Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Fighting Poverty for Dummies 6

According to my stat counter the fighting poverty for dummies stuff hammered my previously hefty hit count into the ground more than anything I’ve done in 18 months of posting. Ouch!

A younger and more web savvy friend tells me I’ve gotta manage my expectations better in the haiku medium of blogging. Occasionally I forget. I’m considering counseling to rid myself of any more multi-paragraph outbursts :^)

Oh well, I was interested.

But I know some of you are too. So let's finish this thing and get back to the lighter stuff for the lunch break blog browsers. Cool to get a chance to try out some material for a future least-best seller anyway!

Wrap Up

Some brief stuff with a bullet re fighting poverty and getting involved in the battle:

• In spite of the current soul patch cynicism, clever and committed people are making real progress in helping scads of poor folks move out of abject poverty. No reason to be cynical or resigned in the face of the huge task ahead. Every reason to jump into the battle with both feet.

• I like stuff that works. It’s fine to believe in personal responsibility or state intervention, but when ideological orientations start blinding people to pragmatic solutions you’ve got some whacky slippery slope stuff going on. Knee jerk anti-globalism or knee jerk private/personal responsibility approaches do more damage than good. Though the latter is the bigger problem among current Christians, I’m seeing both on blogs and in print and in convos. Too bad.

• In the real world people who make the most progress tack in every ideological direction if it helps get the job done. Hernando de Soto is the darling of the personal responsibility, market oriented types but his NGO spends most of its time working with governments to get them to intervene heavily in the economy by granting land rights and by making sweeping changes to the law which actually create a much bigger government bureaucracy (you didn’t think formalizing mass land rights and business ownership and a more rational economic system would come without lots more lawyers and government institutions to enforce them, did you? :^) Jeff Sachs--who some challenge as the epitome of the top down, grand plan, liberal paternalist--focuses primarily on harnessing global capitalism to lift folks up and on practical and proven approaches that local people have to take responsibility to carry out. So much for ideology!

No reason concerned people can’t support and get involved with organizing the poor for change and prophetically examining capitalism (Davis) and spreading micro-lending (Yunus) and securing land and property rights for the poor (de Soto) and working for reconciliation and building spiritual community among the poor (Perkins) and harnessing international institutions and governments to apply proven and practical development aids (Sachs). It’s a both/and thing, not an either/or.

• The Christian movement and Christian theology are not primarily about fighting poverty. Some other big fish to fry too :^) But Christian theology and practice—properly understood—always focus on serving ‘the least’ and on leveling the playing field. Widespread Christian revival among the poor often gets it done in a way other approaches don’t.

• I see no reason why Christians as individuals and communities shouldn’t jump on some of the best poverty fighting tools available. Community organizing and micro-lending aren’t tools of the devil, after all, though you might think so the way many evangelicals avoid or ignore ‘em.

• Speaking prophetically about capitalism--precisely because of it's overwhelming ideological power--is critical in spite of the hate that might generate right now. Those of us who see an important anti-poverty role for markets lose Christian credibility when we become shills for market oriented ideologies and don’t ask the hard theological and ethical questions about it. We've gotta make those questions a key part of our 'presentation.'

• Thinking about Adam Smith presents some real challenges for thoughtful and prophetic Christians. On the one hand capitalism puts a whole lot of people in shoes and gives 'em a chance to save some of their teeth by the time they hit 40. That's remarkable everyday stuff from a historical perspective. Global capitalism is raising hundreds of millions out of abject poverty as we speak. No reason for even stage left Christians to deny that.

On the other hand, current forms of capitalism sometimes seem to preserve or even intensify social inequality. Even in ‘advanced’ capitalist societies.

In addition, current forms of capitalism require materialistic lifestyles to keep the economic engine running. Market oriented anti-poverty fighters often cite the positive biblical values of thrift, saving, discipline, etc. that newly developing capitalist societies require. But as capitalist societies become more advanced, they require ever increasing consumption on the part of everybody to keep things moving. Living a non-materialistic lifestyle—which the New Testament clearly favors and encourages—becomes a subversive act in an advanced capitalistic society. Let’s face it, ‘consuming mass quantities’ is an essential structural requirement that keeps western economies humming.

Those are just a couple of the potential big ‘problems’ with capitalism that Christians have got to address prophetically.

Mostly silence on that front right now. Where are the fine young Christians who will speak up?

OK, enough for this time and for the series. Hope it provides you some good grist for the mill.

9 Comments:

Anonymous alex said...

A lot to digest - but here are a couple of thoughts:

1) When we talk about fighting "poverty" are we talking about reducing absolute poverty worldwide(yes, 2.8 billion people live on $2 a day, but that means 3.7 billion people live on more than that - astonishing from an historical perspective) or are we attempting to close the gap between "rich" and "poor" (not going so well over the last 30 or 40 years, not to mention the last 5000).

2) I'm fascinated by potential scientific and technological advances that may completely change the dynamics of the debate, i.e. hyper-agriculture and genetically modified/vaccine enhanced foods, high-tech/low cost but local energy sources, etc.

3) I also wonder what the future holds for capitalism - yes, ever-increasing materialistic consumption has been critical in the past, but will it remain so in the future? A key element of market systems has been and is the creation of desire, but increasingly these desires and their satisfaction are non-materialistic. I think it's possible to imagine futures where the "laws" of supply and demand are so deformed as to be nearly non-existent, i.e. where technological advances supply material needs so abundantly that focus turns almost entirely to the satisfaction of non-material needs for which the supply is essentially infinite.

10:14 PM  
Anonymous vonstroh said...

I actually liked this series quite a bit. I don't care for the "lunch crowd" blogs so much, they don't really say anything. So here's one vote of encouragement to keep pumping out stuff like this that is a little deeper, gets discussion going, and is still kinda concise.

To comment on Alex's points 2 and 3:
So if we harness the sort of technology to ramp up agriculture, what will change? We already have an abundance of food on this earth. People aren't hungry and starving because of lack of agricultural production. People are starving because warlords have driven them off their land and prevent aid from getting to them. In some places in cities people are also starving, but its not for lack of food in those cities.
Now in terms of allowing folks to make a decent living on global standards via agriculture - that takes changes in trade laws to open up markets. Flooding the market with more production probably wouldn't do much good. We just need to allow the poor farmers to reach the markets that are now closed to them.
If we can wipe out somehow both warlords and drought, in theory everyone outside the cities will eat just fine. But in our globalized world, just eating isn't really shalom. When people live across great educational and digital divides they don't have the same opportunities as the rest. And so folks will keep flocking to the cities to give their children a better future. A few of them make it in the city. Most of them end up hating it in the city because their lives suck and they realize that without skills they'll just grind it out till they die with their children's education as the only hope. But with the influences in the slum many of these children won't make it very far in school. And those who are diligent and getting along, these are the ones who love their parents the most and will likely drop out 'cause they can't stand to not be a burden to their family while they're in school and not be working to help out while their parents are sweating it out. So I think we need to start thinking about making education in the slums of the world's cities a major focus.

I know a guy in Maisore, India who has started a school in the slum that supports itself, hires the best teachers, gives the best education (rich kids seek to get into this school as well) and is now expanding to other cities in the area. This is the sort of thing we need to do more of.

10:07 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Great stuff guys.

Most of these poverty fighters are trying to bring people out of 'absolute' poverty or levels of poverty close to that. Closing the gap isn't really on the agenda except in a more peripheral way. I think most of the hostility and (legitimate) questions about capitalism and globalization relate to the failures to close the gaps even when overall economic performance is strong. Even here in the US most of the productivity gains of an expanding economy go to the wealthiest 1% of the population--middle class wages and benefits have been pretty much stagnant. If that's true here--with our almost religious reverance for the middle class and a strong representative democracy--you can only imagine what the inequality in the rest of the world looks like.

Technology may pull the rabbit out of the hat and change the whole discussion. I agree. May it be so. Hard to imagine a situation where the whole world can concentrate on stuff at the top of Maslow's hierarachy of needs. But more unlikely things have happened. Let's pray.

You sound like a guy who's seen that urban poverty thing in the developing world first hand and up close and in detail, Dave :^)

I had to make some edits in the series so it didn't go on forever. If I do the book I'll definitely highlight education--a huge factor.

10:55 AM  
Anonymous Greg said...

I also enjoyed reading the series. With so many groups talking about poverty, I appreciate getting a perspective on the differences in the way people are talking about the issue.

Q: What thinking do you think influences Sojourners and how do they fit into this discussion?

6:20 PM  
Anonymous Jon said...

Glad for the series. A couple years ago I had to make a conscious decision in my blog whether to go for hits and comments, or whether to put the stuff that I thought carried the greatest importance. I never get 10-15 comments on posts anymore, but I'm not going to go back. Please post what matters most.

As far as Alex's "1", I personally care far more about making sure the poor have enough than I do about making sure the rich have less. I honestly feel that the only good way for the rich to have less is for them to make conscious decisions to serve God with their money and spend it for the good of the poor. Some of them are doing that. But outside efforts to reduce the wealth of the rich won't bring their hearts to Christ, and isn't very likely to help the poor either.

1:03 AM  
Anonymous vonstroh said...

Yea, I'd also be interested in a discussion on where Sojourners fits in. On one hand, I feel like Jim Wallis is way too political and a lot of what I hoped I'd find in "God's Politics", I didn't. It just became another political mantra from one side. A lot of what I hoped to find in "God's Politics", I actually rather found in Brian McLaren's and Donald Miller's writings. But yet, Sojourners is one of the primary Christian voices speaking up about injustices and actually doing some wide-scale awareness raising on a large scale. I don't know if rallies and protests and contrived arrests actually do anything other than to make themselves feel like they're doing something though. And that's most of the action I see from them. Though it does seem they do a good job of networking and encouraging the ground swell of a shift in values in evangelicalism in America to include caring for the poor and the oppressed. I'd like to see them work together with others on larger projects (like Bono and Clooney's One Campaign that actually got results in debt relief for Africa). I think organizing works well at the micro scale and the very large scale, but not so much at the medium scale. Robert Linthicum, IAF style organizing in neighborhoods and even cities can achieve some solid results. And huge things like the ONE campaign can achieve solid results. But I'm skeptical of the effectiveness of the medium level "noise in the wind" rallies and protests and contrived arrests.

Let me compare this with Thailand for a second. We have in theory here a solid democracy as well. But the recent political bruhaha the last year has been mostly through "people's protest" movements and not through "normal" democratic means. The Economist has ripped Thailand for this, saying this represents a weakness in our democracy. I generally agree with this, that if the political process of pushing agendas through parties and candidates and working to win votes and elections is abandoned for large protest movements and boycotts of elections, you don't really have democracy anymore. But if we look back at America from this perspective, I think the protest movement approach is smart. Because to fully engage the political process, you have to sell your soul. You can't win elections without compromising. Politics is a giant monster. You can't stay clean and win. And that's probably what the opposition here in Thailand feels: With the money in the ruling party that they're up against, they can't make progress against corruption via the political process without selling out to more corruption themselves than they already have. So perhaps the prophetic approach (however you may interpret that) is the best we can hope for to impact our politics and decision-makers. I mean, heck, look at where we're at now in America: Having Chrisian presidents hasn't helped so much and a lot of people think has hurt very much. The religious right has just become another tool of the monster (though I sincerely believe they didn't start out that way).

If we're going to look at politics or organizing as a major strategy, we'll need more prophets analyzing the minefield of the political and power monster "Screwtape Letters"-style to keep us all in perspective.

1:22 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Thanks for the encouragement to go deep with the posts. I'd like for Peaks and Pacific to have a wide audience so I want to mix it up a bit with humor, satire, sports, cultural observation, etc., but I'd like to do stuff like this regularly too. Hopefully it won't scare everybody but the MIT/Mudd/JPL crowd away :^) I'll be launching PandP more seriously fairly soon (few more changes to be made as I get time). Any further suggestions from you guys would be great. I've got a couple of hundred regular folks who read at least once a week but I'd like to create an alternative Christian voice for thinking folks with a sense of humor that could reach a whole lot more eventually.

Re your comments Jon about the rich and reducing the wealth divide, the question is, as you say, how to do it. Don't think I agree that an approach that relies solely on asking the rich to make spiritual committments individually is a realistic way to go, though I understand your reluctance to rely on heavyhanded state intervention that may muck it up or threaten the principle of personal moral responsibility or on potentially violent uprising of the poor which usually just replace the old elites with new ones. Even if every concerned Christian type decided that the 'appealing to the rich conscience' method would do the trick, I would think that would require a powerful movement within the church to speak prophetically about wealth, the way gross inequality of wealth offends NT ethics and morality, and an offer and a challenge to wealthy believers to start a movement of voluntary simple living and investing their money in efforts to uplift the poor. I see nothing of the sort going on, so sometimes it feels like the 'appeal to the rich conscience' thing among conservative believers is sort of hollow. When rich believers start getting excommunicated from churches because of their greed you might start seeing some changes, though I fear that group would just start up a new mega-church :^)

As for Sojourners, I think they come out of the Jesus Movement of the 60's and 70's originally (my roots too). Jesus Movement stuff was purposely countercultural and anarchical, so there was a strong emphasis on trying to deflate the overblown claims of the particularly powerful without becoming overtly partisan and ideological yourself. But staying consistently anarchical is hard to do.

Originally Sojourners was just a bunch of young evangelical seminarians who wanted profound community, deeper spirituality, and an emphasis on justice and serving the poor. That was pretty unheard of among evangelicals forty years ago. Mainstream evangelicals were still hostile to the liberal Christian 'social gospel' movement of the earlier 20th century so they thought a concern for social justice was tantamount to abandoning the faith. Sojourners was really trying to challenge that evangelical thinking and put justice issues on the table. They also came across like a bunch of prophetic young guys--sort of angry, sometimes too critical, etc.

I loved 'em when I was in college and my seminary years, but I stopped reading 'em for about 7 or 8 years in my 20's and early 30's cuz I found they weren't helping my spiritual balance or my anarchy.

They're actually much more balanced than they once were, but I think they can come across as partisan now primarily because the evangelical and political worlds are so skewed to the right that they end up spending most of their 'deflating the powerful' duties on challenging the right.

But if you read 'em consistently and listen to 'em over time, they're mostly Christian anarchists. I really liked "God's Politics" and it really has changed the whole national discussion about faith and politics and the poor. It's not as even handed as it might have been, but like I said, it's hard to find an effective way to communicate as an anarchist. If you really go fully even handed you run the risk of having nobody listen and you run the risk of appearing to downplay the tremendous advantages in power of the current religious and political right. Basically, anarchists end up spending most of their time challenging those in power--whoever they are--because that's what's most needed. Why would you satirize or challenge liberal Christians right now? Who cares :^)? I think that's the quandry Jim Wallis and his folks face.

I think they have an important--maybe even a historically important--role to play. Their Call to Conversion movement (which Sojourners created and has now merged with) is the most ecumenical Christian movement in America right now--everybody from hard core conservative right folks to liberal Christians coming together to address poverty. Anarchical in the best sense of the term! They're doing it, not just talking about it.

12:32 PM  
Anonymous Jon said...

"I would think that would require a powerful movement within the church to speak prophetically about wealth, the way gross inequality of wealth offends NT ethics and morality, and an offer and a challenge to wealthy believers to start a movement of voluntary simple living and investing their money in efforts to uplift the poor. I see nothing of the sort going on, so sometimes it feels like the 'appeal to the rich conscience' thing among conservative believers is sort of hollow. When rich believers start getting excommunicated from churches because of their greed you might start seeing some changes, though I fear that group would just start up a new mega-church."

I agree with all of this. And I think that the solution is for us to do everything possible to make it start happening (my friends actually think I'm being pushy to the point of overdoing it), not to abandon it in favor of state control.

12:44 AM  
Blogger anhomily said...

My dad remembers Jim Wallis and his buddies stuffing the first few issues of Sojourners in his dorm lobby at Trinity Evangelical when he went there... now they seem to align themselves pretty heavily with democrats - a friend of mine who has been an intern for Wallis forwarded me the website www.faithfuldemocrats.com as a sample of what great stuff they are doing. But democrats these days are looking lot like "Puzzle" in CS Lewis' Last Battle, though it is the donkey skin they are wearing on the outside...underneath is an elephant...
I have really enjoyed the fighting poverty for dummies series, and I look forward to reading more on Mike Davis - sounds like my kind of guy... but really TP, did you have to end it with a pity party begging for comments? ha ha

2:03 PM  

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