Much of the second half of Walking with the Poor by Bryant Myers revolves around asking and proposing answers to development questions. On understanding development from a Christian perspective Myers asks, Whose story is it? What better future? What process of change? And regarding development practice specifically he asks, Whom is evaluation for? What is evaluation for? What changed? Who changed? What do we assess? Will it last? and Are we doing the right things? These questions and their answers are designed to help the development practitioner keep the twin goals of program assessment and holistic transformation always in mind. He explores the use of Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) and Appreciative Inquiry (AI) in development settings, concluding that both have enough merit to warrant their use and contextualization within poor and non-poor communities as tools for project generation and analysis.
Elsewhere in the book, as I highlighted in my previous post, Myers writes, “Poverty is a result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings” (86). He unpacks this in chapter 5 when he speaks of identity and vocation as being primarily expressed through our relationships (118). Therefore, to recover or restore a right sense of identity and vocation, one needs to recover or restore right relationships. He highlights the restoration of relationship with the triune God of the Bible, with oneself, with one’s community, between the poor and the non-poor, with the “other,” and with the environment, as being at the heart of transformational development that works (see pp. 118-120).
It is the closing chapter, “Christian Witness and Transformational Development,” which struck a resounding chord with me. In this chapter Myers pulls together the threads of development practice, Biblical story, and Christian worldview. He begins by reminding the Christian development practitioner that by definition when one claims to be “Christian” they are also “saying that they intend to announce this fact in every facet of their lives and by every means available to them: by life, deed, word, and sign. . . . being a witness is integral to who we are and what we believe” (204). The actions of development practitioners, and of Christians in general, witness to something
. Myers argues that as Christians we have a mandate to articulate what that “something” is, or risk it being misappropriated.
To illustrate this point he tells the story of a soil scientist and hyrdologist in the Sahara searching for the best place to drill a well. They were being observed by the indigenous people as they poured over technical diagrams and conversed about the chemistry and physics specific to the well site they were considering. When the community was asked if they understood who those men were and what they were doing, they replied that the two men were witch doctors. One was consulting the spirit of the earth to ask where the water was hidden while the other searched his sacred texts for power. They said their witch doctors did the same thing when looking for water, but these two witch doctors were better than their own because these two always found water (see p. 207).
Everything we do is endowed with meaning. When we choose not to articulate that meaning, we leave it open to a wide variety of interpretation. In my small group this week we discussed the role of good deeds in the life of a Christian. We all agreed that good deeds ought to be present, yet with a caveat. Good deeds can be can become idolatrous. Many Christians fall into this trap. Trying to put God in their debt to get Him to bless them or attempting to earn his favor and forgiveness, they do acts of charity and love. Yet their actions are born out of fear or manipulation or errant theology. God desires that our good deeds be motivated out of love: love of Him, love of our neighbor. Intent matters. We ought to be able to articulate that intent. The adage says, “Actions speak louder than words” and St. Francis is attributed with saying, “Preach the gospel always; when necessary use words.” Well, words are nearly always necessary somewhere along the way. But they find more traction on a bedrock of actions.
As if to illustrate this very point, Myers explores the very articulation of the gospel in the opening chapters of Acts. Peter’s address at Pentecost in Acts 2, his speech after he and John heal the crippled beggar in Acts 3 (and its subsequent retelling before the Sanhedrin in Acts 4), Stephen’s speech before his stoning in Acts 7, all were responses to things people observed and which required explanation. The coming of the Holy Spirit, the power to heal the lame, the ability to perform miraculous signs and great wonders, these things demanded explanation. Myers summarizes, “In each case, the gospel is proclaimed, not by intent or plan, but in response to a question provoked by the activity of God in the community” (210).
The aim, then, is to “seek a spirituality that makes our lives eloquent” (216). I love this. It is quite similar to the shalom-centered faithful presence that Hunter writes about in To Change the World
and I have written on previously
. We must seek to live lives that are faithful, that are in themselves eloquent, and we must also always be ready to explain our lives in the context of the Biblical story. Peter encourages this readiness in chapter 3 of his first epistle, writing about suffering for doing good he say, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with hope and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (vv. 15-16). This is a portrait of evangelism and discipleship as two parts of the same whole. Explanation is paired with action, action comes with ready explanation. To implement one with the other will only serve to export an incomplete gospel. The good news is neither a set of propositional statements to which we must agree nor is it living a nice, moral life. It is neither and it is both. It is life, word, deed, and sign witnessing to the power of restored relationships in all arenas: with God, ourselves, one another, and His creation. May we live eloquently!