As a white, middle-class, American male (of middle age too), there is no doubt that my understanding of, and empathy with, Toni Mitchell has its limits. But the flip side is that my ironic respect is all the more important and powerful – especially since I tend to shy away from “worldly wisdom” even that found among preachers and Bible scholars. I definitely prefer to quote the Bible, and when not strictly quoting the Bible per se to quote others intimately familiar with it… who teach people like me the depths of its wisdom for life in God’s creation.
I don’t know much about Toni Mitchell and even less of her important work, but I sense that considering worldly wisdom from time to time, the often shunned and overlooked source of black women is a good place to uncover the stuff I otherwise am apt to miss.
“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined,” says Mitchell, and that suggests to me that these words are empowering to those who are otherwise tempted and even oppressed into accepting dominant views about themselves rather than the freedom to think and even be what God would make.
Why is this important to me? What business does this blog have with such a quote?
Well, I am haunted by various aspects of the volunteer training seminars I have taken (such as the Seeking Shalom course published by The Lupton Center) and books I read (like When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert). Anyone reading this blog knows that about me already, but there is this one tactic that seems to go with this kind of “Christian”-based poverty alleviation that has troubled me for some time, but which is shrouded in manipulations to the point that I have had a hard time putting my finger on it. And that tactic is REDEFINING poverty and REDEFINING the poor themselves. It turns out, according to Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert (among others) that we have not really understood what poverty actually is and/or who the poor are. Thus they set out to make a comprehensive REDEFINITION with which they then can advance their theses.
And THAT has me thinking of Mitchell’s quote: “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”
Despite themselves and the Bible and the poor, these books, these authors, these seminar presenters have constructed a view of the poor and of outreach to them with smoke and mirrors. And honestly, IF their theses were really so accurate, then why… after a decade of their publications and their work.. why do will still have the poor with us? IF their theses were so revolutionary and correct, why have they not solved the problems in the very neighborhoods and churches in Lubbock that have so thoroughly embraced these teachings?
They have not.
And in fact, poverty grows more and more every year no matter your definition.
But I want to look a bit more closely at this tactic and expose it. For despite the devastating questions I just raised in the paragraph above, I am told by the shepherd at the church where I am a member that I can scream at the top of my voice, yet no one is listening (heck of a thing for a shepherd to tell a lamb in his own flock!).
But I am also aware that these books and seminars are very popular nationwide if not worldwide. And though I have but a few readers, perhaps if I demonstrate the problem with the smoke and mirrors, dismantle (to the degree I can) the hype these books and their proponents enjoy, and maybe (especially) help you actually listen to Jesus (God’s Word), even if I borrow from Toni Mitchell along the way to get us there, then hopefully even the definers will reconsider their broken definitions and hopefully get excited for Jesus again.
One can hope.
I will devote the rest of this post to refuting When Helping Hurts particularly, and especially the arguments advanced in chapter 2 of that book: “What’s the PROBLEM?”. If you are reading here AND have a copy of that book, please open it up to pages 51-73 and let’s talk about this bit by bit.
The book When Helping Hurts (WHH) is intended to be read and studied in groups to the extent that is possible rather than read quietly as an individual, and actually there is a very good chance that if you have familiarity or even a copy of it, that you obtained it in such a study group (perhaps at church). We learn on pages 15-17 in the introduction that the authors pose initial questions at the start of each chapter which ideally will be discussed by the group studying the book together, and sure enough we have one on page 50 which I will quote for us now: “Take a few minutes to answer the following question: What is poverty? Make a list of words that come to your mind when you think of poverty.”
Let’s pause a moment and think about group dynamics here. I took a basic counseling class in college where our psychology instructor very powerfully and profoundly (is that redundant?) demonstrated for those of us in the class the sure fire way to get a group of people to clam up is to put them in a group and ask them a question that might require some prior reading or some interpretation to be defended. It can even be quite simple stuff like: Was Moby Dick a good book?
If we ask something a bit more esoteric, it just gets worse: Is Moby Dick a commentary on social problems of the modern era?
Get 5, 10 or 20 middle class Americans in a group, stand up at the podium and spring these questions on them and see who wants to go first.
Now… In every group there is someone who has some level of expertise on whatever topic we spring on them. However, unless that expert is known to be the expert and is well respected by all the others in the group AND happens to know THE RIGHT ANSWER to the question, then that expert is under pressure to perform. The risk of looking foolish on the very topic she is the expert on is high. So it is unlikely he will offer a quick response. More likely she will let someone else take a stab at it and then help tidy up the communal wisdom after that.
Then there are those who are not experts. They too recognize their limitations and typically hold off from making their offerings as well.
But there are two types that will likely go first in making an answer to the question. The clown, who will break the ice with humor, and the nervous nelly who can’t handle the uncomfortable silence. Neither of these is likely to offer THE RIGHT ANSWER to the question, but on the contrary is going to make it much more socially acceptable to be wrong.
And let’s face it. The rhetorical effect Corbett and Fikkert are working for here is to dismantle previous notions about poverty, the poor, and how to relieve it/them. The whole idea here is that you will offer an answer to this question and then change your mind about it later. And if you get the whole group to grasp that idea, even without articulating it, then the presenter(s) have far more freedom to say whatever they want.
So… okay… go ahead and say whateeeeeeeeeever you want now… I am all ears.
Yes. There is a good chance many of you took the class with this book. If you did, and if you followed this exercise, then perhaps you noticed (or perhaps not) that pretty much the idea of poverty and of poor people in general that you went into this study with got marginalized. What you probably didn’t notice is that your ability to think for yourself did too.
Do you really NOT know what poverty is?
Okay, I get it. You are on the spot just now. (And you were when you took the WHH class too.) And so you are not prepared to give a college level, text book definition. I get it. But you have been going through … what 20, 30, 50 years of life now and you didn’t know poverty when you saw it? You didn’t recognize poor people when you saw them?
Don’t try to play retro-stupid now. It’s too late for that. You are smarter than Corbett and Fikkert give you credit for. Sure we can enhance the technical language, no doubt, but stripping down your idea of poverty (and for that matter ALL of the INITIAL QUESTIONS in all of the other chapters too) are tactics designed to get you to rethink your whole approach to outreach ministry, to jettison what you were doing before in favor of something more “effective.” And on the surface, that sounds good too, but if Jesus was taking the class with you and raised his hand and said, “Uh… but the poor you will always have with you, and you can do good to them when ever you like,” would you feel any different then about your previous efforts at outreach ministry which might now seem ineffective after reading this book?
If it comes down to being “biblical” vs. being “effective,” which would you choose?
So, looking into WHH chapter 2 now, notice where we start. Not the Bible, but with the World Bank.
Now I hate to get too overly hostile right out the gate, but even IF we find worthwhile wisdom from the World Bank, isn’t their big thrust MONEY? WEALTH?? MAMMON??? Consider for a moment, just the source here. This isn’t wisdom of Jesus Corbett and Fikkert draw from; it’s not biblical, not even theological. This is “worldly wisdom” in general from people who specifically serve Mammon as if he were the “bottom line.”
Now, to be fair, I found something worthwhile in Toni Mitchell at the start of this post, and she is not biblical either, so I am willing to give Corbett and Fikkert a hearing here. But we really must consider a source as powerful as the World Bank carefully. We just MIGHT find something worthwhile in their wisdom, but Mammon is already on record as no friend of Jesus. Tread here carefully – I say.
So what do we learn from the World Bank? Well, we learn that when the World Bank set out to rebuild war-torn Europe, they were “remarkably successful.” Wow! Look at that. It’s right there in the first two sentences on page 51.
What did they do that was so successful?
Well, Corbett and Fikkert don’t actually describe that, but they do seem to allude to it by contrasting the effects of a “similar approach” when “assisting low-income countries.” That method is then described as “lending them money on generous terms to promote economic growth and poverty reduction.”
Hmmm… “similar approach” both times. Successful with rebuilding war-torn Europe, but “less than stellar” in the “low income countries.” It worked in France (white people) but not in India (people of color).
OH NO! I didn’t just inject RACE into this did I? Shame on me.
Okay, have the court reporter strike that from the record.
white people) and ( people of color)
Good, now, with that bell unrung, let’s continue.
No. Wait. Wait just a minute. We have yet another problem here, one that you gotta be sharp to catch. Actually, you gotta read WHH all the way to the end without drinking the Kool-Aid. Midway through chapter 9 of WHH (jumping way ahead of ourselves, I know) Corbett and Fikkert introduce us to “THE MICROFINANCE REVOLUTION” and thus microfinance institutions (MFI’s) which specifically loan money to poor people at low interest for the purpose of promoting economic growth and poverty reduction. This becomes the best method for poverty alleviation at the end of the book! Yet it sounds like the “similar approach” to “low income countries” that did not work for the World Bank.
My question then (actually I have many) is why is this considered an “effective” way of poverty alleviation if it’s done in partnership with an MFI but not if done by the World Bank?
Corbett and Fikkert offer no answer, and it seems they are banking that you won’t notice the discrepancy and ask.
So low interest loans, according to WHH, are the go-to, “effective” method of outreach ministry your church needs to look into as you serve the poor. Low interest loans.
You know what passages of the Bible Corbett and Fikkert NEVER MENTION?
Now, I gotta say, given these guys are addressing Christians and churches with their theses, AND given what these Bible verses command of God’s people, Corbett and Fikkert either need to drop the loans at interest idea OR find some hifalutin theory that justifies why they can sidestep these passages (and others). But they don’t do either. They don’t even try. In fact, it looks like they are betting you don’t notice.
So, where are we now.
Let’s get back to page 51. We started with the initial questions defining poverty and the poor, and then we went to the World Bank for wisdom instead of the Bible. We found that the World Bank had great success with their efforts and rebuilding war-torn Europe, but with “similar approaches” they had “less than stellar” results with “low income countries.” Then we jumped to the end of the book and saw where Corbett and Fikkert actually endorse the “similar approach” after all, which on the one hand is now illogical, and on the other, since we are talking about loaning poor people money at interest here, is also anti-biblical since the Bible actually prohibits exactly that!
And we still haven’t got to the part where the book redefines poverty yet. That comes a few pages later in chapter 2. But if you think Corbett and Fikkert are just the cat’s meow when it comes to outreach ministry, then I am sure you think your money is well spent on this book, and I need to keep working my way there so I can make my point. So here we go…
So… at the bottom of page 51, we read about how the World Bank, being all perplexed about helping the poor and all (so why did we go there if they don’t know what they are doing?), they then turn to “the true poverty experts” (why didn’t we start here?), “the poor themselves.”
At this point Corbett and Fikkert offer 9 quotes from 9 different unnamed individuals from 9 different countries – each quote just 1, 2, 3 or 4 sentences long, each a unique and very personal brief description of their life as poor people. These are the “poverty experts.”
Now… recall how we were asked, “What is poverty?” in the initial questions. We were put on the spot then, and what ever our traditional idea of poverty is, we already sensed it is going to be challenged by Corbett and Fikkert (otherwise why write the book?). Perhaps we didn’t come with a technical, college text-book level definition, but wait… neither do these experts. The best they have going for them is that they are extremely subjective about poverty, not that they have studied it in some scholarly sense.
Yet somehow, and I think there is a lot of rhetorical manipulation and smoke and mirrors getting us to this point, but somehow Corbett and Fikkert make this appear all revolutionary and wise when on page 53 they say this:
Please take a few minutes to list some of the key words or phrases that you see in the quotes listed above. Do you see any differences between how you described poverty at the start of this chapter and how the poor describe their own poverty? Is there anything that surprises you?
This paragraph looks, sounds, even FEELS like a college course to me. How about you?
I gotta say, as I deconstruct it bit-by-bit, I notice there is nothing technical about it as of yet, however, we have discovered it lacks good logic or biblical basis. But somehow there is a smoke and mirrors effect which lends credibility to all this which just isn’t warranted, I think. And this paragraph sure has the look, the sound, the feel of a college course to it where credibility, technicality, and expertise are found.
But let’s turn to the next paragraph now and see if we are onto something with OUR observations that Corbett and Fikkert never intended you to see. Thus again I quote:
We (Corbett and Fikkert) have conducted the previous exercise in dozens of middle-to-upper-class, predominantly Caucasian, North American churches. In the vast majority of cases, these audiences describe poverty differently than the poor in low-income countries do. While the poor mention having lack of material things…
Whoa! Stop right there.
Did Corbett and Fikkert say “conducted the previous exercise”? That sure sounds college classy. “Conduct”… “exercise.”
Hmmm… So all this smoke and mirrors is designed to look, sound, and feel like a college course.
But wait… there’s more.
Did Corbett and Fikkert say “Caucasian…” and then contrast that with “low-income countries”?
Oh man. We had the court reporter strike that idea from the record before, remember??? Probably not, because as we all know all too well, once the court reporter strikes something from the record, the bell is un-rung!
Before I let go of THIS point, let me say they seem to have described conservative Republicans there too. And THAT, I bet, is the agenda being smuggled in this book and hidden by all the smoke and mirrors. But more on that another time.
But look at that last bit. The poor themselves, (remember earlier when Corbett and Fikkert chose to call THEM the “true poverty experts”?), well, those “experts” did mention “lack of material things” and Corbett and Fikkert just admitted it! But they do so in such a way as to rhetorically discount it. Just read the rest of the paragraph (I will let you read it for yourself) and see how it is discounted in favor for other features of poverty.
Look, I don’t mean to suggest the other features like “shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness” are of little or no consequence. That is not my aim. My aim is to put “lack of material things” back front and center in our definition of poverty. After all, I think that is a pretty good definition even if we enhance it to make it more technically correct. And not only do I think it, but Corbett and Fikkert’s own “true poverty experts” find it worthy of mention AT LEAST.
This post is getting monstrously long, and we still have not got to the meat of the issue in this book that haunts me, though we are sniffing around the bushes under it, already. WHH aims to redefine poverty, and we have been setting the stage for it, but let’s jump ahead just a couple of pages. Let’s look at the bottom of page 56.
Notice the topical heading there in all caps which says, “POVERTY: A BIBLICAL FRAMEWORK.”
Oh, my… five pages into this chapter and we finally get around to looking into the Bible?
Okay, to be fair, there is one passage of Scripture cited already, just two paragraphs back up page 56 there. The citation is Isaiah 58:10. You won’t catch me arguing against Isaiah, and in fact, Corbett and Fikkert’s use of this passage is good, however not on point with their agenda. It is an aside, actually. It is cited from the Bible as an authoritative voice encouraging us to be persistent in our care for the poor, which is good, but sadly Corbett and Fikkert have just described how even if we do everything right (according to the new wisdom they promote with this book), the help we give can be a “trial and error process” and “poor people are not always completely honest with themselves or others” (wait a minute! I thought they were the “true poverty experts” though) and “it may take years to help people to overcome their problems” a process filled with “ups and downs in the relationship.” Based on these observations, you need the encouraging word from Isaiah alright.
But you know what? Just that description of all the haggard efforts you might go through with the “effective” methods this book teaches seems to undermine its own thesis! I mean I could say all of that about poverty alleviating without following Corbett and Fikkert’s advice, so why bother with their advice???
But getting back on track here, we are finally getting to the biblical framework, and I am really excited about that! After all, we have stopped off seeking wisdom with Mammon at the World Bank, with the poor themselves who are the “true poverty experts” (even though they are not always honest) and we have even taken in a quote from Cornell West (now there’s somebody my conservative Republican, Caucasian, middle-to-upper class brothers and sisters from North American churches love to hear from!), and I want to get into the Bible now. Isaiah was nice, but surely there is more, a lot more! Right?
So the first words we find under the topical heading in all caps, “POVERTY: A BIBLICAL FRAMEWORK” are….?
“In the Beginning”
“Bryant Myers, a leading Christian development thinker, argues…”
Think I’m being nit picky?
Maybe so. Maybe I am just being totally unfair here.
Okay, let me justify myself.
First off, Bryant Myers is not in the Bible.
Apparently he is “Christian” alright. But so was Dennis Rader – aka – BTK. He was a deacon in his church and a serial killer that no one noticed was so thoroughly full of evil for decades. But of course I am taking that point to an extreme. Let me dial that back a bit.
Bryant Myers may be a Christian, and his opinion might be worthwhile, but we called this a biblical framework and put it in a book written to help churches do their outreach ministries. I don’t know about you, but churches and Christians should, in my opinion, first and foremost consult the Bible about how to go about ministry. That may INVOLVE best selling Christian books and authors from time to time, I am not against that, but then THOSE people should be consulting the Bible and teaching us to do that too. No?
But here it is time to unveil yet another layer to this whole book, since Corbett and Fikkert bring it up AGAIN. (Actually, this is the first time they bring it up in chapter 2, so if you haven’t read WHH carefully for yourself before reading this post, you will be forgiven for not know it, but Corbett and Fikkert, and now Myers are all economic development gurus who happen to be Christians.) So the thing here is this: Myers is not some Bible scholar we are consulting here, and he surely isn’t the Bible itself, which the topical heading almost seemed to promise us, but he is an economy expert. (Not a “true poverty expert” of course, but this one went to school for his wisdom.)
Now… let me say something at this point which will put me and my kind in the hot seat, but I bet a lot of you will concur with it. It may not be a universal fact, but a LOT of preachers, pastors, chaplains, and especially youth ministers are really lazy people. They found a gig with low work and decent pay, or they found a way to get paid to play. But ask THEM to write a dissertation on outreach ministry, and they are too busy schmoozing the teenagers with pizza and a movie and the annual ski trip. There is a really good chance that one of these idiots introduced you to the book When Helping Hurts to begin with. They have been stealing their sermons and devo talks off the internet for years. The sermons they did write, they took from the self-help section, the psychology section, the social work section of the bookstore – or maybe from watching The Matrix and other cool movies. The church has had a steady diet of self-help and psychology section baptized for church consumption since the 1970s, and the church has a good taste for it now. Like eating at McDonalds, when you get used to it, you start to think that crap is good.
Well, these economic development guys didn’t do their Bible research either. They too studied the self help and other sections and peppered their sermons with a few Bible verses they learned as kids pretty much. However, I gotta give Myers more credit than all that. He rises above – head and shoulders above – the cesspool of standard Christian scholarship floating around in our churches for the last couple of generations. In fact, even though I have not, until now, let on, Myers insights here are rather powerful, and there is some pretty sound theology all up in this offering he makes. The breakdown of the four relationships we all have with God, with Self, with Others, and with the rest of Creation… all this is very nuts -n- bolts theology regarding SHALOM.
However, the application phase of his offering reveals that even Myers is not as good as he should be, and certainly twists off into a lot of psychobabble. We see this when we get out of the “biblical framework” which would have better been described as a theological framework, and we reach the bottom of page 62. There the topical heading says, “WHO ARE THE POOR?”.
Who are the poor?
Now we are coming very close to redefining poverty and the poor. Remember that initial question where we were asked, “What is poverty?” and told to list off terms that came to our minds?
Look what Corbett and Fikkert say under this topical heading:
Stop and think: If poverty is rooted in the brokeness of the foundational relationships, then who are the poor?
Due to the comprehensive nature of the fall, every human being is poor in the sense of not experiencing these four relationships in the way that God intended. …[E]very human being is suffering from a poverty of spiritual intimacy, a poverty of being, a poverty of community, and a poverty of stewardship. We are all simply incapable of being what God created us to be and are unable to experience the fullness of joy that God designed for these relationships. Every minute since the fall, each human being is the proverbial “square peg in a round hole.” We don’t fit right, because we were shaped for something else.
Wow! We sure made some leaps there. We have now got the nuts -n- bolts of a new definition of poverty. From early on, we have marginalized the idea that it involves the lack of material things, and now we are including EVERYBODY in the poverty as we talk about “poverty of spiritual intimacy”? Oh man! It sounds like Christian pot smoking to me. “Poverty of being”? Is that in ANY verse in the Bible? Somebody pleas show me that verse!
But then on page 63 we find this sentence: “For some people the brokenness in these foundational relationships results in material poverty, that is their not having sufficient money to provide for the basic physical needs of themselves and their families.”
WAIT … WHAT???
You mean we are back to talking about poverty as having something to do with the “lack of material things”???
Look. Either I am just plain stupid, or this stuff ain’t really making sense. You know what my answer was to the initial question? (Glad you asked.)
“What is poverty?” Corbett and Fikkert asked. “Well,” I thought, “probably it is, or at least involves, the lack of material things.” And when I listed off terms that came to mind… here was my list:
Hmmm… and despite all the hifalutin, jargon, and theology and smoke and mirrors, we are still talking about the lack of material things. Some people are in need of stuff they cannot afford to obtain. They are poor. I knew this before opening this book. My grandparents, R.I.P., knew this stuff and they died before reading this book. And Corbett and Fikkert can’t seem to get past this old definition while trying to get me signed on for a new definition of poverty and the poor.
Hmmm … indeed.
But let’s tie up that other loose end here, the one about economic developers offering theology to the church and teaching ministry methods to Christians rather than the theologians doing this. As I pointed out, Myers gave us some pretty good theology up to a point. He did hinge it off just a bare minimum of Scripture references, but his follow through, his application phase is terrible, although at this point I am not sure whether to credit that part to him or to Corbett and Fikkert. Look again at that last indented quote above. “Due to the comprehensive nature of the fall….” That one.
“The fall” itself is not a Bible word. It is a theological construct, a shorthand way of labelling events the Bible describes. So it is not entirely unbiblical, but not strictly biblical either. At any rate, between Myers, Corbett and Fikkert, who ever we should credit here, they are right, in my view, to say there is a comprehensive nature to it. That is good.
But let me ask you. Just shooting off the cuff as a Christian who has some familiarity with your Bible, with Jesus, and with Christian faith in general. What is the answer to the fall? How is it fixed, reversed, redeemed??? Are we really going to redeem the fallen world with some low interest loans??? Or is that what Jesus’s Kingdom, his crucifixion, his death, burial, and resurrection all about?
How is Jesus’s Kingdom going to redeem poor people? Isn’t that a much better, more biblical framework way to go here? So isn’t all this theological psychobabble more a smoke screen and a way of smuggling economic development into our theology? And at just what point are we going to wake up and realize we have Mammon at the center of our theology and our outreach ministry instead of Jesus?
Here’s the thing; and I took a loooooooong way around to get here too, but here is the thing:
One of the tactics I find in When Helping Hurts and Seeking Shalom and maybe a few other places too is all this business about redefining poverty and redefining the poor. Somehow all that mishmash of redefinitions becomes the cornerstone this Bible believer rejects.
I think you already know what poverty is. Maybe not in some technical definition worthy of a college lecture, but I think you been knowing it when you see and smell it. I don’t think it needs to be redefined; that, I think, is a tactic used to confuse your best thinking about outreach ministry. And when you get enough of smoke and mirrors on it, then you will be excused from loving the poor like Jesus. Excused in your own mind, not in Jesus’s mind.
And here I started all this off by quoting Toni Mitchell. Out of the nice things I have read about that woman, I never found anyone claiming she was a great woman of faith, not Christian faith. But she seems to have been one who empowers black women especially to see themselves differently. And so I can only go with her quote so far, but as far as that goes, it seems to fit. It seems to address this tactic I find in the When Helping Hurts movement. She says, “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” And since the definers are plumb cuckoo, there is no need to get all caught up in “poverty of being” or any of that malarkey.
Thanx for reading this far.
Now do me a favor and go burn a copy of When Helping Hurts. The world will be a better place without it, and you will be a better Christian without it too.