Category: Effective Compassion

New from Acton Media, this video short titled “How Not to Help the Poor” discusses the root causes of poverty and how even the best of intentions can go wrong in dealing with and trying to help those in need.

Writing a commentary for the United Methodist News Service, J. Richard Peck encourages readers to heed John Wesley’s advice on economic policy. “In short, Wesley called for higher taxes upon the wealthy and laws that would prohibit the wasting of natural products,” says Peck. He notes that the cure for economic troubles relating to the poor was to repress luxury.

While some of Wesley’s economc advice is certainly sound, especially his views on the danger of debt, his understanding of basic economic principles in a free economy is severely limited. Kenneth J. Collins, a premier scholar and admirer of Wesley in fact notes as much in his book The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace just how far Wesley actually misses the mark. Collins declares:

Arguing ostensibly from a larger theme of proper stewardship, Wesley posited a “zero sum” world in which the maxim, “if the poor have too little it must because the rich have too much,” by and large ruled the day. As such, not only did he fail to recognize how capitalism actually works in a growing economy, even in a mercantilist one, but also his concern for stewardship, of what he called robbing the poor,” often developed upon such petty matters as the size and shape of women’s bonnets (and he forgets that poor workers often made these accessories) or upon his favorite moral foibles of censure, the consumption of alcohol.

The Theology of John Wesley will be reviewed in the upcoming issue of Religion & Liberty.

Curiously, Peck also highlights Wesley’s advice for less reliance upon pharmaceuticals. However Peck does not add that Wesley was at war with some healers or physicians in his own time who were taking advantage of the poor with faulty and expensive cures. Wesley published Primitive Physic, or an Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases in 1747. He generously distributed copies for free for the poor to fight back against those taking advantage of them. In Wesley’s account there are certainly improvements in medical suggestions, and his tips on healthy living are fairly standard even today. Wesley did not pull these cures and suggestions from thin air, much of his tips came from doctors he trusted. Still there were suggestions like rubbing your head with raw onions for curing baldness and holding a live puppy on the abdomen as a recommendation for intestinal obstruction. The point is that we would not take medical advice from Wesley over more advanced modern medicine, nor should we take economic advice from somebody with little economic understanding. It’s important to note that Wesley’s passionate assistance to the poor is certainly an effort to emulate.

The best advice Methodists can take from Wesley is to be rooted in the Good News he so passionately preached and spread across the globe. When United Methodism as a whole fully recaptures Wesley’s chief suggestion to his followers which was to “preach Jesus Christ and him crucified,” his followers will then again be aligned with the ancient truths.

USA Today has an excellent assessment of the impact of faith-based charities in an October 7 piece titled “Faith-based groups man the front lines.” The gist of the article points out the obvious to those who are still recovering from devastating hurricanes, and that’s that religious charities understand and are committed to the long term need of hurricane victims.

As a Katrina evacuee myself, I have witnessed the commitment and work of Christian churches and charities perform life changing assistance to victims on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. They are able to bypass bureaucracy, adding the all important human touch in not only helping rebuild totaled homes, but improve the foundation of one’s life. One of the clear contrasts of faith-based charities verse federal assistance is that it’s simply a lot less discriminating in who they can help. Additionally, they are much better equipped to make decisions on the ground or at the scene by meeting specific needs of those needing help. Instead of only saying “we can do this for you”, they can discern and meet the immediate need.

My father directed the relief efforts at his evangelical church in Pass Christian, Miss. At the church in Pass Christian they had an army of Mennonite, Amish, and evangelical volunteers from the Lancaster County area of Pennsylvania. My dad estimated their labor time consisted of a conservative estimate of $1.3 million, and they donated just over a $1 million in equipment and supplies. This is all from one community in Pennsylvania which was based out of one fairly small church on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Business leaders pitched in as well, as the employer of a construction company in that Pennsylvania community paid his workers through the relief effort.

There are thousands and thousands of inspirational stories from faith groups committed to hurricane relief efforts and this article captures just a couple of them. When you have churches and people driven and influenced by the Lord, there is literally no limit to their service and what they can accomplish. The USA Today article notes:

Shortly after the storm, [Julius] Moll was filling gas in his truck in a nearby town when a neighbor told him about Catholic Charities. The next day, Moll met with Catholic Charities officials who had set up a command post at Jean Lafitte’s Town Hall. They told him they would gut his mother’s house for free. Moll lowered his head and cried.

‘I was overwhelmed,” he says. “It’s unbelievable how people can come in and help you.’

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, October 1, 2008

“The struggle for justice always stands or falls on the battlefield of hope.” This is but one of a passel of pithy expressions found throughout Gary Haugen’s new book, Just Courage. Haugen is the president of International Justice Mission, a Washington D.C.-based organization doing outstanding work throughout the world, freeing people bonded in illegal labor arrangements, including forced prostitution.

Haugen’s is a practical rather than a theoretical treatise. He admits that a commonly agreed-to definition of justice remains elusive, but he can point to the way God and God’s people act justly in the scriptures, and that gives us enough direction. The book is a sometimes moving account of and reflection on Haugen’s experiences assisting some of the most powerless people on our planet.

He argues stridently against Christian apathy, insisting that it is possible for us to achieve progress even against some of the most severe of the world’s problems. This is why hope is pivotal. Those who are merely dismayed in the face of evil will not make the effort to fight it.

At the same time, Haugen is realistic, as anyone who encounters human slavery on a regular basis is bound to be. He understands the distinction between naivete and utopianism on one hand, and genuine Christian hope on the other.

This realism, at an even deeper level, links justice and hope. I suspect that Haugen would agree with another writer on these themes, Pope Benedict XVI:

I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favour of faith in eternal life. The purely individual need for a fulfilment that is denied to us in this life, for an everlasting love that we await, is certainly an important motive for believing that man was made for eternity; but only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ’s return and for new life become fully convincing. (Spe Salvi, n. 43)

With this invocation of the pope, it might be appropriate to note that Just Courage seems intended primarily for non-Catholic Christians. Its modes of expression and descriptions of Christian life manifest an evangelical sensibility. Exhortations to think about the message of the gospel as social rather than merely individual will appear redundant to adherents of historical churches with long traditions of social instititution sponsorship.

Yet all Christians need to hear this message reiterated. Catholics and others, however much they recognize a vague obligation to social justice, will benefit from Haugen’s particular insistence that every one of us risk our personal comfort at the behest of “rescuing” someone in need. Haugen comes perhaps too near at times to underappreciating the ways in which most Christians will live the call to justice: handling the day-to-day tasks of family life; toiling away at a trade or business; volunteering at local soup kitchens or crisis pregnancy centers. Still, Haugen’s vision of more spectacular achievements in the cause of justice—such as liberating girls from the shackles of the sex trade—is invigorating and necessary.

IJM and its allies are the abolitionists of our age and they deserve our support and admiration. Some who read the book will be called to such work. Those who are not must find ways to be courageously just in our own lives.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, September 5, 2008

The ninth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The ninth and final leg of the journey took the bikers from St. Catharines, Ontario, to Jersey City, a total distance of 430 miles. By the end of tour, the riders had covered 3881 miles.

The “Shifting Gears” devotional contained a key biblical point in the day 57 entry. Reflecting on the separation from family members over the 9 weeks of the tour, hope was expressed that such an experience might “make us more aware of those who are constantly torn from their loved ones and remind us that the water of baptism is thicker than family blood.” As I concluded in a 2005 post, “The water of Christian baptism is thicker than the blood of natural flesh. ‘Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.'” The reality of baptism sets upon a path of service to our neighbors. This is a good point of departure for discussing questions of poverty and prosperity.

A good deal of the devotional focuses on the particularities of the experience of riding a bike. This is fitting because the text was designed for use by the riders of the poverty tour. But a few weeks ago I discussed another kind of bike rider, Pastor Bike of China, who was imprisoned because of his bicycle-based evangelism.

The good news coming out of China this week is that Pastor Bike has been released. Praise God.

My concern in following the CRC Sea to Sea bike tour over the last months has focused on the relation of material poverty to spiritual poverty. This remains an open question for me regarding the social justice advocacy of the denomination. There is a real danger that the social justice focus of the Christian Reformed Church will lapse into a post-milllenialist form of the Social Gospel.

The texts and materials of the tour itself were a bit uneven on this. In the end I think the focus is rightly aimed at divine reality. But the prudential judgments about how material poverty relates to spiritual concerns remains under-developed. When Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you,” he was effectively saying that until he comes again we will always have to deal with the realities of sin and imperfection.

But he gave us guidance as to how to live in the midst of this sinful reality: “You can help them any time you want.” The one lesson we should take from this tour is that there is a real and pervasive Christian responsibility to give to the relief of the poor in a way that addresses both material and spiritual realities. Give thoughtfully and prayerfully. But be sure to give. For a moving testimony on this, see “Auntie Anne’s Pretzels founder cites personal faith, Bible verses as reasons to give.”

Blog author: jballor
Monday, August 25, 2008

The eighth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The eighth and penultimate leg of the journey took the bikers from Grand Rapids to St. Catharines, Ontario, a total distance of 410 miles. By the end of this leg the entire tour will have covered 3,451 miles.

The CRC is a bi-national church, and while the denominational headquarters are located in Grand Rapids, a significant portion of the church’s membership is Canadian. This is something that I’ve always appreciated and is somewhat rare among Protestant denominations that tend to break down along national lines. Even though there is a great deal of cultural affinity between these North American countries, I think the bi-nationality of the CRC adds an element of internationalism that can help offset the natural tendency to identify the church’s interest with a particular national or domestic setting. The gospel is not confined to the US or to North America.

Unfortunately, the day 52 devotion in the “Shifting Gears” devotional falls flat in offering an “internationalist” perspective. It asks, rhetorically I presume, “Why are billions budgeted for defense and border protection, when we can’t come up with the money to supply mosquito nets for Africa? Why do some governments use their national borders as a wall to hide the injustice and persecution occurring within? Why is it so easy for the powerful to cross borders, but not the poor?” There’s no denying there is great injustice on the international scene related to the strictures of immigration and barriers to trade.

But the first question in this series illustrates a presumption that it is the government’s duty to provide mosquito nets for Africa at the expense of national defense. This, quite simply, is a confusion that is endemic to the perspective of progressive Christianity…that the government, and not the church or other institutions of civil society, is primarily responsible for addressing the problem of poverty.

In the words of Jim Wallis, “I often point out that the church can’t rebuild levees and provide health insurance for 47 million people who don’t have it.” Wallis is fond of talking about the perceived limits of private and church action. But what are the limits of government action? And why can’t the church do much more beyond mere political advocacy? Ron Sider thinks it can, and I agree. It says a lot about you if you are more willing to put your trust in a secular government than in the church of Christ.

Awhile back I considered the amount of money churches spend on building projects in North America. I discussed a a modest proposal: churches should consider tithing the amount they spend on “themselves” and give a portion of the building fund away to other Christian causes.

These kinds of efforts are catching on. Just this weekend I read a piece about a local church which committed 10% of its $1.1 million building fund to other charity work. I wrote more about this in a 2006 commentary, “The North American Church and Global Stewardship.”

One of the entries in the devotional for this week does the best job I’ve seen so far linking and properly coordinating the physical and spiritual concerns of the gospel. Taking its point of departure in the imagery of physical and spiritual imprisonment, the day 51 devotion concludes, “Enjoy the physical freedom of cycling today, and pray for a deeper, richer understanding of God’s mercy–mercy he shows to all who acknowledge their imprisonment in disobedience and who seek freedom in Christ alone.”

Blog author: jballor
Monday, August 18, 2008

The seventh week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The seventh leg of the journey took the bikers from Madison to Grand Rapids, a total distance of 378 miles. By the end of this leg the entire tour will have covered 3,041 miles.

This week of the tour ended in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and one of the major rallies along the tour was held here yesterday. Check out the Sea to Sea webpage for more coverage of that event. Update: Here’s a link to a piece in today’s Grand Rapids Press, “Bike riders know poverty can be a vicious cycle.”

The “Shifting Gears” devotional for this week keeps the focus on the problem of poverty. Day 43’s devotion reads in part, “This is a major goal of our trip: to raise awareness of God’s presence in many places–in the beauty of the earth and the church, yes, but also among the poor.”

Grand Rapids is home to the denominational headquarters of the CRC as well as main offices of the Acton Institute. But also in Michigan are a host of non-profits and charities that deserve your attention. These include Samaritan Award honorees like Marquette’s Earth Keeper Project of The Cedar Tree Institute (2007 honoree) and Grand Rapids’ own Baxter Wholistic Health Clinic of the Baxter Community Center (2004 honoree).

Indeed, one of the 2008 finalists for the annual Samaritan Award is located in Grand Rapids, Guardian Angels Homes of Faith in Action. All of this year’s ten finalists, including Faith in Action, are profiled in the current issue of WORLD magazine.

As Acton senior fellow and WORLD editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky writes, “All 10 of these faith-based finalists spend money garnered by voluntary contributions, not Washington lobbying: They are compassionate conservatives in the original sense of the term. All 10 emphasize real change in lives, not the passing out of spare change: As it turns out, eight of the finalists this year are rescue missions or rehab centers of various kinds; the other two are a program for developmentally disabled adults and another for women fleeing prostitution and strip clubs.”

Be sure to check out all of the WORLD articles and profiles for more information about the finalists, runners-up, and winner of this year’s Samaritan Award.