48 hours in Haiti

I spent 48 hours in Haiti last week.

It wasn’t much time. But it was enough to taste the hot, sticky air. To navigate the teeming streets of Port-au-Prince, pressed by a sea of humanity. To jostle my spine on roads which my traveling companion assured me had gotten better since the last time he had visited.

On our way to a World Vision-supported community in the Central Plateau region (a few hours north of the city), we passed more than one person who seemed less than pleased to see yet another white face peering at them from behind an SUV window. Who can blame them? Outsiders in SUVs have not always brought good things to Haiti.

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While negotiating our way out of the city, we passed recently vacated refugee camps, where survivors of the 2010 earthquake eked out an existence under impossible circumstances. Miles outside the city, there was a collection of homes built by the government, where some of the displaced will be resettled, far removed from loved ones and livelihoods.

There were even a few places in the city where people still lived in tents reinforced with bits of cardboard, plastic, or whatever was at hand. After four years of wear, it was hard to imagine these shelters kept out much of anything. Yet almost 150,000 Haitians continue to live in them. Granted, that’s a big drop from what it used to be — at one point, it was 10 times that number — but still.

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On some of the weatherworn tarps you could just make out the faded USAID logo. Though the tents (and the people living in them) are still there, the funding has all but dried up. Billions in promised international aid never even materialized.

More jarring than the tents themselves were the billboards just outside some of the displacement camps, advertising expensive liquors, luxury kitchens, and other extravagances — flaunting unattainable wealth to those who haven’t had a solid roof over their heads for more than four years. Reportedly there’s a tent community within sight of a Porsche dealership.

But this was hardly the only story in Haiti. My colleague, for whom this was something like his 20th visit, observed that Port-au-Prince was looking more like its old self than at any time since the earthquake. Which isn’t to say it was “thriving,” exactly (or that the new buildings are any more capable of withstanding a major tremor than the old ones). But the streets were loaded with people, many of them hopping on and off tap taps (Haitian taxis). Sidewalks were barely visible beneath a sea of vendors selling produce, soda, hubcaps, and more. There was life in Haiti. Resilience.

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Outside the city, in World Vision’s community project (known as an ADP or Area Development Program), we saw hope. We saw Haiti’s future. The kids there projected a quiet confidence that comes when children are valued, empowered, and listened to by the community. We sat in a community center where each of the three dozen or so children gathered could read. We saw them lead their peers (and even the adults). Any one of these kids could lead Haiti someday.

I spent four years working for World Vision, so I know firsthand how important youth empowerment is to them. Now I can say I’ve seen it… and the difference it can make to a whole community.

(Also, the hands-down best meal I had on this trip was in that rural community.)

I’m still processing my experience in Haiti. For now, I’m reminded once more that poverty and injustice are complicated, messy affairs. But we shouldn’t forget: they’re not the only narrative that defines a place like Haiti. Not by a long shot. There is hope and resilience there. True, there are aid efforts which have sometimes gone wrong, efforts which are incomplete… and others that have reaped huge benefits for the people of Haiti.

I wish I’d had more than 48 hours, but it was long enough to leave an indelible mark.

What experiences have shaped your understanding of poverty and injustice? 

To learn more about World Vision’s work in Haiti and get involved, go here.

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Should we even be fighting the War on Poverty?

Lyndon Johnson signing the Medicare bill (source: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library)Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. The legacy of this war is hotly contested, and there are at least three competing views.

Some argue the War on Poverty created a culture of dependency, while pouring massive amounts of money down the drain. They point to official government figures, which show the poverty rate hasn’t changed all that much since 1964.

Others argue that poverty would be double what it is now if not for the safety nets established in the 1960s. They dispute the accuracy of government figures, pointing instead to competing studies which suggest a more dramatic decline in the rate of poverty since then.

I’ll leave that debate to others. Right now, it’s the third group I care about: those who question the very notion of waging a war on poverty in the first place. Charity is all well and good, they might say, but it’s grandiose and naïve to think we can ever fully eradicate poverty.

They even quote Jesus: “The poor you will have with you always.”

I should know. I used to be part of this group.

This approach recently led one writer to suggest we leave should Jesus out of the whole poverty debate. But I think it’s worth taking a closer look at what Jesus really said — and what he meant. Because it turns out this statement was anything but an excuse for apathy.

Yes, it’s true Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you.” Although Mark’s gospel, usually known for its brevity, extends the quote: “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.” This ought to be our first clue that Jesus’ statement wasn’t meant to trivialize the importance of helping those in need.

But there’s an even bigger clue when we turn to original source of Jesus’ statement. You see, Jesus didn’t pull this line out of thin air. As a Jewish rabbi, he was constantly quoting or alluding to the Old Testament. In doing so, he employed a common rabbinical technique, which later came to be known as remez, in which the speaker quoted a small piece of text, with the intent of calling to mind the larger passage it came from.

When Jesus said, “The poor you will have with you always,” he was quoting Deuteronomy 15:11, but he expected his disciples (and us) to think about the whole passage. 

Deuteronomy 15 commanded the ancient Israelites to cancel each other’s debt every seven years. (Interesting to note that no distinction was made between responsible and irresponsible debt; no matter how people fell into financial distress, they were to be given a clean slate every seven years.)

The passage ends with the statement quoted by Jesus centuries later: there will always be poor people among you. Which is precisely why laws protecting the poor were needed in the first place. 

Again, from Deuteronomy:

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.

What’s more, to the writer of Deuteronomy 15, persistent poverty was anything but acceptable. Back up a few verses, to Deuteronomy 15:4-5.

There need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands…

In other words, when the writer said there would always be poor people in the land, it was a concession to Israel’s likely failure to obey the law requiring them to protect its most vulnerable citizens. Sure enough, that’s pretty much how the story plays out in the rest of the Old Testament.

There would always be poor people because the Israelites would not prove as generous as they were meant to be. There would always be poor people because Israel would not cancel everyone’s debts like they were supposed to. The statement “you will always have the poor with you” is not an excuse for apathy; it’s a condemnation of it.

Good people will disagree on the best ways to mitigate and perhaps even eradicate poverty. The success (or failure) of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty will be scrutinized to no end, and even then we still won’t settle on what works and what doesn’t.

But one thing is clear, at least for those of us who claim the Bible as some kind of authority: apathy in the face of poverty is not an option. We do not have the right to use Jesus’ words as an excuse for inaction. The statement “there will always be poor people” might describe the reality that is, but it does not describe the reality that ought to be.

The other kind of poverty

Photo courtesy of FlickrI believe poverty is more than a matter of personal behavior. People are poor not primarily because of bad decisions (though financial stress can disrupt a person’s decision-making ability) but because of other factors, many of them external, which trap them in poverty.

That said, I’ve seen the other kind of poverty — the kind that’s at least partly self-inflicted and more than a little self-destructive. I got an up-close view when my wife and I had to rent out our house while we were living out-of-state.

When the company we’d hired to look after our house told us that one of the tenants had lost their job, we asked them to lower the rent. We told them we didn’t want our tenants to worry about having a place to live.

The tenants thanked us by practically destroying our house.

What we didn’t know at the time was the property management company had neglected to do the promised screening and had put the worst sort of tenants in our house. The kind who don’t pay rent, who damage property, terrorize the neighbors, game the system, and get themselves evicted from one place after another.

Once they were gone, we began the slow (and expensive) task of fixing up our house. Surrounded by piles of garbage, broken windows, soiled carpet, and trashed appliances, it was hard not to be angry. I found myself thinking the worst of them and anyone remotely like them.

One day as I was cleaning out the basement, I found an opened Christmas card left by one of our tenants. It was from her dad. The return address indicated it had been sent from jail. Judging by the message, he’d been there a long time. There didn’t seem to be much of a relationship between him and his daughter, and the words inside were those of a man filled with regret.

It made me stop, there in the midst of my simmering resentment. I didn’t stop feeling angry. But I did pause to wonder what my life would’ve been like if I’d grown up in similar circumstances, if my father had spent most of my formative years in prison. How would the experience have shaped me? How would my development have been affected by the all lost opportunities, economic hardship, and stigma?

It made me realize I knew nothing of my tenant’s life and what had brought her to this point, where she evidently cared so little for herself and others that she couldn’t imagine another way to live.

None of which justified what she did. We can all choose to be more than the product of our circumstances. But sometimes our circumstances are so overwhelming, it’s difficult to see another way.

—//—

When I wrote my post on 20 things the poor really do, a number of the more critical responses essentially boiled down to, “I’ve seen somebody poor making bad choices, gaming the system, etc… so that’s what all poor people are like.” We typecast an entire group based on our limited observation of one or two people we barely know.

We never bother to learn more about them. We never listen their story. God forbid we humanize them in any way. That just makes it harder to sit in judgment.

But my faith teaches that people are image-bearers, made in the likeness of God himself. No matter how tarnished that image may get, it never completely vanishes.

Even now, it’s not easy to think of my former tenants as divine image-bearers, made and loved by God. But they are.

My faith teaches another concept—grace, which says that even when people are partly complicit in making a mess of their lives, they are not beyond compassion. God didn’t write us off, so we don’t have the luxury of writing off others.

I try to remember this when I see someone who seems to be causing or contributing to their own poverty. In addition to remembering that they are the exception, not the rule, I try to remember that they are still loved by God. They are still his creation. There is more to their story than I realize. And perhaps — just maybe — their story could start to look a little different if people started treating them like human beings.

Why do we blame the poor for buying stuff they can’t afford but not the ones who sell it to them?

Photo from http://www.torontorealtyblog.com/archives/affordable-housing-in-cityplacego-figure/2351

Growing up, only a few blocks separated my home from one of the poorer neighborhoods in town. We drove through it from time to time, passing that one house with the huge satellite dish (it was the 90s) and the sports car parked outside.

The house and its occupants (who we never met, much less saw) became for me the epitome of everything wrong with poor people in America: they were poor because they spent what little they had on frivolous luxuries, all while (presumably) living off the government in their dilapidated house. They had no discipline, no work ethic, and therefore deserved none of my sympathy.

All of this I inferred from a quick drive past their house.

So I guess I’m not surprised that some people voiced a similar sentiment in response to last week’s post, including this person’s description of how he thinks the typical poor person spends their money (trigger warning: unsubtle racist stereotyping):

Cable TV $1500 a year
Cell phones for the family $2000 a year
New dr dre beats audio headphones $400 dollars for the family
Xbox $500 dollars
New Jordan’s and matching hoodies $800 a year
New rims for your whip $1000
Pack a day smoking $1200 a year per person X 2
Two monster energy drinks a day $1200 a year per person X 2…

Don’t tell me poor people can’t afford decent food… Don’t blame society for repeated stupid decisions by a certain percentage of the population, and then tell me I’m supposed to feel bad for them and subsidize their lifestyle. I’d like 4 monster energy drinks, some friggen ho ho’s and donuts and some lottery tickets to. The difference is I’m SMART enough not to do that every d*** day.

Too many of us use prejudice and caricature to justify an utter lack of sympathy for the poor, to rationalize the distance we’ve put between us and them.

But there’s something else worth noting. Even if it’s true that some people in poverty make things worse by buying stuff they don’t need and can’t afford (it’s a good thing the rest of us would never do that), we ought to ask why. Another commenter, Evan, hit the nail on the head:

Maybe if we didn’t live in a consumer culture that constantly tries to sell us wonderful things, and maybe if we didn’t treat being poor as a thing to be ashamed of, people would spend less on status symbols?

The top 100 advertisers spent more than $100 billion last year trying to convince us we need newer cell phones, faster cars, better makeup, and more credit card debt. They inundate us with billboards, banner ads, and TV spots telling us we’re not good enough unless we buy their stuff.

Do we really think this relentless barrage of advertising has no impact on our behavior, our sense of worth, our understanding of what we really need?

Everyone should be held responsible for their choices and actions. But that doesn’t just mean poor people who buy the $100 billion lie. It means those who sold it to them in the first place.

It means those who spend billions telling people it’s OK to go into debt. It’s OK to pay later. You can always take out a payday loan (at an undisclosed APR of 4,214%, of course). Just buy more stuff. How else will you be fit to walk the earth?

This exploitation in the name of “commerce” and “economic growth” is nothing new. Notice how the Old Testament prophet Amos described the merchants of Israel, who counted the minutes till the end of each holy day — which, among other things, were meant to be a temporary reprieve from such predatory commercialism:

“When will the New Moon be over
that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath be ended
that we may market wheat?”—
skimping on the measure,
boosting the price
and cheating with dishonest scales,
buying the poor with silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
selling even the sweepings with the wheat.

Their exploitation of the poor, God warned, would have consequences:

I will turn your religious festivals into mourning
and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth
and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son
and the end of it like a bitter day.

All of us, rich and poor, make bad choices from time to time. And we often have to live with the consequences of those choices. But shouldn’t those who lay the trap be held responsible, not just those who walk into it?

The myth of the unemployed freeloader

More cracks in the stereotypical view of poor people as freeloaders: it turns out unemployment benefits don’t diminish a person’s motivation to find work. Just the opposite, in fact.

In a post on BillMoyers.com, Joshua Holland shared the findings from a multinational study by Jan Eichhorn, a sociologist at the University of Edinburgh. The study was published in the October issue of Social Indicators Research.

The key finding was that the generosity of unemployment benefits had no effect at all on people’s drive to go out and try to find a job. “This means that claims about unemployment benefits resulting in complacent unemployed people who chose the situation and would be satisfied with it cannot be retained uncritically,” [Eichhorn] wrote.

This confirms similar findings from a 2011 study by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, which found that people who qualify for unemployment benefits actually spend more time looking for jobs than those who don’t quality.

In short, when society gives its most vulnerable members a hand up, they are more likely to demonstrate a strong work ethic, not less.

20 things the poor really do every day

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[Note: This post has been updated to more clearly identify the sources for each claim made below. The original post included links to each source but did not call them out as clearly.]

Dave Ramsey probably wasn’t expecting this much pushback when he shared a piece by Tim Corley contrasting the habits of the rich with those of the poor. In her response on CNN, Rachel Held Evans noted that Ramsey and Corley mistake correlation for causality when they suggest (without actually proving) that these habits are the cause of a person’s financial situation. (Did it never occur to them that it might be the other way around?)

Ramsey fired back, calling the pushback “immature and ignorant.” This from a guy who just made 20 sweeping assertions about 47 million poor people in the US — all based on a survey of 361 individuals.

That’s right. To come up with his 20 habits, Corley talked to just 233 wealthy people and 128 poor people. Ramsey can talk all he wants about Corley’s research passing the “common-sense smell test,” but it doesn’t pass the “research methodology 101” test.

To balance the picture a bit, I wanted to take a fact-based look at 20 things the poor do on a daily basis…

1. Search for affordable housing.
Especially in urban areas, the waiting list for affordable housing can be a year or more. During that time, poor families either have to make do with substandard or dangerous housing, depend on the hospitality of relatives, or go homeless.
(Source: New York Times)

2. Try to make $133 worth of food last a whole month.
That’s how much the average food stamp recipient gets each month. Imagine trying to eat well on $4.38 per day. It’s not easy, which is why many impoverished families resort to #3…
(Source: Kaiser Family Foundation)

3. Subsist on poor quality food.
Not because they want to, but because they can’t afford high-quality, nutritious food. They’re trapped in a food system that subsidizes processed foods, making them artificially cheaper than natural food sources. So the poor are forced to eat bad food — if they’re lucky, that is…
(Sources: Washington Post; Journal of Nutrition, March 2008)

4. Skip a meal.
One in six Americans are food insecure. Which means (among other things) that they’re sometimes forced to go without eating.
(Sources: World Vision, US Department of Agriculture)

5. Work longer and harder than most of us.
While it’s popular to think people are poor because they’re lazy (which seems to be the whole point of Ramsey’s post), the poor actually work longer and harder than the rest of us. More than 80 percent of impoverished children have at least one parent who works; 60 percent have at least one parent who works full-time. Overall, the poor work longer hours than the so-called “job creators.”
(Source: Poverty and Learning, April 2008)

6. Go to bed 3 hours before their first job starts.
Number 15 on Ramsey and Corley’s list was, “44% of [the] wealthy wake up three hours before work starts vs. 3% of [the] poor.” It may be true that most poor people don’t wake up three hours before work starts. But that could be because they’re more likely to work multiple jobs, in which case job #1 means they’re probably just getting to bed three hours before job #2 starts.
(Source: Poverty and Learning, April 2008)

7. Try to avoid getting beat up by someone they love.
According to some estimates, half of all homeless women in America ran away to escape domestic violence.
(Source: National Coalition for the Homeless, 2009)

8. Put themselves in harm’s way, only to be kicked to the streets afterward.
How else do you explain 67,000 63,000 homeless veterans?
(Source: US Department of Veterans Affairs, updated to reflect the most recent data)

9. Pay more than their fair share of taxes.
Some conservative pundits and politicians like to think the poor don’t pay their fair share, that they are merely “takers.” While it’s true the poor don’t pay as much in federal income tax — usually because they don’t earn enough to qualify — they do pay sales tax, payroll tax, etc. In fact, the bottom 20% of earners pay TWICE as much in taxes (as a share of their income) as do the top 1%.
(Source: Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy, January 2013)

10. Fall further behind.
Even when poverty is the result of poor decision-making, often it’s someone else’s choices that make the difference. If you experience poverty as a child, you are 3-4 times less likely to graduate high school. If you spend your entire childhood in poverty, you are 5 times less likely to graduate. Which means your future has been all but decided for you.
(Sources: World Vision, Children’s Defense Fund, Annie E. Casey Foundation)

11. Raise kids who will be poor.
A child’s future earnings are closely correlated to their parents’ earnings. In other words, economic mobility — the idea that you can claw your way out of poverty if you just try hard enough is, more often than not, a myth.
(Sources: OECD, Economic Policy Institute)

12. Vote less.
And who can blame them? I would be less inclined to vote if I didn’t have easy access to the polls and if I were subjected to draconian voter ID laws that are sold to the public as necessary to suppress nonexistent voter fraud.
(Source: The Center for Voting and Democracy)

13. When they do vote… vote pretty much the same as the rest of us.
Following their defeat in 2012, conservatives took solace by reasoning that they’d lost to a bunch of “takers,” including the poor, who voted for Democrats because they want free handouts from big government. The reality is a bit more complex. Only a third of low-income voters identify as Democrats, about the same for all Americans, including wealthy voters.
(Sources: NPR, Pew Research Center)

14. Live with chronic pain.
Those earning less than $12,000 a year are twice as likely to report feeling physical pain on any given day.
(Source: Kaiser Health News)

15. Live shorter lives.
There is a 10-14 year gap in life expectancy between the rich and the poor. In recent years, poor people’s life expectancy has actually declined — in America, the wealthiest nation on the planet.
(Source: Health Affairs, 2012)

16. Use drugs and alcohol pretty much the same as (or less than) everyone else.
Despite the common picture of inner city crack houses, drug use is pretty evenly spread across income groups. And rich people actually abuse alcohol more than the poor.
(Source: Poverty and Learning, April 2008)

17. Receive less in subsidized benefits than corporations.
The US government spends around $60 billion on public housing and rental subsidies for low-income families, compared to more than $90 billion on corporate subsidies. Oil companies alone get around $70 billion. And that’s not counting the nearly $60 billion a year in tax breaks corporations enjoy by sheltering profits offshore. Or the $700 billion bailout banks got in 2008.
(Source: Think By Numbers)

18. Get themselves off welfare as soon as possible.
Despite the odds, the vast majority of beneficiaries leave the welfare rolls within five years. Even in the absence of official welfare-to-work programming, most welfare recipients enroll in some form of vocational training. Why? Because they’re desperate to get off welfare.
(Source: US Department of Health and Human Services)

19. Have about the same number of children as everyone else.
No, poor people do not have loads of children just so they can stay on welfare.
(Source: US Department of Health and Human Services)

20. Accomplish one single goal: stay alive. 
Poverty in America may not be as dire as poverty in other parts of the world, but many working poor families are nonetheless preoccupied with day-to-day survival. For them, life is not something to be enjoyed so much as endured.

These are the real habits of the poor, those with whom Jesus identifies most closely.

[Note: For a followup to this post, see "Poverty is more than a matter of poor decision-making."]

How this is about context (and not botching the Bible)

Rep Conaway debates SNAP reduction

So…the debate on Capitol Hill turned biblical the other day.

Democrats and Republicans took turns quoting Scripture during a debate over a proposed $4 billion cut to the welfare program formerly known as food stamps (now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP).

Kicking things off, Representative Juan Vargas (D-California):

There are starving children in the United States… but for me, it’s more basic. Many of us who follow Jesus — who say that openly, and I certainly do — often times read the Bible, and Jesus kind of fools around and gives you parables. He doesn’t often times say exactly what he means. But in Matthew 25, he’s very, very clear. And he delineates what it takes to get into the kingdom of heaven very, very clearly. And he says that how you treat the least among us — the least of our brothers — that’s how you treat him. And interestingly, the very first thing he says is, ‘For I was hungry, and you gave me [something] to eat.’

If Republicans were caught off guard by Democrats unabashedly using the J-word, they hid it well. But they had their work cut out if they were going to regain the upper hand in the Capitol Hill Bible Challenge.

Not missing a beat, Mike Conaway (R-Texas) took to the pulpit to respond:

I read Matthew 25 to speak to me as an individual; I don’t read it to speak to the United States government. So I will take a little bit of umbrage with you on that. Clearly you and I are charged that we do those kinds of things, but not our government.

And then came Stephen Fincher (R-Tennessee) with a prooftext of his own, quoting the apostle Paul as an early supporter of cutting government food assistance:

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’  (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

Rep. Fincher’s mishandling of Paul’s statement has to be one of the more egregious abuses of Scripture I’ve seen. Others have already pointed out how the context of 2 Thessalonians undermines Fincher’s interpretation. Paul was addressing a community of early Christians who thought the end of days was upon them, that Jesus’ second coming was just around the corner. Therefore, they decided there was no point in working any longer. They were content to just sit back and wait for Jesus to reappear.

Paul wanted Christians to be active and engaged in the world around them — earning a living, contributing to society — not pressing the “check out” button early. That’s why he said, “Hey, if you don’t want to work, you don’t have to eat, either.” It had nothing to do with poverty, government assistance for the hungry, or anything like that.

Nor is it remotely fair to equate food stamp beneficiaries with the supposedly lazy recipients of Paul’s letter. The reality is that most people living in poverty work harder, longer, and earn much less than I make while I sit in a comfortable office each day.

All of which is to say: context matters.

By quoting an isolated verse with complete disregard for its context, Rep. Fincher shamefully misused the Bible to advance his own political agenda.

I would really like it if the story ended there. I’d also really like it if Matthew 25 meant what Rep. Vargas said it means.

But it doesn’t.

Social justice organizations — many of which I support — have gotten a lot of mileage out of Jesus’ “least of these” statement in Matthew 25. It’s quoted repeatedly as a general call to help the poor, the hungry, the vulnerable. Heck, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve used it that way.

But what Jesus actually said was, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine…”

“Brothers and sisters” (adelphoi) is a term Jesus used of his disciples. The word “least” is actually a form of the Greek word for “little ones” — which he also used in reference to his disciples.

If you back up a few pages, you’ll find that Matthew 25 is part of an extended discourse which began after Jesus and his 12 disciples left the temple. As they sat on the Mount of Olives, Jesus started preparing them for a coming period of upheaval — one so intense that not even the temple would survive.

Jesus told his disciples to anticipate hardship in the years to come. The blessings (and curses) in Matthew 25 were for those who showed (or withheld) some form of mercy to Jesus’ suffering followers. It was not a blanket statement about poverty and injustice.

Now, as it happens, there ARE plenty of broad statements about poverty and injustice to be found in the Bible.

Isaiah 58, for example.

Or Isaiah 61 which, though originally addressed to Jewish exiles in Babylon, was picked up by Jesus and was expanded to include Gentiles (much to the chagrin of his synagogue audience in Nazareth).

The fact that Matthew 25 may not be a blanket statement about poverty does nothing diminish to Scripture’s unrelenting focus on the poor and the vulnerable.

So why do we keep using Matthew 25 out of context?

The thing is, if we insist on using our favorite verses like this, then we have no right to challenge others when they misuse the Bible. I happen to think Rep. Vargas is more in tune with the overall trajectory of Scripture than either Rep. Conaway or Fincher. But all three were examples of Christians quoting the Bible badly the other day.

Not that such examples are hard to come by. The truth is, we’ve all given in to the habit of quoting Scripture selectively.

We might not have this problem if we didn’t insist on dicing Scripture into artificial nuggets and calling them verses. Or if we would get into the habit of reading what comes immediately before and after a given passage of Scripture. Discerning the context of Matthew 25 or 2 Thessalonians 3 doesn’t take a theological degree.

All it takes is a willingness to read attentively. To read the Bible on its terms, not ours.

And to maybe read more than a verse at a time.

If we read the Scriptures more holistically, we might not make Mike Conaway’s mistake either — claiming the Bible addresses individuals only and not societies whenever it says something that doesn’t line up well with our political leanings.

“Clearly you and I are charged to do those kinds of things [e.g. feeding the hungry],” Rep. Conaway reasoned, “but not our government.”

I wonder if Rep. Conaway has read the prophet Amos, who yearned for justice — by which he meant economic justice — to “roll on like a river.”

And just who, according to Amos, was partly responsible for maintaining economic justice?

Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.

I wonder if Rep. Conaway has ever read Psalm 72, where the writer prays that the king (Solomon in this case, according to tradition) will maintain justice and righteousness:

May he judge your people in righteousness,
your afflicted ones with justice.

May the mountains bring prosperity to the people,
the hills the fruit of righteousness.
May he defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
may he crush the oppressor.

I wonder if Rep. Conaway is aware that his brand of individualism — the lens through which he reads and then discards those parts of the Bible that make him squirm — would have been an utterly foreign concept to the original writers and recipients of Scripture? Theirs was a world shaped by community, one in which an “I built that” mentality was simply incongruous.

The idea that some portions of Scripture could be read individually and not corporately?

It would have been unthinkable to those first recipients of the Bible.

Context matters when reading the Bible.

Which means that, no, Matthew 25 isn’t a blanket statement on helping the poor — though there are plenty other such statements in the Bible.

And no, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 isn’t a biblical endorsement of libertarian economic policy. (It’s a denunciation of end-times escapism.)

And no, Rep. Conaway, you can’t read the Bible’s injunctions on poverty and injustice as if they were statements to you as an individual and not to the society you’re a part of. The biblical writers simply didn’t make that kind of distinction. And as for the prophets, well, they spent a good chunk of their time addressing people like you — that is, rulers and authorities with the power to do something about injustice.

So may we all learn to do better by the Bible so that, together, we can embody the kind of justice it expects of us and our society.

50 million abortions later, the question we still aren’t asking…

Last week was the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Some pro-life commentators marked the occasion by pointing out that over 50 million pregnancies have been terminated since the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling.

Now, I’m a fan of female empowerment. My wife and I have an egalitarian marriage. I support equal pay for equal work. I believe women are every bit as capable of leadership as men — in every sphere of life, from the boardroom to the church.

But I also consider myself pro-life, though I like to think that “pro-life” means more than just opposing abortion. For me, neither Roe v. Wade nor 50 million abortions are cause for celebration.

Still, as we mark this tragic milestone, I find myself wondering:

What if these 50 million unborn children had been allowed to live? What kind of life would they have had?

Consider the fact that many women choose abortion out of economic necessity, perceived or real. More than 40% who had an abortion in 2008 lived below the U.S. poverty line ($10,830 for a single woman with no children). The claim often made by pro-life groups that most abortions are “elective” doesn’t take into account the realities of being a single woman trapped in poverty.

Imagine trying to get by on less than $11,000 a year. Now imagine trying to raise a child on that.

By even the most conservative estimate, up to half of these 50 million kids would have grown up in dire economic circumstances, with severely limited access to nutrition, health care, education, and economic opportunity.

Please don’t take this as a chilling attempt to rationalize abortion. It’s not. What I’m asking is, would those of us who call ourselves “pro-life” have taken care of these kids? Would we have insisted that we as a society make sure they experience the very best life has to offer?

Pro-lifers argue (convincingly, in my opinion) that it’s unfair to penalize a fetus simply because it was “unplanned.” But if that’s true with respect to whether that fetus is allowed to be born, isn’t it equally true with respect to what kind of life a child has after he or she is born? If a child who results from an unplanned pregnancy is innocent, doesn’t that child have the right not just to be born, but to have a decent life, too?

Now imagine another 25 million children had been born into poverty over the last 39 years, as would have been the case if Roe v. Wade had never happened. There would have been significantly higher demand for government assistance — ironically, at a time when many conservatives who rightly lament the tragedy of abortion are also insisting on deep cuts to these very programs. The increased demand on private charity would have been substantial as well.

So would we have risen to the occasion?

Would we have considered it a fair tradeoff? A bit more government welfare, a bit more charitable giving — in exchange for fewer (or no) abortions?

Ruins of Ephesus

In ancient Roman cities like Ephesus, it was common to discard unwanted children (usually girls), leaving them to die in the local dump or to be picked up by slave traders. It’s been reported that some Christians would comb the dumps, rescuing unwanted children. They didn’t just work themselves into a fit of righteous indignation; they gave of themselves, bringing life where death had previously reigned.

I’ll never forget the day in college when my political science professor, a registered Democrat, stunned his mostly conservative students (myself included) by saying, “You want to be pro-life? Fine. But put your money where your mouth is. Instead of spending it all lobbying against Roe v. Wade, use some of it to give that teenage girl who’s pregnant and scared another option.”

I know there’s a lot of debate over the effectiveness of government welfare at discouraging abortion. Still, the question remains:

If those 50 million children were alive today, would we as a society have expended ourselves to give them a real shot at a decent life?

Have we been just as pro-life outside the womb as we are in it?

Fast food continent

Recently, I saw this ad—one of several from the Acton Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates, among other things, the use of free market economics to help fight poverty:

burger_ad-12.jpg

I respect the Acton Institute. I think they have several good ideas about fighting poverty. Some of their other ads advocate things like microloans for the poor and access to global markets for developing countries so they can trade their goods freely.

But in the case of this particular ad, there’s another perspective worth considering. What if 30 grams of fat is not, in fact, good for the world’s poor? What if the Big Mac represents the kind of consumerism that can hurt the poor by damaging their environment?

Consider this example from Matthew Sleeth’s book Serve God, Save the Planet (which I blogged about last month):

To obtain billions of hamburger patties for a few cents each, America’s fast-food restaurants buy much of their meat from Central and South American farmers. These farmers clear-cut forests, often starting a cattle-raising process that can be sustained for only a few short years. The loss of rain forests in South America means that the clouds they once made no longer blow across the Atlantic to drop their water on Africa. As a result, the Sahara grows by thousands of acres a year. What is the bottom line for Africans? More starvation. And the bottom line for Americans? Cheap burgers and growing waistlines.

South American rain forests generate the clouds that deposit rain on African farmlands. As these life-giving forests disappear, children starve.

Incidentally, those working in places like East Africa confirm that the frequency and severity of droughts has increased significantly. Unfortunately, most of the mainstream media is too obsessed with the latest drunken celebrity incarceration story to cover the plight of the rural African farmer.

Meanwhile, these farmers report more and more difficulty as their climate changes for the worse. The Sahara is pushing southward, and the rains that once fell with some measure of predictability are becoming scarce.

In a world where children starve so I can scarf down a $4.00 value meal (one that will probably shorten my life span as well), can we really argue that unbridled consumerism is good in all its forms? Adam Smith, the father of free market economics, envisioned an invisible hand—the idea that a person who is free to pursue their own economic well-being will unwittingly contribute to the common good.

But what happens when consumerism reaches epic proportions? What happens when our appetite for more stuff—including things which, like the Big Mac, have no redeeming value—grows out of control? What happens when we embrace capitalism without restraint, without accountability, and without responsibility for those who are impacted by the choices we make?

Is it possible that we’ve bound the invisible hand? That the connection between self-interest and the common good has been broken by our unrestrained (and unrecognized) greed?

Is it possible that our choice of what and where to eat is really a choice of whether or not we will love our neighbors (including those who live on the other side of the planet)?

It may be that fast food is not only hazardous to our health. It may be that our addiction to fast food is hazardous to Africa’s health.

generosity redefined

More than once, I’ve heard it said that we Americans are a good and generous people. A few years ago, former Secretary of State Colin Powell described the US as “the most generous nation in the world.” Our president has frequently remarked that we are a “generous, kindhearted nation.”

The question is… are we?

Well, yes and no.

According to a recent CNN story, Americans forked over nearly $300 billion to charitable causes last year, including gifts to churches, universities, libraries, etc. That’s $13 billion more than the year before. And it’s more than twice the amount given by the next most generous country.

And that’s just private giving. For every man, woman, and child in this country, the US government provides nearly $24 in aid to developing countries every year. And thanks in no small part to the president’s promise to send an additional $30 billion to Africa over next five years to help fight AIDS, the total amount we give is on its way up.

That’s the good news. And make no mistake, it is good news. It’s good news for the 1.1 million Africans now receiving life-saving treatment for HIV. (Three years ago, only 50,000 Africans had access to such treatment.) It’s good news for the 16 million people who were given malaria nets last year. It’s good news for several hundred thousand families who got microloans to start small businesses to begin lifting themselves out of poverty.

But like almost every story, there is another side…

With per capita income at nearly $38,000, we’re one of the wealthiest countries on the planet. Yet when you measure foreign aid to developing countries as a percent of our wealth, we rank dead last among the rich countries of the world.

True, that’s just government aid, which means it doesn’t take into account the nearly $300 billion Americans gave out of their own pockets last year.

But here’s the thing. As big as $300 billion may sound, it’s barely more than 2 percent of our total wealth. (In a country where something like three-quarters of people identify themselves as Christians, why aren’t more of us giving closer to 10 percent?)

What’s more, for all our charitable giving, only around 2 percent of it goes to the world’s poor. (Which is the about same percent the average Protestant church sets aside for global outreach.)

And when you compare the rate of giving to the increase in our collective wealth, the amount we gave as a percent of income actually decreased slightly last year. From 2005 to 2006, our wealth increased by 6 percent. Meanwhile, our generosity lagged behind, increasing at just 4 percent.

We’re a country that gives 2 percent of our wealth to help others… 2 percent of which goes to the people who need it most. Two percent of two percent. In other words, for every $100 we earn, we give just four cents to help our poorest neighbors around the world.

How does that measure up to the Torah, which commanded the Israelites to set aside a tenth of their harvest every three years for priests, foreigners, orphans, and widows?

How do we reconcile our rate of giving with our allegiance to a messiah who once told a wealthy young man that the path to righteousness required him to sell his possessions and give to the poor?

How will God—who measures generosity according to what we have and not just the amount we give—judge us?

Jesus once sat and watched as people put their offerings into the temple treasury. Of all the offerings he saw that day, the one that caught his attention was that of a poor widow who gave just two small coins.

They were the only coins she had.

In God’s economy, it’s about sacrifice, not size.

May all of us remember this truth before we become too satisfied with the extent of our generosity. We in America have been entrusted with much—which means that much will be demanded of us.