There need be no poor among you." (Duet. 15:4 ) God gave ancient Israel this ideal goal when it came to addressing the problem of poverty. At first glance it might seem as if God expected his people to eventually make poverty history through their faithful obedience. But a few verses later, there lies a transition from the future ideal to the present reality. "If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites…..Do not be hardhearted or tight-fisted towards them." (Duet. 15:7) Later, in the same passage, an even greater assertion: "There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in the land." (Duet.15:11) Interestingly, within the tiny theocratic state of ancient Israel where its leaders could levy control through the several hundreds of rules and regulations from the Mosaic law, there remained a realism that poverty was never going to be history. Rather, the realism that poverty will always exist became the occasion for the people of Israel to live a generous lifestyle towards the poor and needy.
The question arises, How do these scriptures apply to us today? Especially since these commands were given to ancient Israel—-a theocratic state, whereas America is completely different as a republic of represented democracy. Therefore, It would be wise to heed Biblical scholar Craig Blomberg's reminder that "the closer the situation in any given portion of our contemporary world corresponds to the features—in this case the socio-economic features—of the world behind any given biblical instructions, the more straightforward one can transfer the principles of those texts in our modern age. The less the correspondence, the higher one has to move up the ladder of abstraction to look for broader principles that may transcend the uniqueness of specific situations."
Sadly, many Christians and non-Christians alike do the exact opposite. Instead of looking for broader principles, they narrow their interpretation of Bible verses on the issue of poverty, twisting the Bible to reinforce their personal, social, and political agendas. If I had a dollar for every conservative "Christian" that I've heard carelessly exploit Jesus' comment "that the poor you will have always" (which is a paraphrase from Duet. 15:11) to justify their lack of compassion and responsibility towards the poor, I'd have enough money to buy a iPad. Ironically, these Christians seem to have more in common with "the survival of the fittest" mentality of social Darwinists than Jesus. At the same time, I've seen several progressives project their liberal ideology onto the Bible, believing, for instance, that the Sheep and the Goats parable describing the last judgement (Matt. 25:31-46) is an indictment against conservatives because they don't embrace a large-scale government intervention strategy to help the poor. Not acknowledging that many conservatives, in their involvement and sacrificial giving through churches and non-profits, are actually compassionate people towards the poor and needy, but rather don't possess faith in the government as do many progressives to make things better for the poor.
Since the poor and needy will always be among us, God's people must always remain generous and compassionate people towards the poor and needy. That is the broader principle from Duet. 15. and should not surprise us, especially since our world is fallen and that we worship a loving and just God who has a special concern for the poor. So maybe we should change our poverty language from "eradication" and "making poverty history" to "alleviation" and "reduction." Alleviating and reducing poverty is a much more realistic goal because it takes account of the complex, multi-faceted nature of poverty that comes from the truth that we live in a fallen, sin-filled world. A world that will never experience the complete utopian society that we all yearn for until Jesus comes back to this earth, cleanses it of all injustice and unrighteousness and sets everything right as a new earth. In the mean time, as a follower of Jesus, I am to proclaim the gospel to everyone (Mark 16:15), and love God and love my neighbor as myself (Luke 10:25-37), part of which is to understand and live out what it means to care about justice for the poor (Prov. 29:7).
Can the War on Poverty be won in America? That depends on how you define what victory looks like. If you are the eternal optimist that presumes somehow our government or the free-market or church and private organizations will eliminate poverty during our lifetime and one day relegate it to a history museum, then you may be sorely disappointed. That does not mean that we should wave the white flag and surrender the fight against poverty. Nevertheless, we need to step back and gain a wide-angle view of the interwoven web of multiple moral, social, and economic issues that perpetuate poverty. Poverty is much too complex of an enemy than "pundits" compel us to believe. It is much more than "a lack of money, period" as left-wing social commentators Cornel West and Tavis Smily have passionately declared in their poverty manifesto. And so much more than a series of bad choices and habits by the poor as Christian financial guru Dave Ramsey recently insinuated in his "20 things the rich do everyday" article. Such sweeping generalizations and simplistic solutions do not paint a realistic portrait of 21st century poverty in America, but rather reinforce the tired old stereotypes within political debates between the left and right that dominate traditional and social media.
Nonetheless, my purpose for writing this particular post is not to explore in detail each cause of poverty, but rather bring to light the multiplexity of poverty to bring us back to the question: Was the war on poverty too ambitious and too optimistic? Did our progressive elders put all of their social change eggs in the government basket, believing that large-scale interventions totaling trillions of dollars could, for instance, prevent or counter the colossal phenomenon of the breakdown of the traditional family, a major contributor to poverty? Studies show that when fathers are no longer present in the home, it results in the increasing number of children growing up in poverty. But that's not all. Without a father, more teenagers end up dropping out of school, more teenage girls get pregnant, and more teen boys get locked up, all of which lead to even more poverty! All the money in the world cannot fix the broken relationships that correspond with the disintegration of the family.
Ironically many of my progressive friends and fellow poverty-fighters, especially those who are post-modern, post-9/11, post-baby boom, post-industrial, post-Christian, post-war, seem to give a free pass to the high-modernist ideology that assumes the all-encompassing proficiency of the state to harness all of its available power, redistribute financial resources and create a plethora of social programs that will result in the eradication of poverty. The past century is littered with the unintended consequences of failed schemes from ambitious governments that presumed their central planning, knowledge, technology, and ideology could create a grand utopian society. But then again, as a Bible-believing Christian, I am confronted with a certain verse in Scripture (Duet 15:4) that seems to advocate the ideal of making poverty history, "there need be no poor among you……" Or does it? More to come next week with part II of"Was the War on Poverty too Ambitious?"
2014 marks 50 years since Lyndon Johnson officially declared War on Poverty in America: its goal to end poverty by addressing social/economic issues such as housing, education, healthcare, and job creation. Being as it is the 50th year anniversary, many politicians are attacking or defending this massive undertaking that has cost tax payers many trillions of dollars over the long haul as either a dismal failure or moderate success, depending on whether you lean right or left on the political spectrum. Sadly, most politicians and political journalists do not possess the gift of nuance and civility, but rather create straw men, red herring, and adhominem arguments, designed to arouse the passions of its constituents. And sadly, many people prefer the club-wielding verbal assault over the olive branches of a civil discourse. The language of public debate where ideas are passionately presented, tested, and given thoughtful consideration is all but lost. In its place, a barrage of nasty caustic attacks litter social media and online media sites along with the smorgasbord of intentionally biased news outlets that one can find on cable TV.
That being said, conversations about the war on poverty in America must take place. Currently, around 50 million Americans live in poverty while approximately 20 trillion dollars of government dollars have gone to fight the war on poverty during the past 50 years. Since 2014 marks the 50th anniversary with America's war on poverty, and because I've devoted over 20 years of my life to serving the urban poor in my neighborhood, I've decided to write several blog posts during the year of 2014, reflecting on America's War on Poverty. Just so you know, my Christian worldview and my two decades of poverty-fighting experience inform my beliefs and ideas on this controversial subject. I invite you to wade into this important conversation even if you hold entirely different religious, social, economic, and political beliefs than me. Although I am passionate about what I believe, I promise that these conversations will be civil because my faith in Jesus compels me to love those who are vastly different than me.
Here is a snapshot of topics that I will attempt to address:
Was the war on poverty too ambitious? Did the war on poverty correctly diagnose the causes of poverty? Does the war on poverty create dependency to the programs that were designed to help them break out of poverty? What government poverty programs are working? What government poverty programs should be scrapped or revamped? Education and the war on poverty. Wage earning and the war on poverty. Employment and the war on poverty. Marriage and family issues and the war on poverty. Race issues and the war on poverty. The role of faith-based organizations and the government's war on poverty. Housing and the war on poverty. Does crime cause poverty or poverty cause crime (how one answers this question determines how one allocate one's resources)? Healthcare and the war on poverty. Which is worse, big business or big government?
Redeeming Inner-City Youth, Families and Communities with the Transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ
When Sherilyn and I left Servants Center ten years ago to launch UTM, we could hardly imagine the messy journey we would take in our efforts to disciple inner-city youth in our neighborhood. Ten years ago, we were reaching out to and discipling approximately 60-70 students between the ages of 6-17. At that time, our hands were full dealing with some of our older students that were drawn into risky behaviors of the street life such as joining gangs, participating in gang-violence, dealing drugs, getting drunk at house parties, and living promiscuously. Ten years ago, the ROCK basketball program had begun to swell in numbers and we started a discipleship youth group called Thursday Night Hype for about 15 teen students that desired to know more about Christ. Ten years ago, we were on a shoestring budget while desperate for volunteers that would help us mentor on a long-term basis because many of our students had no father-figure in their life.
Fast forward ten years and you will see a much different picture. UTM now reaches out to approximately 300 at-risk students each year, including elementary, teens, and young adults. Several of these young adults discipled through UTM are now graduates from colleges such as Grand Valley State, Cornerstone University, Western Michigan University, Grace College, and Ball State University. One of our main partner churches, New City Church, provides twelve volunteers that are committed to long-term mentoring. Our ROCK program has expanded beyond a one-night-a-week open gym format to include basketball and football tournaments, leagues, and clinics.
Moreover, we launched a residential leadership program called Man-Up, which provides the spiritual, social, and economic tools for at-risk young men who desire to be better fathers and leaders that will positively impact their community for Jesus Christ. All three graduates of the Man-Up program have obtained living-wage employment, entered into the life-long commitment of marriage, and serve Christ as mentors to the current man-up residents. At the same time, they coach basketball teams for the ROCK program and at neighborhood schools.
A few weeks ago, UTM purchased a home from the Land Bank located in the Creston neighborhood of Grand Rapids that will serve as the permanent residence for the Man-Up program! Since the house is a complete gut and renovation project, we are partnering with the Youth Build program of Bethany Christian Services (BCS), in which 20 at-risk young adults are hired and receive mentoring in life-skills along with close supervision and training in construction skills from licensed builders.
Although BCS is contributing a significant portion of the cost towards renovating the Man-Up house, UTM is looking to raise an initial $20,000 for renovation and program expenses. Can we count on you to help us? Your financial gift will ensure that UTM continues to raise up more and more leaders from the thug life of the street that reach back into the inner-city with the good news of Jesus Christ to help diffuse the violence and model a better alternative to the street life of gangs and drugs.
If you would like to donate electronically, you can do so at our webpage, www.utmgr.org and click on the "donate" tab. If you would like to donate via USPS, please indicate on your check if it is to be used for our Man-up build out.
Thank you so much for your prayers and your support of UTM.
Amazed by God's grace,
Joel Shaffer, Executive Director Urban Transformation Ministries
If you live in Grand Rapids, you probably heard or read about the shooting and murder of Andre Davis several days ago. http://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2013/08/police_andre_davis_declared_br.html
Although I did not know 'Dre well, on several different occasions, he frequented UTM's ROCK program to play basketball......
Pam Mooty, one of our friends from UTM partner New City Church, is an ultra-distance runner. She runs ultra-marathons, which are long distance races that go way beyond the standard 26.2 miles and test the limit of endurance at a whole new level. Since Pam will be raising money for UTM through her next big ultra-marathon, we decided to ask her a few questions…..
How did you get into running ultra-marathons?
I have been running for the last 5-6 years and decided that I wanted more than the marathon. I realized I enjoyed running longer and not having to be super fast. So last year, I decided to try my first ultra-distance and complete a double marathon (52.4 miles). As last year was coming to an end, I decided I liked what the ultra-distance was all about. You go through hard spots where you think you cannot move and then you are moving along again. It is a soul searching experience.
What kind of training do you go through in order to build up strength to run an ultra-marathon?
It is a huge time commitment. It was years of running 5K’s, 10K’s and then marathons. Then it is year round training even when the weather isless than perfect. You cannot just blow the training miles off. It is running on hills, running on flat areas at a little faster pace, running on trails both easier and difficult terrain, running for hours to cover time on task. So yes, a lot of Saturdays where I am running twelve hours. Then the training of figuring out what best fuels you. So you try eating and drinking different things to find what best works for you. And for this race I have had to train carrying a pack with my own water and food. Prayer, praise, and worship is the icing on the training. I cannot train and get this strong on my own…….God is by my side along this crazy journey of ultra-running.
Describe the ultra-marathon in which you will be competing.
The middle of June, I will be participating in a race called the Desert R.A.T.S. (Race Against the Sand). This is a 148 mile 5 stage race on the Kokopelli Trail from Grand Junction CO, to Moab, UT. The days mileage goes in the following order: 20,39,9,52, and 26.2 miles.. We will have a crew that sets up and tears down our tents which are our sleeping accommodations for the duration of the race. They will also be providing a hot meal for supper and a breakfast each day. The terrain varies from mountainous to desert and the temps range from 95 to 110 in the mountains and the desert getting as high as 120 degrees. Each racer is required to carry 1000 calories of nutrition, 100 oz. Of water, a hunting knife, light jacket, emergency blanket and strobe, flashlight, and etc... http://geminiadventures.com/new/?page_id=130
You decided to raise money for UTM through sponsors for Desert R.A.T.S. Why did you choose UTM as your chosen organization?
I prayed for God to show me whom I would be running for. I did not want this race to be about me. And the organization that kept coming to mind was UTM. I have been honored to meet some awesome young people who through the work of UTM have definitely transformed their lives in ways only God can do.. God is working and using UTM to show people how they can turn their lives around. And not only are they changing, but they are in turn helping others to transform their lives. God is serious about his people. I feel honored to be able to go out and run this race and raise money to help advance the work of UTM…..
If someone wanted to sponsor you, let’s say, 1 dollar per mile, how would they go about it?
I would like to have some people each day sponsor me for the day at $1 a mile. Day 1 sponsors would sign up for $20 since I will be running 20 miles. Day 2 would be $39, etc...When you sign up, you can write a check directly to UTM. Or donate online at https://www.wepay.com/donations/ultra-distance-for-utm How awesome if some wanted to cover the entire run of 148 miles!
“I should hope we move into an equally strong appeal for personal commitment to Jesus Christ and for dedication to social justice, one that will so distinguish the Christian community that the world will stop to catch its breath.”
Carl F. H. Henry, “The Tensions Between Evangelism and the Christian Demand for Social Justice,” Fides et historia 2 (Spring 1972): 10.
God's way of promoting
social justice in this present age is to increase the number of people who
pursue justice and righteousness in their social relationships because they
have received Christ by faith, and through the indwelling Holy Spirit have been
"created anew in Christ Jesus for good works" (Ephesians
If we are aware that there are existing public evils or injustices in our own society which should be rectified, then it is right, and will commend our Christian testimony, for us to pursue this through the constitutional channels that are available. But let us also at all costs keep our priorities right. Man's prime need is to be reconciled to God through faith in Christ; and only in this way will the root cause of social injustices be effectively dealt with. Biblical principles of social justice do not require us to "Christianise" society. A comment by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones is to the point here (from "The Christian and the State in Revolutionary Times"). He says, "The world can never be reformed. Never! That is absolutely certain. A Christian State is impossible. All the experiments have failed. They had to fail. They must fail. The Apocalypse alone can cure the world's ills. Man even at his best, even as a Christian, can never do so. You can never make people Christian by acts of Parliament. You can never Christianize society. It is folly to attempt to do so. I would even suggest that it is heresy to do so. Men must be 'born again'. How can they live the Christian life if they have not become Christians? Good fruit can only come from a good tree, a good root; and the idea that you can impose a Christian life or culture upon non-Christian people is a contradiction of Christian teaching. Nevertheless, government and law and order are essential because man is in sin; and the Christian should be the best citizen in the country."
There are those who talk about the "whole Gospel", by which they mean that social justice is part of its message. This is a misconception. Justification by faith is not half the gospel; it is the whole Gospel. Social justice is an essential part of Christian teaching for those who have first received Christ through faith, it is a necessary by-product of the Gospel, as all Christian character and behaviour is a by-product. It is a result which should of necessity follow in the life and behaviour of the man or woman who has been justified by faith, and who is motivated by the love of Christ wrought by the indwelling Holy Spirit, and guided by the Word of God.
Erik posted this update on his facebook page after the birth of his baby girl this past Friday:
5 yrs ago I thought my life was done. The student athlete had slowly turned into an alcoholic drug addict/dealer. I tried to end my life and almost did. Since then I've watched God insert so much life into my world. A revived relationship with my son, married my wife, adopted a new daughter and watched another come into the world Friday. He breaths life even when we chase death.