* Michelle Thoughts, When Helping Hurts

When Helping Hurts Intro 2: God and Poverty

Before delving further into my new series “When Helping Hurts” about service to the poor, I wanted to offer some background about how the faith perspective fits in. Please add your own thoughts, recommendations, questions, etc. in the comments section. Here goes…

It wasn’t until one of my college classes invited a guest speaker to share about poverty in the Bible, that I first heard about God’s “preferential option for the poor.” I was shocked at how many Bible verses referred to taking care of the poor and the oppressed. How had I never heard of this before? Later as a volunteer intern with Children of the Nations in the Dominican Republic, while we spent our days working in poor communities, our leaders guided us through a book that revolutionized how I see the world. It is called: Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity by Ronald Sider, and I still refer to it often.

Growing up in a church-going home, the words “Good News” were always just a vague catch phrase. However, in my pieced-together education about poverty, these words took on real meaning as I saw the Bible in a completely new way. In the Old Testament, God intervened to liberate the poor from Egypt (Exodus 3:7-8; 6:5-7). He warned and even destroyed kingdoms because the rich were mistreating the poor (Amos 2:7, 5:10-15, 6:1-7; Ezekiel 16:49-50; Micah 2:2; Jeremiah 5:26-29, 7:5-7; Isaiah 1:10-17, 1:21-26, 5:8-10; Hosea 1:8-9). In Old Testament times, “the rights of the poor and disadvantaged to possess the means to earn a decent living [took] precedence over the rights of the more prosperous to make a profit” (Leviticus 25:15-17, 25:35-38; Exodus 23:6-12; Deuteronomy 15:1-18). Over and over, from the beginning of time and throughout Biblical history, God showed his favor for the poor  (Isaiah 58:3-7; Deuteronomy 10:17-18; Psalms 10:14-18, 146:1-9; Proverbs 14:31, 19:17…). I couldn’t believe I had never noticed this theme before. And the above references, which come from the Rich Christians book (chapters 3-5), don’t even touch on all the ones in the New Testament. I learned from Luke 4:18-19, Jesus states his purpose: “to preach good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…” Maybe I used to think that these were just spiritual terms, but I’ve since found that they are literal as well. Jesus- himself from a lower-class family and a refugee- paid particular attention to the poor, the sick, the despised, and the marginalized during his time on Earth. At that time, Jesus coming into the world was quite literally Good News for people in those categories- as it still should be today. What am I getting at with all of this? Simply stated, I discovered that God deeply cares for the poor and the oppressed; and so did His son. His care went beyond occasional charity. It was about Justice.

Image from ifbc.net

If something is important to God, shouldn’t it be important to His followers, too? I’ve found the Christian concept of the Body of Christ to be very important in talking about this: we should be like many different parts of one organism, each with their own role in the here and now to achieve Christ’s work. What is Christ’s work? Things like Restoration, Renewal, and Reconciliation- slowly making things On Earth As It Is In Heaven. “When people look at the church, they should see the One who declared- in word and in deed to the leper, the lame, and the poor- that His kingdom is bringing healing to every speck of the universe.” (When Helping Hurts) One of my favorite examples of people living out Christ’s example and God’s calling comes from the first Christians, as reported by philosopher Aristides in AD 125:

            They despise not the widow, and grieve not the orphan. He that hath, distributeth liberally to him that hath not. If they see a stranger, they bring him under their roof, and rejoice over him, as it were their own brother: for they call themselves brethren, not after the flesh, but after the spirit and in God; but when one of their poor passes away from the world, and any of them see him, then he provides for his burial according to his ability; and if they hear that any of their number is imprisoned or oppressed for the name of their Messiah, all of them provide for his needs, and if it is possible that he may be delivered, they deliver him. And if there is among them a man that is poor and needy, and they have not an abundance of necessaries, they fast two or three days that they may supply the needy with their necessary food.

Two hundred years later, Julian the Apostate- a pagan- admitted “that the godless Galileans [Christians] feed not only their poor but ours also.” That’s sounds to me like a great way to make our world a little more like it should be, like bringing heaven to earth. That is the way I believe we are called to act.

One of my favorite authors, Shane Claiborne, wrote some powerful, life-changing books like Irresistible Revolution and Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers. In an effort to demonstrate our call to serve the poor and oppressed, Claiborne depicts a conversation with God that goes something like this:

Us: “Dear God, our world is hurting and people are suffering. Please do something!”

God: “I did do something. I made you.”

Although convicting and- you might say- intimidating, I really appreciated hearing it put this way. We have a responsibility to our neighbors; and if we don’t act, who will? God is still the Mastermind with the Plan, but He relies on us to do the work on the ground. In this way, the burden of “saving the world” is off our shoulders and we have only to do the part that He has put in front of us. Although I feel I’ve only touched the surface of this subject, I’ll end with this poem/prayer on the subject from Archbishop Oscar Romero:

It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision. 

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us. 

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything. 

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities. 

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest. 

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Other “When Helping Hurts” series posts:  Intro: Caring, Intro: God and Poverty, Context Is CriticalHung Up On MaterialWhat To Do When, How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 1)How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 2)

* Michelle Thoughts, When Helping Hurts

When Helping Hurts Intro: Caring

As I (Michelle) mentioned in my last post, I’m starting a blog series related to what I’ve been learning lately. A central part of my study has been the book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself, by Corbett and Fikkert, and their online resources at the Chalmers Center. The concepts and quotes in my next posts will primarily come from these sources.

When I was about eleven years old or perhaps younger, I stumbled upon the notion of privilege. I say stumbled because the thoughts that I pieced together at the time seemed to be coming from somewhere other than my own, simple childhood brain- though it was less like stumbling and more like I was deliberately being led down a particular path of thought. Sitting in my room, surrounded by toys, a dresser full of clothes, a house full of nice things, and a beautiful view out my second story window, I realized that all these things had been given to me without even having to ask. Soon, the image of an African girl came to my mind. She was my age and she didn’t have any of the things in my room. She had experienced a childhood altogether different than my own, where safety, health, and basic necessities were never certain because she was born into a different house on another land. I wondered what she thought of me, if she was angry with me. It wasn’t fair, I decided. But other than feel guilty and try to be more grateful, I didn’t know what to do about it.

In high school and college, my understanding of the injustices around the world grew as I learned about historical and current events. I can still remember watching a video about Ghana during a youth group “30 Hour Famine” when I learned that children were forced to kill their own families with axes. Horrific. The sickening image was a wake up call as to the enormity of ugliness, brokenness, and evil in the world. I was so thankful everyone had their eyes closed in prayer as my face had become a mess of hot tears and snot- it was one of the first times I felt so deeply that our world is not as it should be.

The introduction of the book, When Helping Hurts, says:

North American Christians are simply not doing enough. We are the richest people ever to walk the face of the earth. Period. Yet, most of us live as though there is nothing terribly wrong in the world. … We do not necessarily need to feel guilty about our wealth. But we do need to get up every morning with a deep sense that something is terribly wrong with the world and yearn and strive to do something about it. There is simply not enough yearning and striving going on.

I don’t consider myself to be an emotional person but from time to time, I have had experiences similar to the “30 Hour Famine” where I’ve been deeply moved to mourn for what is wrong in our world. Recently I had a break-down after watching Defiance (Jewish brothers in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe escape into the Belarussian forests in order to protect themselves and about 1,000 other Jews) because it reminded me how inherently messed up and distorted the human condition is, and how desperately we need God. I recall my own shortcomings- how I want to be a better person yet I keep criticizing my husband, I don’t express love and appreciation enough in my relationships, I defend myself instead of taking correction, I take the self-serving path much too often… On a personal level, we all fall short no matter how we try. Our relationships with others are broken as well, evidenced by everything from divorce rates to road rage. Our neighborhoods and cities suffer from crime, inadequate education systems, isolation of the elderly… Our nations are plagued by income inequality, political slander, irresponsible corporations, apathy, war… The lists go on and on. I don’t mean to sound so pessimistic, but I think it’s important to realize the depth of our problems- that we are in over our heads and we can’t get ourselves out. Why? Because then we realize how we desperately need God. He is quite literally our only hope.

I know we are not meant to be in a state of mourning all the time- that would be depressing and, in turn, debilitating. But I think it is far healthier to let the weight of the world hit you profoundly from time to time than to feign ignorance and live as if nothing is wrong. This means allowing yourself to see the ugliness in the world, paying attention to current events and being aware of historical injustices. Look people on the streets in the eye, literally and metaphorically, acknowledging their existence, acknowledging that all is not right. Don’t let yourself become desensitized. When I accompanied a group of college students to Arizona (see video blog here), they asked an immigration lawyer working in Operation Streamline how she copes when her clients are continuously treated so unjustly. Her response was that she doesn’t cope and doesn’t want to. She cries- in court- because she refuses to be desensitized or to go on as if nothing was wrong.

Caring about people and the situations they’re in is the first step. The next step, taking action, goes hand in hand. And when we do take action, we must also desire to act in a way that is not only effective but also avoids any harm.

That leads me to our topic for the series which is to follow. I want to address one more thing before I really get into the concepts of serving others without harming them (or yourself). As you can already tell, I’m coming at this from a faith-based perspective, as does the book “When Helping Hurts.” Faith doesn’t just fit into the picture, it is central to it. More on that next.

Other “When Helping Hurts” series posts:  Intro: God and PovertyContext Is CriticalHung Up On MaterialWhat To Do When, How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 1)How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 2)