Shalom Makers: Development in the Way of Christ – A More Human(e) Way – Part VIII
You can check out the outline to connect to the previous sections of this essay. We are in the second section entitled A More Human(e) way.
Listening to the Down Under Script
One of the champions of helping us listen to the poor is Robert Chambers. In the first chapter of his book Whose Reality Counts: Putting the First Last, he mentions how an earlier book he wrote was subtitled “Putting the Last First” and how that was easier that putting the first last. “For it means that those who are powerful have to step down, sit, listen, and learn from and empower those who are weak and last” (Chambers 1997:2).
One of the things Chambers helps us understand is that development workers in the “first world” prefer to simplify the definition of poverty through things like a poverty line – low income or low consumption – because it can be easily measured. Yet for the poor, their own perception and definition of poverty includes “not only lack of income and wealth, but also social inferiority, physical weakness, disability and sickness, vulnerability, physical and social isolation, powerlessness and humiliation” (Chambers 1997:45). He makes that case that when poverty is simplified and defined by those who are well-off, poverty comes “to be narrowed to what has been measured and is available in statistics” (Chambers 1997:46). And Myers says, “When we fail to listen, [to the poor] to see what we can learn, we are in fact telling them that they are without useful information, without contribution. By dismissing what they know, we further mar the identity of the poor. Our good intentions deepen the poverty we seek to alleviate” (Myers 1999:145).
The poor tell us that they feel unheard, “Nobody hears the poor. It is the rich who are being heard.” They tell us they feel undervalued and worthless, “When they assist you they treat you like a beggar” (Narayan 2000:2). If we take time to listen to the poor, we would realize that the poor are deeply spiritual people who place an extremely high value their spirituality (Narayan 2000:21,24,38), so to leave them with the story of the enlightenment which has done away with God, favoring technology, reason and science instead; seems to further diminish the voice of the poor and knowingly or unknowingly proselytize them into a different story.
Chambers, without self-identifying as a Christian, follows the way of Christ often better than those who self-identify as Christian, which demonstrates the need for those who claim to be shaped by the story of God to more fully enter into and embody that story. For as Christian articulates in chapter three of his book, The God of the Empty-Handed, it took a journey over time – from Wheaton ’66 to Oxford ‘90 for evangelicals to recognize their “failure to be disciples in its mission among the poor and the oppressed” (Christian 1999:73).
Gustavo Gurierrez and other liberation theologians who live among and actively listen to and side with the poor, have undoubtedly helped shape the theology of evangelicals who live among the well-off for the better, to the point that evangelical theologians and missiologists now understand that poverty – involves a “marring of the image of God among the poor, is perpetuated by flawed structures, is the result of many distortions of truth, is a result of lack of love and compassion, involves both micro and macro dimensions, is a result of fallenness of the culture, is perpetuated by principalities and powers, involves political ramifications of economic issues, includes issues of power distribution, and is the result of the Fall of humanity” (Christian 1999:73).
As Myers throughout his book Walking with the Poor helps us to remember, the very nature of poverty is about flawed relationships – with ourselves, God, others and creation. And these flawed relationships mar the identity of the poor and non-poor. So the heart of development is about healing the marred identity of the poor and non-poor as well as helping them discover and live out their calling in life. In short, development work is all about becoming fully human, which is what I plan to address in the next entry in this series.