May 30

Christianity versus Fatalistic Religions in the War Against Poverty, by Udo Middelmann ?????

Christianity versus Fatalistic Religions in the War Against Poverty was read at a most timely period in my life. The book arrived in the mail just before departing to Bangladesh with my wife, where we worked for 10 weeks in a Baptist hospital south of Chittagong. Owing to weight restrictions, etc., we were unable to bring the book. That was probably for the best, since the serious questions of “rich” Christians dealing with abject poverty had not come to bear in my mind, and we left Bangladesh quite troubled about a true Christian approach toward poverty. Your book helped tremendously.

Let me explain the situation. As you are aware, Bangladesh actually used to be the richest region in all of Asia. With the coming of the British, they successfully raped Bengal of all its wealth, destroyed its industry, and yet refused to bring in Christianity for fear of “upsetting” the population. It was only a few missionaries like William Carey in Kolkota that any Christianity in Bengal existed at all. The rest of the story you are indubitably aware of, how east and west Pakistan broke away from India in 1947, again, in part because of serious religious and racial friction that the British created to maintain their control of the Indian subcontinent, by dividing the Muslim from the Hindu sub-populations. Bangladesh then achieved independence from Pakistan in 1971 through a viciously bloody civil war. What is left is a small country the size of Wisconsin with a population of 160 million. The average wage is about $200/year. The cost of living is quite low.

We have had the chance to encounter many Nationals while in the country, all of them quite poor, save for a minor handful of wealthy Muslims. Among the poor, Christian or Muslim or Hindu, we noted particular mindset issues…

  1. 1.An almost magical belief in certain commodities. We have had many Nationals beg of us to help them purchase a camera and a computer, since those items would create the difference that would allow them to rise to a position of wealth.
  2. 2.A terrible sense of use of money. As an example, when one gets married, they are culturally required to provide a large feast for the entire community, which typically sets a young couple many years behind in debt. I suggested that the Christian community band together to create an alternative solution, which did not go over so well.
  3. 3.There is a sense of indifference to life. While the Bengali can be a very hard worker, there is also a sense that hard work will only lead to pain, and not achieve a higher social or economic status.
  4. 4.A strong sense of sharing of wealth and generosity, but more for cultural status, rather than care for self or family. This would often set somebody back financially and can be quite destructive to family economics, while preserving social status. There is no sense of admitting that one is poor, and that generosity is not sometimes possible.
  5. 5.A sense of total absence of integrity. This was true even among the Christians, who simply could not fathom that debt must be repaid, that truthfulness was of greater value than wealth, that integrity in every interaction with another human being must prevail over any economic need that existed. In economic dealings, many of the National Christians (more often than not, actually), when given control over ex-pat finances, have stolen large sums, without any sense of remorse or guilt.
  6. 6.Ultimately, the universal desire and focus on wealth rather than character identified the Bengali as just as materialistic as us Westerners.

So, we came home with multiple requests for clothing items, shoes, money, computers, cameras, invitations to the Western world, etc., etc. There was only one young Christian man of the thousands we encountered who told us that he didn’t want our money, but just prayer.

I was very troubled as to how the missionaries dealt with the situation. Often, they would form a revised “caste” system. I was very troubled how they would sometimes treat their Christian National brother or sister much differently than the ex-pat. But, the missionaries have been frequently burned. The examples are exceedingly rare of National Christians that have held true to the faith when offered substantial wealth from the ex-pats for schooling or business in an attempt to get them out of poverty.

So, Betsy and I came home with very troubled minds. Should we have been more generous? Were the missionary rules of no greater than $20 gifts to strict or oppressive? How do I deal with the scriptural command to love my neighbor, and care for my Christian brothers and sisters when they manifest true needs and I have the ability to help?

I feared that this book would be like virtually every other poverty/wealth book out there, a variant of finding a balance between the Marxist/Socialist vs. Capitalist struggle. Thankfully, it was anything but that. The postscript admits that the writing is primarily an ideological approach, yet that is the approach that is missing from all the other Christian books on wealth and poverty that I have read. I need not quote Ron Sider’s “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” (I think that’s the name), who takes an essentially Marxist stance toward wealth, and leaves one guilty for not sharing until they have achieved the same level of poverty of those being shared with. Or Ron Nash’s books on economics, with a blind capitalistic mentality that fails to prioritize Christian moral values as the oil that allows the capitalistic gears to turn. Or any book that emphasizes the value of personhood, and our approach to the needy as persons rather than simple economic holes.

There is one thing that Udo mentioned only indirectly, which is that oftentimes poverty can be as a result of governmental mindset rather than individual mindset. Bangladesh has a corrupt government (persistently #1 in a well-known corruption index), moderately oppressive Muslim (we had to be very careful about speaking about Christ) social structure, that causes even right-minded Christians to suffer. There are times when we suffer for another person’s sins. I’m not sure as to the solution, except to encourage truth to be spoken about the true etiology of the suffering.

So, this book was a very welcome read, answering many questions that I had about a Christian approach to poverty. I’m sure more questions will arise. Betsy and I will be headed to Northern Cameroon for two months at the end of September, where we’ll probably see similar circumstances of abject poverty. I will be purchasing a few more copies of your book to hand out to friends and missionaries in the field. Thank you for a thought-provoking text.

 

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