I’ve written on a couple of occasions about the 58: campaign, back when it launched and then again last week coinciding with the premiere of the film. Here now are some thoughts on Fast Living: How the Church Will End Extreme Poverty, written by Dr. Scott Todd, who works for Compassion International and serves as chairman of the board for the Accord Network.
The theme of the campaign, and of the book, comes from Isaiah 58, a passage of Scripture that has meant a lot to me and to many. In it, the prophet rails against the dangers of empty religion, calling the people of God instead to a “true fast” — a life of worship characterized by loosing the chains of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, sharing bread with the hungry, and clothing the naked. It’s a radical passage of Scripture. And Fast Living is a radical book; the subtitle alone is audacious.
As I’ve said before, the campaign really excites and encourages me. Made up of ten Christian relief and development organizations, it seeks to mobilize the Church — North American churches and Christians, in particular — to get serious about ending extreme poverty in our lifetime. Scott Todd highlights the successes we’ve seen already, and points to the untapped potential for the Church to lead the way going forward. I work for a Christian relief and development organization (though it’s not a member of the campaign), and I’m passionate about mobilizing churches and Christians first of all to care about this stuff, but second, and more importantly, to actually get to work as instruments of shalom in our world. And because of those shared passions, I’m so grateful for the energy this campaign is generating and for the many lives that will be saved and transformed because of it.
But… I do have a three (relatively minor?) qualms with the book.
First, its reading of Isaiah 58 under-emphasizes the core of Isaiah’s main plea. Yes, the prophet Isaiah calls the people of God out of their lives of affluent materialism and overly private piety, and into merciful, just, sacrificial lives, and yes, the application for us today is clear. But this transformation is not simply a matter of the will, or a matter of getting excited about being part of something big and world-changing. It’s a matter of sin and repentance and new life. After repenting of our selfishness, our pride and our greed, and then, having experienced the lavish grace of God, we are freed to go and love others as Christ has loved us. I wish that the book would have emphasized this need for repentance and the promise of new life at least as much as it sought to inspire. People who have experienced God’s grace are in a unique position to love their neighbors, because they know that no one is below them, unworthy of love. Inspiration and guilt, meanwhile, only go so far — especially in a matter like fighting extreme poverty. As Christians, I don’t know what will sustain us in this work if it’s not the grateful recognition that we’re undeserving recipients of God’s love and that we’re invited in turn to share that love with others.
Second, its suggested remedy for the complex problem of extreme poverty strikes me as a bit simplistic. “Simple generosity can, and probably will, end extreme global poverty if we channel it effectively,” Scott Todd writes. Now, that’s a very big if. But even so, I’m not convinced that simple generosity has what it takes. Simple generosity is obviously what relief and development organizations need from us to do their very important work. But ending extreme poverty will require not just the social sector, but bold leadership from government and business as well. He touches on this in a later section of the book, emphasizing that all three sectors have a role to play in the fight against poverty. It’s understandable, given his audience and his own work, that his focus is on the social sector — and especially on the Church and parachurch organizations within that sector — but simple generosity can’t account for businesses that create jobs that help give the poor dignity and lift them out of cycles of poverty, and simple generosity can’t account for laws and policies that are just and that defend the rights of the marginalized.
Third, and finally, the book’s positing of the Church as a victim of “the media” seems to miss the mark. Todd is right that Christians are often portrayed in the mainstream media as “shallow, anti-intellectual, judgmental, disengaged, and uncool hypocrites.” He wonders why the media focus more on our scandals than on our humble service to the world’s poor. I’m just not convinced that this is because of some sinister conspiracy by “The Lords of Media” who are out to get us. Rather, I’d point to the fact that the mainstream media are big businesses, and they are concerned, first and foremost, with what sort of reporting and programming is most lucrative. Media coverage, in other words, is based on supply and demand, and as they say, “if it bleeds, it leads.” There are reporters who care about telling good stories and doing good journalism both within the mainstream and at the fringes, but the media system is driven mostly by a bottom line. This is why the media focus more on political sex scandals than they do on the many politicians who lead quiet, faithful lives with their families. It is why we hear more about Muslims being terrorists than about the vast majority who simply want peace. It’s why we hear about murder and rape in our cities rather than about those who walk old ladies across the street or volunteer at soup kitchens. If consumers of media rewarded newspapers and TV outlets for focusing on the good things that are happening in the world, we’d automatically see a lot more of it. Maybe I’m making a big deal out of nothing, but it seems to me that playing the victim is a dangerous posture. It becomes too easy to then disregard the many ways in which Christians all too often do reinforce the stereotypes others hold about us. Plus, it disregards the matchlessly influential role the media can play in getting the word out about urgent needs in times of emergency or otherwise. Christians aren’t always portrayed well in the media, it’s true; but if we want to change that, I’m not sure that playing the victim will help.
Again, the first and the last thing I have to say about the 58: campaign, film and book is that I find them exciting, encouraging and worthwhile, and I know that many feel the same way. I offer these thoughts, I hope, merely as three ways to make 58: even better.
Have you read the book or watched the film? What are your thoughts? What did you appreciate the most about them? What would you change?