How we understand poverty determines how we engage with the poor.
My friend Sam* is too young and unstable to have a kid. Now she's pregnant.
She is with a guy who drinks and gambles when he gets money. She dropped out of high school, and her job prospects are not rosy.
In fact, from one perspective it's been one bad decision after another. Every year that goes by Sam seems to get more entrenched in poverty. There have been times over the many years that I have known her that I wanted to shake her.
But is it fair to say that Sam's poverty is the direct result of her bad choices?
Because I know her well, I know the bigger story of Sam's life. I can understand why she made each of those choices, even though I would have urged her to choose differently.
Orphaned at 12, she became the head of the family, with two younger siblings to care for. Through her teenage years she never had a father figure to give her that guidance or fatherly love that she desired.
So is it a surprise that when a young man came along and offered the intimacy and potential support Sam had never had, she leapt at the chance, and is reluctant to leave even though he is far from an ideal partner?
With no-one to provide for the family, is it a surprise she chose to drop out of school and work, even though it means that she will never rise above menial labour?
With no education, no financial back up and the possibility of going hungry, is it any wonder that she is averse to entrepreneurial risk?
These "choices" make a lot more sense in the context of her life. They are choices my own daughter, raised in a loving, educated, privileged family will be unlikely to make. Not because my daughter is more virtuous, industrious or clever, but because from the very beginning she has had more. More options, more knowledge, more opportunities, more education. More privilege.
And there are other important factors. Systemic injustice in Cambodia means the corrupt government provides no safety net to orphans like Sam. There was no way to stay in school (a broken and corrupt system anyway) and still support her siblings.
When Jesus encounters an impoverished disabled man in the gospel of John (chapter 9), his disciples were fixated on figuring out whether it was his own sin or that of his parents that led to his condition. They want to pin the blame for his situation on someone's bad choices. Jesus refuses to play that game, saying, "It was neither this man's sin nor his parents, that led to his blindness."
Instead, Jesus blesses and heals the man.
Yes there is individual sin and poor decision-making. Yes there is addiction and abuse and stupidity.
But we who are raised in privilege are no more virtuous because we have been handed more tools and resources to deal with the things life throws at us.
Sometimes what looks like "choice" is really the only way forward a struggling person can see. Doesn't make it right, but it makes it understandable.
May our response to those struggling in poverty and injustice be the same as that of Jesus.
* name changed