“The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus said.

For most of Christian history, that has been regarded either as a statement of melancholy but unalterable truth or as a declaration of divine intent: “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate/ God made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate” sort of thing.

It is probably an unalterable truth that there will always be gradations of wealth, though it is not unreasonable to work toward controlling the wilder excesses of capitalism.

We do not now, though, regard either poverty or wealth as functions of a God-ordained social order. They are, in their extreme manifestations, symptoms of a dysfunctional economic or political system – and usually both.

At their further limits, these systems can rightly be called evil or even demonic. We don’t accept them; we try to fix them.

Churches have signed up to the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, which target issues such as poverty, malnutrition and education because they recognize something godly about them.

In the last 30 years or so, they have learned – or relearned – something about the wholeness of the gospel, which is about people’s lives today, not just their afterlives tomorrow.]

William Booth once asked, “What is the use of preaching the gospel to men whose whole attention is concentrated upon a mad, desperate struggle to keep themselves alive?”

If our work and our preaching don’t help human beings flourish in their daily lives, it has been lamed by a theology focused too much on heaven.

If it doesn’t point them to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, it has been blinded by a theology drawn from a worldly concentration on the needs of the body alone.

So the latest assessment from the U.N. that the “world as a whole is still on track to reach the poverty-reduction target” and that “by 2015, the global poverty rate should fall below 15 percent – well under the 23 percent target” should be welcomed unreservedly.

Of course, there is much to do. Of course, not every target will be met, and, of course, progress is uneven.

And, of course, those who deliver the aid and structural reforms that are making such a difference have not only to struggle with inefficiency and corruption, but also have to combat a widespread perception that we will never really make a difference.

Some say that times are hard, and we shouldn’t be supporting countries that will only waste it anyway. But this U.N. assessment gives the lie to such doom-mongers.

The most courageous thing our Coalition government has done has been to ring-fence the overseas aid budget when almost every other department was slashed to the bone, and when the right-wing media was united in its criticism of the decision. It was right to do so, and here is the proof.

Christians should rejoice in what’s been achieved, and we should be resolute in our support for our government’s policy in this area, whether we support it otherwise or not.

“The poor you will always have with you.”? Not necessarily.

Mark Woods is editor of Britain’s Baptist Times, where this column first appeared.

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