Everyone is going to write about Poverty this Wednesday

Poverty and suffering are perhaps some of the most challenging thoughts for a religious seeker to confront and reconcile.  This Wednesday offers a good opportunity to flush out some of your thoughts as Blog Action Day 2008 is challenging all bloggers to discuss the issue of poverty to launch a worldwide conversation.  I am perhaps most fascinated and excited by this model of journalism, a kind of open source community effort focusing on a global issue.  I will posting my thoughts from a professional perspective over at my blog on MicroFranchising and if I can work in two posts in one day I would love to address the issue from a religious perspective in this forum.  If you plan on posting yourself go to the Blog Action Day website to register to help them show the impact of the day.

Blog Action Day 2008 Poverty from Blog Action Day on Vimeo.

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5 comments ↓

#1 Greg on 10.26.08 at 7:30 am

Thanks for this post. We certainly need to be talking about poverty, and especially how we can break the cycle!

I’m taken by Dennis Jacobsen lately. I’m reading his book, “Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing.” As a Christian, I see a lot of charitable acts by other Christians, but not much passion about understanding or challenging the systemic causes of poverty. And I think that is what churches need to be addressing and challenging. We would rather simply give food on Thanksgiving and presents to the poor at Christmas and vote for politicians whose policies privilege the rich and continue to ignore or crush those living in poverty. It’s easier that way and we can remain wealthy and privileged without the guilt.

Jacobsen posits that there is a pseudo-innocence in the churches today. “Pseudo-innocence”, he says, “lacks the courage to see the world as it is. Pseudo-innocence imagines that the world is essentially good, that war is waged for moral purpose, that the poor cause their poverty, that race relations will be transformed through friendliness. Pseudo-innocence is undaunted in its cheery approach to relationships, and bewildered and useless when it comes to systemic injustice. Martin Luther King, Jr., with reference to Paul Tillich, observed that although power without love is tyranny, love without power is sentimentality. Sentimentality is the face of pseudo-innocence. Jesus said that we must be ‘as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.’ Those who have a faithful vision of the world as it should be see the world as it is for what it is. They have the wisdom of serpents, but they retain a childlike innocence in their actions. They are willing to engage power in the service of love. And power joined to love can create justice.”

But, sadly, many churches would rather not rock the boat by challenging the status quo. We would rather make an idol out of Jesus; a Jesus who tells us that God wants us to be rich and that we deserve to be rich while others live in poverty. I’m not sure how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints responds (or doesn’t respond) to these issues, but both evangelical and mainline protestant denominations – both right AND left wings of these churches – are deafened to the scathing message of Jesus regarding the inherent dangers in the hoarding of wealth at the expense of those who are poor. And church leaders are often reluctant to preach this scathing message as Jesus did because they will likely loose the funding they receive from the wealthiest members of their churches. As Jacobsen also notes, “Those providing direct services to the poor are often reliant on the financial contributions of wealthy donors. Providers cannot risk offending such donors by asking hard questions or challenging unjust systems.”

It is a vicious cycle in which the rich get richer and the poor cannot get ahead. Donations from the wealthy are certainly commended and needed, but that alone does not break the systemic cycle of poverty – it does not liberate the poor. On the contrary, it makes the poor dependent on the wealthy and in essence ruled by the wealthy. And I argue that this is not coherent with the message of the Jesus of the Gospels. Jesus calls us into a community of mutual concern for each member; a community where all are liberated and free, not where some are privileged above others.

The widow in the Gospels gave all she had, but the wealthy gave out of their abundance – Jesus said she gave more than the wealthy, even though numerically their amount was more. It was no sacrifice for the wealthy to give, and it appears to me that their gifts to the temple did nothing to break the systemic cycle of poverty.

#2 Dave on 10.26.08 at 1:52 pm

Greg–Thanks for coming by, this is a topic I spend a lot of time thinking about. I am actually in the middle of a series of posts about the culture of LDS philanthropy over at my other blog, ldsartsandculture.blogspot.com. It is intended as a discussion among members of the LDS Church but you might find it interesting.

Generally I would say the general population of Mormons in the U.S. have some of the same “pseudo-innocence” tendencies as other Christian demoninations in the U.S. as you describe but I would say the Mormon leadership and wealthy LDS philanthropists are and have been involved in building solutions that try to address the systematic causes of poverty but often outside of the government route. For example Mormons have been some of the early supporters of the microcredit and microfinance movement. It was a group of Mormon businessmen who were behind Unitus, the microfinance accelerator, for example. Mormons also have an extremely strong value in education and see education as a key factor in the issue of poverty. So the Mormons have multiple universities they run and make special efforts to make those opportunities to their less advantaged members. They also have this thing called a Perpetual Education Fund which is a revolving fund for educational loans, mainly technical training education for returned missionaries in poor countries.

The rhetoric of serving the poor and humbling of the rich is very strong in the LDS scriptures, perhaps even more so than in the New Testament, particularly outside of the Gospels. For example, one of the main recurring themes of the Book of Mormon is the cycle of the people of God prospering, then forgetting God and the poor, and eventually being destroyed until they are humbled and remember God and poor.

Historically the most vocal internal critics of Mormons and how they handle their wealth have been Brigham Young himself and then the great defender of the faith, Hugh Nibley, particuarly in his essays collected in “Approaching Zion.” Both individuals are interesting examples of complete dedication to the faith and at the same time some of the harshest critics of the members of the Church. The recent leader to take the helm of the LDS Church is known for speaking about welfare and caring for the poor, so it will be interesting to see how his leadership will effect the Mormons and their charitable activities.

This arena does get rather complex with the Mormons; for example they do have a reputation for excelling in business, they also follow the law of tithing strictly so every member gives a tenth of their income to the church as a whole which supports the welfare efforts of the church (for internal members), the humanitarian efforts of the church (worldwide, nondenominational), the employment centers, etc. There is also an interesting combination of high rates of LDS activity in politics, on both sides of the aisle (Harry Reid on the one hand and Mitt Romney as an example on the other) but then generally a history of isolationism and a strong aversion to hand-out welfare and dependancy. So, a lot of interesting dynamics going on.

#3 Greg on 10.27.08 at 6:08 pm

Dave,

Thanks for educating me with this insightful look into the Mormon response to poverty! Indeed, even the Jewish scriptures reveal the recurring cycle of blessing, then people forgetting God and the poor, and then the nation going into captivity. The Hebrew prophets are known for their strong voice for social justice once the nation forgot the poor, and it is in that same vein that the Gospel writers said Jesus preached.

You mentioned the complex dynamics involved in Mormon charity work, with philanthropy both inside and outside the Church. How much proselytizing is tied to charity efforts outside the Church? I’m just curious because of my fundamental Baptist heritage, which has always included a proselytizing piece with any charity work, a fact that has come to frustrate me now that I have adopted a more progressive Christianity.

#4 Dave on 10.27.08 at 9:44 pm

Generally, I think the Mormons keep their charity work separate from their proselytizing, which I personally like. For example, we have specific missionaries who are called to be “humanitarian missionaries” who do absolutely no proselytizing, being instructed to not proselytize. The typical proselytizing missionaries on the other hand, the ones people see riding around on their bikes, do a very limited amount of humanitarian or charitable work, their primary responsibility being to teach and preach. So there is a strong separation in the official program of the Church.

The LDS Church definitely uses their humanitarian work for building good public relations and as a peace-building mechanism, i.e. if you won’t accept our doctrine at least accept our kindness. Generally I think the feeling is that the actions will speak for themselves and that any “proselytizing” in charitable work will come across in the kindness in people’s eyes and from any questions that such activities may inspire or from the personal relationships that are formed when people work side by side.

I would go as far as to say that the LDS Church tries very hard to not ‘woo’ people or even provide the illusion that somehow joining the church would open up welfare doors for an individual. The Church is very much against handouts and in creating dependency, so, Mormons talk about “welfare” in terms such as ‘self-reliance’ and ‘provident living’, but at the same time the LDS Church is well known for emergency and disaster relief which is made up entirely of handouts in a time of crisis, so again, it’s an interesting balance in LDS charity work.

#5 Greg on 10.28.08 at 5:13 am

Fascinating! Thanks for sharing.

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