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Book of the Year runners-up

"Book of the Year runners-up" Continued...

Issue: "2012 Books Issue," July 14, 2012

Lawrence Mead begins his book From Prophecy to Charity with one basic fact: "Poverty involves more than low income. ... Long-term poverty or welfare dependency typically occurs because of the behavioral side of poverty that official statistics ignore. Serious poverty among the working-aged population is usually linked to unwed childbearing and failure to work."

Mead notes "the poor" are very different from what they were in 1937, when Franklin D. Roosevelt famously called one-third of Americans "ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished." Today, most of that one-third is decently housed, clothed in ways that inspire children around the world to imitate them, and often overfed (although sometimes still ill-nourished). But many among the long-term poor have not succeeded in building a stable marriage. Some are troubled by alcoholism and drug addiction. Many focus on short-term boosts rather than perseverance.

It's wrong to use those tendencies to place all poor people in one pile, because many have solid work and family values, and even those who don't have some justifications: Financial problems often lead to marital ones, and vice versa. Nevertheless, whether it's fair or not, those on a troubled behavioral track usually stay poor, and the realistic economic alternative is what Mead urges: "The adult poor must work as other people do. Poor children must get through school and avoid trouble with the law and unwed pregnancy if they are to get ahead in life. Progress against poverty, then, requires programs with the capacity to redirect lives, not just transfer resources."

Mead explores biblical teachings in his attempt to find what such programs need to achieve. He notes how in ancient Israel "expectations to do good rested on everyone, rich and poor alike." From Prophecy to Charity is deepest when it turns to the New Testament and describes well how Jesus "aids people in immediate, practical terms. ... Yet he does not concentrate on material need. ... He calls for no social programs, no redistribution." Instead, he meets their deeper needs.

No government program can meet the deepest needs of the poor, and that's why churches are crucial. Mead does suggest, optimistically, that government can encourage people with short-term perspectives to take low-paying jobs that will lead to higher-paying ones, if they prove themselves. He likes the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) program, which subsidizes low-paid workers so that the earnings of parents with children can increase by as much as 40 percent. Even EITC doesn't work when individuals are dead set against working-but when it does work, the reason is that it stresses work.

From Prophecy to Charity also notes that EITC illuminates the difference between American and European attempts to help the poor. Europe has decided to "tax the private sector more than we do. It also regulates the labor market more heavily, making it more costly to hire workers and more difficult to dismiss them." The United States, though, has proclaimed that "the best way to overcome poverty here is to go to work in available jobs, stay there, and move up. Government will also help you if needed, but it will not replace individual effort. The private labor market is our most important social program."

Where do we go from here? Mead rightly summarizes a main point in words so sound that I want to quote them: "Rather than justice, the proper rubric for today's antipoverty quest is charity. That is, we should be motivated to help the poor not because they have been denied some essential right but because God commands us to do so. Charity has a very different moral basis from justice. What defines it is not the consensus of the community about what is fair but rather what individuals think God calls them to do for the poor. The Good Samaritan rescues the man beaten by robbers not because his community expected this-indeed, it did not-but because of his personal compassion toward the victim."

Well said! We need a system of charity and challenge that can activate individuals within religious and civic associations to work intensively with welfare recipients. We need to ask those in "serious poverty" what Jesus asked the man who had been lying by the pool at Bethesda for 38 years and was unable to walk: "Do you want to be healed?" Some do not. Miserable as their lifestyles look from the outside, some are used to it. We need to push them out of their discomfort zones as we pull potential helpers out of their comfort zones.

Charity at street level

By Marvin Olasky

The hardest charitable question many urban Christians face on a day-by-day basis is whether to give to those begging on the street. Should we not give because we are likely to be contributing to someone's drug problem? Should we give because a cup of soup and a warm coat might be lifesaving acts?

Bob Lupton notes that we have no simple or immediate way to discern the right response without a relationship. Some of us may be in a position to offer an honest day's pay to someone willing to do an honest day's work, and spend the time needed to supervise. Some of us may have an hour to take a homeless person to a burger place, and (what's even rarer) the grace to use that time wisely to discern the real problem. Many of us, though, have work and family considerations, so it's often better to support a solidly biblical program that works with the homeless.

Lupton writes realistically about what many Christians experience: "Every once in a while we might feel an inner nudge to stop immediately and help a person, offering food or money or a ride. This may well be the intervention of the divine showing unconditional grace at a critical point in someone's life. Still, there is no way of knowing until the curtain of history is pulled back to reveal the unknowable."

Filling out the Top 10

By Marvin Olasky

Our Book of the Year, the two runners-up, and Charles Murray's Coming Apart (Crown Forum), to be discussed in a future column, make up four of the books on my short list of outstanding works of the past year. Here are six others in alphabetical order by author, along with the dates 
of their reviews in WORLD:

  • D.A. Carson
    The Intolerance of Tolerance (Eerdman's); May 5
  • Christian History Project, Volume 10
    We the People: A.D. 1600 to 1800 (SEARCH); June 16
  • Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert
    What Is the Mission of the Church? (Crossway); June 16
  • William Farley
    Gospel-Powered Humility (P&R); May 5
  • Adam Johnson
    The Orphan Master's Son (Random House); June 30
  • Phillip Simpson
    A Life of Gospel Peace (Reformation Heritage Books); April 21

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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