Sunday, January 27, 2013

All Poverty Sucks, Not Just In The Same Way For Everybody.

    Are there any poor people in America, really?   Compared with the really poor in Africa, Asia, Latin America can we really think of people in the the United States as poor simply because they are below some arbitrary poverty line set up by the government?  If there aren't any "real" poor people in America then aren't all our programs and ministries to help them misplaced, shouldn't we only be helping poor ("really poor") people in the two thirds world?
    I remember one man I knew who was looked upon as some expert in economics saying that only homeless people in America were really poor, and that there weren't that many of them in comparison to the rest of the population.  His argument seemed to be targeted at the wasted money the government spent on helping poor ("not really poor") people.    I remember my own pastor, who worked with families like mine, who claimed he was actually less well off than the people in my housing project who were on welfare, but he made it because he didn't waste his money.
    I have had the opportunity to be considered poor in America, at least by the government.  I have lived and worked in Africa and taken food to drought stricken areas of Kenya, visited refugee settlements in Uganda, walked in the slums of Kibera.  I often train churches in how to show mercy, and I try to train them to do it effectively. 
    I have heard people tell me they grew up poor, but they didn't know they were poor.  I am both sad and glad for them.  Sad they had to do without, glad they didn't know anything but love and consistent provision by their parents.
    One of the things I enjoyed about the book, "When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert is when they speak about the psychological and spiritual damage of poverty.  I resonated with that when I read it, because unlike some people I knew I was poor, and to some degree I know how it hurt me.  Well, actually I guess I just thought I was poor if in America people aren't "really poor."
    This is an honest and sincere question for many, and please excuse any cynicism or sarcasm as I write, although I don't know if I can help myself.  I think I can speak to the reality that people are poor in several ways.  One is what I would call absolute poverty, which is the condition of a person when they do not have the necessities to live.  They don't have drinkable water, they don't have enough food, or only the kind of food that fools their hunger while they actually starve, they have no shelter, they have no clothes, they have no medicine.  The lack of these things for long enough will kill you.  Sometimes this poverty comes about from being born into a family or region where no one has these things due to famine, drought, the results of war or natural disaster, and if the United Nations or some NGO, government, or somebody doesn't bring those necessities many will die until that help arrives.  Sometimes it happens by family, or in smaller communities, but no food is no food, no heat is no heat in the midst of winter.
    Many times this absolute poverty comes about because people live on a subsistence level, they survive but not well, they don't really develop due to inadequate nutrition, they scape out a living and they make it, until something comes to tip the balance to absolute poverty.  This seems to happen a lot in Africa, but it happened in New Orleans after Katrina when lots of marginal urban dwellers lost their usual means of just making it, and some families exist that way for a few generations.
    Often subsistence farmers don't think of themselves as poor, they work hard, everyone works hard, and the family eats and gets by somehow.  School fees, medical care, etc. can reveal the depth of need, and sometimes there is panic.  Often there is just resignation that this is who we are and what we do or don't have, and we will continue to work toward something better.
    This marginal line of poverty can be lived in contrast with the wealthy or in isolation from them.  In America of course this kind of poverty is often lived in stark contrast with great wealth, and in many countries in the world this disparity is growing and dramatic.  Sometimes this contrast acts to spur people on to greater achievement, if the system provides opportunity.  Places of corruption, tribalism and discrimination can freeze whole segments of a population out of opportunity.  Sometimes the disparity leads to great bitterness, a justification for crime or violence.
    Since I have been hungry, seen my mother weep when we were out of food, had my teeth rot because we couldn't affort a dentist, lived in projects inadequately built due to municipal corruption, had no car, no property, no means to grow our own food, lived in a congested area of single parent homes with fatherless children with its accompanying violence, embarrased by the clothes I wore, by the roaches that crawled from my shoes at school, I would have to say I think I was poor, and it sure seemed real to me.
    It sucked, and to this day I don't want to take a dime from the government that I haven't earned, but at the same time thankful and glad that the progams that housed and fed my family existed when we needed them.  I have learned that there is poverty by choice, such as my pastor lived in order to serve where he did.  I am thankful that he was there, but see that his comments and those who damn the poor because they waste money, eat junk food, don't save, and don't seem to take advantage of all that we have in America show an ignorance of the value system that is both created by poverty and sustains it.
    Because some families climb out of poverty in America, because immigrants come here and work like crazy to lift themselves and their families from nothing, doesn't mean the same values of aspiration are able to be grasped by everybody.  The results of three or four generations of functional illiteracy, malnutrition, even eating lead paint chips, living close to toxic dumps, peer value formation due to the absence of working fathers in the home, create a numbing "get by" existence that condemns another generation of children to grow up in the same morass. 
    Is the poverty real in an African village where young children take jerry cans and walk for an hour with their donkey to dig for another hour in a dry river bed to walk home another hour to get there by day break, then hopefully go to a school that has nothing but one chalk board and sometimes chalk?  Yes, I would say that is real.  But I would also say those children are in many ways psychologically healthier than children who live in slums.
   I think all poverty sucks.  When I meet children in the U.S.A. who don't know how to read by the fifth grade, whose families often run out of food, whose mother gets evicted and they have to move again after several times this year, who don't see a doctor until they have to go to an emergency room, yes I think they are poor. Even if the poverty of the children is caused by the addiction, immorality, and sluggard behavior of a parent the children still suffer. I think it is also a shame that if that mother knew better, if the values were different, that so much of America's promise could be realized.  But we are losing another generation as I write, and that is one reason I feel a sense of urgency to plant more churches that are really active and loving churches among the poor, so that values can be changed, and people loved into aspiring for meaningful changes in their lives.
    The nonsense that there are no "real" poor people in America seems to me to be more of a political idea than empirical observation.  Without the programs that do exist there would be far more of them.  Are some of the programs misguided, actually extending poverty for some?  Yes, I think that is true too.  I hate the idea of simply sustaining people in poverty, giving them just enough to survive but doing nothing to move them from the point at which they live to a place where they could actually make life better for their children. 
    I am glad for all of those who go or send money to the two thirds world (and I am one of them) since this is no doubt real poverty there.  Even there much money is wasted and often little is changed.  I don't think I need to be in a competition to see who is suffering more; all poverty sucks.  Starving and dying and feeling worthless and ashamed I would consider to be bad anywhere they happen.  So, one neighborhood, one slum, one block, one city, one family, one youth, one child at a time, wherever God gives you opportunity to build a church, a new community, a new value system, new hope in one person, then do it.  But please don't insult the "real poor" anywhere with the denigration of their suffering by aloof comparisons.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Avoiding the Negatives of Mercy Tourism.

   In the celebration of Dr. King's birthday each year we are hearing calls for a Day of Service.  This of course can be a very good thing, but I would like to see our churches think about a longer period of loving those in need.
     One of my jobs is to train churches in how to show mercy, or maybe we should say "how to do" mercy.  There is often a lot of confusion about this and it seems that some very basic things just need to be taught.  Many Christians sincerely want to be merciful people, and they yearn for their churches to be known for their mercy, and most of us would like for the mercy that we show to be done in the best possible way.
    We have some wise and experienced Christian leaders and writers putting out books that teach us about something called "Development."   You may have heard phrases such as "Economic Development" or "Community Economic Development."   The Chalmers Center at Covenant College specializes in what is called "Micro-enterprise Development."   All of these are wonderful phrases about important strategies that are needed in areas of our country and world where people are poor and marginalized.
    Most American churches haven't gotten to the place to begin to practice such strategies.  Some churches will decide they don't even want to go there.  I don't think there is an excuse for a Christian, or a congregation to say they just won't show mercy.  I don't think you can really be a Christian and think that, but of course we have many congregations that for all intents and purposes do say that by neglect.  In this short piece I want to just lay out a few ideas to help individuals, families, and churches if and when they feel convicted that this is what God wants them to do.
    How does a church get its people to be merciful, what kind of ministries or programs do they initiate, and what do they want to accomplish?   It seems to me that some churches have opted to do mercy so it ministers to the "merciful" but doesn't really do much for the needy.  I see churches doing what I call "mercy drive-bys" or "mercy tourism."   We send out our members on mercy excursions to do a little bit of mercy for a widow, family, neighborhood, but it is essentially just a project, often just a few hours in one place.  We climb back in our bus or vans and go home, hopefully feeling good about what we have done.  Let me not despise any good work, and I hope whatever you have done really changed someones day, maybe even their life.
    However, a better way of looking at mercy is to remember it primarily consists of two things: charity and development.  Charity is that immediate mercy in a time of need, freely given, to someone who needs help.  Anyone might need help in an emergency, and when we are in trouble we are grateful for anyone God might send to help us in that moment.  Development is that process whereby individuals or communities are empowered to help themselves so that their situation might be improved.  Sometimes we give too much charity so that it hinders development.  Sometimes we are so focused on development that we fail to show charity to meet emergencies.
    Many of us begin with mercy tourism as it is the first time some of us come into contact with those who are suffering.  It can be a good thing if it starts something, but can be a very paternalistic and patronizing thing if it is just a moment.  It can actually do more harm than good as it can create cynicism in those who are its victims by making "charity victims" into users of people with misguided intentions.  If it is an introduction to mercy involvement then it would be a good thing, and if it is a step toward eventual mercy effectiveness that would be an even better thing.
    I am not opposed to mission trips, mass mobilizations of small groups, Sunday School projects, etc.  That kind of manpower can be very helpful by putting troops on the ground to meet a real need.  However to rise toward mercy effectiveness framing the goal to actually bring people into the church, into the Body of Christ, is essential.  Too many churches have looked on the poor as objects of pity, clients as it were of our welfare, but not as potential church members, not as future Pastors, Elders, Deacons, Missionaries, and other kinds of church leaders.  If the poor your church ministers to are too far away, too culturally distant from your church, then plant a church in their midst.  I believe the single best thing we can do for the poor is to plant the right kind of church in their midst.
    "The right kind of church" is essential because we have too many irrelevant churches as it is, but the landscape is very barren of the right kind of church.  Churches that love Jesus, His Word, worshipping Him, that loves all different kinds of folks and is sensitive to their culture and history, that loves the poor and empowers them and includes them, these are what we need.  I think we have to have mixed congregations in the socio/economic sense.  Missionary urban Christians, essentially professionals at doing work among the poor are and always will be needed, but by themselves they are too few and too vulnerable to making the lasting difference we need.  We need a radicalization of middle class saints to share their lives with poor people in the same congregation.
    A church that wants to do effective mercy cannot just ask its middle class members to live in poor communities and "love their neighbor." Most of the hardcore poverty areas in our country have people in them whose lives are dysfunctional over generations.  Their value system is messed up, and the complexity of their lives is more than "just being a neighbor" can handle. That is a good way to burn people out. Boundaries are needed, leadership is needed, structure of how to do mercy is needed that will eventually lead to development strategies.  Churches need to learn how to train Deacons to develop good mercy policies and guidelines, instead of meeting every request for need with panic, guilt, confusion, and misappropriation of time and money.  Not every emergency of a poor person is really an emergency, some things are, but guidelines can help a church tell folks where and where they can get help, and what kind of needs might be might and what kind of help will and will not be given.
    People who have live in cyclical poverty are going to need long term discipleship, and part of that discipleship must include financial literacy skills, a change in values, and mentoring in how to live by faith.  Some think the poor already have faith, and that's all they have.  Some poor folks do have great faith, but a lot of them have a great deal of panic and that is where they often spend their time.  If a church is serious about loving the poor they need to build effective ministries of mercy, and as the poor become part of their church then, with the input and participation of the people they are loving, build together those development ministries which make sense in their particular context.

Thursday, January 10, 2013


The General officer in charge of procurement entered the inner office of the Secretary of Defense.  "How are you General?"   "Very well, Mr. Secretary.  Thank you for seeing me," replied General Smith.  "You said you believe you have come up with a way to save the nation a great deal of money in our Defense Budget, didn't you?"   Asked the SecDef.   "Yes sir, I have been reading the tabloids, especially the cartoons on Facebook, and I think the logical is inescapable.  If we follow it I believe we will save billions of dollars," the General responded with great animation.
   "Well?" asked the SecDef with raised eyebrows, "Let's have it!"  The General, smiling in anticipation of a great financial coup, began to lay out his idea.   It went something like this...since people kill people and not guns we really don't need to buy any guns.  In fact, after seeing so much mockery of people trying to limit the proliferation of weapons, and by listening to a logic that seemed to flow from people with 'steel trap" minds, the General had become convinced that guns don't kill people but people do, and realized people can be killed with anything from a rock, to bare hands, to scissors, to letter openers, to chain saws, to hammers, etc., he thought it wise to follow that logic to where we didn't have to buy guns for national defense.
   The SecDeF looked at the General with a penetrating stare.  "You might be on to something General.  But I  have some questions first.   Why have we been buying guns in the first place, I mean what started the whole thing?  That would be one question.   Maybe another might be why do we always go out and buy bigger ones?  I have read things in Budget Requests and Authorizations before about lethality, kinetic force, stopping power, range, rate of fire and so forth.  What does that stuff mean and why have you always justified asking for money for these kind of weapons if we really don't need them?"
    The General looked a bit sheepish, but he rallied.  "Sir, I used to think that way, but I have to admit that these discussions about gun control have really helped me to begin to think outside of the box.  This is really blue sky thinking and I think we can make some really robust modifications to the budget.  Sir, somewhere along the way we became confused and thought that gunpowder and projectiles were more lethal than those weapons delivered by hand.  I mean if this new logic is correct than anyone can kill anyone, and even a whole lot of people, just by being another person.  Guns don't really change the equation, the people are still dead.  Yes, for a while we thought we could kill one or a hundred folks quickly from a distance so they wouldn't be able to hurt or kill us, and we thought that the power in a firearm was pretty conclusive.  I mean, antibiotics really messed us up when wounds were able to be effectively treated but by and large a piece of lead flying at supersonic speed seemed to be pretty effective at a quick kill. But I admit to having been deceived, I had begun to think guns really did kill people.  All the purchase of explosives, bombs, missiles, mines and such have been a colossal waste.  We could have just as easily dropped people on Hiroshima, and with less residual radiation."
   The Secretary of Defense looked amazed.  "General, just where did you go to school?  West Point, the Citadel, VMI?   You are amazing I must admit.  I had always thought there was a difference between a simple syllogism, you know, where two premises can make a valid conclusion, and the truth of a premise."  The General looked puzzled, "I don't follow sir."   "Yes, that is the problem isn't it?  I'm just wondering how many others follow your logic.  All of these dumb police officers wanting larger ammunition clips and larger caliber weapons because they thought they needed that to have more fire power than the criminals.  Our marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen naively thinking that the quantity and quality of our small arms made a difference for victory, when actually it was just people who kill people all along.  I guess this means the Chinese are eventually going to win since they have so many of them.   General, before you come back would you please study up a little on fallacious arguments, and try to figure out the difference between what looks like a simple fact, and what might be more complicated.  Could you do that please?  Otherwise start thinking of your next assignment in Djibouti."

Sunday, January 6, 2013

So, Who Was Dr. King?

    One of the most significant men who have lived in my lifetime has been Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  My problem with Dr. King lies basically in the fact that I am an Evangelical and don't know how to interpret him. Judging people sort of comes with the territory of being an Evangelical, which may be to some degree hypocritical if you consider what Jesus said about judging people but if you are an Evangelical you will understand this is our tendency. 
    We want to know if someone is "saved" and if they are we feel like they are on our side and we are happy about it.  This especially involves anyone famous such as athletes, politicians, movie stars, etc.  Once we establish that they have a "testimony" (which we take as a creedal or doctrinal confession of personal belief), then we watch to see if they are consistent with their lifestyle, their doctrine, and their politics, especially if they are a politician.  We don't really care about the politics of other famous believers, as long as they don't champion causes we don't like, then we suspect that they are not really saved but most likely a "Liberal." 
    We Evangelicals find it hard to be thankful for good results from what we consider to be fallen and unsaved folk.  We are especially hard on them if they politically disagree with some of our strongly held moral and ethical views.  If they are unsaved but conservative, even if by their own words we know they don't believe in Christ, we are not quite so hard on them.  We are of course personally thankful for good doctors, good pilots, good mechanics, good plumbers, good computer techs, etc. and sometimes will thank God that their skills saved our lives, kept us safe, or delivered us from our own ineptness. 
    Usually liberal theologians or clergy are easily dismissed as irrelevant, in a dying church, or just irritating.  Then of course if one or more of them really makes the headlines we just see them as the spawn of Satan.  So how am I supposed to view Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?   For some Evangelicals this is an easy thing to answer as they can categorize him in various ways.  "He was a Communist," some might say.  "He was a Liberal, who believed and practiced the "Social Gospel" and therefore misled people when he should have been preaching the Gospel," some will say.  At the very least some Evangelicals would say he was problematic, meaning to do well but stirring up trouble everywhere he went, a hero to his people but personally flawed even in his personal morality.
    Let me give you some of my opinion about him.  He is and was a hero to me.  I think he was one of the greatest Americans who ever lived.  I believe God used him, as God sovereignly uses significant people in history, to bring justice and change to our nation in such momentous ways that it is hard to imagine where America would have been without him.  He was one of America's greatest preachers and orators, a man of great vision, a man who used a Jesus derived strategy to stand against evil and stand up for justice.
    I am convinced there is absolutely no proof or credibility to the claim that he was a Communist.  Certainly from his own pen he deconstructed communism just as any Evangelical might. A few quick quotes from his autobiography, "First, I rejected their materialistic interpretation of history.  Communism, avowedly secularistic and materialistic, has no place for God.  This I could never accept, for as a Christian I believe that there is a creative personal power in this universe who is the ground and essence of all reality..."   Again, "Second, I strongly disagreed with communism's ethical relativism."   And again, "Third, I opposed communism's political totalitarianism."  [From The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Clayborne Carson, p. 20, Grand Central Publishing, 1998]
     Of course the Anti-communists, those who have a paranoid fanaticism in their commitment against communism will say that "all Communists lie and will tell you anything to convince you they are on your side."  I don't doubt that some Communists have lied to achieve power, but Dr. King surely would have made a poor Communist for all of his claims to believe in God and by his rigorous criticism of the materialistic nature of the Communist movement.  Most who called him a Communist did so, frankly speaking, because they were racist or too easily believed a racist lie, and would not give African Americans credibility that they were suffering injustice.  Evidently in American history the Colonists could suffer injustice from England and have the right to protest and fight a revolution.  Southerners could feel they had the right to rebel against the Union if the Union sought to limit slavery thus limiting their freedoms, but African Americans had no such right to stand up against oppression because, well, they are black and that is what black people deserved.
    I admire his courage, his leadership, his strategic thinking, his incisive critique of the hypocrisy of segregation when seen against our American ideals and Constitutional rights.  I hurt in my heart when I think of what I have learned about segregation in my own country, when I hear him write and speak of the indignity of what law condoned discrimination felt like to him as a human being.  Injustice makes me angry, and I admire any man or woman who is angry at evil, because the Scriptures teach that is right to hate evil.  Yet I admire a man who sought consistently and valiantly, often against great odds, to keep from hating people.  The very people who beat him, arrested him, tried to kill him, lied about him, bombed his house, and practiced the evil that he hated.  He prayed to love, to not be bitter, to return love for hate.
    So, what is my problem?  I am an Evangelical, and though I realize of course that many of my fellow believers were on the wrong side of the Civil Rights movement, and some even to this day believe slanders and lies about a very great man, (though certainly not all), my problem is with Dr. King's own faith.   He himself is very ambiguous about his faith. Though raised in the traditional church he clearly expressed disbelief in the bodily resurrection of Christ.  He took the side of liberal theology in its higher critical  destructive evisceration of the Bible, the very Word of God.  This did not happen because he was denied entrance to some conservative school, but because of his own doubts and unbelief beginning in his youth.
    Was there reason to doubt the integrity of those Evangelical, conservative Christians, who were racist, some members of the Klan, and those who falsely used the Bible to justify segregation?  Certainly, but our hypocrisy doesn't change the reality of revealed Truth, it only proves our own wickedness.  Dr. King found himself accepting liberal scholarship about the Scriptures (which in my opinion turns out to be very poor scholarship based on faulty prior assumptions) but desperately fighting for personal faith, and fighting for an overall philosophy to combat the evils that he saw.  These were the very Scriptures that gave him some understanding of the absolutes of justice and love.
    I have no doubt Dr. King had a very sincere faith.  He was a man of prayer.  He confesses many times an absolute need to depend on God, yet he sees Jesus only in a limited way.  He understood the message of the Gospel, but without a risen Christ it is hard to see how the sacrifice of Jesus really can take away sins.  And so I see in him a great dilemma, a limit of the spiritual power he could have had, and therefore a great loss to himself and to all of us.  It is not my place to send any man to heaven or to hell; judgment lies in God's hands.  I only know what Dr. King has told us about himself, and I wish with all my heart I could hold him as an Evangelical, but he was not one, by his own account.
    Therefore I just have to accept him as a very great man, who did very great things, and brought about a very great change in our nation.  Now, if you don't like him for what he did and for the changes that he helped to bring about then his not being an Evangelical will be just one more reason you can dismiss him.  That would be as dumb as dismissing any of the wonderful and talented men and women God has given to the world, who were used by God to bless all of us, yet who might possibly never have known the true God for themselves.  If you don't hate injustice, if you don't hate evil, if you can't celebrate the triumph of truth and freedom then of course Dr. King can be easily dismissed.  I suppose you will have to figure out what are the things that are important to God, you know, like what is good and what the Lord requires of you.