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!