Over the last couple of decades, evangelicals have woken up, as a whole, to the dreary reality of poverty. We’ve had the light of scripture shine on this dark corner of our faith, and, as a result, we’ve been hard at work sweeping out the cobwebs. We’ve engaged on issues like sex trafficking, racism, clean water, and natural disasters.
This is a good thing.
But like Lennie Small in “The Grapes of Wrath”, in trying to show our affection, we’ve often squeezed the puppy to death. Our heart for the issue, at times, doesn’t match the head knowledge required to solve it.
That’s the subject of Steven Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s book, “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself.” This book is essential reading for every Christians, but here are nine introductory principles of the issue:
1. Our Solutions to Poverty Typically Break Things.
Imagine that Donald Trump walks into your church, sits in on the elder’s meeting, and just before the meeting concludes says: “Hey guys – great plans, but I say this church needs a POOL.” Guess what’s going to happen? That’s right – suddenly, the Spirit will lead the church to build a pool.
Why? Because we all assume Mr. Trump is going to pay for the pool.No, you don’t need a pool, and don’t want one, and can’t afford to maintain one. But if we follow that plan, he’ll probably be willing to foot the bill for some of our REAL needs. But then Mr. Trump leaves – he’s done his good deed for the year.
Here’s the kicker, from Corbett and Fikkert: We are Donald Trump. The average North American’s solution to poverty looks exactly like that. We come in with our plans and ideas, we execute, we leave, we feel good…and we wreak havoc on the world around us.
2. Poverty isn’t all about money.
Ironically, we evangelicals have bought into the secular idea that poverty is all about lack of materials. Our solution, likewise, is to give people material goods. Sounds good, right?
Wrong. Because poverty isn’t just about lack of materials. It’s about a lack of dignity. “While poor people mention having a lack of material things,” say Corbett and Fikkert, “they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms than our North American audiences. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness.”
3. Solving problems for people increases poverty.
Now, think about point #2. If poverty is as much about human dignity as material needs, are we really solving people’s poverty issues when we step in and solve things for them? No – in fact, we further the cycle of poverty, because that’s humiliating.
“Material poverty alleviation involves more than ensuring that people have sufficient material things;” say Corbett and Fikkert, “rather, it involves the much harder task of empowering people to earn sufficient material things through their own labor, for in so doing we move people closer to being what God created them to be.”
4. Both institutions and people are flawed.
When it comes to solving poverty, most of us are republicans or democrats.
We either: blame everything on corrupt institutions, or: blame everything on corrupt people. But the truth is, as Corbett and Fikkert say: “People affect systems, and systems affect people.” Solutions to poverty include solutions on both planes.
5. “You Believe the Health and Wealth Gospel.”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from “When Helping Hurts”, it’s this: deep down, I believe the health-and-wealth gospel.
Let’s be honest: the reason we charge into impoverished communities with all the answers and solutions is simple: we think we did something right to be rich, and the poor did something wrong to be poor.
Of course, people in poverty aren’t angels. But neither are we: “…until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good. Our perspective should be less about how we are going to fix the materially poor and more about how we can walk together, asking God to fix both of us.”
6. True Solutions to Poverty Happen Slowly.
We in North America are typically pretty “results oriented”. We like to see things happen – and we like to FUND where we see things happening. But when it comes to solving world poverty…we just need to GET OVER that.
Or even better, we need to redefine our results: “Deep and lasting change takes time. In fact, fully engaging the poor in a participatory process takes lots of time…It might help donors if they remembered that creating decision-making capacity on the part of the poor is a return—arguably the chief return—on their investment.”
7. Solving Poverty is About Building Long-Term Relationships.
Short Term Mission trips are nice, because we can put them in a pretty 2-week box, drop them off at the door of Summer, and check off our good deed for the year.
But poverty, ultimately, is about broken relationships: broken relationships with God, with one another, and with creation. Because of that, “fixing” the problem CAN’T mean throwing money at it – it has to mean helping people rebuild broken relationships with God and others: “…These things tend to happen in highly relational, process-focused ministries more than in impersonal, product-focused ministries.”
8. True Solutions Require Listening Before Responding.
Rather than charging into a situation with answers at the ready, holistic solutions to impoverished community begin by assuming the dignity of those to whom we’re ministering. One of Fikkert and Corbett’s mantras is: “Avoid Paternalism. Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves.”
Rather, they encourage the church to begin by asking dignity-increasing questions. These enable those in poverty to see how they can be part of the solution:
- What are your goals and dreams for your life?
- What strengths, abilities, and resources can you use to achieve those goals?
- What is the first action you will take to use your gifts to achieve your goals?
- By what date will you take this action?
- How could we support you in achieving your goals?
- Would you be willing to have a support person encourage you in meeting your goals?
- When can we meet with you again to check on how things are going?
These questions take us from the role of reprimanding wealthy step-father to cheerleader, coach, and partner.
9. True Solutions Require the Gospel.
“Poverty is rooted in broken relationships,” say Corbett and Fikkert, “so the solution to poverty is rooted in the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection to put all things into right relationship again.”
Solutions to poverty that don’t ultimately point to Christ as the redeemer of the world won’t ever get to the root of the problem: the human heart. We need to present the gospel alongside our practical helps, not only because it’s good for people’s souls, but because Christ is the ultimate redemption of broken relationships, broken institutions, broken systems, broken Christians, and a broken world. He is the broken Savior, who unbreaks all systems – physical and spiritual – that he might reign over every facet of life.
Even Lennie Small.