Freedom, Justice and Hope: Toward a Strategy for the Poor and the Oppressed

January 1 st 1989

Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1988, 171 pp., incl. 30 pp. notes and index, $10.35)

The authors of this excellent little volume demonstrate that popular explanations for the world's poverty are not only inaccurate but destructive of efforts to produce wealth and well-being. It is simply not true, for instance, that Third World poverty is a result of the West's past exploitation. Those Third World countries that have done the best are precisely the ones that have had the most contact with the West; and those that have done poorly have had little, if any, Western contact.

It has been said that the only difference between the rich and the poor is that the rich have more money. On the contrary, poverty is not simply a lack of money or other resources. It has more to do with religious beliefs and cultural attitudes than with money or even education. Herbert Schlossberg argues this convincingly in his short analysis of P.T. Bauer, a respected British economist and critic of the standard development theories. Schlossberg concludes that "the expenditure of money does not achieve much unless it is accompanied by fundamental cultural and institutional changes . . . Commonly, people are poor because of cultural factors which they choose not to change" (p. 89).

The inhibiting cultural factors may be as simple as the absence of an orientation to the future, a belief in fate or the rule of malevolent spirits that must be appeased, or a belief that work itself is an undesirable activity. Common institutional factors inhibiting efforts to create wealth are arbitrary laws and an unstable political environment No person, no matter how well educated or well financed, is likely to establish a business and employ people if he or she believes that the state may at any time change the ground rules and confiscate the businesses property or imprison its owners.

This is the situation in much of the Third World, where communist dictators and one-party socialist oligarchies are out to force "new societies" on reluctant populations. In such unpredictable and ideologically bound environments, sustained commerce is not possible. What happens is that the size, reach, and grasp of the state increase. Bloated government bureaucracies swelled by incoming foreign aid, not business, are where the opportunities for money and advancement lie. Naturally, it is to government that the educated talent is attracted.

Why do poor nations continue to pursue policies that only deepen their poverty and their dependence on handouts from the rich? One reason, argues Clark Pinnock, is man's "pursuit of Utopia," a romantic ideal that needs no proof of its actually working. The Utopian ideal of an engineered, egalitarian society is invariably collectivism therefore its execution is socialist or communist. Unfortunately, because human beings don't live according to plan, coercion and often terror are required to start and maintain the ideal. When the dream dies—as it eventually must—all that is left is unrelenting force.

Pinnock's challenge is for us to face the incontrovertible facts: socialism is everywhere a failure because it "shackles the dynamic creativity of people which is the source of wealth creation, and replaces it with a vast bureaucracy which is notoriously inefficient" (p.77). Put simply, socialism goes against creational norms.

Mankind's true hope, says Marvin Olasky, is in the gospel of Jesus Christ, which frees us from guilt—a motivation guaranteed to poison and distort any analysis of poverty and wealth. The Biblical world-view is the corrective to the modern materialist mentality, which sees man's problems as rooted not in himself but in factors beyond his control (social status, economic arrangements, etc.) and to which he is forever the victim. In contrast to this enslaving notion, Christianity offers hope through a God who is above nature, not part of it, and who intervenes in history and directs it according to his purposes; through a human being who bears the image of God and is thus capable of giving shape to his environment rather than being shaped willy-nilly by it; and through an attitude to work that embraces work as valuable in itself.

Christians need to remember that economics is a moral science and that its restoration depends on man's obedience to God's commands. Olasky concludes:

Biblically, man is imprisoned not just by poverty but by deeper levels of alienation, imprisonment and enslavement The ultimate alienation is the alienation of man from God—which in turn affects everything else. This is not to deemphasize the economic. People need food...But Christ's goal is a total spiritual reorientation, which will then have out-workings in all areas of life. Emphasizing the material is an easy way out (P. 137)


W. J. Douglas Ball is the secretary of the national board of the Christian Labour Association of Canada.