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Heart, head, hands

2011 Books Issue | The best books on fighting poverty focus on holistic social action

Issue: "2011 Books of the Year," July 2, 2011

From a biblical standpoint, a stellar book on poverty fighting will contain wise, practical counsel at the level of heart, head, and hands. It will confront us with God's unstinting passion for the poor and oppressed and urge us to rend our hearts and get personally engaged (heart). It will eschew simplistic policy prescriptions, stretching us to think hard about macro- and micro-economics, history, international relations, cultural and worldview issues, and the appropriate role of government (head). And it will reveal effective, practical action steps that individuals, congregations, businesses, and nonprofits can take that produce genuine, lasting transformation (hands).

Alas, no such perfect book exists. In the past five years, the hands-down winner that comes closest is When Helping Hurts (Moody, 2009) by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett. It offers a careful, accessible theology of holistic social action, crisp analysis of the multiple factors contributing to persistent poverty, and "how-to" strategies based on rich, on-the-ground experience in addressing both domestic and international poverty. This book teaches churches how to move from relief-oriented and often paternalistic responses to more relational, long-term, development-oriented initiatives conducted not for the poor but with them. If you've only time to read one book on the topic, this is it.

Zealous Love: A Practical Guide to Social Justice by Mike and Danae Yankoski (Zondervan, 2009) does a decent job of offering insights at the heart, head, and hands levels. This book focuses on hunger, AIDS, human trafficking, and environmental degradation as well as poverty. Profiles of effective Christian ministries vary in quality, but several offer glimpses of effective, grassroots initiatives making a calculable difference. The book includes some statistics, brief research findings, and "Now What?" sections that propose questions for individual reflection and offers recommendations for doable, personal responses.

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Mae Elise Cannon's Social Justice Handbook (IVP, 2009) has a similar feel. Like Zealous Love, it covers a range of topics, offering brief analysis, profiles of Christian ministries, and suggestions for actions by individuals and congregations.

No Christian house has recently published a strong policy-oriented book on poverty, so believers seeking "head" understanding can turn to William Easterly's The White Man's Burden (Penguin, 2006) and Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion (Oxford, 2007). Both offer clear-minded analysis of the problems of corruption, civil war, and bad governance in the developing world, as well as of the failures of large-scale, top-down foreign aid programs.

These scholars reveal the wisdom and power of bottom-up, less grandiose, more contextualized programs-the very sorts of localized, piecemeal initiatives celebrated by the Yankoskis and by Peter Greer and Phil Smith in The Poor Will Be Glad: Joining the Revolution to Lift the World Out of Poverty (Zondervan, 2009). Among recent publications, the Greer and Smith volume is the one heaviest on the "hands" side. It's a photo-and-story rich celebration of the effectiveness of microfinance and "business as mission" strategies in the fight against global poverty.

Other offerings from Christian publishers weigh more heavily on the heart side. The two best here are The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor by Mark Labberton (IVP, 2010) and Making Poverty Personal by Ash Barker (Baker, 2009). Both are theologically serious yet accessible. They lend themselves well to individual or small group Bible study aimed at deepening our imitation of God's heart for the poor. Both tell moving stories and both critique American consumerism-but they manage to do so in ways that are genuinely helpful and not merely guilt-inducing.

These authors provide guidance to help readers engage in exercises of the imagination that enable us to better comprehend Scripture and to better see and name the poor. For readers willing to go through them slowly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully, they can deepen our willingness to take responsibility for others' pain and follow Jesus in sacrificial service.

-Amy Sherman is a senior fellow at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research

Buy the book: Links to purchase the books featured in WORLD's 2011 Books Issue

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