07 January 2012

Poverty and Worldly Passions

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.” - Titus 2:11-14 NRSV

Nick Kristof is a journalist I can respect. He goes to poverty-stricken areas of the world and shines a spotlight on injustice and inequality. His reporting about people who depend on what they can find in dumps to survive inspired me to write about the problem from a theological perspective, which in turn prepared my heart and mind for “Dump Day” when it came to my attention. Though there are times I agree with him in part while cringing at some of his ill-informed religious views, as in the article where he wrote of “two churches,” he wins me over with his candor. A prime example of this is in a recent article where he talks booze and tobacco as part of the cause of poverty.
There’s an ugly secret of global poverty, one rarely acknowledged by aid groups or U.N. reports. It’s a blunt truth that is politically incorrect, heartbreaking, frustrating and ubiquitous:

It’s that if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.
This is a truth I found while serving in Brazil, South America. While on the whole Brazil is not as miserable as most African nations, it is most definitely still a poor country in development. Time and again as my collegues in mission and I studied the Bible with people in their homes, we found that one of the greatest sources of trouble for them was their “addictions.”

Now, in the U.S. when I hear of ”addiction” it usually refers to full-blown alcoholism, drug use or possibly even nicotine. In Brazil I heard the term thrown around a bit more frequently, and I’m beginning to believe that it’s because many in the church there recognize the threat these habits pose to families. There is moral and social harm done, and also financial harm. If a father receives his wages on Friday and then spends the night out at a bar, what will be left for the family the next day? Sadly, this is a scenario played out on a regular basis in Brazil and elsewhere. Those in more well-to-do nations can often make do, but for those living just at the line between having a place to live with food on the table and being hungry on the street, spending on luxury addictions isn’t the best choice.
Look, I don’t want to be an unctuous party-pooper. But I’ve seen too many children dying of malaria for want of a bed net that the father tells me is unaffordable, even as he spends larger sums on liquor. If we want Mr. Obamza’s children to get an education and sleep under a bed net — well, the simplest option is for their dad to spend fewer evenings in the bar.
One young couple we studied the Bible with during my time in Brazil had three beautiful young daughters. The oldest was around 10 at the time, and the youngest was just a toddler. This vibrant couple really seemed to be getting into our studies, but there was a roadblock. They knew that if they were baptized into Christ they’d be expected to stop going out drinking. It wasn’t that we taught people to abstain entirely. The trouble was that this couple really enjoyed going out and getting plastered together. They said it was one the the things they shared in common. Worse still, when they went out they left those little girls alone. Beyond the money they were squandering so they could come stumbling home in the wee hours of the morning, “three sheets to the wind,” they were putting their children in danger.

Kristof proceeds towards the end of his article to provide various possible solutions to the problem. For my part, let me say that sometimes I come down way too hard on churches and ministries that don’t incorporate some element of social justice and community development into their work. This is something I’ve criticized myself for recently. Though I believe this to be the case, I do not want to leave the impression that personal evangelism that includes a challenge to repentance has no place. In fact, it is the core of what the church does. Our mission is more than meals, shelter, education and job training, as vital as these are. None of these have any lasting meaning or value if we are not also challenging ourselves and others to live new lives that demonstrate the new creation that is breaking into this world from God. 
Well-meaning humanitarians sometimes burnish suffering to make it seem more virtuous and noble than it often is. If we’re going to make more progress, and get kids like the Obamza children in school and under bed nets, we need to look unflinchingly at uncomfortable truths — and then try to redirect the family money now spent on wine and prostitution.
Let’s be honest about all the causes of poverty, and let’s work to get people to deal with them. Even a church that only focuses on “Gospel preaching” can bear lasting fruit measured in transformed lives and families, though of course I think it’s missing valuable tools in expanding the effect.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV)

Moonshine or the Kids? (NYTimes)

UPDATE: 06/18/2010 The following video of the report from Nick Kristof I referenced in this post has come to my attention, so I share it here.