus a societally relative conception. In the developing world, the poor may include those who are able only (or not able in some cases) to ensure their physical survival. In the developed countries, where survival needs may be met through social welfare provisions, poverty may be measured in terms of the proportion of income spent to obtain the necessities of life (e.g., food, clothing, shelter).

Poverty has been viewed in several different ways by theologians and religious leaders. On the one hand, as in traditional Catholicism, it may be viewed as a natural condition, as God's will. Poverty, in this conception, is one's "lot in life," something to be endured, but something that will eventually give way—at least for the truly believing—to the reward of an eternity in heaven. The poor are to be treated with compassion, and it becomes the moral duty of the more affluent to provide support to the poor through alms or other works of charity.

Another view, which arose concurrently with some brands of Protestantism, sees poverty as something to be disdained, avoided at all costs. In fact, stemming from the doctrines of John Calvin, the early Protestants came to equate poverty with lack of favor in the eyes of God. Calvin's teaching promoted hard work as a moral duty and as means to alleviate the anxiety caused by not knowing one's fate in the afterlife. Those who took Calvin's advice and devoted themselves to their worldly tasks often achieved success in terms of material possessions. In time, this became seen as a sign that one was indeed saved, a sign all believers were anxious to acquire. The legacy of this thinking is incorporated in the modern-day conception of poverty as the result of individual failing, as something to be avoided, or escaped from, by one's own hand.

A more recent religious conception sees poverty as a primarily secular evil, one perpetuated by human greed and thus to be actively opposed and eliminated. Such a view finds its most salient expression since the 1960s in the writings of Catholic theologians supportive of liberation theology. Liberation theologians have argued that poverty is systemic, and that owing to the political domination of elites, the means for its escape are not readily available to the poor. As a result, they advocate an organizational alliance with the poor and oppressed to help them find active ways to oppose those structures that ensure their subjugation. Thus liberation theologians were active in the formation of social movements and agencies within the structure of the Catholic Church in countries such as Brazil, or the Philippines, designed to give voice to the aspirations of the common people and to organize the poor as a political force against the forces of economic and social oppression.

W. E. Hewitt


V. Elizondo and N. Greinacher (eds.), Church and Peace (New York: Seabury, 1983)

M. K. Nealen, The Poor in the Ecclesiology of Juan Luis Segundo (New York: Peter Lang, 1991).

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