an outlet of encouragement, explanation, and exhortation

Category: Reviews (Page 2 of 2)

“That person must be a Christian”

David Lyle Jeffrey writes about Sino-Christian Studies in China in a review entitled A Critique of All Religions in the July/August 2011 issue of Books and Culture

The essays in this volume are indispensable reading for anyone who wishes to understand what is happening in Chinese Christian intellectual life today. There is no hint in them either of triumphalism or of condescension. Rather, as Guo Shining puts it, all of us who seek to follow Christ live under one marker for authentic delegation: “When people use the phrase, ‘that person must be a Christian,’ it highlights … behavior [that] conflicts with the main trend of profitable,worldly, self-centered, materialistic value-systems.” To be a sign of contradiction, says Guo, is both natural and necessary to a Christian in any walk of life. Addressing the wider church of which he is a part, he notes the corollary: this requires all believers to “strengthen their faith,” since “it is much harder to be a Christian in China.” Well—yes. And perhaps that particular reality works to the advantage of our Chinese brothers and sisters.

That person must be a Christian… I wish it meant what it means in China when people said that here! What does it mean when you hear people say that?

Way Down in the Hole

Way Down in the Hole
by Tom Waits

When you walk through the garden
you gotta watch your back
well I beg your pardon
walk the straight and narrow track
if you walk with Jesus
he’s gonna save your soul
you gotta keep the devil
way down in the hole
he’s got the fire and the fury
at his command
well you don’t have to worry
if you hold on to Jesus hand
we’ll all be safe from Satan
when the thunder rolls
just gotta help me keep the devil
way down in the hole
All the angels sing about Jesus’ mighty sword
and they’ll shield you with their wings
and keep you close to the lord
don’t pay heed to temptation
for his hands are so cold
you gotta help me keep the devil
way down in the hole

And now you know what I’m watching on video these days. Fall, 2011, that is. So far, despite the R-rated visuals and language, I’m thinking it is pretty real. Serious television. Not for the kids. Definitely for the thoughtful.

Listen to audio from Regent College!

Regent College has a treasure-trove of good stuff at their online bookstore. Check it out.. Many classes and lectures and chapel talks are downloadable as MP3 files. I listen to them while I exercise at the Y rather that dying the slow death of exercise boredom or watching ESPN on the elliptical machine’s TV. It’s my post-basketball low-impact fitness regime. You can read about Regent College on Wikipedia also. The class audio comes with a syllabus so you can read the texts along with listening to the lectures. You’ll learn a lot!

The chapel talks are often available as free downloads. They are by faculty and visiting teachers. Many are superb. They’re great as devotionals. Get on the bookstore email list. The sign-up (as of right now in March, 2011) is a couple of items down on the left-had column of this page. They’ll send you nearly weekly links to free lectures and special offers for discounted items. Wait for holidays and sales to get great class audio offers; you can often get 50% off. Stock up over the holidays with the money your mother-in-law gives you! (That’s what I do. Too bad if you’re not married or your mother-in-law doesn’t like you.)

Lest there be any doubt, I am not connected to Regent College or their bookstore in any way. I don’t even know anyone who is. This is a free tip. I did visit Vancouver for a day last summer and drove within a mile or so of the campus on my way to do some sightseeing. Vancouver was lovely and we enjoyed it a lot. But the cheese was expensive. I think that may mean the the US subsidizes cheese more than Canada does. And that’s why I need something constructively high-impact with which to occupy my mind while I’m low-impact ellipticalizing for the sake of cardio.

The Christian life is not a quiet escape…

As quoted by James Calvin Schaap in The Professor’s Death Song,” Books & Culture, Eugene Peterson wrote the following comment on the Christian life while considering Psalm 121:

The Christian life is not a quiet escape to a garden where we can walk and talk uninterruptedly with our Lord; not a fantasy trip to a heavenly city where we can compare our blue ribbons and gold medals with others who have made it to the winner’s circle. The Christian life is going to God. In going to God Christians travel the same ground that everyone else walks on, breathe the same air, drink the same water, shop the same stores, read the same newspapers, are citizens under the same governments, pay the same prices for groceries and gasoline, fear the same dangers, are subject to the same pressures, get the same distresses, are buried in the same ground.

The difference is that each step we walk, each breath we breathe, we know we are preserved by God, we know we are accompanied by God, we know we are ruled by God; and therefore no matter what doubts we endure or what accidents we experience, the Lord will preserve us from evil, he will keep our life

I recommend James Calvin Schaap’s article also. Here. It’s a challenging statement of grace.

Ruminating… (Read that article first.) I have friends who are on Megan’s list. Another friend served 30 years for rape. Sometimes grace is hard to find. I can’t say I went out looking for friends with backgrounds like these. What can I say? I value the friend but would prefer their baggage to go away? Probably true. Tax collectors and sinners. Rapists? Shudder.

While I appreciate Eugene Peterson’s comment very much, I wonder if I actually agree with it, literally speaking. I mean, I agree with his point. But I wonder if Christians are called not just to walk the same ground as everyone else, but to seek out those who inhabit the ground where grace is most needed. Walk where no one else wants to tread. As a famous teacher once said, …not my will, but yours.”

Fair Trade Friends

A few years ago, I was involved in early discussions with some friends from various Friends churches who were interested in using their business acumen as ministry to do economic development in areas of serious economic need where we were planting churches. Out of those discussions with the EFCSW Mission Board, these friends started a new ministry initiative called “Marketplace Ministries” and began looking for ways to do business as ministry. I just received [July 8, 2010] an email announcing their first venture, called “Fair Trade Friends, Inc. – Coffee for a Cause”. Here’s a link to their brand new website where you can buy coffee that benefits various ministries.

They sell coffee that is connected to Christian mission in some form. I would particularly direct your attention to the coffee from the Leiva family, whose story is told here.

Note that Ruth Esther Smith, who is mentioned in the story, went to Guatemala after pastoring Long Beach Friends Church. Also, the lady who was traveling with her may have been her partner Cora Wildman, a member of LBFC who went with Ruth Esther Smith to Guatemala in 1906. (One of our members was named after Ruth Esther, I think… Can you guess who?)

Another coffee sold on the website is grown in a village in the Thai highlands where missionaries discovered a way to bring some economic prosperity to a remote village. Read about it here.

I’m about to place my first order. Wait just a minute….

There. I just ordered some Abuela Reina’s Blend Guatemala Regular Roast and Chanita Thai Select – Full City (Medium). I’ll probably be drinking some of it in the office once it arrives; come join me!

The prices are pretty good for this kind of coffee. I’d say the shipping charge – about $10 – was a bit steep compared to what other coffee sites charge. On the other hand, I just bought coffee from a family in Guatemala who first heard the gospel from missionaries sent by our church, and from a village in the Thai highlands that provides employment for local villages who support their church with the income they receive. Cool. From idea to pressing the “Place Order” button on the web. This same group is currently recruiting a national coordinator to develop marketplace ministry in Cambodia. Michelle Murray’s father is one of the leaders getting this ministry going. God is good. Have some coffee!

An Introduction to Theodicy, or How can there be so much evil if God is so good?

I highly recommend Ric Machuga’s article in the March/April issue of Books & Culture. Machuga introduces the idea of theodicy in a brief article, summarizing historical and recent attempts to explain why, if God is so good, there is evil in the world. The article is clear, concise, and very helpful for a popular audience. He explains deep concepts in a very readable way. Hopefully won’t make you pay anything to read the article online. An issue of B&C with the paper version should be in the LBFC library later today, just in case. Email me if you have problems and want to read the article.

Engaging the world on faith’s terms

The following quotation is from Joseph Bottum in First Things, 2010-01 issue. The last paragraph contains a comment I mentioned to one or more of you, and the comment itself is about the book that I think would be good to read together. Quoting:

In 2008 our friend John G. Stackhouse, professor of theology and culture at Regent College, published a book we would have done well to take note of at the time: Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World (Oxford University Press). As the title suggests, Stackhouse addresses Christian engagement with culture as always both unavoidable and provisional, an engagement “for the time being.” Thus, as Miroslav Volf has pointed out, Stackhouse steers between the Scylla of “a whole-scale transformation of the world” and the Charybdis of “building alternative enclaves in the world.” Since neither is realistic in any case, what does Stackhouse think is realistic?

The book proceeds largely by imaginative dialogue with such twentieth-century Protestant luminaries as C.S. Lewis, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer—drawing, along the way, on H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous “five ways” of relating Christ to culture. Brisk and blunt, Making the Best of It yields what Stackhouse describes as his own “hybrid” between “Christ the transformer of culture” and “Christ and culture in paradox.” Sometimes Christians will transform culture, and sometimes they will have to be countercultural—and often they will have to do both. That is the creative tension of Christianity in the world, which cannot be resolved until the end time.

This won’t satisfy those convinced that answers are easy, but its evident fidelity to what C.S. Lewis would have recognized as the Great Tradition may enable us to distinguish between engaging the world on faith’s terms, which is the disciple’s task, and engaging faith on the world’s terms, which is merely the project of religion’s cultured despisers.

Working out how to engage the world on faith’s terms without slipping into engaging faith on the world’s terms seems like an increasingly important thing to me these days, with our increased interaction with and cooperation with non-profit and government organizations.

Four Reviews at Barclay Press

I reviewed four books a few years back. The reviews were done for Barclay Press, but are no longer available on the Barclay Press website (as of August, 2015). Having had some requests to be able to read them, I put them here. The four books are Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps from a Better World by Mae Elise Cannon, Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community by Charles Marsh & John Perkins, Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor by Robert D. Lupton, and When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor – and Yourself by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert.

These four books all approach the issue of social justice. However, they are intended for very different audiences. Charles Marsh and John Perkins write to motivate. This book is intended as a call to Christians and churches to the social justice movement. It does this by telling stories and weaving a vision of the kingdom that Jesus announced. Because of this, it is also useful in gaining some historical appreciation.

Mae Elise Cannon writes to gather a wide range of useful information in one place so that it can be used by those who are seeking to increase awareness of social justice issues in their typical American church. It is full of references to other resources, a veritable tour guide of the social justice landscape in America.

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert write for those who are convinced that they need to help the poor. It is a primer to convey best practice and ideas to practitioners in the hope that the same old mistakes that everyone seems to make can be avoided. Read this book if you are getting involved in ministry to the poor.

Robert Lupton writes out of his decades of experience in community building in Atlanta. The lessons he has learned are invaluable. This book is useful for practitioners and decision makers. It is also useful for Christians who want to understand why urban communities are often not happy with churches and service providers for the poor that locate in their neighborhoods.

All four are recommended for those to whom they are addressed. See my more detailed comments on each for more detailed information.

Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor
by Robert D. Lupton

This is a book about community development. It is not really a book about ministry to the poor as you may have experienced it. It is, in fact, a strong argument that community development is the best way to minister to the poor. The book distills practical lessons learned in the author’s experience at FCS Urban Ministries in Atlanta. Lupton is associated with Christian community development as practiced by CCDA organizations. (CCDA stands for Christian Community Development Association.) This book grew out of his efforts to explain the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) attitude displayed by urban neighborhoods when a ministry desires to move in. Places where social services are offered and even churches (if they are commuter churches) are not necessarily assets in developing a community, from his perspective. Lupton explains that he is a community developer first and a social service provider second. He desires that Christians would advocate for both the community and the most vulnerable at the same time, finding a balance that serves the interests of both. It seems like this book is his attempt to say that, generally speaking, community development is the best social service that can be offered. (Those are my words; I don’t recall him ever saying it exactly that way.)

The book is organized in a logical fashion, laying groundwork in the earlier parts for the later parts. There are four main sections in the book following a forward by John Perkins and an introduction by the author; each section has several chapters. Each chapter is a very quick read, but deserves time for reflection, particularly if the concepts and ideas Lupton presents are new to you.

Part 1 – What’s Wrong with this Picture

There are tough issues to face when it comes to helping those called in scripture “the least of these.” Part one explores some of these issues and challenges assumptions that hinder a biblical approach. This part of the book establishes essential principles for working with the poor, giving the biblical basis for each.

The most unexpected chapter for some will be the chapter on community churches. Challenging the prevailing trend toward commuter churches, Lupton considers the impact such churches have on communities in which they locate and the greater loss of community in American society that is reflected in the church at large. The combination of practical experience and scriptural teaching is a powerful witness that should be heeded. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Part 2 – Is it Time to Consider a Change?

“Doing for others what they can do for themselves is charity at its worst.” This section explores how to serve those who are poor in ways that avoid damaging the poor and their community. A dominant theme of this part of the book is the idea of exchange. Exchange, as Lupton describes it, is a way of establishing dignity for those who are assisted by offering goods that help the poor in exchange for some sort of payment they can afford. In addition, by having an appropriate price, many common problems associated with giving away goods are avoided.

One chapter considers the merit of “doing good” in the form of various free types of assistance, and again compares these to mechanisms considered better by Lupton. In my experience, Lupton is surely on to something important when he says “when our feeding programs value order and efficiency over the messiness of personal involvement, good has become the enemy of best.” The idea of exchange and setting up systems of exchange promotes this ideal more effectively than giving things away, generally speaking.

Lupton includes a chapter in which he advocates the ideal of mixed income housing (as opposed to exclusively low-income housing), drawing from his own painful past experience. This is a foreshadowing of what he has to say in part 4. He goes on to describe instances of commuter churches that find themselves in conflict with the communities in which their facilities are located. Lupton disdains parking lots that are empty six days out of seven as a poor use of community real estate.

The last chapter in part 2 discusses the pitfalls of having a “servant attitude.” Too often, what is intended to be serving others is embodied in a form that says “I know better than you what you need.” It becomes “parental” (my word) or one-sided rather than embodying the ideal of exchange among partners with equal responsibilities to the community. Domination and control characterize the ragged death-dealing end of this spectrum of how it is possible to “serve.” Another dark side of “serving” is the commercialization of helping the poor. Lupton does not use this term, but here in my neighborhood certain “helpers” are known as the “homeless pimps.” This is the reputation one gains in the community when it is clear that one is helping others with the root motivation to gain financially for oneself.

In contrast, “Friends are people who know each other, who care, respect, struggle and are committed through time.” In friendship, “we” are in this together. Those called into the community by God form solidarity with the indigenous residents of the community, working together. I cannot begin to emphasize enough how important are the concepts taught in this section of the book for Christians who feel like they should get involved in working with the poor and broken. (For a fuller treatment of this issue, see When Helping Hurts.)

Part 3 – Toward Responsible Charity

This portion of Lupton’s book is key to his thinking; the introduction to it summarizes important ideas in just a few sentences. Quoting: “Everyone must pull his own weight. That is the key to responsible charity – which is not to say that everyone has equal capacity – just equal responsibility. When individuals, like communities, assume responsibility for their own destiny, when they abandon self-pity, self-indulgence and blame to face the hard work of building (or rebuilding) their lives, they have taken a giant step toward health.” The first chapter in Part 3 explains and amplifies these ideas, and the later chapters work out their implications in a process that leads to a community development paradigm. The strength of these chapters is in how Lupton walks the reader through the circumstances and reasoning from where everyone seems to start to end in understanding the need for development.

Part 4 – Final Thoughts

Part 4 takes up the topic of gentrification. “Gentrification with justice – that’s what is needed to restore health to our urban neighborhoods.” Gentrification, for those unsure of the term, is the trend toward moving into and restoring urban property by the middle-classes. It is a broad demographic movement of wealth back into the centers of U.S cities, re-making them in the pattern of most world cities, where wealth is concentrated in the center of the city and the poor are pushed to the periphery. Lupton views gentrification as the reality to be faced in American cities. What are the implications of gentrification for community development in the inner city?

Lupton believes gentrification is a trend that will come and that cannot be resisted. His reaction? Make the best of it. Even more, he believes that the influx of new residents with means and education is necessary to rebuild inner-city communities. He may be right, though I am attracted to a paradigm of community-building from within. The problem with my preferred approach is that gentrification is a trend that gives every appearance of building steam, give or take a recession or two. Start making an inner city neighborhood safer and better to live in, and people will move in from outside. Lupton’s acceptance of the new reality and advice on how to live and work justly in the new gentrification environment is invaluable, whether I like the phenomenon or not!

Lupton does more than submit to gentrification, however. He also offers good advice on how to work for justice in the face of this new reality. Those looking at the future of ministry to the poor should, I believe, pay careful attention. The face of inner-city ministry is changing and will change much more in the years ahead. How should Christians work for justice as gentrification takes place? This section of the book is a good resource from someone with long experience, intellectual capacity, and a desire to be faithful. As usual, Lupton is not just talking theory; he’s speaking from hard-won experience and the perspective gained from past mistakes.

Lupton closes his writing with a challenge to the entrepreneurs and business leaders among Christians. Good! And yet… there is something that bothers me in this. I’ve learned from experience and had confirmed to me through my interaction with other CCDA practitioners the value of building a community over time with some influx of people called to the work, but more importantly through building up the indigenous young generation over time to be the core of the new, developing community. I treasure this idea as a practical reality! In this challenge I perceive an edge of “they can’t do it without you” that goes down like dry dust. But don’t let that keep you from this book.

I suppose, being a Quaker from long-time Quaker roots that the utopian ideal of building a new and just community came in my DNA. Quakers in the U.S. have a long history of moving (mostly westward) and starting new communities: building towns and schools. Let’s get it right this time! The ironic truth is that this has mostly been accomplished by people moving to an area for a new community. However, my call has been to build a new community in the inner city, raising up a new generation of leaders as the foundation for that community. The thought of materialistic “heathens” from the ‘burbs moving in and messing with that community is not a thought I relish. (How selfish is that? Pretty selfish, I suppose. Thank God He is in charge.)

Lupton’s book embodies so much valuable hands-on experience at community development that ignoring the lessons he has learned would be foolish in the extreme. And yet, it seems to me that there is a focus on the techniques and idea of development that leaves some important relational realities unaddressed. This criticism is, I think, more a reflection of what I value than any failed intention of Robert D. Lupton. Lupton does a great job of introducing the essential ideas and gives them good traction through real-life examples. Please read this book if you are thinking of getting involved in ministry to the poor, particularly if you will be working as a community developer.

Be warned. The temptation for those new to this type of work may well be to jump right to the final stage of development. Lupton describes a process that starts by moving into a community and working in fairly traditional ways and eventually led to a community development approach. I do not believe this is an accident. There is a learning process that not just the incoming workers in a new location go through, but that a community must go through. Surely there is benefit to knowing the destination before you start the journey; but knowing the destination does not substitute for the journey. I am learning the virtue of allowing those whom God has called to a work to go through the stages of learning that lead to mature ministry. There is no need to take what we know to be a mistaken approach or let others make obvious mistakes. There is, however, a need to work in a community and earn trust and establish context and understanding and trust through which the more difficult tasks of community development can be undertaken. Sometimes that trust is earned by allowing the learning process to take its natural course.

The last section of the book is an appendix in which is reprinted a CCDA article by Wayne Gordon. Gordon is another leader with decades of experience in faithful obedience to a call from God to an impoverished community in Lawndale, Illinois. Lawndale is on Chicago’s west side, and has now reached legendary status in Christian community development circles. Read this section of the book. Digest it. Read it again. Get the audio from a CCDA conference workshop where Wayne Gordon or John Perkins explains these principles and listen to it. They are right on target! This is vital information.

The title of the appendix is The Eight Components of Christian Community Development. The eight components are:
1. Relocation: Living Among the People
2. Reconciliation: to God, to People
3. Redistribution
4. Leadership Development
5. Listening to Community
6. Church-based Community Development
7. A Wholistic Approach
8. Empowerment

You can guess at the fleshed out explanation of the components from their titles, but don’t. Take time to study this core philosophy of Christian Community Development. It has been developed through decades of experience and serious engagement with Jesus’ teaching. The information in this appendix article is also available online at the CCDA website. CCDA is the organization that brings together the best Christian practitioners in this area of ministry.

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor – and Yourself
by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

Who should read this book? This book is written for those who are preparing to do something about poverty. It is not a “call to arms.” So, if you want to be convinced of the need to do something, look elsewhere. If that works for you and you become motivated, then come back to this one! This book is written in response to the armies of Christians marching out to “do something about poverty” at home and abroad. Often, these efforts end up hurting those who go and those they intend to help. Let me make the premise perfectly clear: well-meaning, highly-committed, highly-motivated, Bible-believing Christians jump into efforts intended to help those in poverty and end up hurting themselves and those they intended to help. If you question that premise, this book is for you. If you know that this premise to be true, and want some practical help making sure that you actually help others in need, this book is for you.

The book opens with a forward by John Perkins, founder of CCDA. The forward is followed by an introduction that explains how to use the book and gives references to other materials and resources.

The book is written specifically for “North American congregations” who are getting increasingly involved with poverty alleviation and who are often without experience in wise practice. Corbett and Fikkert point out that the methods often used by North Americans to alleviate poverty actually make worse the situation of those that we intend to help.

The main body of the book consists of three parts:
1. Foundational Concepts for Helping without Hurting
2. General Principles for Helping without Hurting
3. Practical Strategies for Helping without Hurting

Each part consists of three chapters. Each chapter includes an exercise to be done before reading it and another to be done after reading it; there are also some extended exercises between chapters. This is a great book to use in a class or small group setting. It is not intended to be read quickly. Rather, it should be read over an extended time, carefully considering as they are presented the concepts and approaches necessary to help alleviate poverty without hurting those we intend to help. Working through this book with others to promote discussion would be ideal.

In part one, Corbett and Fikkert establish foundational concepts. To start: Why did Jesus come to earth? The authors consider the answer given by 99% of evangelicals and contrast it with what Jesus had to say about himself and his mission. This is a core issue that leads to a consideration of the mission of the church. The rest of the book rests on how this question is answered, and answering this question is an exercise for the first chapter. The result, biblically speaking: There should be no poor among you.

Continuing their war on poverty alleviation ignorance, Corbett and Fikkert ask: “What is poverty?” Ask the poor, and you get a different answer than if you ask those with resources and wealth. The difference is telling, and has deep implications for efforts to alleviate poverty. “Shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, voicelessness” – these are the words used by poor people to describe what poverty is like. Those in poverty experience a loss of self-determination, meaning, purpose, and hope. Ask a North American, even one involved in efforts to alleviate poverty, and you will nearly always hear a very different answer. Hmmm. Seems like a problem.

Taking Bryant Myers’ model for the fundamental realities embodied in persons created by a relational God, the authors explain a biblical framework for understanding poverty in terms of one’s relationships with God, oneself, others, and the rest of creation. Because of the Fall, these relationships are broken. Poverty is the result of these broken relationships; the absence of shalom in all of its fullness. For poverty to be alleviated, the broken relationships must be addressed. This book is intended to be worked through in sequence, its wisdom discovered and processed through interaction with others, contrasting preconceptions with the insight brought to bear by the authors as one works through its pages. It would not be a service to readers for me to give out samples of the hard-found wisdom embodied in this book in a way that undermined this process. Yet samples at a big-box warehouse store are intended to whet one’s appetite for the whole package, so to that end we will turn.

It is a major premise of this book that those who attempt to work with low-income people without realizing their own brokenness will do more harm than good. Any sense of superiority or reaching down from on high to help the lowly poor will result in harm to oneself and harm to those one is attempting to help. This reviewer will go so far as to question the whole idea of “help” as though some humans had the upper hand over others – this upper hand being demonstrated by one’s economic status. Those of us who are rich often come with a “god complex” to which we are blind – deceived by the evil one. We increase the sense of inferiority and shame endemic to poverty with our “I am superior” attitude. I literally shudder at how easily we fall into this self-deception! The result of approaching relationship in this way is harm to oneself and to others.

What to do? Fortunately, this book goes a long way toward helping to increase awareness of these problems. The real-life examples that are analyzed for more than “feel good” moments are very good, and well-presented. The authors understand the problems of hurting more than helping quite well and present them in a very effective manner. Please read this book if you are considering an effort to alleviate poverty and are not already well-versed in these issues. Let me say again: be really sure you understand what the authors of this book are trying to convey before you harm yourself and others in your poverty-alleviation effort.

The rest of the book lays out general principles and practical strategies for helping without hurting. These principles are good, time-tested, and will hold up in real life. I highly recommend this book. In fact, I have given away so many copies to my friends who are engaged in this sort of work that I’ve had a hard time keeping my hands on a copy long enough to complete this review! There are a lot of books out there, but I know of no other book that will serve as a better introduction to these concepts and get you started more accurately in a good direction. No book will substitute for experience, and you will make mistakes anyway, but if you heed the teaching of this book you will make fewer mistakes and learn more quickly.

So, is the book perfect? No. There is a tendency to almost a legalism about avoiding certain types of action that might make even cast Jesus as a “law-breaker” if taken too literally. Nearly every “rule of thumb” that I’ve ever been given for working with the poor is broken by someone who works effectively with the poor. Those in this book, though well-motivated, are no different. The concepts are right on target. The problems they identify are real, and pressing. The principles for application are excellent. However, they are not a substitute for Jesus’ heart and an active desire to glorify God as you communicate his love to other human beings. I’m sure the authors would say they never intended the principles they teach as such a substitute. Yes. It’s just so very easy to believe that we have this all figured out and thereby start yet another sort of “god complex.” It’s easy to be about being effective at “helping” and skip the vital relationships through which life flows – both ways.

I have this one little part of my soul that still aches after reading recent books on poverty, compassion, and helping – including this one. The trend these days is to take a pretty strong position on the idea of development as being superior to relief. That is entirely understandable, correct – even commendable. I support this trend. We as humans and we as the church have erred in this so many times and for so long, bringing relief in a way that hurts those in poverty when development is needed, that serious corrective action is needed. I see the terrible results of this daily. And yet… there are those who will not be helped by development efforts that are economically justified. There are those so broken that one must pour out hundreds of hours of love and dignity to maybe see just a glimmer of hope. Even then, the prospect of a “return” on one’s “investment” seems dim. (See how evil we are, that we think in these terms?) Who we really are in Christ is revealed by how we handle relationships in which we have nothing to gain. Do we do what we do to get credit for a good deed or to feel good about how much difference we have made? The hard truth is that there are some who are unlikely to be restored to anything resembling wholeness and Shalom in this life. It’s easy to be caught up in visibly helping when you can see that you have made a difference, because it is rewarding. What about those other times – those other people? “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

I don’t think the authors of the book would disagree with what I write; I intend not criticism of the book but a warning against a particular attitude. I suppose that is a subject for a different time. If you’re going to get involved in helping to alleviate poverty at home or abroad, study this book first. Please.

Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community
by Charles Marsh & John Perkins

Who should read this book? Christians. This book is a “call to arms” for the church, advocating that the church embrace justice as essential to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is written in the form of alternating chapters by the two authors, each following and building on what the other has written in the preceding chapter.

1. Charles Marsh – The Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Movement

In this chapter, Marsh sets the scene. He gives a very brief historical introduction to the civil rights movement, detailing its roots as a Christian movement. However, by 1964, the Christian foundation and essence of the movement seemed to be forgotten. The church was left behind; the spiritual vision of a redeemed society no longer seen as relevant. The remainder of this first chapter introduces John Perkins and his vision of creating beloved community. Marsh explains the “three R’s” of Relocation, Redistribution, and Reconciliation, which formed the basis of Perkins vision. (Another five principles have been added to Perkin’s original three in more recent formulations from the Christian Community Development Association, which Perkins founded.)

2. John Perkins – The Cultural Captivity of the Church

Having grown up in Mississippi, witnessed his brother’s murder, and been tortured by racist white law enforcement officers, John Perkins tells the story of going back to Mendenhall, Mississippi in response to God’s call. Perkins tells of a white pastor friend who committed suicide after his church rejected his plans to work with Perkins.

“That’s when I started to realize that the church had become captive to our culture. We’d taken the good news of God’s love that’s supposed to burn through racial and social divisions and turned it into a religion that reinforced the status quo. That’s the Christianity we’ve inherited in this country, and that what our missionaries have gone around the world preaching. We’ve over-evangelized the world too lightly, and the church has reinforced America’s problems more than we’ve given people reason to believe in something new. I started to see that in a little town in Mississippi forty years ago, and I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to preach a gospel that burns through racial and cultural barriers and reconciles people to God and one another.”

Perkins was called to preach the good news – to white people! Taking up the story, Perkins explains the effects of oppression upon black communities in America. Then, in a truly prophetic turn, Perkins explains that no one ever puts a chain on another human being without “attaching the other end to themselves.” He tells a story about a white leader told him how far we’ve come in reconciliation because his church had invited a black man to preach for the first time. Perkins: “You ought to be ashamed. After more than a hundred years your church has finally found a black man you’ll accept, and you want me to be happy about it?”

Perkins believes that discipleship must include reconciliation as an essential component.

3. Charles Marsh – The Power of True Conversion

In this chapter, Marsh tells something of his story. Marsh comes from white roots in Mississippi – the other side of the tracks from Perkins, so to speak. In 1980, after college in Massachusetts, Marsh returned south and through a sequence of events was exposed to Perkins’ writing. He arranged to meet Perkins. In a random act of reaching out in love, Perkins sends a batch of blueberries from his garden to Marsh’s grandmother, about whose racial views Marsh had been embarrassed. Through this simple act of kindness extended to his grandmother, Marsh was drawn into Perkin’s vision.

From relating this experience, Marsh moves to a call for the church to live the compelling love of Christ. “Most of my students who have left the faith have left because they have listened to Christians in hope of hearing beautiful songs and have instead heard something thin and shrill.” Ouch. Marsh seeks to spur us on towards love in action, crossing the barriers that divide us. “The existence of a compelling Christian witness in our time does not depend on our access to the White House, the size of our churches or the cultural relevance of our pastors. It depends, instead, on our ability to sing better songs with our lives.”

4. John Perkins – The Next Great Awakening

Perkins hits his stride in this chapter – and what a stride it is to behold! He begins: “The job of an evangelist is to connect God’s good news with people’s deep yearnings.” He builds. “To preach the gospel of Jesus Christ today, we’ve got to invite people into authentic relationships where they can be restored to a beloved community and work for the common good.” As Perkins preached the good news of reconciliation in one body to God and one another through Christ, I could almost hear the heavenly choir! Perkins, with the natural flow of an accomplished artist, wings his words into an invitingly beautiful tapestry revealing God’s heart for authentic relationships and community. Jesus “has destroyed every barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”

After an inspiring start, Perkins draws the reader into considering Jesus’ call to “follow me.” This naturally flows into considering Jesus’ model for leadership development and a call to love one another – just as Jesus said. You really must read this book, if only for this chapter; this is the core of Perkin’s thought. I don’t suggest reading only this chapter, because it is set in an important context established by the first three chapters. I can’t say that I learned new information. But oh, the beauty of the vision Perkins sets out! It was affirming and energizing and encouraging. Inspiring!

The chapter continues with specific examples that Perkins wants to share. The examples are good, but the magic for me was in the vision spun over the first pages. If this vision excites and inspires you, then you may be cut out for ministry at the front lines in our diverse American culture – the ministry of reconciliation among the poor across the dividing lines of our society. Thank you, God, for this prophetic vision that you have given to John Perkins. Of course, as with any vision truly from our God, there are others who share it. I think it was first fleshed out for me, from the beginning yearnings that God gave, when I met and grew to know Fred Newkirk. Marsh quotes Henri de Lubac’s description of the effect saints have on us: “All of the sudden the universe seems different; it is the stage of a vast drama, and we, at its heart, are compelled to play our part.”

5. Charles Marsh – God’s Movement in the Twenty-First Century

In this chapter, Marsh attempts to build substantively on the foundation established by Perkins in chapter 4. His rehearsal of the hopes and dreams of a new generation of students and workers is competent and useful. It follows the pattern set by Perkins. However, for me, the magic captured in Perkin’s chapter evaporated. Though many signs of God’s movement in this time are listed, the descriptions seem generic, and the engaging nature of the personal stories from the earlier chapters is lost.

There are three ideas that Marsh seeks to promote in this chapter. The first is a richer understanding of the church (echoing Perkins in chapter 4). Perhaps I’ve read too many articles forecasting the soon-to-be global majority of non-white, non-Western Christians. There’s nothing particularly wrong here; but neither is anything said that isn’t said better elsewhere.

The second idea is the idea of deeper contemplation and silence. While these are familiar and valued concepts to anyone conversant in Quaker practice and thought, it was unclear how this idea flows from what came before it. I don’t doubt that this thread can be woven into the themes of this book. There are hints, most clearly in the idea of people being “fed up with words,” which can easily be linked to Perkin’s call in chapter 4. However, the connections are not clearly drawn. Instead, Marsh launches into a contemplative ideologue and leaves it to the reader to figure out what this has to do with Perkins’ call to action in addition to belief.

The third idea Marsh calls “a bolder humility.” This idea meanders into a call to the peaceable kingdom. Again, from a Quaker perspective… of course! But where did we lose all that energy that came from John Perkins tying into our deepest yearnings? Something went off track here; the compelling case is not made. The momentum of the personal stories leading to deep conviction in the gospel of Jesus Christ has dissipated.

6. John Perkins – A Time for Rebuilding

From the writing of the prophet Zechariah, whom he says “understands the problems of my neighborhood,” Perkins expounds on the specifics of what needs to be rebuilt among the poor in America. He begins with broken families. He takes on the “homogeneous unit principle.” He claims that churches have decided to outsource justice; that they are only concerned about justice “out there” somewhere – a place where one goes on a short-term mission trip, but not a part of the church’s community. He relates economic justice to peace, and challenges us to consider what the church has to offer a community in which healthy men beg on the corners. He takes on prisons and the prosperity gospel.

The contribution Perkins brings in this chapter is to highlight the fact that God has constructed the world in a certain way. If we do things according God’s plan, the problems we see will go away “naturally,” so to speak. But we do not. Perkins is not without hope even in the face of a world gone awry. There is always a remnant! And that is all we need.

Perkins eventually gets around to calling the church to develop community, which culminates in the development of leaders in place from that community; this is standard Christian community development philosophy. “Outsiders” are often called to be a part of this process, but fundamentally “indigenous leadership” must be grown over an extended period of time. In a longish list of ideas that need to be taken seriously, this is a fundamental concept, and a fitting capstone to the chapter and the book, ending where those familiar with Perkins know that he stands. I can speak from personal experience that commitment to this idea is fundamental to success in building the blessed community where there is none. There are no shortcuts.

This book is more about inspiration and story than nuts and bolts; Marsh and Perkins excel at telling the story and inspiring. When they get into nuts and bolts, the results are uneven. So, read this book for some personal context and inspiration. Turn to other books such as Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor by Robert D. Lupton or When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor – and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert for nuts and bolts.

Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps from a Better World
by Mae Elise Cannon

Micah 6:8
He has shown all you people what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.

Who should read this book? This book is written for those desiring to increase awareness of social justice issues in a typical American church of the majority culture. It is not a serious how-to book for those already engaged in social justice ministry or those getting started in working with the poor. It is oriented toward being a powerful resource for Christians who are starting to build awareness of and action for social justice in American churches. In this, it succeeds. Mae Elise Cannon has done a great service in gathering information for those who are walking this path after her. Think of this book as sort of a tourist’s guide to social justice. For those who already live in the area, it may still be useful in finding unexplored areas and for having collected many references in one place. But its real utility is for those newly exploring.

Cannon’s book grew out of the author’s experience in ministry focused on social justice at Willow Creek Community Church and Hillside Covenant Church. After meeting with many ministry leaders involved in social justice, Cannon was pushed into a personal struggle with the practical issues of how to go about pursuing social justice and biblical justice. She compiled what she was learning in these areas and this book is the result. She considers this book to be “Social Justice 101” – fundamentals rather than comprehensive coverage. Cannon intends her perspective on social justice to be rooted in scripture – a faithful Christian approach to putting biblical belief into action where we live. Here again, she succeeds.

The book is also intended to be a call to action for the church; not simply a theoretical consideration of the issues. However, I found it to be less effective as a call to action than as a reference tool. The facts are there – and one might hope that this is enough to serve as an effective call to action. History says otherwise. Cannon lacks the punch of John Perkin’s in building an effective call to action. She is younger and more concerned about avoiding offense than Perkins; her concern to retain credibility within the evangelical establishment seems palpable. To her credit, she says the right things; but Perkins, at his advanced age and level of experience, can tell the stories and draw the inevitable conclusions that will ruffle feathers. From where I sit, those feathers need to be ruffled. Isaiah or Ezekiel would have said it more like Perkins!

Let’s get into the structure of the book. The three-page table of contents at the front of the book is excellent, and essential. It lists all the chapters and articles, including the small topical articles scattered throughout the book.

The first portion of the book is intended to be an introduction to social and biblical justice from a Christian perspective. It is a chapter by chapter progression establishing a general foundation. Chapter one does a credible job at providing biblical underpinnings to a social justice theology. Chapter two establishes definitions and argues that much effort spent on compassion (effects) would better be spent on social justice (causes). There is an extended discussion of various aspects of justice.

Chapter three is historical background, considering events significant to understanding social justice in the Americas. The coverage is useful but very basic and somewhat uneven. Significant chapters of Christian engagement in social justice go unmentioned while some included examples seem, well, a bit of a reach. (Example: The hospitality of Pilgrim communities is considered significant; but the Holy Experiment in Pennsylvania and peaceful living with native Americans goes unmentioned? One wonders when Quakers are hardly mentioned in a survey of social justice issues in America. John Woolman?) The story of Christian involvement in social justice in America is richer than it is here portrayed. On the other hand, much useful information is gathered together in an accessible resource.

Chapter four is about the process of promoting transformation of apathetic Christians to become “agents of justice.” There are some good, practical suggestions for those coming from a well-educated and privileged American cultural perspective, and some exhortation for others. The clinical approach Cannon takes provides accurate information; however, inspiration for change is better found elsewhere. Even so, this chapter is helpful to those seeking to establish social justice as a priority. Cannon identifies nine components that help Christians to move to advocacy: prayer, awareness, lament, repentance, partnership and community, sacrifice, advocacy, evangelism, and celebration. She gives significant consideration to issues of “partnering with humility” and paternalism in this chapter, introducing these important concepts clearly and cogently.

Chapter five is about solutions to injustice. Whose job is it to bring social justice, anyway? In this chapter, Cannon considers personal, church, and government involvement in social justice in a perfunctory manner, noting how Christians can take responsibility themselves and cooperate with others.

Scattered throughout the book are small, well-placed articles to spice up the reading. These articles include profiles of people involved in social justice, ideas on how to raise awareness of the issues, and exercises for spiritual reflection to consider how God is calling the reader to respond to what they are learning. In addition, there are many references to other resources for further research scattered through the text of the book.

The second portion of the book is a sort of encyclopedia of many social justice issues. This part of the book is intended to be an easy reference for those wanting an introduction to certain social justice issues. There are over 130 pages of brief background articles, each with references to additional resources. Each article provides suggestions to begin thinking and acting for justice on the topic it covers.

Of course, there is more coverage of some social justice issues than others. For example, there is little mention of oppression directed at immigrants and those working for immigration reform, or of the injustice that results from the morass of conflicting and confusing immigration laws. There are dedicated Christians working for social justice in this area. One might be tempted to think this omission could reflect a desire to avoid controversy; but consider that Cannon includes an article strongly advocating that women should not be limited in the use of their gifts in the home, workplace, or church. So we’ll have to chalk up the lack of coverage of immigration issues to something else. It would be hard not to leave something out!

After the second portion of the book, there are several very useful appendices giving lists of resources. These include lists of organizations, books, documentaries and unrated movies, and mainstream movies which are useful in exploring or introducing the social justice issues introduced by the book.

Overall, this is a fine book and a great resource for Christians concerned about getting involved in social justice. It is a fine “tour guide” for those gaining exposure to the many areas of social justice covered, and a fine reference work for ministry leaders.

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