Make Poverty History

I have noticed in my teaching about international development as a dimension of Christian mission that some of my students express uneasiness with the way I discuss this topic in my Christian World Mission course.  The uneasiness likely comes from a number of different sources.  Let me explain.

Students at Palmer Theological Seminary get a fair amount of exposure to what might be called liberationist and ”postcolonial” perspectives in their systematic theology and ethics courses.  These courses are usually taken before they enroll in my course.  Students affiliated with Palmer’s Sider Center sometimes come with such perspectives already well-established from courses they took during their undergraduate courses of study.

One source of the uneasiness then is that I simply take a different tack in my course.  Some years ago, Sojourners magazine sponsored a conference entitled “Make Poverty History.”  I did not attend, but the conference theme struck me in a different way than the sponsors no doubt intended.  I try to “make” (learn, teach, and write about) poverty history.  I do this for a variety of reasons, one of which is my belief that many bad solutions to the problems of poverty in this country and abroad have been created out of a frenetic but insufficiently thoughtful desire to “do something.”  The history of poverty alleviation efforts is a lesson in humility.  That is always hard to learn.

My students who are or will be Christian leaders in many different congregations will have ample opportunity – if they choose – to engage their congregations in promoting international (and local) development efforts through countless NGOs engaged in poverty alleviation work.  It is my hope that this awareness of the history of poverty alleviation around the world will not only give them a sense of humility but will also help them to be more discerning of efforts in which they choose to invest their and their congregations’ time and resources.  An additional source of uneasiness seems to emerge when I mention that ostensibly well-intentioned and currently popular efforts may, in fact, do a fair amount of harm.

A final source of my students’ uneasiness is perhaps one I share most strongly.  When introducing the topic of international development as a dimension of Christian mission I choose to mostly tell the story of bilateral (government), multilateral (UN, World Bank) and nongovernmental organization engagement with poverty alleviation efforts during (mostly) the last fifty years.  Obviously, I do not provide an exhaustive overview.   I readily admit that this is also a “view from above” rather than a view of poverty from the perspective of poor persons which varies considerably with context.  I stress that understanding large international organizations is nonetheless important even if our attentiveness to “the grassroots” may be emotionally and even theologically more appealing.  I explain how efforts at poverty alleviation are enmeshed in US foreign policy decisions which are not always altruistic in nature.  Many – and sometimes conflicting – motivations are at play.  I have no truck for theological platitudes masquerading as true insight nor for rhetoric which romanticizes the poor and the ugliness of absolute poverty.  I do not want to overstate my students’ uneasiness, however, with this historical analysis of international development organizations.  Many students genuinely appreciate this overview even if it does cloud over the sometimes starry-eyed rhetoric to “make poverty history.”

I will continue to take the title of that Sojourners conference literally.  I wish more students, pastors, and scholars were engaged in learning lessons from history by literally learning, teaching, and writing poverty history.  We surely need more people – myself included – who are actually doing the work with the poor.  My own focus on teaching and writing poverty history does not make sense unless others similarly focus on grassroots work.  My prayer is that my students’ uneasiness with this topic in my class or the way I choose to discuss it will propel them to action in a way that is true to their vocations.

About Ben Hartley

Since 2021, I have served as the Associate Professor of Mission and World Christianity at Seattle Pacific University. I have served in similar roles at George Fox University (2016-2020) and at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University (2005-2016). I am an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church.
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