"The average North American enjoys a standard of living that has been unimaginable for most of human history. Meanwhile, 40% of the earth's inhabitants eke out an existence on less than two dollars per day. And from inner city ghettos to rural Appalachia, pverty continues to inflict pain, loss, and despair on the North American continent itself. Indeed, the economic and social disparity between the 'haves," and the 'have-nots' is on the rise both within North America and between North America and much of the Majority World (Africa, Asia and Latin America)" (p. 13) is how the preface to a book I just finished reading. It is another book that deals with our responsiblity as Christians to impact the world around us - spiritually, of course, but also physically... materially... tangibly.
Loaned to me by a friend awhile back I finally found a few extra minutes to read When Helping Hurts, and want to recommend it to others who've seriously considered how God would have them show compassion to the less fortunate around them, as well as to the materially and spiritually poor all across the globe. And thus the book begins by asking two questions:
- Have you ever done anything to help poor people?
- Have you ever done anything to hurt poor people?
Most of us, in general, would answer a confident "Yes!" to the first question and a confident, "No, not that I'm aware of," to the second... yet the authors of this book would challenge us to look at our ideas and practices, some incorrect and presumptuous, as we've attempted to obey and follow Jesus, practically living out Matthew 25.31-46, 1 John 3.17, as well several other similar biblical passages, in our daily lives.
This book has challenged me on two levels - generally as I seek to make an impact for Christ in this desperately poor world literally right outside my very doorstep. The first chapter contains a "true story," where one of the authors describes something that happened to him. He was in Kampala, Uganda, teaching a biblically-based small business training class in one of the local slums, working through a Christian leader and translator and under the auspices of a local pastor and national church ministry. Through the course of the class, they experienced a dramatic conversion by one of the local witch doctors who forsook her life of darkness to follow Jesus. One day, this woman was conspicuously absent. A few questions helped them to discover that she was very ill. In most traditional African societies (at least based on my own personal experience), when you hear a friend or acquaintance is sick, the proper and polite thing to do is to go and visit them, so this missionary and his translator friend went to visit the ailing woman. Arriving at her one room shack, she was obviously very sick... she had come down with tonsillitis and because she was HIV positive, had been refused treatment at a local medical center. She gave a neighbor some money and then had that neighbor cut out her tonsils with a kitchen knife. The translator told the missionary that the ex-witch doctor probably needed penicillin or she would die. The missionary asked how much it would cost, the translator told him, he gave her the money for the medicines and headed out of the slum because night was rapidly approaching. The translator headed for a pharmacy, purchased and delivered the antibiotic to the woman. The next week, that woman was back at the small business class. (my summary from pages 21-24 in the book).
This book asks its readers to examine this situation and others like it, and determine... did the missionary truly help or hurt by his words and/or deeds. Did his actions help move everyone involved into a closer, righter relationship with Almighty God, or did they hinder that process? What do you think? How would you answer those questions and why? His assessment is that his actions probably did more harm than good... on all accounts.
Do you find the missionary's personal assessment sobering? I did. The authors describe "help" (material and spiritual) in three broad categories: relief- "the urgent and temporary provision of emergency aid to reduce immediate suffering from a crisis"; rehabilitation -" restoring people and communities to the positive elements of their precrisis condition;" and development - "a process of ongoing change that moves all the people involved closer to being in right relationship with God, self, others and the rest of creation." (p. 104) He saw all three forms of assistance as legitimate needs in this particular situation... however they were applied... he and those assisting him applied them... in a hurtful, rather than helpful manner.
But this book has not only challenged me in the area of ministry to Nigeriens and those in the community around me. bit I've also been challenged in how I look at "development" in a broader sense. If you define development as "a process of ongoing change that moves all the people involved closer to being in right relationship with God, self, others and the rest of creation," then as a person, a wife, a parent, a Bible study leader, a teacher, a friend - I should be continuously and intimately involved in development work, every day, wherever God has placed me. If I walk into this development process assuming I have all the answers and that God is going to "fix" others through my efforts, then I'm missing a huge part of that definition. Development moves ALL people involved... i.e. myself, too - closer to those right relationships. Thus, whoever I'm deeming poor, in God's economy is probably a fix for some "area of poverty" in me. In light of this, when I pray about and search for how God might want me to be involved, maybe my focus should not be on needs... but on assets (i.e. what talents, abilities, contributions, etc., others can bring into this developmental equation)...? I can let God deal with the needs side of things, letting Him reveal the needs He knows are most important, not the wants that seem obvious or interesting to me. What if our focus changed from "What is wrong with you," to "What has God already gifted you with, and how can those gifts be used to further develop you as an individual and to help your community?" I know that if I relied on that mindset at least in the areas of parenting and teaching... I might come closer to following the principle of "training up a child in the way that he should go."