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Biblical hope and international poverty, Part 1

Avoiding the pitfalls of 20th-century materialistic thinking

Bob Geldof organized Live Aid, simultaneous large-scale rock concerts in London and Philadelphia held on July 13, 1985, and televised worldwide to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia. Most of the millions donated never benefited starving Ethiopians. Associated Press/Photo by Joe Schaber

Biblical hope and international poverty, Part 1

For more than 30 years I’ve read about and reported on the relation of worldviews to questions of international relief and development. American newspapers, hard hit by their loss of advertising to the internet, almost never do what The Milwaukee Journal did in the 1980s. It sent two reporters to Asia and Latin America to investigate problems of poverty. Working independently, each reporter came up with evidence pointing to five similar conclusions—and since we don’t see that kind of enterprise these days, I’ll report their findings.

First, the journalists found rampant fatalism among the poor. Reporter Meg Kissinger wrote that women in Recife, Brazil, “spoke matter-of-factly about child deaths—the way we would talk about how a bad summer rain has hurt our geraniums. It’s a shame, but what are you going to do?” Reporter Richard Kenyon wrote from Bangladesh that when a child is ill, “the child just dies, and the mother has only to say it was Allah’s will.”

Second, both reporters found a belief that evil spirts rule the world. Kenyon told of how Shanti Ram Devi, a woman in Nepal, “was cleaning the stains of diarrhea from the bottom and legs of her 3-year-old daughter in a pool near her home outside the village of Bhalam. … ‘What caused the diarrhea?’ I asked. ‘Ghosts,’ she said with a look that said my question was foolish. I pointed to the stagnant film and feces floating in the pool of water and asked if that might have anything to do with her daughter’s illness. Shanti Ram Devi looked at me blankly.

Third, both reporters found lack of respect for family. Meg Kissinger in Brazil’s slums, wrote, “This is a world where a man is encouraged to father as many children as he can but is branded a homosexual if he takes any part in caring for them.” She wanted to interview one father, but he ‘jumped out the window when I arrived. He … does not help support the children. … He went off with his friends to play cards and drink.” Kenyon in Bangladesh wrote of women abandoned by their husbands through the Muslim practice of divorce, which requires only that a husband say the word for “divorce” three times in order to abandon his wife.

Fourth, both reporters saw many kinds of valuable work shunned, even when the refusal to work can lead to death or disease. Kenyon described a filthy clinic in Nepal, with black, stagnant water in a sink and dirty rags littering a floor. Lower castes within the Hindu caste system were supposed to do the job, but they were not encouraged to work hard or told about the importance of cleanliness, particularly in medical clinics. “Why not educate them or get someone else to do the cleaning?” Kenyon asked an official. He “shrugged his shoulders, unconcerned and bored with the discussion.”

Fifth, both reporters then denied the evidence of their own senses and laid considerable blame for conditions on Americans. Kenyon attacked American-owned garment factories in Bangladesh that pay low wages by American standards, even though workers in those factories earn more than they could otherwise. He attacked “American anti-abortionists” who have tried to keep U.S. family planning grants from subsidizing abortion in Bangladesh. Kissinger in Brazil similarly saw abortion as salvation, and then attacked American companies that do business in Brazil.

They criticized “religious groups” that “came to the Third World in the name of helping but with hidden agendas of religious conversion.”

The reporters concluded their seven-part series with an article headlined “What can stop the dying?” They emphasized population control and transfer of resources from Western countries to others, partly as restitution for supposed past damages. “Colonialists from Europe,” Kenyon and Kissinger wrote, “upset cultures and undermined established economies, setting the stage for poverty”—as if poverty did not previously exist in Africa, Asia and Latin America. They recommended increased foreign aid to, and decreased corporate investment in, poorer countries. They criticized “religious groups” that “came to the Third World in the name of helping but with hidden agendas of religious conversion.”

“Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving” (Isaiah 6:9). The reporters could see the results of not believing in a sovereign and holy God—including a sense of fatalism, worship of evil spirits, and so on. The reporters could see the results of not abiding by Biblical principles in relation to family and work. But they could not make sense of what they saw, because they lacked a Christian perspective. Unable to make sense and casting around for villains, they fell back on old anti-Western myths.

IF 21ST-CENTURY CHRISTIANS SEE PROBLEMS of international poverty through 20th-century materialist glasses as those journalists did, we will make similar errors. We will miss the social and economic significance of a belief that evil spirits rule the world and need to be placated. We will miss the importance of seeing that all human beings operate within God’s covenant and deserve respect, since all of us, though scarred by sin, are created in God’s image.

And that brings me to the best conference I’ve ever attended. It was in Villars, Switzerland, close to where Francis Schaeffer had taught. Pierre Berthoud, still the president of the Fellowship of European Evangelical Theologians, set us off in the right direction with an examination of covenant. He observed that hunger and deprivation are most terrible because they scar the image of God that is man. The Christian goal is redemption, which requires both spiritual and physical transformation. As covenant-breakers we are responsible for our own behavior, and those who dig a pit will inevitably fall into it. As individuals saved by God’s mercy, we need to be merciful enough to throw one end of the rope into that pit, hold on to the other, and pray that God will give the captive strength to climb up.

The idea of covenant, Berthoud noted, is central to the Biblical definition of justice. Biblical justice is not a subset of mathematics, with certain precise income distributions viewed as praiseworthy. Instead Biblical justice is based on telling the truth and following God’s Word, regardless of socioeconomic consequences. Two verses in Exodus 23 (we used the NIV back then, before it embraced some feminist understandings) state this understanding most succinctly: “Do not show favoritism to a poor man in his lawsuits,” and “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits” (23:3, 6).

Those two verses accompany others dealing with the importance of truth-telling: “Do not spread false reports. Do not help a wicked man by being a malicious witness. … Do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd. … Have nothing to do with a false charge. … Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous” (23:1, 2, 7, 8).

Amos’ goal, Berthound pointed out, was not to redistribute income, but to make sure those who worked received the wages they had been promised and the goods they had paid for, without those in power practicing legal theft through governmental control.

Prophets such as Amos attacked bribe-taking and lying, included the use of dishonest weights and measures: “You oppress the righteous and take bribes,” he roared against Israel’s judges, “and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts” (Amos 5:12). Amos’ goal, Berthound pointed out, was not to redistribute income, but to make sure those who worked received the wages they had been promised and the goods they had paid for, without those in power practicing legal theft through governmental control.

Clark Pinnock, who died in 2010, reminded us of the reality of coercion. He pointed out that Marxist-Leninists have brought neither freedom nor justice to societies they have conquered, and have managed to kill the high hopes that usually accompanies their seizure of power. In communism there is no god but Caesar, the Communist Party—so there can be no covenant, no sense of absolute right and wrong, no freedom to act outside party constraints. Other forms of Marxism, in their search to not only interpret the world but change it, inevitably head toward coercion and dictatorship.

Pinnock also noted that Marxist theory (and its soft side, liberation theology) is as flawed as Marxist practice. An emphasis on class struggle cannot possibly come to grips with the devastating reality of sin and evil in all their forms, including pain, suffering, disease, decay, death, and, fundamentally, separation from God. Some, of course, argue that although liberation theology might be wrong, liberation economics is correct in that the Marxist critique in general is accurate and can be a useful tool for Christians. Yet, even if it were possible to divorce economics from theology, the bankruptcy of Marxist economics and the Marxist worldview was evident in 1987, two years before the Berlin Wall fell.

Pinnock’s evidence showed the importance of another theme that ran throughout the Villars conference: the necessity to look closely at what actually goes on, and not rely on our own abstract reasoning. Actual results show the nature of the world that God has created and man has governed, often for worse, sometimes for better.

If Biblical justice means fairness, not some kind of imposed mathematical “equality,” what then is the Biblical relation of justice, freedom, and international relief and development activities? Historian Herbert Schlossberg, who died on May 31, showed in 1987 that the goal of spreading around resources evenly always seems to require coercive means. “Engineered Reconstruction” fails in practice because it underestimates man’s need for freedom and our unwillingness to be reprogrammed in accordance with planning objectives. Freedom is essential to our lives, not an add-on to be allowed only after other needs are met.

Schlossberg noted that the anthropology of modern social reform lacks the richness and realism of the Biblical doctrine of man. Instead of recognizing that God created us in His image, social planning theories tend to see man as determined, responding to environmental manipulation. Man, created after God’s image, needs the freedom to be creative. Creativity is encouraged only when liberties of enterprise and conscience are present. The leading economic planners, of course, have also failed to recognize that they themselves suffer from original sin and tend to redouble their efforts as they lose sight of their goals.

Repeatedly, centralized control of political and economic power increased suffering rather than alleviated it.

SCHLOSSBERG EXAMINED THE WAY economist P.T. Bauer concentrated on what happened, not on what we wish had happened. Repeatedly, centralized control of political and economic power increased suffering rather than alleviated it. Over and over again foreign aid seldom reached those for whom it was intended, and usually resulted in an increase of central control, thus hindering economic development, underwriting destructive national polities, and reducing individual freedom.

Schlossberg showed how economics that fail have at their root theologies that stress performance of duties rather than achievement of results. Belief that attempts to transform nature bring retribution from occult forces, or that perpetual reincarnation makes this life less important, kills spiritually and physically. Schlossberg praised Bauer’s analysis of the 20th-century misuse of the word “justice”—but he asked where, in Bauer’s analysis, is hope.

When Bauer visited the University of Texas late in 1987, he was as reticent as ever about his personal beliefs. He strongly attacked foreign aid, arguing that the greatest hope for the dictator-ridden states of Africa is an overthrow of their leadership, and that “if we had not been giving massive foreign aid, [the dictators] would have been brought down years ago.” Bauer’s values emerged slightly when he reacted to one professor’s praise of “successful” population control programs: “If you think it is a success forcing women to have abortions, I must disagree with you.”

Bauer criticized a European and American “erosion of religion, or rather the idea of personal responsibility, so that the idea of collective guilt has taken root.” But, in response to questions, he was vague in his self-positioning, saying only that he followed a supposed “Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian tradition of individual responsibility.”

Bauer has his reasons for not going further. He has spent a lifetime in economics, not theology. He argues strongly for a division of positive and normative economics and contends that much mischief has resulted from a mixing of the two. In response to one attempt to probe his religious belief, Bauer answered with a smile, “I have enough problems doing what I’m doing. If I want into the [theological discussion], I’d have another set of problems.”

But that refusal to go deeper, even when made by a person as delightful and courageous as P.T. Bauer, was insufficient. Without wading into the second set of problems (the theology), there are no comprehensive answers for the first set (the economics). Bauer could tersely offer a first step to take—“Stop foreign aid. The rotten governments will fall”—but not a firm second step. He could expose the lack of justice and freedom in many societies, but he did not offer great hope.

WHAT THE VILLARS CONSULTATION AFFIRMED is that hope comes from the Bible, not from the theories of man. We could see that useful programs will not emerge unless they are based on the understanding that the Bible is God’s Word, inspired and authoritative for life in all its aspects, both in “spiritual” matters and in questions of economy, social ethics, and public policy.

What we saw more clearly at Villars was that in the 20th century philosophical materialism influenced all our thinking, Christian and non-Christian. Some saw through Marxist glasses, with Lenin and Stalin hailed as the new Moses and Joshua. Others, such as the singers in the hit tune of 1985, “We Are the World,” claimed that poverty fighting should turn stones into bread. Many Christians, sincerely desiring to follow Christ, mounted massive relief efforts, not always sure where funds were going, but sincerely convinced to do something, anything, that might alleviate hunger.

Emphasizing the material is an easy way out, and alliances with Satan in the belief that they will help us defeat Satan are the fruits of delusion.

The Biblical view is different from most 20th-century thought. Biblically, man is imprisoned not just by poverty but by deeper levels of alienation, imprisonment, and enslavement. The ultimate alienation is the alienation of man from God—which in turn affects everything else. This is not to deemphasize the economic. People need food. People need medicine. Salvation, repentance, healing, and restoration have visible aspects, with Christ’s sacrifice and our acceptance of it altering all physical, psychological, social, and economic aspects of life. But Christ’s goal is a total spiritual reorientation, which will then have outworkings in all areas of life. Emphasizing the material is an easy way out, and alliances with Satan in the belief that they will help us defeat Satan are the fruits of delusion.

The titles of magazine articles conveyed the materialist version of an Ethiopia tragedy in the mid-1980s. Time wrote of “The politics of famine: A ruthless regime compounds the plight of the starving.” Newsweek headlined, “The deadly politics of African aid efforts.” Neither magazine, however, showed understanding of the theology underlying political terror, a theology proclaiming that the state is God and that men must worship other men. Magazine story titles in 1987 continued to describe “Ethiopia’s murderous transformation” or “A state of permanent revolution: Ethiopia bleeds red”—but the authors could offer no hope.

WHAT COULD CHRISTIANS DO THEN? What can we do now? Many in the West wanted and want to help, but how to do that, except in limited ways, was and is unclear. Nevertheless, the Villars conference reminded us that something already had changed. Three decades later, I’m even more aware of how Jesus Christ broke the power of sin and death nearly 2,000 years ago. That good news means residents of Ethiopia and other poor countries could have new spiritual birth as well as new physical hope. Through God’s grace, we in the West could help—by no longer aiding their oppressors, and by making disciples as we showed how the whole gospel of God meets the needs of the whole person.

The Villars consultation was just the beginning of a process designed to change our own thinking and that of others. Three decades later, the message still needs to be the same: “He is risen,” Russian Christians tell each other on Easter morning, and then wait for the customary response: “He is risen, indeed.” That was the message of Villars—Christ is risen! And because He lives, we have a transforming message of hope that touches every area of life both now and for eternity.

Read “Biblical hope and international poverty, Part 2.”

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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Thanks for sharing. You have articulated what I have thought for a long time. I was not aware of those prior 'investigative' reports and an amazed at how blind they were of the real cause. It certainly is interesting how America is always to blame for the world's problems. Goes right along with the abandonment of personal responsibility.

Keep up your good work.