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How Wonka helped me understand Tearfund's theory of poverty

Why poverty isn’t only about empty plates, and how encountering God through the Bible is the start of the solution.

Written by Tarryn Pegna | 04 Mar 2024

Healthy-looking cocoa beans grow on a tree  in Cote d'Ivoire.

These are real cocoa beans grown by the community in Zéréguhé, Côte D'Ivoire, where Tearfund’s partner ADIAS have been working with farmers to improve their food security by introducing methods such as organic fertiliser, crop rotation and crop diversification. (They are in no way related to the fictional beans Wonka unwittingly stole from Loompa-land which resulted in, arguably, Hugh Grant’s most perfect performance to date.) Credit: Tom Price/Tearfund

My family has watched Wonka at least three times now. (We may or may not dance around the kitchen singing Have you got a sweet tooth? and doing our best imitation of Hugh Grant’s brilliant Oompa Loompa character.) In spite of some sad themes in the background, on the whole, the movie is a light and easy antidote to the horrors of the real world right now. And there’s the added bonus that, having read and/or seen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we’re all fully aware that this story turns out well, so even the dark bits are not particularly dark.

Is there going to be enough?

And yet, I found myself watching each time with an uneasy concern about when Willy Wonka’s chocolate was going to run out. The fear cut through the enjoyment of ever-more-spectacular confectionary creations like a constant fly buzz in my head: ‘Oh no! There’s not going to be enough!’

You’ll be pleased to know, Willy Wonka doesn’t run out of chocolate. Despite a vague reference to his last jar at some point, the real tension in the story comes from other quarters – not from the possible chocolate poverty that stressed me out from start to finish.

Of course, this says more about my own mindset than the film itself, but what has any of it got to do with Tearfund?

Here’s what I understood.

Scarcity fears and Fickelgrubers

I realised that I watched this movie with a worldview steeped in ‘not enough’ – a context that has taught me to fear that resources will run out. In this instance, all it cost me was some pointless stress (it’s fiction!) and no actual harm was done, but if I live with this mindset of scarcity, what other, larger and potentially more damaging outcomes will – or does – it have in my life? Where do they make me hoard and become bitter (like Prognose, Fickelgruber and Slugworth) or simply miss out on sweet possibilities by being afraid to use, or share, what I do have?

And that’s what Tearfund’s theory of poverty asks us to look at – that poverty is more than just the symptoms that we can easily see on the surface (such as hunger or financial hardship). Poverty involves an entire underlying mindset. Sometimes it’s learned from personal experience and sometimes it has been passed down to us through generations. Wherever it came from, our own personal ‘not enough’ beliefs keep us, and others, unwittingly enslaved in all kinds of poverty.

‘Poverty is more than just the symptoms that we can easily see on the surface. It involves an entire underlying mindset.’

The broken relationship baseline

And these beliefs are intrinsically linked to broken relationships.

There’s a poverty that can come from our broken relationship with God that says things like ‘God can’t love me’, ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I’m not worthy of forgiveness’, ‘God can’t help me here’. And how do those deeply ingrained beliefs affect the way we treat life, ourselves and those around us, and push us into or hold us in places of poverty?

There’s relational poverty – the place of broken relationships with those around us. Poverty that stems from, and results in, never receiving enough love, never sharing enough intimacy and never feeling enough support. Without a doubt that affects how we live, the choices we make, how we treat those around us, and how we respond to almost every situation.

And then there’s material poverty – and the cycles of ‘not enough’ that can keep us stuck in patterns of perceived lack. For example, not enough money means not enough food and not enough education which means not enough opportunities which means not enough money which means not enough food… and so it goes on. A downward vortex of less – the opposite of abundance – and decisions made out of fear and desperation rather than freedom and choice.

But Jesus…

So, how does our faith help us make sense of these challenges?

And how do we change the cycles and shift our mindset from scarcity to abundance?

All of these types of poverty are impacted, fed and shaped by external factors. In our fallen world, no amount of mindset shifting, prayer or Bible study is going to stop all the difficult situations that happen to us and other people. On the other hand, to build our way out of them, we cannot only address the outworkings of the problem.

The local church: the solution at the centre of the community

This is why Tearfund, wherever possible, works through the local church. Starting at the centre of the community – where the needs are well known and the people are often best understood – we work by using the Bible as a foundation to help communities find a new vision and a renewed mindset through an encounter with God.

This way of working helps people to identify new solutions to old problems. A new way of putting food on the table provides new hope, enough money for children to go to school brings new opportunities and more income and the cycle begins an alternative and upward spiral out of poverty. (This way of working is what you’ll see us refer to as Transforming Communities or CCT.)

You can read about an example of this work in action at Pastor Yagaldo’s church in Burkina Faso here.

Real poverty and true wealth

Poverty is a thief that longs to hold us in fear and steal the possibility of escape from it. And if we live as though there is not enough for everyone, we feel compelled to hoard and to snatch and divisions grow and mistrust festers.

‘If we live as though there is not enough for everyone, we feel compelled to hoard and to snatch and divisions grow and mistrust festers.’

But, the Bible shows that true wealth is not stored in our bank accounts, but in the health of our relationships with others, with God, and with wider creation.

We don’t ignore the facts which tell us we have finite resources, but we trust that, in God’s world, there is always enough. So, if we share generously with others – our possessions, our power and our lives – and treat creation with care and respect, we can be part of the solution to alleviate poverty.

Deuteronomy 15:4–8

Deuteronomy 15:4–8 says, ‘There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today … If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.’

Throughout the Bible, as God performs miracles of rescue and provision, people are asked to do the things that they are capable of (share loaves and fish, get into a pool, step into a river, gather jars) and then God does the things that they can’t. (Feeding hungry people, healings, water partings, and financial provision.) God is able to do more than we can ask or imagine, but we are asked to be partners in the process – to see the steps in front of us and to trust God and have the courage to take them. To be willing to share with one another and prefer each other. To protect and nurture the resources we have been given in creation.

Relational foundations

Coming back to a foundation of who God is and who we are – in relationship with him, with each other and with creation – is the starting point for a long-lasting release from every kind of poverty and for far greater things than we can accomplish on our own.

(And, as with Wonka, if we read the book, we find out that justice wins and it turns out well in the end.)

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Written by  Tarryn Pegna

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