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.”