This essay was published in the Blanton Peale Institute Online Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, 2009.
Robert Walker Gunn, A.B., M.Div., S.T.M., D.Min., Ph.D.
Lecturer, Union Theological Seminary, New York
Psychotherapist in Private Practice
Pastor, United Church of Rockville Centre, N.Y.
After a brief consideration of how poverty is viewed in five world religions, some psychological aspects of poverty will be considered.
Attitudes and Actions Concerning Poverty Among the Five Major World Religions
Poverty is a major concern for every world religion. Every religion makes room for a conscious consideration of what one is to do with and for the poor. Each religion gives instruction regarding the proper attitude and action to take regarding the poor. These attitudes and actions affect one’s own life, for faithfulness in each religion requires attitudes and actions of compassion and the sharing, to whatever degree, of what one has with those who have significantly less. Poverty thus directly affects oneself. Indeed, for most religions, one’s attitude and actions toward the poor is an essential element in the determination of one’s own spiritual development and destiny.
Poverty In Judaism:
–The concern for the poor is closely linked to the maintenance of justice:
you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to the poor in a lawsuit….You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits. (Exodus 23: 2b-3, 6) from the profit of their trading they will get no enjoyment. For they have crushed and abandoned the poor, they have seized a house that they did not build. (Job 20:19) Thus says the Lord of hosts: render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien or the poor…(Zechariah 7:10)
–Leaving fields and crops for the poor is a religious duty: In the seventh year you shall let (the land) rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat. (Exodus 23: 11)
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19: 9-10)
–God is compassionate toward the poor and judges those who oppress them:
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor….for he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy and saves the lives of the needy. (Ps 72:4,12, 19,21)
Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy. (Psalm 86:1)
This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. (Ezekiel 16:49)
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy….(Amos 4:1)
Poverty In Christianity:
–the poor receive God’s favor:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. 11:5, Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them. (Matthew 5:3)
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)
–Disciples are sometimes urged to become poor themselves:
He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. (Mark 6:8-9)
You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. Mark 10:21 (cp Luke 18:22, and John 12:1-8 where words are spoken by Judas)
–Poverty for disciples is recommended because it is following Jesus’ example:
For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. (I Corinthians 8:9)
–the surrender of private ownership to communal property is a natural expression of the new life found in Christ:
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…..There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32)
–and yet there is a place for extravagance and abundance:
Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denari, and the money given to the poor,” and they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. (Matthew 26: 9-11)
–A distinction is made between those who are materially poor and those who appear to have everything, but have nothing:
For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked. (Revelation 3:17)
In a contemporary expression of Christian concern about poverty, people at Union Theological Seminary in New York City started The Poverty Initiative to raise awareness and take action on behalf of the poor. Their perspective is reflected in an essay entitled “WHO ARE THE POOR?” written by Willie Baptist and Liz Theoharis, August 2008:
If you can’t get the basic necessities of life, you’re poor.
The poor and dispossessed today differ from the poor and dispossessed of the past. They are compelled to fight under qualitatively new conditions and to creatively wield new weapons of struggle. In other words, the socio-economic position of the low waged, laid off, and locked out is not that of the industrial poor, the slave poor, or of the colonial poor of yesterday. The new poor embody all the major issues and problems that affect the majority of other strata of the country’s population.
Presently, we are experiencing the wholesale economic destruction of the so-called “middle class” in this country. This is huge in terms of political power relations and of strategy and tactics. This “middle class” is beginning to question the economic status quo. The point here is that the economic and social position of the poor is not one to be pitied and guilt-tripped about, but that it indicates the direction this country is heading if nothing is done to change it. Poverty is devastating me today. It can hit you tomorrow. The crisis of healthcare is currently the cause of half of all the bankruptcies in this country.
Poverty in Islam:
According to Osman Guner, in an essay on “Poverty in Traditional Islamic Thought: Is It Virtue or Captivity?”, the Islamic words for poverty occur in the Qu’ran twelve times. Two of those times refer to spiritual poverty, meaning human finitude and humans’ absolute need for Allah; the other ten refer to material poverty and how Muslims should help them. Additionally, in the Sufi tradition of Islam, the giving up of property and goods is an essential aspect of emphasizing one’s utter dependence on Allah.
For most Muslims, however, there is nothing wrong with acquiring material goods, and material well being is seen as an imperative. Nevertheless, greed and oppression are considered unlawful and poverty is considered a social anomaly that should be changed. The poor are looked upon with favor both in this world and the next: “While the food of the poor will be delicious, the food of the rich will not be….Allah certainly gives the deliciousness of the food of the rich to that of the poor….The superiority of the poor over the rich will continue in the Hereafter too….the poor of your community enter the Paradise five hundred years before the rich.”
According to one author, Islam has the key to solving the world’s problems of poverty and hunger through its tradition of Zakat. Zakat is an obligatory gift to be distributed among the poor and needy. Muslims are expected to give 2.5% of money that they have had in their possession for over a year. The author concludes:
Now consider this simple fact: Forbes Magazine reported that in 2004 there were 587 billionaires worldwide, with a combined net worth of $1.9 trillion dollars. If in 2004, these 587 richest people in the world paid zakat, we would have had $47.5 billion dollars distributed among the poor.
Poverty in Hinduism
Hinduism has sometimes been accused of creating and exacerbating poverty because of its caste system. In Hindu tradition, humankind is divided into four castes, called varnas: the highest is the Brahmin, which is for priests, teachers and wise men. The second is that of Kshatriya, which is for warriors, rulers and leaders. The third varnas is Vaishya, which includes merchants, farmers and those who work in commerce. The lowest varna is Sudra for those who do manual labor and service. One is born into one of the levels at birth based on one’s karma, that is to say, the effect of how one has lived in previous lifetimes. Each varna has its own set of rules and expectations, its particular dharma, which, if one follows it well, will enable one to be born at a higher level varna in one’s next lifetime.
Thus understood, although people in the lowest level often live in serious poverty, in Hindu thought it is not a source of disapprobation since everyone is, in every varna, in each person’s current lifetime, working out their own karma and anticipating raising the level of their varna in the next lifetime. Westerners may see a parallel between the Hindu notion of karma and the tradition in both Judaism and Christianity that assumes one’s status of both physical and economic well-being to be determined, when negative, by one’s own sin or the sins of forebears.
Far from seeing poverty as a virtue, however, Hindu thought emphasizes the value of acquiring wealth and a better standard of living, often through prayers to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.
As Hindus have experienced globalization, however—both in terms of Hindus going to other cultures and others coming to them through business and media—there is a significant shift taking place in the understanding of caste and its place in Hindu spiritual development.
Poverty in Buddhism
Buddhism’s attitude toward poverty stems from its understanding of all existence according to the first two of the Four Noble Truths propounded by Shakyamuni Buddha in the fifth century, B.C.E. Taken together, the first two Noble Truths comprise a profound critique of the role of poverty in the conditions of all people around the world.
The First Noble Truth is that all of life is dukkha, usually translated as suffering, sometimes as anxiety, frustration or dissatisfaction. Poverty– meaning not having enough material goods for health, safety and the kind of well-being needed to realize oneself– is bad, therefore, because it usually entails suffering, and the loss of conditions needed to flourish. It was Shakyamuni’s experience that ascetic practices did not, in themselves, lead to enlightenment, and therefore even voluntary poverty—the deliberate surrender of worldly goods– for the Buddhist requires the meeting of ordinary conditions for health, safety and well-being, which is called the “middle way” in between ascetic denial and personal riches.
The Second Noble Truth is that the cause of suffering is tanha, perhaps best translated as “craving” or “desire.” In the Buddhist analysis, poverty is one of the primary conditions that give rise to craving, because one’s ordinary needs for food, clothing, shelter and care have not been met. Thus, poverty is bad because it gives rise to the kind of craving that increases suffering, leading people to extreme behaviors that add suffering to themselves and others.
Any social, economic and political conditions, therefore, that create poverty are bad because they thereby increase the suffering in the world. Thus, Buddhists are urged to engage in “right livelihood,” ways of making a living that do not create further suffering in the world, as part of the Fourth Noble Truth concerning the following of the Buddha Way. It follows from this concern that a society that is built on creating desire in order to induce people to acquire goods and be consumers of more goods than are needed will be a society that increases the suffering in the world. When the wealth of the few requires the inordinate consumption of the many because of artificially induced desires, poverty becomes a necessary corollary to wealth.
It is one of the primary insights of Buddhism that dualistic views– perspectives or attitudes in which reality is divided into two opposing positions—will necessarily increase the suffering in the world, because one side has been reified, elevated into a fixed position, at the expense of the other. Buddhist analysis pays keen attention, therefore, whenever dualism appears, and finds there another cause of suffering. Seen this way, poverty is but one side of human life, of which the other extreme is riches, and the Buddhist point of view is that such dualisms are entirely inter-related and interdependent, such that you cannot have one without the other. Poverty so seen is a direct outcome of the accumulation of wealth by one group at the expense of another.
For Buddhism, such a proliferation of wants is the basic cause of unnecessary ill-being. This implies that poverty can never be overcome by proliferating more and more desires which are to be satisfied by consuming more and more goods and services….In short, there is a fundamental and inescapable poverty “built into” a consumer society.
In this sense, even the affluent suffer in a consumer-oriented society, because their desires are never satiated. The poor in material goods suffer additionally because they do not have their basic needs for safety, health and well-being met. Morever, the many efforts by governments and institutions such as the World Bank to eliminate poverty may be seen as serving the needs of development for the purpose of creating and sustaining consumers, thus increasing the wealth of the rich, while making others poor.
Global poverty is thus conceptually necessary if the world is to be completely commodified and monetarized…The poverty of others is…necessary because it is the benchmark by which we measure our own achievements….In all these ways, then, we need the poor….among the causes of poverty today are the delusions of the wealthy…(therefore) we should not allow ourselves to be preoccupied only with the poverty side of the problem; to correct the bias, we should become as concerned about the wealth side: the personal, social, and environmental costs of our obsession with wealth-creation and collective growth.
Some Psychological Aspects of Poverty
The Buddhist concern for dualism finds its psychological corollary in the Jungian concepts of persona and shadow. Carl G. Jung, founder of analytical psychology, noted that personality may be divided between the persona and the shadow. The persona is the “mask” or “face” that one presents to the world, and includes all aspects of the person which the person consciously wants to be seen. It generally includes everything about one that may be expected to receive approval, and consists, therefore, in all aspects that one considers good and acceptable. The shadow, on the other hand, contains all those attributes about oneself of which one disapproves or those of which one believes others will disapprove; it includes all things about which one might feel shame, and which one therefore hides or denies. When it comes to the poor, the psychological situation was articulated by Malthus:
Even in the relief of common beggars we shall find that we are more frequently influenced by the desire of getting rid of the importunities of a disgusting object than by the pleasure of relieving it. We wish that it had not fallen in our way, rather than rejoice in the opportunity given us of assisting a fellow-creature. We feel a painful emotion at the sight of so much apparent misery; but the pittance we give does not relieve it. We know that it is totally inadequate to produce any essential effect. We know, besides, that we shall be addressed in the same manner at the corner of the next street; and we know that we are liable to the grossest impositions. We hurry therefore sometimes by them, and shut our ears to their importunate demands.
Poverty thus constitutes society’s shadow, for the poor elicit an uncanny loathing on the part of those who are not poor. The loathing is uncanny precisely in the way Malthus describes, in which the giving of a “pittance” does not relieve the “painful emotion at the sight of so much apparent misery.” It is uncanny further because, as Malthus says, the sheer scope and intractability of poverty baffles the mind, invoking an unshakeable ambivalence.
The direct experience of the people who are poor—if one is not–is unsettling. To put oneself in their shoes is to imagine who and what we are underneath our clothing, our roles, our relationships, our money, credit rating or house or car—it is to become aware of how thin and arbitrary the line is between the haves and the have-nots. In manifesting this core vulnerability and fragility, the poor live close to the border of life and death, which is the province of all spirituality.
The psychological point reinforces the Buddhist point regarding the dualism of poverty and wealth: the persona by definition requires the shadow. Indeed, the persona requires the shadow, for the persona itself is based on what it consciously declares it is not, namely, it is not the shadow. Without the shadow, the persona would not exist; without the persona, the shadow would not exist. They are interdependent. The rich require the poor psychologically, just as the poor require the rich.
Insofar as an individual accepts this division of reality into personality/shadow, rich/poor, and identifies with only one aspect, one will be locked in, psychologically, into only one half of one’s actual possibilities, and in denial about the other half. For the wealthy, they will be locked into maintaining their persona aspects: qualities of competence, superiority of ability and virtue, worthiness and the right to all that is considered good in life, including creativity, power, dignity and pursuit of happiness. To maintain the split, to make sure the shadow is suppressed, whole systems of thought will be devised to justify their position and to manifest les droits du seigneur—the rights of the lord. This psychological position will seek manifestation in every aspect of the social structure, from the economy to the politics, to the arts and religions. All of society will become organized around the split between the persona and shadow, the rich and the poor, in such a way as to insure the split and thus insure each side remains what it is and remains separate from the other.
The poor, for their part, insofar as they accept this division of reality, will become entirely identified as the poor, with all the psychological expectations demanded by their status as separate from the rich. They will not expect themselves to have a voice in the society, nor a place; they will not expect to be treated with full human dignity; they will not expect to contribute to the arts, nor have any place in religion except that of helpless victim, and thus they will adopt a form of a religion that reinforces their helpless status.
Consciousness and liberation for all people require the integration of split-off aspects of the personality. Programs to help the poor or end poverty will necessarily serve the divided psyche unless it speaks to the psychopathology of the division itself. Such a perspective cannot be imposed from only one aspect of the population, but must come from the ground up, from the people as a whole.
It is almost impossible to understand the psychological power built into the dynamics between the persona/shadow dynamics of rich and poor. It is cross-cultural, at least among developed nations. It is built into the nature of what it is to be human, because to be poor is to express and manifest the core powerlessness and vulnerability of the human condition, and to recognize how tentative and fragile human life is.
A psychological consideration of the persona/shadow dynamics of the rich and poor requires a spiritual vision, a vision of the whole, in which wealth and poverty are each integrated in relation to the other in mutual interdependence, and only from such a vision can the division between rich and poor even be imagined.
David Loy, “Buddhism and Poverty” in Kyoto Journal, 1999.
Johnson, Kelly S., The Fear of Beggars: Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wililam B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2007
Rahula, Walpola, What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from the Suttas and the Dhammapada. New York: Grove/Atlantic, Inc. 1994.