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Thursday, January 14, 2016

"For the Least of These" (editors: Anne Bradley and Art Lindsley)

TITLE: For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty
AUTHOR: Anne Bradley and Art Lindsley (editors)
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2015, (304 pages).

How do we help the poor? We know that Jesus ministers often among the poor, the marginalized, and the outcasts. As disciples of Christ, we are called to be part of this movement to do likewise. The question is then, how? How much do we rely on governments to do the charity? How are Christians called to discharged their biblical responsibilities? Is a way to understand poverty? The editors of this book begin with a good summary of the problem. Bradley and Lindsey write:
"Christians understand that wealth is not an end in and of itself, but a necessary means of giving people choice, access to vital goods and services (like clean water and medical care), and an opportunity to serve and care for others. . . . . For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty was written to provide an alternative perspective for addressing the problem of poverty from both a biblical and economic point of view, presenting a framework that will allow us to become better stewards of the earth’s scarce resources and simultaneously to bring about a flourishing society." (12-13)

Poverty is a complex issue. It is more than simply having the rich handing over money to the poor. It is more than redistribution of wealth. More importantly, it is about empowering the poor to help themselves. Like the famous saying: "It is better to teach one how to fish and eat for a lifetime; instead of giving one a fish to eat for just a day."

Part One of the book covers "A Biblical Perspective on the Poor." Five contributors provide insights into what the Bible has to say about poverty. Glen Sunshine is currently chair of the history department at Central Connecticut State University and writes regularly for the Colson Center. He asks "Who are the Poor?" and engages us in both material and spiritual poverty. Sunshine critiques some of the lopsided views of charity. Some tend to be too focused on economic angles. Others adopt anti-capitalist models or some dramatic redistribution proposal that imitates Acts 4:32. He urges us to recognize the importance of creating employment; criterion of "moral proximity" to help those closest to us; responsibly tailored giving; and to be wary of any approaches that are too anti-capitalist or quasi-socialist. Walter C. Kaiser Jr is the Colmon Mockler distinguished Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He begins with "Poverty and the Poor in the Old Testament" and maintains that we must assess the "relative condition" of any poverty situation. He uses the arguments from Proverbs and Ecclesiastes to distinguish both the poor and the rich, and the different ways in which the rich gain their wealth. While the poor is preferred over the rich, in the Old Testament, the context of the rich is in terms of ill-gains or obtained by wicked means. He goes on to describe the various descriptions of poor in the Old Testament; slavery in Egypt; teachings of the Torah; Poverty under the Monarchy; Wisdom writings; before plunging into modern treatment of poverty and how we can play our part in alleviating poverty. He defends the "private property" perspective and is skeptical of the "Robin Hood" perspective which take money from the rich in order to feed the poor because such methods usually lead to a lower standard of living for all, which in turn impacts the way we all live. This is especially so when it lowers the opportunity to demonstrate the power of the gospel. David Kotter is visiting scholar and senior research fellow at the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics. Looking at the New Testament, his article, "Remember the Poor" combs the New Testament in looking for more varied and nuanced ways to help the poor. He points out four causes of poverty: 1) Oppression by Others; 2) External Calamities; 3) Moral Foolishness/Failure; 4) Living in a Fallen World before showing the root cause of poverty: sin. He believes that the gospel is the answer, not redistribution of wealth. If the gospel is preached, listeners will find ways to share the gospel, including exercising responsibility to help the poor. Underlying the idea is that the poor needs more than just a hand out. The poor themselves need to be helped out of their own predicament. Art Lindsley is the Vice President of Theological Initiatives at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics who looks at the nature of the Jubilee and Acts 2-5 with the article, "Does God require the State to Redistribute Wealth?"  After describing the five myths of the Jubilee, he argues that Acts 2-5 do not teach socialism. He directs his disagreement at those who perpetually uses these scripture verses to guilt-trip modern believers into doing more and giving more. Lindsley also says that these arguments are at best weak for they stress "treasure" more than "time." Richard Turnbull is director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets, and Ethics and contributes the article, "Evangelicals and Poverty: The Voluntary Principle in Action." He argues for the voluntary principle and not the "redistribution" paradigm.

Part Two of the book contains four articles about "Markets and the Poor." R Marks Isaac, John and Hallie Quinn Eminent Scholar and department chair of economics at Florida State University, asserts in "Markets and Justice" that while sin affects all parts of life, including human institutions, we should not shun or abandon these places. He analyzes the "meta-market institutions," the "market social system," and the "free market system" to point out their contributions and implications to society. Any of these initiatives are not to be dismissed but prayerfully discerned with divine guidance on how best we can help the poor through these means. There is no zero-sum game where one operates an either/or paradigm. We can play the part of stewardship of what we have and help those who are poor. Lord Brian Griffiths and Dato Kim Tan share the article "Fighting Poverty Through Enterprise" of going beyond mere giving toward enterprise creation. By providing ways to help the poor help themselves, these efforts can help turn consumers into producers. Griffiths is vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs International and chairman of the European Middle East and African Business Practice and Compliance Committee. Tan is founder chairman of SpringHill Management Ltd (UK). Anne Bradley is Vice President of Economic Initiatives at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics. She tackles the question of "Why Does Income Inequality Exist?" by looking at economic and biblical explanations. This means trying to understand the roots of the problem and at the same time working for ways to address any injustice and corruption. She helpfully points us to embracing our diversity and the creation of opportunity for all, especially the poor. Robert Sirico chimes in with "The Moral Potential of the Free Economy" urging us from condemning the free markets but how to adopt the two prong effort of helping the poor as well as increasing the work opportunities. Just because of the imperfections and greed in the market do not mean we can throw the whole baby away with the bathwater. As a pastor and also President of the Acton Institute, Sirico speaks of a "vocational encounter" that inspires creativity, risk taking, addresses all areas of needs, and helping the most vulnerable in society.

Part Three is about "Poverty Alleviation in Practice." The four articles are contributed by Lawrence Reed (President of the Foundation for Economic Education), Marvin Olasky (Editor-in-Chief of World magazine and holder of the distinguished chair in journalism and public policy at Patrick Henry College), Peter Greer (President and CEO of HOPE International), and Jay Richards (author and producer of documentaries). Reed proposes "A Poverty Program That Worked" which criticizes the "business of relief" that impoverishes rather than help the needy. Doling out goodies is never the long-term solution. Volunteer-based charities that seek to focus on changing hearts one at a time are far more effective programs. Olasky's "Alleviating Poverty in the Abstract" takes on a philosophical angle, arguing that while Christianity's origin is Jewish, our modern paradigm is Greek.  From the story of Cookie Jones, he distills three dimensions in fighting poverty: 1) Personal; 2) Spiritual; 3) Challenging. Human dignity needs to be respected (personal). Providing relief can become "invitations to become beggars" (spiritual condition). Avoid any shift toward an entitlement mentality by encouraging work (challenging). Greer makes a plea to move beyond charity with a compassionate call toward long-term elimination rather than short-term relief of poverty. Do what is effective rather than what is easy. Create jobs. Bring hope. Share Christ. Richards concludes with some symbolic lessons of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's climb of the Mount Everest. The poor no matter how much we help or try to help, will always have to make their own climb.

The overall thrust of this book is that poverty is a complex issue that require many different approaches. Far too often, charities presume that they are the superior giver and the rest of the poor have to play beggars. Every relief can help initially but is equally harmful in locking the person into a cycle of need, relief, expectation, and entitlement. When the poor refuses to help themselves, we are not solving the problem. All of the contributors write from a faith perspective that cares for what Jesus cares. This book reminds me of the importance to broaden our perspectives about the poor, about the effectiveness of our giving, and the need for us to do more. We must be creative to ensure that our money go into proper use. A hand-out is a sunk cost that do nothing more than establish dependency. Worse, it devalues human dignity and makes the poor feel like they are the lowest class of society that have to depend on the upper classes to feed them, to care for them, and to pamper them. No society can survive if everyone is on welfare. Much better to encourage entrerprising businesses, work opportunities, and a renewed sense of dignity for all.

Do not just give more money and assume we have done our duty. The gospel is much more. For all we know, giving may not be the first resort of most situations. It might even be the last resort. If you are a philanthropist, a worker of a charity, or simply one who is keen to help the poor, this book will help enlarge your understanding of how to help the poor. It is one of the most comprehensive and holistic understanding of poverty and how we can go about engaging the causes of poverty rather than to simply treat the symptoms.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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