I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades For ever and for ever when I move.

Month: January 2015

More on Walking with the poor

A previous blog post critiqued some of the ideas found in, Walking With the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development, by Bryant L. Myers. At that point I had read about two-thirds of the book. Now I have finished reading it, and I have found some new things to talk about.

Before that, there are three things worth correcting from my previous post:

  1. My emphasis on ideas did not communicate much respect to Myers himself. So at the risk of an inelegant correction: He is clearly a person committed to living out the gospel, and to helping poor people. He has four decades more experience than I do in caring about and working among the poor. His organizational experience alone makes him a treasure. And, so far as these things can be judged, he is a much nicer person than I am, at least, and I am sure he stands out as a compassionate and respectful person even in a field crowded with compassionate and respectful people.

  2. I hope it will not be taken as backhanded if I express my certainty that Myers is better than his ideas. I think the man himself in all likelihood achieves a level of integration that has not come through in the book.

  3. My definition of poverty ought to include reference to capital as well as employment. In my American context and my overseas context, employment income has always seemed determinative of economic success. In other places (perhaps especially thriving agricultural societies), inherited capital will be more important. Individuals also benefit from their parents’ ability to transfer wealth through education.

In my previous review I largely snagged on chapters 4, 5, and 6, which addressed the nature of poverty and what can be done about it. I have had no reason to repent of the issues I raised there. I think it is intellectually unprofitable and discriminatory to single the poor out for diagnosis of spiritual problems.

The remaining chapters of the book deal with development practice. Myers continues to review the models and best practices of the development world (assessment, planning, implementation, planning). These chapters basically review the best practices in secular development work. Then whenever a model has four dimensions for a particular problem or solution, Myers dutifully inserts “spiritual” as a fifth dimension. The disappointing thing in this discussion is that the “spiritual” never leads to practically different activities. Yes, there are references to how aid workers should pray and fast. (But then all Christians should, and I’m reading a book about development…) There are still references to ideas like caste and karma as “spiritual” constraints on development. (But then all sorts of people have all sorts of incorrect ideas, and what does it matter if these particular ideas are propagated by a religion?) I continue to see little genuine synthesis between the secular and the spiritual.

Now in spite of that, there is a lot of positive exhortation in these chapters: for development practitioners to be humble learners, for instance. There are cautions against pride and arrogance. Myers praises poor people for their resilience in surviving their circumstances. This is entirely commendable, and it modulates my earlier criticism of singling poor people out as spiritually needy: elsewhere Myers says many positive things about poor people as well. It’s not that the book is shot through with condescension, but rather that some of the many ideas that Myers presents are basically condescending.

Chapter 10 is titled, “Christian witness and transformational development.” I read this chapter eagerly, because a few tensions had been building up in the book. First, Myers makes several full-throated endorsements of proclaiming the gospel throughout the book. Second, many of his examples come from places like India, where proselytizing is illegal. Third, World Vision receives 17% of its funding from government grants, and it goes without saying that the federal government is uninterested in funding Christian proclamation.

As the second and third items might lead us to expect, Myer’s position is basically that Christian development practitioners do their jobs well, live their lives “eloquently,” and that this will lead people to ask questions about faith, which will provide occasions to share the gospel in a way that pressures nobody. He quotes Dorothy Day, who exhorts us to “live a life so mysterious that the only adequate explanation is the presence of a living, loving God.”

That’s a beautiful thought. It’s not how things worked out for Jesus. He did every miracle possible under the sun, and was for the most part was misunderstood. The idea that I could live such a publicly holy life that others would flock to my religion without my saying anything… well, it’s attractive to certain elements of my psyche. In practice, I think my life mostly communicates that Jesus loves even despicably pretentious, prickly linguists.

The critical issue, however, is that deeds can be misunderstood. And in fact Myers himself acknowledges that deeds are always ambiguous. He cites the case of Paul and Barnabas being mistaken for gods in Acts 14, and examples of present-day hydrologists being understood to be witch doctors. This is the most frustrating aspect of the book: Myers acknowledges everything, without taking the trouble to incorporate it into anything. You think, “Well, he did think of that objection,” and then you think, “He’s just completely undercut the point he was making, and he’s not acknowledging it.” In this case in particular, how can we possibly believe that good deeds in themselves constitute a witness to the gospel, when there are so many possible interpretations of those deeds?

Myers is not only happy to leave it at “living eloquently,” but in fact has harsh words for development practitioners who talk about Jesus with words. On what grounds? That it’s not what Jesus did? That it’s not what the apostles did? That it’s not effective? No. The fundamental problem is that telling people about Jesus is incompatible with community-driven development methodologies:

If done sensitively and without arrogance, the “go and tell” frame for Christian witness may be appropriate for a church or traditional mission agency, but it is not a good fit for a development agency for the simple reason that it is anti-developmental. It cuts across the idea that the community is the owner of its own development. It works against the notion of beginning where the community is and helping it find answers to its own questions. The initiative is with the outsider; the position of power and control is external. Since we don’t do “go and tell” development, we should do what we can to avoid “go and tell” evangelism.

When I read that paragraph, my mind skipped back a few chapters. Myers had reviewed several development approaches, including the Positive Deviance approach, which focuses on identifying the positive behaviors of community members who are able to mitigate the effects of poverty (i.e., people who are positive outliers). Myers is very positive about this approach generally, but closes with a qualification:

Finally, PD [Positive Deviance] is not suitable for every development situation. Protecting children against polio only comes through use of the Salk vaccine, for example; there is no local solution awaiting discovery.

This, for me, is where the book finally falls apart. In religious matters, the bottom-up communication approach cannot be sacrificed for the sake of proclaiming the gospel. But when it’s something like polio, when the real solution is the Salk vaccine, then we put our development principles on hold and just tell people about the damned vaccine.

(I suppose I was prompted to make that connection by my memory of a priest who, in the middle of his homily, pointed to the eucharistic elements and said, “That is the cure for Death.” Even for a Protestant like me with a rather lower eucharistic theology, that was an arresting thought. I do believe that the Gospel is the cure for Death.)

The irony here is that Myers critiques the modern intellectual milieu in every other paragraph of his book. Everything is about avoiding the dichotomy between the spiritual and the material. But when the rubber meets the road, we just need to tell people about the cure for polio and give it to them. Somehow, the cure for death is less of an imperative.


Where does this leave me? Frankly, not enthusiastic about finding an intellectual synthesis of Christian witness and development work. But actually this doesn’t bother me much. I don’t have a grand intellectual synthesis of my own profession as a linguist and my Christian faith. The synthesis is personal. The divine and the human met, not in a theory, but in a Person: Jesus Christ. I’m probably not going to do better than to unite my Christian faith and my vocation in myself.

There is an obvious moral dimension to development work. Assistance must be given in a way that is impartial, without causing more harm than good, with responsible adoption of best practices, and so forth. I expect every development worker to do those things. Christian development workers should do them because they do all things “as unto the Lord.” Christians in all vocations should execute their duties with due diligence, “as unto the Lord.”

When I contribute to development efforts, I don’t really need to know whether a Christian or a Hindu or a Muslim or a Buddhist or an atheist is delivering the aid. Jesus instructed us to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is plenty of motivation for me to fund development work, as long as I have a reasonable expectation of its being conducted responsibly.

We have a certain amount of money that we continually relend to people through Kiva. (Micro-credit, while not perfect, is development a practice that I believe to be consistent with human dignity.) We happen to loan mostly to Tajiks, through a couple of NGOs that I assume are either secular or Islamic; the recipients similarly must be either secular or Islamic. I would be very happy for those people to know why I give, but that doesn’t need to be a precondition for my giving. Moreover, the fact of my giving is a reflection of my Christian faith, but is not a proclamation of it, and does not constitute an invitation to it. Were it only that simple!

Aside from the points which I raised above, there were a number of passages in the book that invite replies. The first shows that Myers is aware of the tensions (not to say contradictions) between the various ideas he is discussing.

One of the frontiers in transformational development done by Christians is going to be figuring out how to do responsible transforming development that takes seriously the worldview of people whose worldview is largely religious without (1) validating expressions of the local culture that are anti-life, (2) ignoring the benefits of modern science, or (3) surrendering the tenets and the power of our Christian faith.

This came up particularly in the context of interpreting our work as religious, even when we’re really just applying modern technology to a problem. I applaud his effort to find a synthesis. I don’t think anyone is going to do better than to recognize technology as part of common grace.

Ultimately the church is of value to the poor only if it tells them the truth that allows them to become less poor. The church has good news when it contributes to relationships being healed and to the emergence of truth, justice, peace, and righteousness.

I have to assume that there is some way to read this in which it doesn’t mean what this seems to mean. If a church is proclaiming the gospel of God, but without addressing physical needs, then that is a deficient church (cf. James). I would nevertheless venture to suggest that the gospel is “of value” even to people who die poor!

Part of the religion/modernity discussion involved reporting a community evaluation about who got credit for the success of an immunization campaign. The nature of the exercise is that people give their opinions by voting with seeds, a “Ten Seeds” exercise. This is how Figure 9-11 reports the results of one such exercise.

Who gets the credit for positive change? Development worker (2 seeds); Agency and its money (3 seeds); Effective technology (3 seeds); God of the Bible (0 seeds); Local gods (2 seeds)

Myers’s point in presenting the results was to show that, in this case, the God of the Bible got no credit for the immunization campaign. I would ask a different question. Why is there no option to give credit to, “Parents of children who took the responsible decision to adopt health practices that are uncontroversial throughout the developed and undeveloped world”? Because that is actually how those children got vaccinated. The parents made a decision to adopt technology responsibility.

And another bit on evangelism. I will preface this one by saying that I have known obnoxious evangelists in my day, but none of which have compelled me to commit such a critique to print:

Finally, the greatest danger to wrong-headed thinking about evangelism is that we will use evangelism as a way to play god in the lives of other people, believing we know the state of their soul, when they need to say yes to God, or that we know something about their future that they do not.

Dear reader, it is true that I don’t know the state of your soul. But I do know that you need to say yes to God right now. And I know something relevant to your future, which you may not know, namely that Jesus Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

Walking with the Poor: When you try to be holistic and end up just being offensive

I am about two-thirds of the way through Bryant L. Myers’s Walking With the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development. Myers is a long-time World Vision employee: a founding member in the 1970s, and an executive in the organization from the early 1980s until he took a professorship at Fuller Theological Seminary a few years ago. He is therefore a central figure in the evangelical Christian expression of aid work. This book is a synthesis of Myers’s own theology, and the prominent theoretical approaches to development work in the last few decades.

Here the book review pauses.

I think it will be uncontroversial for me to observe that evangelicals have relatively little to offer not only in terms of intellectual culture (cf. Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind), and also relatively little to offer in other cultural domains. Contemporary Christian music, for instance, follows secular music trends pretty closely. Evangelical Christian films aspire to the production quality of secular Christian films. And so forth.

In some sense, this is the way it has to be: since evangelicals are focused on the gospel alone, then obviously our task is not to produce some cultural edifice, but rather to redeem the entire Creation by encountering it through the lens of lived Christian faith. The point is not to create but to redeem.

At the same time, it is possible for that very same enterprise to be carried out for quite different reasons: an insecure desire to show that we can do everything just as well as the secular world can do it, by golly. The result might then be a sort of adolescent paroxysm, where everything in the secular world is mimicked, not as a result of a reasoned consideration, but simply as a more general whoring after culture (pop or otherwise).

I do not say that this always happens; I know that it does happen. It is something to be aware of. It is the liability of being in a movement that is not in the driver’s seat of the broader culture.

Here the book review resumes.

Myer’s primary concern the book is for development work to be holistic and transformational. He shrinks back from any dichotomization of spiritual work (e.g., evangelism) and secular work (e.g., clean water and education). He says that both of these must be comprehended in the Christian approach to development. Therefore, as he reviews and critiques the various definitions of poverty, analyses of the causes of poverty, and approaches to development, he keeps bringing in the Christian perspective. Such-and-such author’s conception of injustice is consistent with the Christian view; such-and-such author acknowledges the church as a social structure but not as a source of potential transformation; such-and-such Christian author rightly acknowledges the social or spiritual dimensions of poverty. So we are always invited to think about the spiritual dimension of poverty, the spiritual dimension of development work, and so forth.

Let’s pause at the spiritual contribution to poverty. Here is a selection from Myers:

While development academics and researchers are increasingly paying more attention to the role of religion in development, the spiritual causes of poverty are often overlooked or undeclared. …. Jayakaran actually names the spiritual as a cause of poverty. This is the reason I have adopted his framework for this section on the causes of poverty.

The ellipsis includes mentions of shamans and witchcraft, charms and protections, and animistic beliefs as contributors to poverty; and factors such as alcohol, drugs, and domestic violence; and “principalities and powers” — a phrase borrowed from the apostle Paul, which is never defined (by Paul or by Myers!). Whether these factors are best considered as spiritual, rather than say sociological, moral, or (as the development gurus have it) “religious” is not really discussed. I am skeptical, but I won’t press that point here. Let’s get on to it:

I deny that there is any spiritual component to poverty.

Here’s my reasoning: let’s suppose that we can find a particular impoverished group of people somewhere and diagnose the causes of their poverty with precision. Let’s suppose further that there is some spiritual component to that poverty. Then let’s compare those people to:

  • Wealthy evangelical Christians in Orange County, California
  • Qatari Muslims — highest per capita GDP in the world
  • Secular residents of the United Kingdom
  • Prosperous Japanese Shinto industrialists
  • Any of the (Hindu) members of the Indian Tata group
  • etc., etc., etc.

If there is a spiritual component to poverty, then I must conclude that our hypothetical sample of poor people are somehow less spiritually successful (if that is the word) than evangelical Christians, Muslims, the secular, adherents of Shintoism, and Hindus. This is to say nothing of the various successful groups of Jews, Jains, Catholics, Orthodox, etc., etc., etc.

I’m just not able to fathom how there would be some spiritual cause to poverty, in spite of all of the worldly success of people of every sort of religion.

Here’s the root of the problem: Myers is drawing on a conception of poverty that has been growing over the last thirty years especially. To understand something as complex as a person’s economic decisions, you need to take a lot about that person into account. To understand why a particular community as a whole is not very successful economically, you need to take a lot about that community into account. So far, so good.

But there is a (*cough*, leftist, *cough*) tendency to recoil from considering people in economic terms, even as a theoretical construct. It feels much better to consider people as members of families, members of communities, as people with distinct cultural values, individual quirks, etc. etc. etc. So when Myers thinks about “the poor” — and that term is never challenged, by the way; somehow referring to an indeterminate group of individuals with a mass noun doesn’t raise red flags with anyone but me — when Myers thinks about “the poor,” he has to think about “poverty” in a way that comprehends the whole of human existence. It can’t simply be about money, after all.

But in point of fact, we’re not talking about the whole of humanity. We’re talking about poor people. No one is interested in starting a development organization in Qatar, where every citizen is guaranteed an income by virtue of the oil under the sands. No one is talking about starting a development organization in America, which has the largest economy in the world but also some of the most seemingly intractable social and cultural issues. We start development organizations in a very particular kind of country: a country with lots of poor people.

The result is that we’re talking a bunch of countries, in their various colonial and post-colonial funks, but far from limiting our discussion to economic matters, we have to critique their cultures, their system of government, and (evidently now) their faith. At the same time, those of us in the West, who have command of such awesome economic resources, must apparently be doing quite well in all those various domains of personhood. No reason to diagnose the ills of the social structures of Qatar and America! They’re evidently doing something right! So we begin by being holistic and end up being culturally imperialistic.

Let me suggest an alternative conception of poverty: the poor are poor because they can’t get better jobs. This conception has the advantage of being (1) the analysis of poverty that every poor person has given whom I have asked, and (2) the analysis of poverty that every right-thinking person will give who has not been specifically trained to think otherwise.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s no further room for nuance. You could ask, for instance: why can’t this particular poor person get a better job? The reason might be: because he isn’t able to offer any services that anyone wants to pay more money for. The reason might be: because there are no opportunities to get employment with the skills that he does have. Any of those might lead to more uncomfortable and personal conclusions. Perhaps the person decided not to invest in education; perhaps the person is simply over his/her head in the modern economy. Perhaps the person lives in a society where trust issues make employing a non-family-member an act of astounding folly, which does limit one’s prospects for finding a better job.

But this conception of poverty does have the advantage of not condemning a person wholesale for being poor. Even in the economic powerhouse of the United States of America, I know people who are not very economically successful. They might be wonderful people otherwise, but for whatever reason, whether as a result of mistakes, or simply not having money matters modeled, they’re not very good with money. Or they are good with money, but they bought a house at the wrong time. Or they’re people who (gasp!) have other priorities in life than becoming wealthy. Some people are just better at creating wealth than others. In all society which I care to be a part of, there is nothing inherently embarrassing about that.

The point of all this is just to say that if we’re talking about poverty, let’s actually talk about money. The only thing that counts toward defining a poor person as poor is the size of his checkbook. We don’t need to blow things out of proportion and look at his family life, his religious practices, the way his community works, and so forth. Those of us who have enough money, got that money (mostly) by having well-paying jobs. It’s no blanket affirmation of the way the rest of our life works.

And to come back to the spiritual, from my perspective, anyone who doesn’t confess Jesus Christ as Lord is spiritually impoverished. I know extremely wealthy Christians and extremely poor Christians. I don’t think that an impoverished Hindu is worse off spiritually than a wealthy Muslim or a wealthy Buddhist. All of them need to hear and respond to the Gospel. Good for them having enough money, but as someone has said, Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions!

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