Posts tagged with: poverty




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.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, September 29, 2008

Last week an email newsletter from Sojourners featured a quote from U2 rock star and activist Bono (courtesy the American Prospect blog):

It’s extraordinary to me that the United States can find $700 billion to save Wall Street and the entire G8 can’t find $25 billion dollars to saved 25,000 children who die every day from preventable diseases.

The quote is pretty striking given the current shape of the debate over the Wall Street bailout. Bono’s insight is instructive: Once the government takes upon itself tasks that fall outside its regular purview, how do we rightly adjudicate between all the different needy causes? It simply becomes a game of which special interest can hire the most lobbyists.

Indeed, the $25 billion that Bono points out would be necessary to save 25,000 children a day is the same amount that the US government just paid to bailout the domestic auto industry over the weekend.

If the feds are willing to dole out $600-700 billion in corporate welfare for Wall Street, it only seems right that poor families and individuals get their own relative share of government redistribution.

The size of the government bailout relative to the critical debate about the execution of these policies is positively shameful compared to the fiscal cost of the war in Iraq (roughly $560 billion on the upper end) and the critical attention that the war has and continues to receive. Of course dollars aren’t the only costs we’ve incurred in the Iraq war, but they are one salient measure.

On the one hand conservatives often point out that government involvement in provision of welfare should be sharply curtailed or eliminated because it isn’t primarily the government’s task to directly offer assistance to the poor. Rather, that’s the job of institutions of civil society, like church ministries, non-profit charities, and groups promoting individual giving. So it seems inconsistent to claim this and at the same time assert that it is the government’s responsibility to bailout overextended (and therefore irresponsible) corporations with taxpayer money.

UPDATE: A HuffPost blogger takes this logic to its political terminus (emphasis original):

The Democrats, if they truly constituted an opposition party, which they prove every day they do not, could demand that if monies are going to go to bail out Wall Street, at least an equal amount would go to bail out average Americans in the way of health care, full funding for social security and medicare, mortgage and rent protection, infrastructure repair, decent public transportation, investment in green jobs and technology, etc.

One great virtue of the market is that over time it tends to punish bad players. Those who engage in unsustainable business practices will eventually get what’s coming to them. Debt catches up with you and you go bankrupt (unless in an election year cowardly politicians aren’t willing to let companies pay the due penalty for their error).

There’s been some talk about the moral hazards associated with the bailout. One moral hazard is that bad business practices aren’t going to be appropriately punished, and so such short-sighted and unsustainable behavior will be incentivized by reduction or elimination of risk. There’s now going to be an implicit government guarantee of corporations that are “too big” or too important to fail. The cost of this bailout may be $700 billion, but it sets a precedent for future bailouts whose costs are inestimable.

But enough hasn’t been said on another moral hazard that has to do with the good players, people who didn’t take out gimmicky mortgages to finance half-million dollar homes or rush into home ownership when they should have been renting. That’s the flip-side of bailing out bad players…good players get punished and are less likely to continue responsible behavior. And in the face of a government and businesses that are telling us to spend all we can, why should we be financially responsible?

“If medieval Europe was so great, why were most medievals poor?” This is something you might wonder after viewing Acton Media’s new documentary, The Birth of Freedom. However, in this new video short, expert Sam Gregg reminds viewers that in order to make meaningful comparisons regarding the living standards of peasants in Medieval Europe, we must be mindful of historical context and technological progress to that point.

Acton Media’s video shorts from The Birth of Freedom are designed to provide additional insight into key issues and ideas in the film. A new short is released each Monday. Check out the rest of the series, learn about premieres in your area, and discover more background information at www.thebirthoffreedom.com.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on 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
posted by on 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.”

I’ll be blogging more about this week’s developments in the CRC Sea to Sea Tour in my regular Monday entry, but I wanted to note that the tour is making a pit stop in Grand Rapids this Sunday, August 17.

The Red Letter Christian Shane Claiborne is the featured speaker. Unfortunately my schedule won’t allow me to attend the ministry fair and worship service at Fifth Third Ballpark.

So far the “Shifting Gears” devotional has not been too overt in promoting the government as the primary agent in wealth redistribution, although admittedly I’ve been attempting to go through the book with a devotional rather than a critical eye.

I have yet to see how cycling against poverty is explicitly connected in any concrete way to the Great Commission, however. And on that point, it’s appropriate to keep in mind how another Christian has used the bicycle as a means to promote the cause of Christ.

This week the Voice of the Martyrs reported that the Chinese pastor who was the inspiration for the VOM Olympic prayer bands has been arrested by Chinese authorities. A VOM email alert states, “Pastor Zhang ‘Bike’ Mingxuan, known for traveling across China on a bicycle to evangelize, was arrested by Chinese police just two days before the Olympics began.”


Here’s more on Pastor Bike:

Pastor Bike, president of the Chinese House Church Alliance, rode his bike more than 10,000 miles, visiting 24 Chinese provinces to introduce nonbelievers to Jesus Christ. Armed with a Bible and his business card, which declared “Believe in Jesus, Earn Eternal Life,” Pastor Bike brought the gospel to thousands of people. He and other Chinese evangelists have been repeatedly harassed by Chinese officials during this Olympic year. Please pray for the release of Pastor Bike and his wife.

Examples like Pastor Bike show us that in our concern for material poverty, represented in the CRC’s Sea to Sea Bike Tour, we need to keep a sharp eye on spiritual realities as well.

The challenge for social relief agencies and denominations engaged in advocating for and addresing the alleviation of material poverty is to connect that kind of work in an intentional and meaningful way to the spiritual truths of the Gospel. Without addressing those ultimate realities, concern for the poor risks becoming just another form of the Social Gospel.

For more on the religious freedom situation in China, check out his week’s Acton Commentary, “China’s March Against Religious Freedom,” by PowerBlogger Ray Nothstine.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, August 11, 2008

The sixth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The sixth leg of the journey took the bikers from Fremont to Madison, a total distance of 548 miles.

The “Shifting Gears” devotional for this week does a good job reminding us of the appropriate relative value of temporal vs. eternal things. “A human being’s life consists not in the abundance of his or her possessions, but in the blessing of loving relationships. May we be shrewd stewards of all the rest and not forget those around us who live in meager circumstances,” concludes the day 37 devotion.

The daily prayers for the road often take a look at local organizations doing work in the areas that the tour passes through. On day 37, for instance, the prayer notes the work of Justice For All (JFA), “a movement to defend and advance disability rights and advocate for the self-sufficiency and empowerment of adults and children with disabilities.” The day 41 prayer remembers the Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN), which “serves homeless families in collaboration with local faith communities and organizations.”

The sixth week of the tour travels through the state of Iowa, and you can check out the Samaritan Guide for programs integrating faith and work effectively in this state, including the Rural Senior Citizen and Prison Inmate Volunteers of Hope Haven, based in Rock Valley, Iowa. These volunteers, made up of rural senior citizens and prison inmates, volunteer their time and efforts “to refurbish used wheelchairs and to manufacture our own pediatric wheelchairs to deliver to the disabled poor living around the world.”

Iowa is also the home of one of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a program related to the work of Prison Fellowship Ministries that was challenged on constitutional grounds in 2006. While much of the ruling against IFI was overturned on appeal, the state’s contract with the group was terminated and ended in June of this year.

The fifth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The fifth leg of the journey took the bikers from Denver to Fremont, a total distance of 553 miles.

The “Shifting Gears” devotional opens the week by focusing on the poor. “Consider this: each one of us has far less to worry about than those living in poverty who often do not know where their next meal is coming from.”

This week’s Grand Rapids Press religion section had a front page story on the problem of panhandling. How ought we to treat beggars on our streets? Many in the early church, including John Chrysostom, argued that Christians were called to be promiscuous in charitable giving, leaving the consequences of ill-used money to those who received it. Chrysostom said, “For if you wish to show kindness, you must not require an accounting of a person’s life, but merely correct his poverty and fill his need.”

As we have moved into a modern industrial society, however, it has become clear that ways of giving that provide incentives to remain poor do not properly deal with the social pathologies of poverty. The insight that our love needs to be unlimited and abundant is a proper corrective to our natural inclinations to be miserly with love and money. But from this it doesn’t follow that our giving doesn’t need to be intentional and critical.

Making our compassion effective in practice is the focus of the Acton Institute’s Samaritan Award and Guide programs. The bicyclists on this poverty tour will be heading through Nebraska this week. Check out effective charities in Nebraska and consider supporting program’s like Hasting’s Crossroads Center’s 4-Phase Program (a 2006 Samaritan Award honoree), and the W.E.C.A.R.E. and Dads Matter programs (2004 and 2006 honorees respectively) of Essential Pregnancy Services in Omaha.

The fourth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The fourth leg of the journey took the bikers from Salt Lake City to Denver, a total distance of 478 miles.

The “Shifting Gears” devotional at the beginning of this week focuses especially on the relationship of the church to culture. On day 22, the devotion notes that the “crucial pillars of civilization–education, family, government, and science–are in a state of decline and disrepair.” This may seem like a strange claim given all that humans have been able to accomplish over the last century or so. But if you look at the moral center of all these pursuits (for no human endeavor is “value” free), then the claim begins to make some sense.

Take, for example, the prayer from day 22, which focuses on gambling and the state of Utah’s position, which “forbids gambling and casinos.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer once reflected on a symptom of the lifelessness of modern society when he wrote,

One gambles with the future. Lotteries and gambling, which consume an inconceivable amount of money and often the daily bread of the worker, seek the improbable chance of luck in the future. The loss of past and future leaves life vacillating between the most brutish enjoyment of the moment and adventurous risk taking.

Similarly, the day 22 devotion observes “that today’s culture, including the church, has sunk into a passionless routine.”

And in the same way, the day 23 devotion examines the ambivalent relationship between church and culture, although it ends on a rather optimistic note: “A hundred years ago biking was a Sabbath sin. Now our whole troupe bikes to church Sunday mornings. We, like the land, are being redeemed.” Even so, a consistent theme of critique towards destructive aspects of modern life is present throughout these devotions. As the day 13 devotion concludes, “Constant busyness is not godliness.”

The overall focus of the bike tour is poverty. To get involved in charities that effectively integrate faith and compassion, visit the Acton Institute’s Samaritan Guide. Be sure to check out the charities working in Colorado. Denver, the destination at the end of week 4, is home to two previous Samaritan Award honorees, “Providence Homes” (2004) and “Joshua Station” (2007).

The third week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The third leg of the journey took the bikers from Boise to Salt Lake City, a total distance of 444 miles.

The “Shifting Gears” devotional focuses especially on the theme of discipleship, of following Jesus in this third week. One way in which we follow Jesus is in the community of disciples. And as the day 16 devotional reads, “You can share everything and take turns doing the heavy work, but without forgiveness the fellowship will never last.” This gets at what differentiates what has been called the “communitarianism” of the early church from the secular visions of a socialist utopia. Only the church can rightly understand the realities of sin and forgiveness and their consequences for social life.

Day 17 quotes 2 Corinthians 2:17, “We do not peddle the word of God for profit.” This is an important verse, because it reminds us of the primacy of spiritual realities to the gospel message. The devotional puts this contrast starkly: “We are not like the giants of the cosmetic industry, pushing chemicals for profit. Rather, we peddle an ancient formula, ‘fragrance of life,’ simply as a celebration of God’s grace.” I appreciate the rhetorical power of this kind of juxtaposition, but I fear that it misses the point. Paul isn’t deriding business and the pursuit of profit in its own proper sphere. Instead, he’s warning against allowing the principles suited for one sphere (business) to invade another (church).

To the extent that it is the successful business leaders who are implicitly understood to embody religious and spiritual discernment and leadership, this text is a much more powerful witness against the church being run as a business than it is against business as a profit-driven venture. Even so, the devotional speaks rightly when it says, “Paul’s point is that we don’t speak of faith to gain our own advantage.”

The week concludes with a trip from Idaho to Utah. The prayer for day 20 notes that “Utah ranks first among all states in proportion of income given to charity by the wealthy. Today thank God for their generosity, and pray that the money will be used wisely and effectively by these charities.”

To get involved in giving to effective charities, visit the Samaritan Guide, and take a look at the charities that are working in Idaho and Utah, including Boise’s SAFE Center and Salt Lake City’s Spiritual Training Program, both rated “excellent” for their Samaritan Guide entries in 2005.