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Tim Chester
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Tim Chester

Gospel dignity

Books | Helping the poor get off the poverty treadmill

Issue: "50 years after the bomb," Sept. 21, 2013

Tim Chester’s Good News to the Poor (Crossway, 2013) is good news for readers thinking through the relationship of evangelism to social action. Chester cogently argues that the two are not “corresponding activities of equal impact. … The adage often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, that ‘we should preach always, sometimes using words,’ will not do. …  [W]ithout the communication of the gospel message, social action … points in the wrong direction.”

Chester goes on to explain why: “If all we do are good works among people then we point to ourselves and our charitable acts. People will think well of us, but not of Jesus Christ. We may even convey the message that salvation is achieved by good works. Or we may convey the message that what matters most is economic and social betterment. We must not do social action without evangelism.” 

He also writes that the latter is true: “We cannot treat people in isolation from their context. Evangelism alone … makes no sense at all when working among the poor. … Evangelism and social action should be viewed as distinct, but inseparable activities in our mission to the poor in which proclamation is central. … Broken people know they are broken. What they struggle to grasp is that God welcomes people like them.” 

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That message of grace is huge. As Chester writes, “by making them children of God, the gospel gives the poor a dignity that the world denies them. Asked what the gospel had done for his people, an indigenous Christian leader from northern Argentina replied that ‘it had enabled them to look the white person firmly in the eye.’ Time and again the gospel has brought about social and economic changes in communities by giving the poor dignity and direction.”

Chester occasionally falls back into development clichés. For example, he writes that “what the USA spends on cosmetics would provide basic education for all. What Europe spends on ice cream would provide water and sanitation for all.” True, but the problem is that those amounts, if sent to most foreign countries, would go into the pockets of politicians and generals. Some would trickle down to ordinary folks with animist superstitions that render them unwilling to change customs for fear of offending local gods.

But most of Good News to the Poor is sound, particularly when Chester stresses that “time is more important than money in social involvement. That is because social involvement is about changing people, attitudes and structures rather than providing goods and services.” He offers a real-life example: “A church has contact with a refugee—a single parent with nine children. You can see that she needs a washing machine. You turn up one day with one. That would be a lovely surprise. But it may not be what she needs most. You have not involved her in the decision making process. … She is simply the passive recipient of your charity. She becomes dependent on you.”

What’s the alternative? An emphasis on development rather than welfare. Chester writes, “Welfare is an approach that involves giving something to the poor like goods, clothing or skills. Development involves working with the poor to help them define their problems and find their own solutions to them. Welfare has a role, both in emergency situations and as a way of building relationships with a community. But if we never move beyond welfare we … reinforce the hopelessness, powerlessness, and lack of dignity of the poor.” 

Right before the fall

James T. Patterson’s The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America (Basic, 2012) is a well-written, detailed history of a year that still bedevils us culturally and economically. Medicare and Medicaid are busting budgets now, but Lyndon Johnson was cavalier about both costs and constitutionality. He told legislators, “I’ll take care of [the money],” and he remarked that when some Texans once told an old judge “that he might have abused the Constitution,” the judge said, “What’s the Constitution between friends?” —M.O.

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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