Friday, December 10, 2010

Review of Walking with the Poor, Myers

Walking With the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (1999, 279 pgs) by Bryant Myers is a seminal book in Christian community development, perhaps the most often referred to book by Christian professors and practitioners.  His book tackles the big issue of human suffering and how we should view poverty and its causes, including how the the Kingdom of God impacts the world today to create a “better human future.”  In this review I will try to summarize the book as concisely as possible (it’s a dense, rich book) and offer a brief appraisal of its strengths and weaknesses.

Walking with the Poor begins by addressing Hiebert’s “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle,” including the sacred/secular divide promoted by the modern worldview.  The Church has been captivated by this separation, thinking Jesus is only for our spiritual life, and that God is not really concerned with the material or physical world.  What results is a dichotomy that fails to see that God cares about whole people and that Jesus is Lord of all areas of human life.  Myers explains,

We express our captivity to a modern worldview when we say that holistic ministry means combining evangelism (meeting spiritual need) with relief and development (meeting physical need) as if these were divisible realms and activities.  Then we make it worse by insisting that the church or the evangelism part of our organization do the former, while the development agency does the later.  By so doing we declare development independent of religion, something most of us do not really believe (7).  

Instead, Myers argues that people create society and society shapes people.  The “impact of the fall is on both the individual and the social system, and so the impact of the gospel of the kingdom must be on both” (49).  “The biblical story is the account of God’s project to restore the lives of individuals and communities, marred by sin, so that they can be good, just, and peaceful once again” (176).  People need to be reconciled to God, to self, to others, and to the environment.

Myers believes that the gospel is communicated through life, word, deed, and sign:

The gospel message is an inseparable mix of life, deed, word, and sign.  We are to be with Jesus (life) so that we can preach the good news (word), heal the sick (deed), and cast out the demons (sign)… Each dimension of the gospel message adds meaning to the others. Our life and deeds make our words intelligible; our words help people understand our life and deeds.  Life, word, and deed are signs of the living presence of someone greater than ourselves (134).

The “already” aspect of the kingdom of God is central in Myers’ paradigm of development, and embracing Jesus is the beginning a community’s “story.”  “Only by accepting God’s salvation in Christ can people and the community redirect the trajectory of their story towards the kingdom of God” (112).  And all people are invited to move towards the kingdom, which he defines as the better human future.  “The kingdom vision for the better human future is summarized by the idea of shalom: just, peaceful, harmonious, and enjoyable relationships with each other, ourselves, our environment, and God” (113). 

Christ’s redemptive work is cosmic in scope.  In Myers’ view,

God’s redeeming world does not separate individuals from social systems of which they are a part.  People come first, of course.  Changed people, transformed by the gospel and reconciled to God, are the beginning of transformation… At the same time, however, this individual response does not fully express the scope of God’s redemptive work (52).

Myers further believes that the local church is the center of God’s plan for transformational development (126-128).  [This is why I believe, in a pioneer setting where there is no church yet, we should see church planting as the foundational focus of mission. See Church Planting or Development? Word and Deed in Biblical Balance.]

Now we turn to the fundamental questions that Walking with the Poor addresses.  Moving people towards a better human future means having an understanding of these foundational issues.

  1. What is poverty?
  2. Why are “the poor” poor?
  3. What is transformational development?
  4. How do we work with the poor?
  5. How does Christian witness relate to transformational development?

1. What is poverty?

Poverty is a lot more complex than simply people being in deficit or lacking stuff.  Myers reviews both secular and Christian theorists who give their own definitions of poverty as:

  1. Entanglement - The poor live in a cluster of disadvantages that leave them physically weak, isolated, vulnerable, and helpless.  These dimensions make up a “poverty trap.”
  2. Lack of access to social power – The poor are excluded from the overlapping domains of state power, political power, social power, and economic power.  The values of those powers are so low for the poor that they cannot move out of poverty on their own.
  3. Disempowerment – The poor find themselves ensnared inside a system of disempowerment made up of cultural, societal, biophysical, spiritual, and personal systems.  The poor listen to a “web of lies” and are told by the world that they are God-forsaken.
  4. Lack of freedom to grow – The poor are wrapped in a series of restrictions and limitations in four areas of life: physical, mental, social, and spiritual.  People don’t have the freedom to reach their full potential.

None of these theories are complete but they are all important as they complement each other.  Poverty is a complex, multifaceted phenomena to which there are no easy answers.  Myers doubts that there will ever be a unified model of poverty.

He concludes that the nature of poverty is fundamentally relational:

Poverty is a result of relationships [with God, self, others, environment] that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable.  Poverty is an absence of shalom in all its meanings (86).

Understanding poverty as relationships that don’t work as they should is consistent with the biblical story as well.  The scope of sin affects every one of the five relationships in which every human lives: within ourselves, with community, with those we call “other,” with our environment, and with God (87).

And the cause of poverty is fundamentally spiritual:

Sin is what distorts these relationships.  Sin is the root cause of deception, distortion, and domination.  When God is on the sidelines or written out of our story, we do not treat each other well… Without a strong theology of sin, comprehensive explanations for poverty are hard to come by (88).

2. Why are “the poor” poor?

It is important to understand the multifaceted causes of poverty because our understanding of cause shapes our response:

Our understanding of the causes of poverty also depends on where we start looking at poverty, and more important, where we stop looking…  For example, if we are only concerned with needs, we will only seek lack of water.  Without further thought, lack of water is the cause of poverty and providing water is the answer.  However, behind needs are issues, such as ownership of the water.  If this is the cause of the lack of water, then the response is to work on ownership or access.  Yet behind issues there are structures, such as caste, that influence who gets access to water, and which often create insurmountable barriers to access.  Behind structures are groups who inhabit and enforce the structures by insisting that “it is our water and our right to control its use.”  Behind these groups are the ideologies and values that inform the group and shape the social structure, the unspoken assumptions that “we are to be served and they are subhuman and aren’t supposed to drink where we drink.” This is worldview.

This kind of social analysis deepens our understanding of what causes poverty… [But] at the end of the day, people are the cause of poverty, and it is people who must change for things to change (82-83).

3. What is transformational development?

The two goals of transformational development are 1) changed people and 2) just relationships.  By changed people he means a recovering of true identity and true vocation:

We must know who we and the purpose for which we were created.  Therefore, restoring identity and recovering vocation must be the focus of a biblical understanding of of human transformation.  The transforming truth is that the poor and non-poor are made in God’s image (identity) and are valuable enough to God to warrant the death of the Son in order to restore that relationship (dignity) and to give gifts that contribute to the well-being of themselves and their community (vocation) (115).

If poverty is the world trying to tell the poor they are god-forsaken, then transformation is the declaration that they are made in God’s image, that God allowed his Son to die for them, and that God has given gifts to the poor so that they can fulfill God’s creation mandate that they too may be fruitful and productive…

For a Christian understanding of development, restoring identity and vocation is the goal.  This is the only path that leads toward life and that hold the promise of shalom (117).

To move toward a better human future we must encourage and develop relationships that work, relationships that are just, peaceful, and harmonious.  This is the heart of shalom and the only way of leading toward abundant life for all.  Thus transformational development that enhances life works to promote relationships that work as well as they can in a world of fallen people.  Life and relationships are inseparable (120). 

4. How do we work with the poor?

In order to work for just relationships and a recovering of identity and vocation that leads to a better human future, we must work with the poor in ways that that empower them.  All the tools development practitioners use should be seen as tools that the community uses themselves in order for them to do their own social analysis, and not as tools outsiders use to plan.  We disempower the poor when we assume or communicate that we know more about their situation than they do.

Because social systems and human transformation are not linear, it is better to work from a vision-and-values approach instead of a planning-and-management approach.  We need to work with people, not with projects. “It can be argued that empowering participation is the single most critical element of transformation” (149).  The community itself needs to own the vision, and the values/philosophy of work should be biblically-based.

Two overarching approaches to development should be in reducing vulnerabilities and building capacitates.  Both must be done.  Only addressing one without the other will result in the community being frustrated.

5. How does Christian witness relate to transformational development?

For Myers, the gospel is a message of good news that must be verbally announced.  Although the goals of evangelism and transformational development are the same (changed people and changed relationships), evangelism focuses more narrowly on the relationship between man and God, while transformational development is more concerned with all relationships man has (with God, others, self, creation).  The gospel is the “best news” we have, better than making short work of dirty water, parasites, malnutrition, and poor agricultural production:

Our thinking and practice of transforming development must have an evangelistic intent, although this needs to be understood with some care.  This is not a call for proselytism; neither is it a call to coercive, manipulative, or culturally insensitive evangelism.  It is not even a call for all development practitioners to become evangelists… Rather, it is a call to be sure we do our development with an attitude that prays and years for people to know Jesus Christ (205).

Evangelism should happen the same way development does; people must be able to come to conclusions by themselves and have ownership of the truth they discover.  This happens best not by monologue (preaching down at people and thus disempowering them), but by question asking and dialogue. 

Because we are always witnessing to something (even without words), we must be sure that at the end of the day, God is the one who gets the credit.

Ultimately, the best of transformational development deeds are ambiguous.  Good development is being done every day by Buddhists, Muslims, and atheists.  The driving force for Christian witness in the context of transformational development is to be sure that credit is given where credit is due.  We must take great care that we point, not to our own sacrifices or professionalism, and to to the effectiveness of our development technology, but to the fact that the good deeds that create and enhance life in the community are evidence of the character and activity of the God of the Bible, the God whose Son makes a continuing invitation to new life and whose Spirit is daily at work in our world (244).

Some Concluding, Brief Observations

  • Highly theoretical and theological book.  Short on stories and examples.  It’s not for everyone.
  • Repetitive. Said some things over and over. And over.
  • Dense and deep.  Made me think a lot.  I wish I would have read it a couple years ago when I started working in development.  I feel my capacity for social analysis and identifying the causes of poverty has been greatly enhanced.
  • There could have been more said about our motivation and power for working with the poor.  See Generous Justice: How God's Grace Makes Us Just.
  • Myers didn’t place hardly any emphasis on man’s rebellion being primarily an offense against God.  For a book as theologically based as this was, and for a book that talked a lot about sin, I was also surprised that the topic of hell was never mentioned.  The discussion of sin was basically about the human effects of sin- and Myer’s main paradigm was the gospel for a “better human future.”  But to be fair, the book was about development work.
  • Walking With the Poor is an excellent book for building a framework to understand “the poor” and poverty alleviation.  Overall, I recommend this book even for people who don’t work in development.


Rosa said...

I've read the Myers book - good analysis BTW. A good thinking book, but I found When Helping Hurts to be much more impactful overall.

Elaine said...

Thanks for this review of a book that tackles the difficult issue of poverty. Interesting to ponder the view that the nature of poverty is fundamentally relational. Another source which I've found enlightening on this subject is 'The Hole in Our Gospel' by Richard Stearns, President of World Vision. His theory is that while there are many interwoven causes that trap the poor in the spiderweb of poverty, it's primarily 'injustice' that is the root cause behind the cause.

PaulLion said...

This was one of my favorite books in 2008 when I read it for the first time. The big take away for me was his comment on page 79, “I
would...argue that the non-poor are no better off. The only difference is that they believe a different set of lies.” I don't have the book in front of me, but in the book he talks about the problem of those working with the poor developing god complexes. I prayed and thought over the quote above, and I came to the conclusion that I am also poor without Christ. No matter what we look like on the outside we are ALL poor, and it is only Christ who can transform us and make us whole. Coming to this realization helped me stay free from any god complexes I have developed from my work with the physically poor.

I appreciate you writing a review on this book. I hope many people read the book as a result. As you noted it is more theoretical, but I think everyone should come away with at least one truth.

Mark G said...

Thanks for your summary of this very influential and significant book. As is evident there is a lot that is deeply thought through and many quotable quotes! Your point about it being highly theoretical is well made. For me the big drawback is that there seems to be very little recognition of the influence of context on development practice, when that is a very key factor.