FROM MY BOOKSHELF: Who Will Help the Poor Help Themselves?

By LeRoy Lawson

The Poor Will be Glad: Joining the Revolution to Lift the World Out of Poverty
Peter Greer and Phil Smith
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009

The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries that Defined America
Jeffrey Rosen
New York: Times Books, 2006

On the Wealth of the Nations
P.J. O’Rourke
New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2007

Sunday’s sermon was a good one, but on the way home we talked less about what the preacher said than what the preacher showed. His PowerPoint pictured the church’s mission dollars at work in Uganda, among the poorest of the poor: images of the cows our members bought and the children being taught and the new wells bringing clean water.

It was inspiring. It was also sobering to be reminded that the world’s poorest 3 billion people live on a dollar or two a day. Saturday we had ordered a $500 Netbook computer. That’s more than a full year’s income for most of these people. Even as pensioners, Joy and I are richer than 99 percent of the world’s population.

We are rich and they are poor just because we were born here and they were born there. What’s wrong with this picture?

Lifting the Poor

The sermon pricked my conscience because I’d been reading Peter Greer and Phil Smith’s The Poor Will Be Glad. From the title, you would expect the book to be yet another impassioned plea to give more money to relieve the world’s suffering. You’d be wrong.

Instead, the authors rightly criticize our often well-intentioned but counterproductive charity. We “run the real risk of strengthening the chains of poverty that bind captives around the world,” they warn. “Misguided giving can actually rob the poor.”

Staff members of Christian Missionary Fellowship International were asked to read the book because, like many other mission agencies, CMFI is determined not to perpetuate a dependency on American dollar benevolence. One method to help without hurting is microfinancing, which involves making very small loans ($8, $25, etc.) to enable poor but deserving entrepreneurs to start their own businesses. With such a little boost, they can achieve independence.

The Poor Will Be Glad isn’t propaganda. While some proponents of BAM (business as mission) propose we drop other types of missions and just make loans to the poor, Greer and Smith treat business as mission and microfinancing as vital parts of a larger, multifaceted strategy for lifting the poor out of financial and spiritual neediness. They convinced me.

Evaluating the Justices

Jeffrey Rosen’s The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries that Defined America is the companion volume for the Public Broadcasting Service series, which I did not see. Our highest court has fascinated me for a long time. I once held these jurists in awe, believing the nine highly principled men and women dwelt in a realm above temptation and political compromise. Well, those naive days are long gone.

If you share my former naïveté, read Rosen’s account. He contrasts four pairs of difference-making Americans:

John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson (the only nonjurist)

John Marshall Harlan and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Hugo Black and William O. Douglas

William H. Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia.

He examines their records and their judicial philosophies, but his real interest is in measuring their lasting impact on the court’s record and America’s laws. You’ll note from the list that he is not pitting conservatives against liberals. Scalia and Rehnquist stood on the right (conservative), but Rosen judges Rehnquist to have had a lasting impact that eludes the more self-promoting Scalia. In each pair, the more effective man was more collegial and more attuned to current American political realities. They were, truth be told, better politicians, and their judgments for the most part have been honored by subsequent history.

That was Rosen’s interest. Mine was quite different. The Bible’s deep concern for the just treatment of orphans and widows and the poor has been gnawing at me. I wanted to know whether my country’s highest court has cared more about just treatment of the poor and disenfranchised than about the dry abstractions of law.

The answer? Depends on the individual justices. Do they care about people or are they focused on personal reputation?

Rosen holds up some pretty sad examples of the court’s blindness to human inequities. Remember Dred Scott, which treated slaves as property, not persons? Too often the court has protected the privileges of the wealthy and powerful against the poor and weak, warping the Constitution in the process. On Rosen’s pages, the most brilliant (Holmes, Douglas, Scalia) suffer by comparison with the most compassionate and committed to fairness (Black, Rehnquist, Marshall, Harlan).

What distinguishes them is often not their views on law and order, but results of their accommodating temperaments. And, unfortunately, in the major court conflicts, too often the poor lose.

Justifying Greed

Finally, a word from P.J. O’Rourke, who dives through Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and tears pearls from the three-centuries-old oyster. For someone like me who hasn’t read the original, O’Rourke’s digest is an easy, irreverent introduction to the doctrinaire capitalist’s bible.

I read it because—as you can discern from what I’ve written above—I have at long last come to doubt any unbridled system that seems to justify greed and unconcern for those it leaves behind. The rising corporate leader of his time (like ours), Smith writes, “intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain. . . .” It’s not a huge leap from the self-centeredness Smith sees to Gordon Gekko’s proclamation in the 1987 film Wall Street: “Greed is good.”

But it isn’t. That’s not just my opinion, but Smith’s as well. As O’Rourke says, “Smith is famous for supposedly favoring laissez-faire (a term that appears nowhere in his writing) and for allegedly trusting the ‘invisible hand’ of capitalist progress. But Smith knew the hand could grasp. ‘People of the same trade seldom meet together . . . but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public,’” he observed.

Against the public. Read “the poor and disenfranchised.” The nonwealthy—who speaks for them?

Smith, often hailed for his theory, was himself leery of theorizers. O’Rourke adds his own scorn about the grand schemes (macrofinancing) that have brutalized the world’s most needy. They led to a hundred million murders. “And their foolish doctrines about agricultural land would drive the colonial atrocities of the Victorian era and abet the kaiser’s First World War, the führer’s Second, Stalin’s ruination of the Ukraine, and Mao’s starvation of China. In the two centuries after the physiocrats, more people would die from excesses of theory than had died from excesses of theology in all the centuries before” (italics mine).

So we need a more practical solution, one that doesn’t park morality outside the boardroom. O’Rourke again: “Cambridge University separated the study of economics from the study of moral sciences in 1903. A little soon.”

I like Jesus’ take on the relation of money and emotions (“where your treasure is, there will your heart be”), money and God (“you cannot serve God and money”), and money and power (“the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them . . . but it must not be so among you”). That’s why, to end where we began, the growth of microfinancing holds such promise for the poor. With a little boost from us, our world neighbors are enabled to care for their own needs and, in turn, their neighbors’, and as never before, to serve God.

They can’t afford for the richest and most powerful to help them help themselves, because they won’t.

So we must.

LeRoy Lawson is international consultant for Christian Missionary Fellowship, a contributing editor to CHRISTIAN STANDARD, and a member of the Publishing Committee. His column appears here at least monthly.

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