Treating the Poor as Subjects, Not Objects: Interview with Michael Matheson Miller, Part 2

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What is the best way to help the poor locally and globally? That’s the main question of Poverty Cure, a 6-episode documentary that promotes an approach to poverty with economic intelligence and genuine faith. We spoke with Michael Mattheson Miller, host and director of Poverty Cure to learn more about the documentary and their global partnerships.

Catch up on the rest of the interview here.

Todd Scacewater: You were the director of Poverty Cure for five years and now you’re director of Poverty Inc., so you’ve spent a long time thinking through issues relating to poverty. What draws you to the issue of poverty alleviation and development?

Michael M. Miller: The underlying and driving force of why I’m interested in loving the poor is the subjective dimension of the poor. This is the driving force of everything we’ve done in Poverty Cure and Poverty Inc. (I studied philosophy, not just development.) Really, the person is not an object.

Too often we treat the poor as the objects of our charity, pity, and compassion, instead of treating them as subjects and the protagonists of their own story of development. Because we do that, we end up treating them like things and we ask all the wrong questions.

We often treat the poor as objects of our charity & pity, rather than subjects of their own development Click To Tweet

mmmillerAristotle has this line, that if we make a small mistake in the beginning, it leads to a big mistake in the end. Well, we made a big mistake in the beginning: we got the person wrong.

So almost every solution to poverty over the last 100 years at least has been partial or mistaken or missing something because it doesn’t understand that a person is a subject, not an object to be used and moved around in some social engineering experiment. So that is the driving force, that the person is a subject.

There is also the fact that humanitarianism is the way we deal with the poor. But humanitarianism is really a hollowed out, secular version and a bad copy of Christian love that has limited horizons and focuses almost solely on the material comfort of people–not that that’s unimportant, but it misses a deeper spiritual dimension.

I’ve spoken about this spiritual dimension in front of secular audiences, and they get it. Perhaps a few are hard materialists that don’t believe in any spiritual dimension, but most people aren’t hard materialists. We’ve missed the spiritual dimension with our Nietzschean last-man mentality of just giving them comfort instead of recognizing the spiritual capacity of the person.

And second, as Christians we forget the eternal destiny of human beings.

So, what is charity? Charity comes from the Latin caritas, which is related to the Greek agape. Charity is to seek the good of the other, to will the other person’s good. It is the intention or desire for the benevolence of the other person. So charity should not only be focused on providing goods. James says you cannot simply provide for physical needs such as food and clothing, but you must actually seek the good of the other person.

So these two things about the subject are related. Now we are not the subject of development, but the people who we are trying to help are the subject of development. Instead of treating people like objects whose problems we are going to solve, we enter into an inter-subjective relationship with them.

And then, how do we solve poverty? Well, common answers are foreign aid, private charity, trade, infrastructure, education, health care, entrepreneurship, public-private partnership. People have these various solutions and some are closer than others. But all of them are trying to solve the problem from without instead of from within.

poverty-cureFind his documentary series Poverty Cure here on Amazon.

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Michael Matheson Miller is a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute and the Director/Producer of the documentary Poverty Inc. and was formerly director of Poverty Cure for five years. You can connect with Michael at michaelmathesonmiller.com.

Find the rest of our interview with Michael here.


About Todd Scacewater

Todd is a Teaching Fellow in New Testament and PhD candidate at Westminster Seminary in Hermeneutics. He holds a Th.M. in New Testament and a B.A. in Political Science, and has served the church in music, college, youth, children, and discipleship ministries.