Later this month we’re publishing Global Poverty: A Theological Guide by Justin Thacker of Cliff College. Our editor, David Shervington asked Justin a few questions about his background, motivations and hopes for the book.
DS: Your first career was as a medical doctor. How did you end up writing and teaching on theology and international development?
JT: It was actually while working in Kenya as a doctor that I decided on the career change to theology. One of the things I learnt while working in East Africa was that while much aid is good and necessary, it doesn’t provide the long term transformation that many poorer countries require. I had grown up with the rather naïve (and arrogant) belief that if you want to do good in the world, being a doctor in Africa is pretty much the best way to do it. Actually working as one opened my eyes to the reality that there are lots of ways to bring about a positive impact. Of course, being a doctor is one, but it is only one, and in many circumstances not necessarily the most important one. This released me to consider other possibilities and so I felt led to embark on a career in theology with a particular focus on issues of poverty and development.
DS: So what made you to want to write the book?
JT: One of the things I love about the Bible is its richness, diversity and complexity, but one of the problems with that is that it lends itself to a proof-texting approach, particularly in relation to poverty. If you want to find verses that say poverty is the result of laziness, you can do that. If you want to argue that it’s all the fault of corrupt governments, there’s plenty of texts that point in that direction. So I wanted to take a more systematic and theological approach to poverty to try and provide some kind of grand narrative that we can apply to the issue. Of course, I’m sure my biases affect the way I write as well as others, but what I have at least tried to do is provide an overview that eschews a proof-texting approach to the issues.
DS: Why do we need to think theologically about global poverty?
JT: As I try to show in the book, one of the problems with much contemporary Christian thinking about poverty is that it tends be quite shallow, aping the range of secular ideas about poverty that are currently on offer, whether one’s penchant is for a capitalist, socialist or liberationist view. It might well be the case, and I argue this in the book, that many of those secular ideas are correct but what I wanted to show was the particular contribution that theological thinking about poverty provides. One example of this is the way I show how a confidence in the ultimate victory of Christ over poverty helps us steer the appropriate path between an over-confidence in our own ability to solve poverty (and therefore a detrimental over-reach in our poverty alleviation efforts) and a pessimistic defeatism that says we shouldn’t even bother trying.
DS: But given that Jesus tells us that the poor will always be with us, isn’t trying to eradicate poverty a bit fruitless anyway?
JT: I spent quite a bit of space in the book discussing these words from Jesus. I think the real question is what drives us to engage in the work of poverty alleviation? If our motivation is fundamentally to do with ourselves perhaps so that we can look back at what we’ve done at some point in the future and say, ‘haven’t we done well –we’ve eradicated poverty’ then we are missing the point. For the truth is that the work of poverty alleviation requires people who are in it for the long-term. We strive towards the goal of eradication not because we are going to get there – we are not, the poor will always be with us – but because to work towards that end is to be in step with the creator God who will one day bring that eradication about. It is about working on God’s agenda on behalf of the poor, not working on our own. We are not the saviours of the world; God is and realising that brings motivation that lasts.
DS: In one chapter in the book, you express some concerns about charities that promote child sponsorship. Can you give us a flavour of why you think that kind of giving doesn’t work?
JT: In the first place, its important to say that not all child sponsorship is the same, and my main critique is for those charities that do not pool the funds they receive (and so spend them at the community level) but instead provide them to the individual children and their parents. I think there are a number of issues here, and I describe them all in the book, but I think my major concerns are threefold. Firstly, it fosters inequality and resentment, creating divisions between families and communities as some children are sponsored and others are not. Secondly, it is not a long term solution to poverty and encourages a dependency culture in which power imbalances are not just maintained, but even strengthened. And lastly, I’m concerned that it encourages an emotional shallowness in those of us who have greater financial assets. If we only give because we are shocked by images of poor, destitute children then I fear for our long-term commitment to the issue.
DS: If you were speaking to Christians apathetic about social justice what would you say to them?
JT: Read the Bible. It screams social justice from Genesis to Revelation, and to ignore that agenda is to worship a different God to the one I know.
DS: And hat sort of impact are you hoping the book will make?
JT: As I survey Christian responses to poverty in the contemporary world, I am increasingly concerned about the lack of depth in our motivation to address this issue and the increasing cacophony of voices (especially in the US) that say we shouldn’t be addressing it at all. I think poverty fatigue is a real phenomenon and unless we lay some deep roots as to why this is an issue that we must tackle, and continue to tackle in the long term then I fear our collective passion for it may whither and die. I hope this book makes a modest contribution to providing some of those deep roots that will sustain our efforts for some years to come.
Global Poverty is published at the end of the month. For a limited time you can get 20% off if you preorder the book via our website. Click here to find out more.