Tag Archives: poverty

Perhaps A Little Hardship Wouldn’t Be A Bad Thing.

This one may get a little long, and I’m going to try not to let it get complicated, but here it goes.

Growing up in the American church, being saved was always about what happens to you when you die. When we read about the kingdom of Heaven in the Bible it was always about pearly gates and meeting God. Furthermore, when we’re doing a class on poverty alleviation and we ask, why did Jesus come to Earth, the answer we inevitably get is the one I would have given growing up. “Jesus came to save me from my sins so that I can go to Heaven.” It’s an incredibly self-centered, egotistical view. This view made it very hard to understand a lot of what the scriptures were trying to tell me. As I’ve been learning, you have to know what you don’t understand before you can begin to understand.

The story of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus with questions is one of those stories. It goes as follows.

Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ ”

And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”

So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.
And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?”

But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”

We learn a number of things from the rich young ruler in this passage. First of all, he’s rich, but he’s also young, which likely means he didn’t earn his wealth, and he grew up rich. We also know that he doesn’t know enough to ask the right question, also because of his wealth and upbringing.

So why did Jesus come? We find that elsewhere in the scriptures. In Luke 4, Jesus begins his ministry.

So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

This is vastly different from what I was taught. Yes, the Kingdom of Heaven is a place we will see in the future, but it is also now. You see, a kingdom is a place where the authority of the king rules, and as long as we walk in the authority of the king, the Kingdom of Heaven is now and it resides wherever we are. So when the rich young ruler asks “how can I obtain eternal life?” he is doing what we so often do and asking “how can I obtain the benefits of salvation later without doing what’s required of me to bring about God’s Kingdom now?

But what does being rich have to do with any of this? The obvious answer I was always given was that his riches were more important to him than following God. And yes, that’s true, but it’s a simplistic and simple answer, and it misses so much. And once again, it comes from the perspective that Heaven is a place we go to and not a Kingdom that is here and now.

For the rest of the answer, let’s go back to why Jesus said he came. “Preach to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, free the captives, sight to the blind, set at liberty those who are oppressed.” The rich, (and let’s face it, if we’re Americans there’s a very good chance we’re rich by historical or global standards). As I was saying, the rich know nothing or very little of being poor, or brokenhearted or captive or blind or oppressed. Here’s the problem, the rich THINK they understand these things, but all of these concepts are only known second or third hand. I see this in Facebook posts and hear it in conversations all the time. Listening to white Americans discuss poverty and oppression is like listening to a couple of lifelong vegans discuss what would make beef wellington taste better. They might think they know, but they just don’t.

Covid has been hard on many people in many ways. But as Christians, especially Christians in the richest nation on earth, we have been given an opportunity to partake in some of the poverty and suffering that our brothers and sisters overseas see on a daily basis, and in so doing begin to understand what we do not. Yes, you read that right. I said opportunity. If we are truly to be effective in the gospel, we must be imitators of Christ. As it says in Philippians 2

“Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”

If Jesus had to make himself of no reputation and make himself a servant, how much more us? How much better can we be a servant if we truly understand the struggles and the needs of those we are to serve?

As I’ve written in a previous blog, the only thing worse than going through a trial is going through a trial from which I learn nothing. Covid has been a wake up call for the church. I just pray we don’t hit the snooze, roll over, and go back to sleep. Let’s use this opportunity to be more like we were created to be.

The Difference Between Liberation And Eviction.

The past week or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about the harder aspects of some of the things I’ve seen over the past several years. I’ve been thinking about things like poverty and setting the captives free. I’ve been particularly thinking about why some people and some cultures have been successful at dealing with theses things and why some have gone down tragic roads, when from the outside it looked like many of them had similar origins.

These are particularly hard subjects to understand for the western mind, because we live in a culture where we get most of our information about poverty and oppression from movies and a media that sees these subjects as sufficiently distant from personal experience to understand them in the kind of visceral way that people in South Sudan or the Congo would.

We believe in a number of things that, though possibly politically correct, when tested turn out to be factually false. We believe things like; poverty is mostly a problem of lack of resources, or that all oppressed people are naturally angelic, or that if people could just have oppression removed they would thrive. We believe these things because they are the subject of so many feel good stories. I would like to believe them to, but my experiences in parts of Africa have taught me that even though these things can happen, life is usually far more complicated and usually much messier than this.

My time in South Sudan was a huge eye opener for me. The South Sudanese were oppressed horribly by the Northern Sudanese for decades, in ways that for brevity I’m not going to get into. I first went to South Sudan in 2010, right before they achieved independence from the North. I saw the hope and the excitement on people’s faces as they prepared for the vote that would free them from their oppressors. Surely this was the Hollywood story everyone wanted and expected to see. Not quite.

Over the next three years, I went back three more times, and got to personally see the situation devolve into chaos. The South Sudanese went from fighting against the Northern oppressors to fighting against each other. If you’d like to read more about that, you can go back into some of my blog posts from 2013 and 2014 particularly. So what happened?

To say I can explain all of the aspects of this in a single blog post would be naive and foolish, because it’s an incredibly complex subject, and entire books could be written about it. So I’m going to focus on just a small part.

I want to start by drawing some parallels between the situation in South Sudan and the written account we have of another oppressed culture that was freed from its captors around 3400 years ago. I’m speaking of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt as written in the book of Exodus. There are many things written that can give us insight into the kind of things that happen when an enslaved culture is freed, particularly if you know what you’re looking for. The great thing about Exodus is that is quite comprehensive, and conveys a complete timeline.

One of the things that many Westerners don’t have a grasp of is the mental, emotional, cultural, and spiritual damage that is caused by institutionalized oppression, particularly slavery. This can manifest in people as hopelessness, a feeling of powerlessness, depression, and sometimes even paranoia. The end result is that when an opportunity comes for people to be free, they often don’t take it. Oppressed people often choose the miserable security of keeping your head down and staying alive than taking a chance at freedom. This is evident in Exodus 6:9. Moses is interceding on behalf of his people, and he goes to give them instruction. Their response is in Exodus 6:9. “So Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel; but they did not heed Moses, because of anguish of spirit and cruel bondage.”

Later on there are a series of events that happen that as I read them, made me initially think about these parallels. The Israelites have been set free and are crossing the desert when it dawns on the Egyptians that they’ve lost their free labor. The Egyptians send out their army to retake the Israelites. As the cloud of dust rises on the horizon from the Egyptian army, there is a record of what the Israelites say, and it is surprisingly fatalistic and even has a hint of longing for the land in which they were enslaved.

Exodus 14:11 Then they said to Moses, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt?

Exodus 14:12 Is this not the word that we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness.”

And in another situation, later on, Exodus 16:3, And the children of Israel said to them, “Oh, that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Their response is puzzling until you realize one thing, and this is the key. Moses interceded on the Israelites behalf because it was God’s will that they should be freed. For many of the Israelites, they were content with the security of the situation, miserable as it was. After God sent the plagues, the Israelites became a stench in the nostrils of Pharaoh, and there was no longer a choice to stay. This is why it’s so important when we’re working with oppressed people to allow them ways to empower themselves. Many of the Israelites were not so much liberated as evicted from Egypt, and it’s when we realize this that their responses suddenly make sense. The Israelites continue to act like slaves even though they are physically free people for the next forty years. Moses was able to take the Israelites out of slavery, but he was unable to remove the slave from the Israelites. In fact, it is not until the next generation grew up, a generation that never knew what it was like to be a slave, that they are able to enter the promised land, because you can not build a nation with people that are still slaves in their heart.

This is what I found in South Sudan. A nation that knew nothing but oppression and slavery and warfare, and doing what each person needs to do to survive on a daily basis, has walked into freedom with the same attitude. Whereas the common enemy used to be the North, now the common enemy is every man’s neighbor. No one has a plan for the future, because people are still living to survive the current moment. I understand that it is hard to change an entire way of thinking and living, but I hope and pray that the South Sudanese don’t have to wander in the desert for forty years until a generation is raised up that know how to live in freedom.

Fear, greed, guilt, and love.

Well, it’s official. I’ve been called back to Ethiopia. I’ll be there in April this year. This will be my third trip to Africa in eight months, which for me is a lot. So why do I do it? This is the question I was thinking about this morning. For me there are a number of reasons; to see the love of Christ come to people, to see captive people set free, to see people lifted out of poverty, to see the sick healed. Then there are other, less noble reasons; the desire to travel, the desire for adventure, the desire to meet new people and see and take photos of new things.  These and many other reasons are why I go. So I could go any number of directions with this, but the subject I want to talk about today is poverty alleviation, because the desire to alleviate poverty for most people is not a desire in itself, but is driven by other factors.

What are the basic human motivations?  I believe they can be broken down into four basic categories. Human decisions are based on fear, greed, guilt, or love. You might balk at this idea, but I believe if you look around and put this idea to the test, it will play out.

In the United States, politically speaking, there are basically two attitudes toward the poor.  (I know I’m generalizing, so you’ll need to forgive me for that.) The first is that if you increase the number of jobs, the poor will naturally be lifted out of poverty as less people are out of work. It’s a completely supply-side equation for poverty alleviation. The other side says that if you just give the poor enough financial assistance, they’ll be better off. This is a completely demand-side equation.

Let’s go back to the four human motivations. Do you think either of these methods of poverty alleviation are done out of love for the poor?  I would argue absolutely not. Why?  Both of these methods are by design completely arms-length transactions. They both exclude getting your fingernails dirty and actually engaging with the poor or looking them in the face. I believe the first view is based on greed, and the second on guilt. Greed because there is a desire to get rich, and if crumbs fall to the poor, that’s great, too. It fails to recognize that there are other reasons people are poor besides a lack of jobs. The second group feels guilt over their own success, so throwing money at the poor without actually dealing with the underlying causes helps them feel better. This side fails to realize that when you give a poor person everything without making them work for it, you break their spirit. Both views think of poverty as a purely economic phenomenon, but fail to address the mental, spiritual, and social aspects of poverty. Neither side actually wants to look a poor person in the eye. The attitudes these two groups have toward each other drive me nuts. Guess what? You’re both wrong, so put the condescension aside.

There’s a quote from the book, “When Helping Hurts” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert . I’ve quoted it before, but I believe it’s worth quoting again.  “The god-complexes of the materially non-poor are also direct  extension of the modern worldview. In a universe without God, the heroes are those who are the best able to use their reason to master the material world. In other words, the materially non-poor are the victors in the modern worldview, the gods who have mastered the universe and who can use their superior intelligence and the material possessions they have produced to save mere mortals, namely the materially poor.”

The only true way to alleviate poverty is to actually love the poor. It says in the book of Isaiah, chapter 1, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing of the finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”

So this morning I had to ask myself again, “What is my motivation?” If it is out of greed or fear or guilt, I have no right to go back to Ethiopia.

Lack of money is not the only reason for poverty.
Lack of money is not the only reason for poverty.

Rocks In The Road Is Not A Business Plan

Last time I was in Kenya, I was in a car with my wife and two of the Kenyans who are our good friends. As we neared the edge of Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, our car was stopped by two men who had placed a large rock in the road. Their “business” if you will, was to put a rock in the road and demand money from people as they drove by before they would remove it. What they got instead was a stern talking to from Jimmy, who had given up a fairly comfortable life to live in the slum.

I have to admit, I’m quite angry right now. One of our friends from the United States is currently helping Jimmy in Kibera. There is a small library there, and it’s not much to look at, but it gives kids who would normally be abandoned during the day a place to go. Outside the library is a festering cesspool of human waste that runs between the library and the next building. Yesterday Jimmy, our American friend, and a group of willing people built a platform over that gully, not just to cover the filth, but to create a small area for kids to sell goods so they can support themselves. On the first day, the children took in about $30, which is quite an accomplishment considering most people live here on $2 a day. It gave the kids a way to learn initiative and self-respect, and keep them from selling drugs.

Over night, some people came and destroyed the bridge they had built, for no other reason than misery loves company. This is the incredible difficulty in poverty alleviation. I’ve seen this happen in Kenya. I’ve seen this happen in South Sudan. I’ve seen this happen on the Indian Reservations in the United States. The attitude is, “I’m Ok with misery and lack as long as you have misery and lack, too.”  Confucius said, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”  The same can be said for envy. You can’t sabotage someone else’s work and expect that the same is not going to happen to you. That in a nutshell is why Kibera still exists.  The unfortunate and politically incorrect truth is that no rich man is needed to hold down the poor. Given the opportunity, the poor man will do it himself. This is why it is impossible to separate the spiritual from poverty alleviation. Poverty is rarely just a lack of resources. It may start as a lack of resources, but quickly turns into poverty of spirit. That’s why it is so hard to lift a community from poverty once they’re there. This is the fundamental flaw in western understanding of poverty.

A couple months ago, I was watching the news. Some member of a European royal family (which one I don’t remember) was in Africa with a large entourage and a film crew and reporters. This royal was touring a village and looking around at the poverty. He was interviewed by one of the reporters, and asked what he thought should be done. The royal responded, “They just need resources. They’re not getting the resources they need.” All I could do was sit and shake my head. It wasn’t the resources that were the problem, it was the poverty of spirit that keeps people poor even when the resources are there. You can give a man in the slums fifty dollars, and for some rare individuals he’ll take it and start a business.  But more likely than that is that he’ll take it and get drunk, then come home and beat his wife. This is the harsh reality of the slum. That’s why Kibera has been there for over 100 years. This member of the royal family’s heart was in the right place, but the understanding is not there. He’ll go back to Downton Abbey, and probably raise a bunch of money that will be sent back to this community. In ten years, there will be no sign that he was ever there.

What the slums need is people who are committed for the long haul. People who realize that change comes slowly, one person at a time, through personal sacrifice. What the slums need is leadership from within, not the white man to come from outside and fix all the black man’s problems. The slums need partners who will identify and empower the people and the human resources that already exist there. The slums need Godly men and women who are willing to sacrifice personally so that others won’t have to, and to be examples to people who wish ill to anyone who wants the slum to become a better place. This is all a lot harder than throwing money at the slum. I wish I could convey this concept to anyone who hasn’t been to Africa, but unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. After my first trip to Africa, I knew in my knower that you could throw all of the worlds financial resources at Africa, and if that’s all that was done it would bankrupt the whole world.  If you’ve ever thought about traveling and seeing the world, I want to encourage you in the strongest possible way, to go and see the developing world. Go the the slums. Go see what most of the world lives like. It will give you an understanding of the world, and an understanding of yourself that you didn’t even know you lacked.

For now, all I can do is pray for our friends in Kibera that they will have the fortitude to start over. I will also pray for those that put rocks in the road and destroy other people’s work, that God will break through to them and show them that all they’ve done is hurt their own communities and themselves. I’ll pray for those that think that tearing someone else down somehow lifts them up.  But tonight I’m just sad and angry.

A view of the sewage ditch from the library in Kibera.
A view of the sewage ditch from the library in Kibera.

I’m Rich, I’m Humble, I’m Better Than You.

Why are rich people rich? Why are poor people poor? How do we alleviate poverty? Why do we alleviate poverty? You ask the questions and you’re going to get different answers depending on whom you ask.

Western thinking tends to either completely deny the spiritual aspect of our lives, or separates the spiritual parts (worship, going to church, evangelism) from the secular parts of our lives (work, business, politics).  Western secularism removes the need for God in our society altogether, and consequently fails to understand how the spiritual is instrumental in poverty alleviation. Furthermore, it forms in our minds a condescending attitude toward the poor, as explained in the book, “When Helping Hurts”, by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett. Here is a quote from the book.

“The god-complexes of the materially non-poor are also a direct extension of the modern worldview. In a universe without God, the heroes are those who are best able to use their reason to master the material world. In other words, the materially non-poor are the victors in the modern worldview, the gods who have mastered the universe and who can use their superior intelligence and the material possessions they have produced to save mere mortals, namely the materially poor.”

A woman next to open sewage in Kibera, Kenya
A woman next to open sewage in Kibera, Kenya

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How often have we heard phrases like, “we’re saving the world,” or “we can save Africa”?  The fact is , you could throw money at Africa all day and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference if you go into it with the above attitude. Poverty is alleviated slowly and tediously through love for the materially poor as you work with them in relationship with both them and with God. We help the poor because we love them, not because we’re better than them. And we love them even though they’ve never done anything for us, because Christ set the example by loving us before we ever loved Him. We learn from the poor, as we work with them in relationship, that all the problems in life are not simply a matter of “you need to do something about your situation.” Poverty has as much if not more to do with the spiritual and the psychological as it does with the material. We see that people are materially poor while failing to recognize our own poverty in other ways; broken relationships with family, mixed up priorities, keeping up with the Joneses. These are the things that cause divorce, broken families, heart disease, mental illness, all the ways that we are poor in the United States.  We lose so much of the equation if we try to help the materially poor without being tempered by the humility that comes with recognizing our own poverty. And to this end, poverty alleviation is about working together to alleviate our respective poverties with the realization that we are all fallen creatures in need of forgiveness. To fail to recognize this means that we help the poor out of guilt for our own material success rather than love for the materially poor. To this end, many of us just feel the need to “do something”, whether it does any good or not, because helping the poor is about removing our sense of guilt rather than seeing the poor actually thrive. This is probably subconscious for many people, but I hope that by simply writing it, many will recognize this fact. Helping the poor MUST be done out of love for the poor and love for God, or it will at best be temporary.

Below is a link that humorously portrays some of these western attitudes. Till next time…

Kibera

My wife is asleep as I write this, the victim of an exhausting day compounded by jetlag. We spent our first day in Kenya in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi and the third largest in Africa I believe. I was here four years ago, and to be quite honest, I was not looking forward to coming back. Four years ago, we did little more than tour through it. If you see Kibera that way, you will get a sense of little more than hopelessness, poverty, and gut-wrenching filth. Many people who live in Nairobi have never been to Kibera, preferring to act like it does not exist. This is where the poorest of the poor live, because you can rent a ten by ten foot shack for about ten dollars a month.
But today I saw new things. Walking through the winding maze of alleys between cardboard and plywood sided shacks, we came to a place where a pastor watches people’s children so that the parents can go to work during the day and not wonder what is happening to their children in a place where physical and sexual abuse are common. He teaches them songs, and engages their minds through teaching that these children would not normally be getting. He sets them on a path to learning from infants up to about age six because without that start, they’re finding that the children from Kibera who do go to school are already behind by the start of kindergarten, having missed out on the basic skills other children learn from their parents by age three. He is cutting off the developmental disability, victim mentality, lack of reasoning skills, and feeling of hopelessness that pervades this place.
As my friend Jimmy pointed out, people believe there is nothing they can do for so long, that the mentality becomes the thing holding them back even when there is a way. It’s like the donkey who stands where he is because he’s tied to a plastic chair. Today I saw hope where I saw none before, and came out with a much greater understanding of where poverty comes from. Today I had little to teach and very much to learn. There was much more to this day, but too much for one post. I will have to ponder a lot of it as well before coming to conclusions worth writing down.
On one last note, to prove that truth is stranger than fiction, today I shot a music video in Kibera for a local rap artist who grew up in the slum.

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