Category Archives: Poverty

There has got to be a better way?

“There has got to be a better way for wealthy churches to partner with churches that are in deprived communities. You know a number of years ago I heard an African-American gentleman who is the head of a ministry that is in a deprived community and he was speaking to the leadership of a very white very wealthy church and this African-American leader said to this very wealthy church that was supporting his ministry I need to confess something to you. I’ve been lying to you for the last ten years. Because you folks want to send short-term teams into my church and into my community and I make up stuff for you to do. I’ve had you paint the walls of my office so many times that the paint is starting to chip off and you folks go out into the community and you do all kinds of crazy things that I spend weeks mopping up after you because of the chaos you’ve created and I keep on telling you that I want you to do this stuff because quite frankly I need your financial support.”

Watch the rest of this challenging video clip from Brian Fikkert below.

Brian is the co-author of the book When Helping Hurts. You can download a free e-book version here.

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Book Review: The Poverty of the Nations

First sentence confession and disclaimer all in one; I chose to order and review this book from Crossway’s Beyond the Page blog reviewers section expecting to disagree with it. I was fairly sure that I would find myself uncomfortable with some of the conclusions of the authors but because I value listening to voices other than my own or those in my camp I resolved to challenge myself with what appeared to be some thoughtful arguments on Christianity and the value of Free Market Capitalism.

How wrong can one man be? I downloaded this book months back and despite being an avid reader I plodded through this book a few pages at a time finding any reason to read anything else but this. If I had not agreed to write this review in exchange for getting a free copy of this book I am confident I would have recycled this book months ago. Honestly I have plenty of stuff on my book shelves I don’t agree with but which pushes my thinking, challenges my assumptions and helps me organise and develop my own thinking better. But this is poorly written, filled with mad tilts at straw men and stingy representations of opposing arguments.  It almost reads like a propaganda document for the free market system rather than a well thought out and reasoned piece of writing by two well-respected professors in their fields.

I grew up in and completed ¾ of my schooling under the apartheid schooling system. As a result I am well versed in this kind of one-sided, parochial presentation of the virtues of a particular system, whilst never allowing the recipients to examine the full range of data for themselves. If you read this book with no prior thought to economics or economic systems (and I am no economist) you can only conclude that anyone who does not support the free market/ capitalistic system is a complete idiot. There is little generosity to the opinions of others; lampooning and presenting the worst or weakest side of opposing systems are common in this book. There is no concern to honestly examine the strengths of for instance democratic socialism or the very obvious weaknesses in the free market system that a growing number of reputable voices are raising. At times it felt like the book was caught in the Cold War or the Middle Ages, arguing against Soviet style communism or feudalism. Which are useful as examples but are hardly the economic questions that the majority of the books audience are wrestling with. Furthermore the almost canonisation of the Industrial Revolution and the economic growth of the Far East without so much as a footnote to the hugely destructive social issues and dehumanization arising from the triumph of greater economic growth left me cold.

Four final thoughts before this descends into the level of a rant…too late you say?

1. The book’s claim to be a Christian book is only borne up at times by an horrific use of out of context verses. A blatant desire to conflate the free market system with biblical economics is deeply disturbing. Even if you do not think the free market/capitalist system does not go against the Bible it is still a rather large leap of justificational logic to imply that it is a biblical system. The “economic system” we see in the Bible is far more nuanced than any one system, and if anything has a preferential option for the poor and the marginalized rather than the increased creation of wealth for the already wealthy.

2. On that point just recently, I heard Professor Piet Naude from the University of Stellenbosch Business School suggest that we have to examine the assumption that “all the boats in the harbour” rise with the creation of wealth. The free market he said has been excellent at creating wealth but very weak in distributing it. This is not an usual insight but a widely acknowledged, contemporary challenge to the free market system. Yet Grudem and Asmus all but ignore it and write instead as if the free market is the saviour of the poor. History simply does not bear that up, even in the United States. I cannot believe the authors are unaware of this. Is their commitment to free market capitalism so deeply entrenched that they are able to simply waive this aside as a petty criticism not worth engaging in?

3. The pro-American bias of this book is hugely off-putting. God Bless America we have the worlds best economic system if only the poor Africans would listen to us. They might not have said this, but I heard it loud and clear. If I was reading a hard copy of the book rather than my kindle I would have been sorely curious to have tested the aerodynamics of this patriotic drivel at times.

4. No matter what the merits and advantages of a free market system are, and I am convinced there are many, this book sadly merely demonstrates for me the problem of allowing privileged westerners with unchallenging assumptions to write books. I have greatly benefited from many of Crossways resources but this is not one. It is poorly argued, parochial and almost without merit. The few thought-provoking moments that I did encounter in the book were so overpowered by the negatives that at 400 pages it just was not worth it.

I gave it one star on Amazon simply because there was no category for “makes excellent recycling.”

The Silence of Cheap Grace

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“If we communicate only that part of the gospel which corresponds to people’s “felt needs” and “personal problems” (‘Are you lonely? Do you feel that you have failed? Do you need a friend? Then come to Jesus!’), while remaining silent on their relationship to their fellow men, on racism, exploitation and blatant injustice, we do not proclaim the gospel. This is the quintessence of what Bonhoeffer has called ‘cheap grace’. After all, ‘(God) is especially moved to wrath when his own people engage in such practices. It makes them disgusting in His sight, an offence to His nostrils; and in the face of this evil-doing He cannot stand their religious posturing. He cannot bear to hear their prayers; hates their festivals; is weary of their hypocritical sacrificings; views their faithful attendance at His house with loathing, as nothing more than an uncouth trampling of its precincts: “I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly”‘

David Bosch: Witness to the World p206

Photo Credit: joybot via Photopin

I’ll fight to the very end

With the South African elections coming up tomorrow we are inundated with talk of this party fighting for this right or that right or this cause or another. Even Christians seem to be primarily concerned with standing up for and defending our rights or protecting our religious freedoms.  At best case Christians will stand up for one or two personal morality issues. As commendable as this is and as necessary as it is for Christian men and women, in all the various parties, to go to parliament and to conduct themselves with honour and integrity; what I really want to know is what we middle-class Christians will be doing to change the context in which many of our great injustices are given born. Or put another way, what will we do in order to fight for the rights of those who are not like us

Let me use the contentious issue of abortion as an example.  It is easy for me as a white middle class male to be anti-abortion (and in principle I am) but far harder for me to be about changing the context in which most abortions in this country occur.  It is easy to point fingers at the people getting abortions as lacking morality, and whilst not discounting the reality of our own sinful hearts, I think the truth is more nuanced than that.

There is a reality that in many communities life is cheap, sex is disposable and your worth is measured by your sexuality.  Rape is an ever-present shadow of possibility.  Sex can be used as a powerful tool to get out of poverty or abusive situations.  Young girls barely able to care for themselves get pregnant.  Get abandoned.  Possibly even ostracised by their family. Alone and desperate they face what seems to them to be the only option open to them.

But what if we as Christians spent less time protesting at abortion clinics or picketing parliament to change the laws but instead went to the source and got our hands dirty changing the context in which the need for most abortions in this country take place.   Abortion is not a problem, it is an inadequate solution to a far bigger problem.  What if we as Christians were more concerned with creating the kinds of communities where abortions were not necessary rather than kicking against what is, in some cases, the inevitable outcome of a broken society.

What if some of us moved into these communities bereft of role models and lived our lives there as signs of hope?  What if we intentionally chose to open our lives to young people, modelling family, worth, integrity and love?  What if we were more concerned with showing young women they had value and honour and did not have to use their sexuality to prove their worth? What if we taught the young men on our street to be men who stand up to their responsibilities?  What if we stood with them, when it was easier to run away?  What if we showed them that real men use their power not to dominate or possess but to love and serve the weak and the vulnerable?

What if we opened our homes to rape victims?  What if we took in young moms or soon to be moms who had nowhere to go except the abortion clinic?  What if we were prepared to adopt these “unwanted children”, to include them in our family, our homes?  To spend our finances and give up our plans so we could love the most vulnerable of society?  What if their problems became our problems?  What if their community became our community?  What if their brokenness became our brokenness?  What do you think Jesus said when he meant we are the light of the world?

Some Christians have a problem with me voting for a party that is pro-abortion and say that I am complicit in that act.  I say no, I would rather vote for a party that promotes dealing with the issues that underline the context out of which most abortions in this country occur.  I choose to fight not for my rights but for the rights and value of those who are forgotten or marginalized.

In the words of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army:  “While women weep, as they do now, I’ll fight; while children go hungry, as they do now, I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in an out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight; while there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight – I’ll fight to the very end.”

Light in the Asphalt Jungle

I
I had a dream.
And I saw a city,
A city that rose up out of the crust of the earth.
And it’s streets were paved with asphalt,
And a river of dirty water ran down along it’s curbs.
It was a city
And its people knew no hope.
They were chased and herded from place to place by the churning jaws of bulldozers.
They were closed up in the anonymous cubicles of great brick prisons called housing projects.
They were forced out of work by the fearsome machines and computers,
And by the sparseness of their learning.
They were torn into many pieces by the hostile angers of racial fears and guilt and prejudice.
Their workers were exploited.
Their children and teenagers had no parks to play in.
No pools to swim in,
No space in crowded rooms to learn in,
No hopes to dream in,
And the people knew no hope.
Their bosses underpaid them.
Their landlords overcharged them.
Their churches deserted them.
And all of life in the city seemed dark and wild, like a jungle,
A jungle lined with asphalt.
And the people sat in darkness

II
I had a dream,
And I saw a city,
A city clothed in neon-lighted darkness.
And I heard people talking.
And I looked at them.
Across their chests in large, golden letters-written by their own hands
Across their chests were written the words:
“I am a Christian.”
And the Christians looked at the city and said;
“How terrible…How terrible…How terrible.”
And the Christians looked at the city and said:
“That is no place to live,
But some of our people have wandered there,
And we must go and rescue them.
And we must go and gather them, like huddled sheep into a fold;
And we will call it a City Church.”
So they built their church.
And the people came,
And they walked past all the weary, broken, exploited, dying men who lined the city’s streets.
Year after year they walked past,
Wearing their signs: “I am a Christian.”
Then one day the people in the church said:
“This neighborhood is too bad for good Christians.
Let us go to the suburbs where God dwells, and build a church there.
And one by one they walked away, past all the weary, broken, exploited, dying people.
They walked fast.
And did not hear a voice that said:
“…the least of these…the least of these…”
And they walked by, and they went out, and they built a church.
The church was high and lifted up, and it even had a cross.
But the church was hollow,
And the people were hollow,
And their hearts were hard as the asphalt streets of the jungle.

III
I had a dream.
And I saw a city,
A city clothed in bright and gaudy darkness.
And I saw more people with signs across their chest.
And they were Christians too.
And I heard them say:
“How terrible…how terrible…how terrible.
The city is filled with sinners:
To save sinners,
To save sinners.
But they are so unlike us,
So bad,
So dark,
So poor,
So strange,
But we are supposed to save them…
To save them,
To save them.”
And one person said:
“Can’t we save them without going where they are?”
And they worked to find a way to save and be safe at the same time.
Meanwhile, I saw them build a church,
And they called it a Mission,
A City Mission:
And all the children came by to see what this was.
And the city missionaries who had been sent to save them gathered them in.
So easy to work with children, they said,
And they are so safe, so safe.
And week after week they saved the children
(Saved them from getting in their parent’s way on Sunday morning).
And in the dream the City Missionaries looked like Pied Pipers, with their long row of children stretched out behind them,
And the parents wondered in Christianity was only for children.
And when the missionaries finally came to see them, and refused to sit in their broken chair, and kept looking at the plaster falling, and used a thousand words that had no meaning, and talked about rescuing them from hell while they were freezing in the apartment, and asked them if they were saved, and walked out into their shiny care, and drove off to their nice, safe neighborhood-
When that happened, the parents knew;
This version of Christianity had no light for their jungle.
Then, soon, the children saw too; it was all a children’s game;
And when they became old enough they got horns of their own,
And blew them high and loud,
And marched off sneering, swearing, into the darkness.

IV
I had a dream,
And I saw the Christians in the dark city,
And I heard them say:
“We need a revival to save these kinds of people.”
And they rented the auditorium,
And they called in the expert revivalist,
And every night all the Christians came, and heard all the old, unintelligible, comfortable words, and sang all the old assuring songs, and went through all the old motions when the call was made.
Meanwhile, on the outside,
All the other people waited impatiently in the darkness for the Christians to come out, and let the basketball game begin.

V
I had a dream.
And I saw Christians with guilty consciences,
And I heard them say:
“What shall we do?
What shall we do?
What shall we do?
These people want to come to OUR church,
To OUR church.”
And someone said:
“Let’s build a church for THEM,
For THEM,
They like to be with each other anyway.”
And they started the church,
And the people walked in.
And for a while, as heads were bowed in prayer, they did not know.
But then, the prayers ended,
And they people looked up, and looked around,
And saw that every face was THEIR face,
THEIR face,
And every color was THEIR color,
THEIR color.
And they stood up, and shouted loudly within themselves:
“Let me out of this ghetto, this pious, guilt-built ghetto.”
And they walked out into the darkness,
And the darkness seemed darker than ever before,
And the good Christians looked, and said,
“These people just don’t appreciate what WE do for THEM.”

VI
And just as the night seemed darkest, I had another dream.
I dreamed that I saw young people walking,
Walking into the heart of the city, into the depths of the darkness.
They had no signs, except their lives.
And they walked into the heart of the darkness and said:
“Let us live here, and work for light.”
They said, “Let us live here and help the rootless find a root for their lives.
Let us live here, and help the nameless find their names.”
They said, “Let us live here and walk with the jobless until they find work.
Let us live here, and sit in the landlord’s office until he gives more heat and charges less rent.”
They said, “Let us live here, and throw open the doors of this deserted church to all the people of every race and class;
Let us work with them to find the reconciliation God has brought.”
And they said, “Let us walk the asphalt streets with the young people, sharing their lives, learning their language, playing their sidewalk, backyard games, knowing the agonies of their isolation.”
And they said, “Let us live here, and minister to as many men as God gives us grace,
Let us live here,
And die here, with out brothers of the jungle,
Sharing their apartments and their plans.”
And the people saw them,
And someone asked who they were,
A few really knew
They had no signs
But someone said he thought they might be Christians,
And this was hard to believe, but the people smiled;
And a little light began to shine in the heart of the asphalt jungle.

VII
Then in my dream I saw young people,
And I saw the young men and women
Those who worked in the city called Chicago,
Cleveland [Johannesburg],
Washington [Bangkok],
Atlanta [Nairobi],
And they were weary,
And the job was more than they could bear alone,
And I saw them turn, turn and look for help,
And I heard them call:
“Come and help us,
Come and share this joyful agony, joyful agony,
Come as brothers in the task,
Come and live and work with us,
Teachers for the crowded schools,
Doctors for the overflowing clinics,
Social workers for the fragmented families,
Nurses for the bulging wards,
Pastors for the yearning flocks,
Workers for the fighting gangs,
Christians.
Christians who will come and live here,
Here in the heart of the darkness,
Who will live here and love here that a light might shine for all.
Come.”
I heard them call,
And I saw the good Christians across the country,
And their answers tore out my heart.
Some said, “There isn’t enough money there.”
Some said, “It’s too bad there. I couldn’t raise children.”
Some said, “I’m going into foreign missions, where things don’t seem so dark.”
Some said, “The suburbs are so nice.”
Some said, “But I like it here on the farm.”
Some said,
Some said…
And one by one they turned their backs and began to walk away.
At this moment my dream was shattered by the sound of a great and mighty whisper, almost a pleading sound;
And a voice said:
“Come, help me, for I am hungry in the darkness.”
And a voice said:
“Come, help me, for I am thirsty in the darkness.”
And a voice said:
“Come, help me, for I am a stranger in this asphalt jungle.”
And a voice said, “Come, help me, for I have been stripped naked, naked of all legal rights and protection of the law, simply because I am black in the darkness.”
And a voice said:
“Come, help me, for my heart is sick with hopelessness and fear in the darkness.”
And a voice said:
“Come, live with me in the prison of my segregated community, and we will break down the walls together.”
And the voices were many,
And the voice was one,
And the Christians knew whose Voice it was.
And they turned,
And their faces were etched with the agonies of decisions.
And the dream ended.
But the voice remains,
And the choice remain,
And the city still yearns for light.
And the King who lives with the least of his brothers and sisters in the asphalt jungle…
Yearns for us

Vincent Harding

 HT to Nigel for posting this first.

Why your Bible teaching is not enough

This past weekend I went to a conference that in all honesty I would never have gone to a few years back.  And if by some miracle of teleportation I had found myself there, I am sure I would have been incapable of learning from those whose stories are so different to my own.  At times I suspect radically different.  (I say suspect because that really was not the point of the conference and neither I nor they presumably felt the need to get into our differences)  Perhaps even different to the extent of the basic tenets of the gospel different.  But yet I must confess there was something vibrant, something alive about their faith and their spirituality, something deeply attractive.  Something I wanted…

For all my good Bible teaching and wrestling with exegesis I suspect my life, my spirituality, my faith is often as dull, as rational, as safe and as attractive as a three-day old sandwich. You could eat it but given the choice you would probably choose not to. How can it be that having given years of my life to studying the biblical text, fine tuning my doctrine and training other to go and do likewise I can now find myself deeply attracted to the spirituality of those who I have regarded as having a “lesser theology”?

The obvious first point of examination must be the possibility that my theological convictions are wrong? I have tossed that idea around a bit lately and while I can conclude that I have moved on a few issues, it is more the moving of nuance than of relocating to a different theological neighbourhood altogether.  Perhaps, I am being naive but I am not sure it is my theological convictions that need moving.  It is my heart!

Please don’t misunderstand me.  Doctrine matters!  Right doctrine leads to right living – breaking down the walls of exclusion, eating together, loving one another, joy, hope, freedom and life.  Bad doctrine leads to division, strife, confusion, bitterness and hatred, just read Galatians if you are not convinced.

If this is true, and I would stake my life on it being true, then how can it be that those whose of us who have spent most of our lives studying, teaching and contending for what I would regard as good doctrine have lives that are so profoundly mundane and unattractive?

I suspect that what we need is not more information but rather some deep contemplation, sustained meditation and some profound experiences of the Spirit as we seek to live the information that we already know.  We have become drunk with our quest for more knowledge.  Like giddy schoolgirls we flock to hear, download and read yet more and more information on our latest theological crush.  And somehow as we “just teach the Bible” we expect that transformation will just magically happen.

What makes these “lesser theological lights” (by my tribe’s standards anyway) so effective and vibrant and attractive?  Faith.  They actually believe in a God who wants to redeem and restore all of creation.  So much so that they actually act on it.  They base their lives around it. Make intentional choices to be downwardly mobile, committed to prayer, reaching the lost in the toughest neighbourhoods, speaking out against injustice, racism and exploitation. When God says that money enslaves and that he who seeks to save his life will lose it, they listen, they obey and they build lives on the words of Jesus.  Faith.

It is after all not Bible teaching that matters but Bible living.  It matters not how well you exegete the text but how deeply the text exegetes you!  Will you follow where the text leads you? Will you meditate deeply on the implications of the text for your life, your aspirations, your lifestyle, the lost and the broken or will it merely become another interesting sermon to be tucked away until next we meet?  Will you follow the text to where it leads to the end of you and your resources?  Will you follow the text where it leads to a deep dependence upon the Spirit to lead you, guide you and sustain you for mission and in fact for life?

Strangely, I remain committed to my tribe theologically. Some days I wish I was not so convinced. But yet I long for my tribe to do so much more than contend for, teach, exegete and understand the truth.  I long for the days when evangelicals will be known for their spiritual vitality, their love for the poor, their stand for justice, their care for the planet, their love for homosexuals, their lives of simplicity and sustainability, their radical generosity, their fight against consumerism and wastefulness.

Not at the expense of the gospel proclaimed. But precisely because we have believed the gospel proclaimed we are no longer conformed to the standards (comforts, securities, importances) of this world but rather our minds are being renewed by that gospel.  Precisely because we have believed the gospel we will give our lives away in service of the last, the least and the lost just as Jesus gave his life away for us.  We intentionally join our small story with God’s Great Big Beautiful story of redemption, resurrection, restoration, hope and beauty.

Some times the news is still good

It does not happen often… ok it has never happened to me before… that we can “fix’ a problem so easily. We have a little girl ho is a part of our gospel community. Her mom used to be a part of our community until we had to confront her with a few hard truths. Now A. comes along with her older half-brother. A’s home situation is not good. She lives with her unemployed father, and a bunch of other people, in an illegal squat with no electricity or running water. Her dad gets a child grant of about R300 a month to clothe, feed and educate her.

Due to a mixture of apathy and ignorance A’s parents failed to get her into a government school for this year. At a government school she could have applied for a government education subsidy through the school. But now all the school were full. And although she could do Grade R at a pre-school these do not qualify for government funding and can turn away kids whose parents cannot pay.

First things first I thought let’s find A a place at a scholl and then worry about the cash. Yeah I know, but that’s just how I roll people. I easily found her a place at the small pre-school my boys attended. The principal offered a generous discount but still an amount that was out of reach for A’s parents.

Working late that night I sent out an email to some friends before going for a quick shower and turning in for the night.  Just before turning the light out I noticed a mail. I checked it. Someone had responded almost immediately saying they would cover A’s fees for the year.

The very next day we went down to the school, filled in the papers, sorted out all the logistics and A could start school the very next day. A good news story? I hope so. I really do pray God blesses these efforts to love in his name.