Tag Archives: poverty alleviation

The Immortal Hamster

I’ve been back from Ethiopia now for nearly a month. I’ve thought about a lot of things in that time, from the things I’ve seen and the people I’ve met, to the vision I have for what God is doing. It’s very exciting, but also upon returning, I can’t help but feel as if I’ve come back to an American church that is fast asleep. The bible says that “my people perish for lack of knowledge.” Well, without knowledge, you can’t move on to wisdom. And without wisdom, there is no vision. Without vision, we have no purpose. Without purpose, we start chasing all kinds of crazy things, and the church gives up the gospel in exchange for prostituting itself to the world in the hope of finding “cultural relevance.” The bride of Christ is searching the street corners, looking for someone to tell her she’s beautiful.

I often teach a class on missions and poverty alleviation, and one of the questions we open with is, “Why did Jesus come to Earth?” The two most common answers I get are, “So my sins could be forgiven,” and “so I can go to Heaven.” Though both answers are technically correct, they are both tertiary reasons and completely egocentric.

In Luke 4, Jesus himself states why he came. “So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,

Because He has anointed Me

To preach the gospel to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To set at liberty those who are oppressed;

To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus came to restore what was lost, and to put us back into relationship with God. He set in motion a restoration of relationship between God and creation. It wasn’t just so we could be saved from Hell but continue to do what we were already doing. It states right in the beginning of Genesis that men and women were created in God’s image. That being the case, we ought to imitate Christ as he imitates God the Father. If we accept Jesus’ sacrifice without accepting this second part, we have reduced ourselves to God’s immortal pet, his hamster, if you will, existing for God’s amusement but with no purpose, born only to consume.

I believe that this is why the American church is largely devoid of men. Men are designed and built to serve a larger purpose, to take hold of a challenge and to serve a greater purpose than themselves. But if we accept a Christianity that says “I’m saved now. Just sit in the pew on Sunday and listen to a watered down message of meek and mild Jesus,” a great injustice has been done. Do we need to be reminded that Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple with a whip….twice?

Jesus gave us a lot of instructions, most of which we aren’t following. Sure, we follow the ones about keeping ourselves pure…..sometimes, but what about all those ones about going out like sheep among wolves? What about all those instructions about feeding the poor, standing up for the widow, the orphan, and the alien? What about blessing those who curse us, or showing love to our enemies, or were those instructions for somebody else? What about dying to self?

I have to ask these things, because if we say we’re going to be Christ followers, then certainly we should take a cue from Jesus, who “made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2)

God is looking for men and women of purpose. The Church has got to wake up.

“Awake, you who sleep,

Arise from the dead,

And Christ will give you light.” (Ephesians 5:14)

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Fear, greed, guilt, and love.

Well, it’s official. I’ve been called back to Ethiopia. I’ll be there in April this year. This will be my third trip to Africa in eight months, which for me is a lot. So why do I do it? This is the question I was thinking about this morning. For me there are a number of reasons; to see the love of Christ come to people, to see captive people set free, to see people lifted out of poverty, to see the sick healed. Then there are other, less noble reasons; the desire to travel, the desire for adventure, the desire to meet new people and see and take photos of new things.  These and many other reasons are why I go. So I could go any number of directions with this, but the subject I want to talk about today is poverty alleviation, because the desire to alleviate poverty for most people is not a desire in itself, but is driven by other factors.

What are the basic human motivations?  I believe they can be broken down into four basic categories. Human decisions are based on fear, greed, guilt, or love. You might balk at this idea, but I believe if you look around and put this idea to the test, it will play out.

In the United States, politically speaking, there are basically two attitudes toward the poor.  (I know I’m generalizing, so you’ll need to forgive me for that.) The first is that if you increase the number of jobs, the poor will naturally be lifted out of poverty as less people are out of work. It’s a completely supply-side equation for poverty alleviation. The other side says that if you just give the poor enough financial assistance, they’ll be better off. This is a completely demand-side equation.

Let’s go back to the four human motivations. Do you think either of these methods of poverty alleviation are done out of love for the poor?  I would argue absolutely not. Why?  Both of these methods are by design completely arms-length transactions. They both exclude getting your fingernails dirty and actually engaging with the poor or looking them in the face. I believe the first view is based on greed, and the second on guilt. Greed because there is a desire to get rich, and if crumbs fall to the poor, that’s great, too. It fails to recognize that there are other reasons people are poor besides a lack of jobs. The second group feels guilt over their own success, so throwing money at the poor without actually dealing with the underlying causes helps them feel better. This side fails to realize that when you give a poor person everything without making them work for it, you break their spirit. Both views think of poverty as a purely economic phenomenon, but fail to address the mental, spiritual, and social aspects of poverty. Neither side actually wants to look a poor person in the eye. The attitudes these two groups have toward each other drive me nuts. Guess what? You’re both wrong, so put the condescension aside.

There’s a quote from the book, “When Helping Hurts” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert . I’ve quoted it before, but I believe it’s worth quoting again.  “The god-complexes of the materially non-poor are also direct  extension of the modern worldview. In a universe without God, the heroes are those who are the best able to use their reason to master the material world. In other words, the materially non-poor are the victors in the modern worldview, the gods who have mastered the universe and who can use their superior intelligence and the material possessions they have produced to save mere mortals, namely the materially poor.”

The only true way to alleviate poverty is to actually love the poor. It says in the book of Isaiah, chapter 1, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing of the finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”

So this morning I had to ask myself again, “What is my motivation?” If it is out of greed or fear or guilt, I have no right to go back to Ethiopia.

Lack of money is not the only reason for poverty.
Lack of money is not the only reason for poverty.

Rocks In The Road Is Not A Business Plan

Last time I was in Kenya, I was in a car with my wife and two of the Kenyans who are our good friends. As we neared the edge of Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, our car was stopped by two men who had placed a large rock in the road. Their “business” if you will, was to put a rock in the road and demand money from people as they drove by before they would remove it. What they got instead was a stern talking to from Jimmy, who had given up a fairly comfortable life to live in the slum.

I have to admit, I’m quite angry right now. One of our friends from the United States is currently helping Jimmy in Kibera. There is a small library there, and it’s not much to look at, but it gives kids who would normally be abandoned during the day a place to go. Outside the library is a festering cesspool of human waste that runs between the library and the next building. Yesterday Jimmy, our American friend, and a group of willing people built a platform over that gully, not just to cover the filth, but to create a small area for kids to sell goods so they can support themselves. On the first day, the children took in about $30, which is quite an accomplishment considering most people live here on $2 a day. It gave the kids a way to learn initiative and self-respect, and keep them from selling drugs.

Over night, some people came and destroyed the bridge they had built, for no other reason than misery loves company. This is the incredible difficulty in poverty alleviation. I’ve seen this happen in Kenya. I’ve seen this happen in South Sudan. I’ve seen this happen on the Indian Reservations in the United States. The attitude is, “I’m Ok with misery and lack as long as you have misery and lack, too.”  Confucius said, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”  The same can be said for envy. You can’t sabotage someone else’s work and expect that the same is not going to happen to you. That in a nutshell is why Kibera still exists.  The unfortunate and politically incorrect truth is that no rich man is needed to hold down the poor. Given the opportunity, the poor man will do it himself. This is why it is impossible to separate the spiritual from poverty alleviation. Poverty is rarely just a lack of resources. It may start as a lack of resources, but quickly turns into poverty of spirit. That’s why it is so hard to lift a community from poverty once they’re there. This is the fundamental flaw in western understanding of poverty.

A couple months ago, I was watching the news. Some member of a European royal family (which one I don’t remember) was in Africa with a large entourage and a film crew and reporters. This royal was touring a village and looking around at the poverty. He was interviewed by one of the reporters, and asked what he thought should be done. The royal responded, “They just need resources. They’re not getting the resources they need.” All I could do was sit and shake my head. It wasn’t the resources that were the problem, it was the poverty of spirit that keeps people poor even when the resources are there. You can give a man in the slums fifty dollars, and for some rare individuals he’ll take it and start a business.  But more likely than that is that he’ll take it and get drunk, then come home and beat his wife. This is the harsh reality of the slum. That’s why Kibera has been there for over 100 years. This member of the royal family’s heart was in the right place, but the understanding is not there. He’ll go back to Downton Abbey, and probably raise a bunch of money that will be sent back to this community. In ten years, there will be no sign that he was ever there.

What the slums need is people who are committed for the long haul. People who realize that change comes slowly, one person at a time, through personal sacrifice. What the slums need is leadership from within, not the white man to come from outside and fix all the black man’s problems. The slums need partners who will identify and empower the people and the human resources that already exist there. The slums need Godly men and women who are willing to sacrifice personally so that others won’t have to, and to be examples to people who wish ill to anyone who wants the slum to become a better place. This is all a lot harder than throwing money at the slum. I wish I could convey this concept to anyone who hasn’t been to Africa, but unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. After my first trip to Africa, I knew in my knower that you could throw all of the worlds financial resources at Africa, and if that’s all that was done it would bankrupt the whole world.  If you’ve ever thought about traveling and seeing the world, I want to encourage you in the strongest possible way, to go and see the developing world. Go the the slums. Go see what most of the world lives like. It will give you an understanding of the world, and an understanding of yourself that you didn’t even know you lacked.

For now, all I can do is pray for our friends in Kibera that they will have the fortitude to start over. I will also pray for those that put rocks in the road and destroy other people’s work, that God will break through to them and show them that all they’ve done is hurt their own communities and themselves. I’ll pray for those that think that tearing someone else down somehow lifts them up.  But tonight I’m just sad and angry.

A view of the sewage ditch from the library in Kibera.
A view of the sewage ditch from the library in Kibera.

I’m Rich, I’m Humble, I’m Better Than You.

Why are rich people rich? Why are poor people poor? How do we alleviate poverty? Why do we alleviate poverty? You ask the questions and you’re going to get different answers depending on whom you ask.

Western thinking tends to either completely deny the spiritual aspect of our lives, or separates the spiritual parts (worship, going to church, evangelism) from the secular parts of our lives (work, business, politics).  Western secularism removes the need for God in our society altogether, and consequently fails to understand how the spiritual is instrumental in poverty alleviation. Furthermore, it forms in our minds a condescending attitude toward the poor, as explained in the book, “When Helping Hurts”, by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett. Here is a quote from the book.

“The god-complexes of the materially non-poor are also a direct extension of the modern worldview. In a universe without God, the heroes are those who are best able to use their reason to master the material world. In other words, the materially non-poor are the victors in the modern worldview, the gods who have mastered the universe and who can use their superior intelligence and the material possessions they have produced to save mere mortals, namely the materially poor.”

A woman next to open sewage in Kibera, Kenya
A woman next to open sewage in Kibera, Kenya

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How often have we heard phrases like, “we’re saving the world,” or “we can save Africa”?  The fact is , you could throw money at Africa all day and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference if you go into it with the above attitude. Poverty is alleviated slowly and tediously through love for the materially poor as you work with them in relationship with both them and with God. We help the poor because we love them, not because we’re better than them. And we love them even though they’ve never done anything for us, because Christ set the example by loving us before we ever loved Him. We learn from the poor, as we work with them in relationship, that all the problems in life are not simply a matter of “you need to do something about your situation.” Poverty has as much if not more to do with the spiritual and the psychological as it does with the material. We see that people are materially poor while failing to recognize our own poverty in other ways; broken relationships with family, mixed up priorities, keeping up with the Joneses. These are the things that cause divorce, broken families, heart disease, mental illness, all the ways that we are poor in the United States.  We lose so much of the equation if we try to help the materially poor without being tempered by the humility that comes with recognizing our own poverty. And to this end, poverty alleviation is about working together to alleviate our respective poverties with the realization that we are all fallen creatures in need of forgiveness. To fail to recognize this means that we help the poor out of guilt for our own material success rather than love for the materially poor. To this end, many of us just feel the need to “do something”, whether it does any good or not, because helping the poor is about removing our sense of guilt rather than seeing the poor actually thrive. This is probably subconscious for many people, but I hope that by simply writing it, many will recognize this fact. Helping the poor MUST be done out of love for the poor and love for God, or it will at best be temporary.

Below is a link that humorously portrays some of these western attitudes. Till next time…