Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: poverty

Africa rising

What picture comes to your mind when you think of Africa? A remote village of mud huts with scantily clad people scratching their subsistence from the soil with hand tools? Or modern cities with skyscrapers, factories, hospitals and universities?

Both scenarios exist, but far more people live in the cities. Nigeria is the largest country in Africa, with the largest population. There are 20,000 millionaires in Nigeria nd 20 billionaires.

The wealthiest man in Nigeria is Aliko Dangote with interests in the manufacture of cement, sugar and petroleum products. The fourth wealthiest person in Nigeria is Folorunsho Alakija, a lady who started out as a fashion designer and now also has investments in the oil industry. She has created a foundation to help widows and orphans through scholarships and business grants.

Nigeria has one of the world’s highest rates of university graduation. Emigrants from Nigeria are among the most successful immigrants in Canada, the USA and the UK.
I believe it was at least 10 years ago that someone said that the heartland of evangelical Christianity is now in Africa, not North America. Nigerian churches see North America and Europe as mission fields. In Saskatoon, our nearest city, there are five or six congregations of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, including one French-language congregation. There is also a congregation of the Deeper Christian Life Bible Church. The Anglican churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America have severed all ties with the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church in the USA and are now guiding the establishment of a new Anglican movement in North America that is more true to the Bible, especially in the area of morality.

What is true of Nigeria is also true of other African countries in varying degrees. It is true that there is still much poverty in some places, but economic growth rates are astounding.

There are acts of terrorism in various places by hard line Islamists. I have no prophetic vision of how this is all going to play out in coming years, but I wonder if these acts might not a last ditch attempt to hold back the tide that they see sweeping over Africa.

Is it time to take a fresh look at Africa and African people? The evidence shows that these black-skinned people are in no way inferior to white-skinned people. We are equals, in intellect, in faith, in management ability, and we should respect each other as equals.
International aid has done more to hold Africa back than to help it move forward. Emergency aid in time of disaster is always in place, but it would probably be best to have it administered by local people as much as possible. Sending used clothing and mosquito nets may give us a worm glow, but does it undercut the local production of those goods?

Surely it’s time to revamp our selection of mission hymns. The idea of carrying the gospel to “every dark land” has always given a skewed idea of mission work; we need to find better ways to describe the practice of being ambassadors for Christ. The call to proclaim the faith once delivered to the saints and to make disciples in all the world has not expired. But we render ourselves unfit for the task if some illusion of superiority still lingers in the way we relate to others.

Prejudice + Poverty ≠ Hopelessness

Some years ago I read an article in Ebony magazine written by a man who had grown up in one of the worst black tenement ghettos in Chicago.Drug dealing, crime and violence were the everyday reality and the police felt the area was too dangerous to send in individual officers to patrol.

Like almost all the other children in this ghetto, this man and his two siblings grew up in a single parent home without much money. Their mother wanted her children to escape the ghetto and the first step was not to give in to hopelessness. She introduced them to the library and to museums and did everything that she could think of that was educational and free. When they went to the store to buy something she let the children pay and then count the change to see that it was right.

All three of those children finished school, went on to university and established professional careers. And they moved their mother out of the ghetto.

The man who wrote the article was now a lawyer. He wrote about going back to visit his old neighbourhood and trying to look up the boys he had grown up with. Some were dead, others were in jail, all the rest had criminal records. None had escaped the hopelessness of the ghetto.

There are a multitude of government programs to help children escape the effects of prejudice and poverty. Billions of dollars are being spent. What are the results? A lot of well paid government jobs to administer the programs. Besides that – not much.

One mother with hope and determination made a difference. No government program can create a mother like that.

Sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor

Jesus told the rich young ruler: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Matthew 19:21). He didn’t really mean that, did He? There must be some hidden meaning . Many preachers and teachers have expounded their ideas of what that hidden meaning might be.

Let me begin by saying that it appears quite plain that Jesus literally meant that the rich young ruler needed to do exactly what He said. That was Jesus’ message to this particular person in that particular time and place. The gospels also record numerous instances where Jesus warned that the temple, Jerusalem and the whole Jewish kingdom would be destroyed. What good would earthly possessions in that region be then?

Those who united with the followers of Jesus after the day of Pentecost got the message: “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need” (Acts 2:44-45).  “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common” (Acts 4:32).

They believed the Lord’s warnings about the destruction of Jerusalem and they were preparing for the time when they would need to flee. Josephus tells us that there were no Christians left in Jerusalem when the Roman siege began.

That was then, this is now. Does Jesus still want us to sell everything we have and give to the poor? It may be that there are individuals today to whom He is saying this, but I believe His plan for most of us is quite different. Nevertheless, the Bible makes it plain that the accumulation of wealth should not be our primary goal in life. “But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24). Do we want to be so attached to material possessions that this warning of Jesus applies to us?

“But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1Timothy 6:9-10)  “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy” (verse 17).

Perhaps the area that is most in need of change is our attitude towards those who are poor. Do we tend to blame them for their poverty? After all, often they appear capable of working, yet very often are idle. and when they do have money, they spend it quickly on the wrong things. Do we understand the hopelessness and futility that these people are feeling? They do not have a network of family and friends to help them find good jobs, help them deal with banks, government agencies or even find the education and health care that they need. When you have all that and take it for granted, it is difficult to understand those who are not even aware such a thing is possible.

My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; and ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him? But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats? (James 2:1-6)

God and Mammon

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.  (The words of Jesus, quoted in Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13.)

Here is a stark warning that the pursuit of spiritual gain and the pursuit of material gain are not compatible. In such a materialistic age as we live in it is hard for us to fathom that this could be true. Yet here is another pronouncement of Jesus for reinforcement:

Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:31-33).

Here is a clearly stated promise that if we make spiritual gain our goal, we will not suffer material ruin. On the other hand, it is clearly implied that to make material gain our main priority will lead to spiritual ruin.

This is a basic truth that is supported by many other statements throughout the New Testament. There is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that the pursuit of material gain will be beneficial to our spiritual life.

We must also resist the temptation to make either poverty or prosperity the gauge of a person’s spiritual life.  North America is a land of opportunity and  many Christians here have attained to a level of prosperity that is well above that of most Christians in other lands. This is no proof that we are more spiritual than they are, or that God is more pleased with us.

There are people in North America who have been denied access to the opportunities most of us take for granted. Others, for various reasons, seem unable to see or to manage the opportunities that are available to them. This is not proof that they are less capable of spiritual gain or that God is angry with them.

According to the social conscience of our time, material poverty is the one great sin of our society. In the light of eternity, the spiritual poverty of those who live for ease and pleasure is the great sin that will bar them from heaven.

Snowy day and thoughts

Shortly after dinner today, we decided to drive to Delisle, our nearest town. It was snowing, but it didn’t look too bad, so off we went. Once we got on the highway, we realized that we didn’t have a realistic view of things from home. Here we are protected from east and northeast winds by the trees along our neighbour’s property line; out on the road the snow was blowing and visibility wasn’t that great. But we made it there and back.

I dropped my wife off at the library and made stops at the Post Office, the Credit Union and the Royal Bank. Lorrie, the postmistress, told me some news that stirred memories and a variety of thoughts. Mail sorting for Saskatchewan is now centralized in Regina and Saskatoon. The big old post offices in Prince Albert and Moose Jaw have closed, leaving only retail postal outlets. That leaves a number of postal workers with no work to do. They still come in and punch the time clock, but there isn’t enough work to go around anymore.

This has happened before. When I was a boy there were postal cars on the trains and mail was picked up, sorted and dropped off at towns along the route. I’m not sure when that was stopped, but I started working in the Moose Jaw Post Office forty years ago and Don Knight and I were the first new hires in many years, since the post office had been over-staffed since the end of sorting on the trains. In fact, the older employees wee still very careful not to do too much in order to spread the work around.

The adversarial management-employee relationship in the Post Office is not entirely the fault of the union. For years and years individuals who had served in the armed forces were the preferred candidates for jobs in the post office. Management consisted almost entirely of former officers. Unfortunately, military experience didn’t seem to be good preparation for running a business.

I remember when the Post Office operated a savings bank and deposits and withdrawals could be made over the postal counter. The Post Office Savings Bank was closed in 1968, after 100 years of operation. Now there are suggestions from the postal union and some others that the idea should be revived. There is some logic to the proposal: there are no bank branches in many remote communities, but there are post offices. Many poor people do not have bank accounts and the big banks see little opportunity for profit in this segment of the population.

Payday loan companies have sprung up to fill the vacuum. They offer cheque cashing services and small loans, for seemingly outrageous fees. But the default rate on these loans runs 5% or higher and the many small branches of payday loan companies make for high overhead. The Post Office branches and personnel already exist and it would seem that overhead costs for a Post Office bank would be minimal. But what do I know? No doubt there are many persuasive reasons why it wouldn’t work. Yet . . . Post Office banks are thriving in places like France and New Zealand.

Anyway, those were my rather pointless musings this afternoon. The snow has stopped, I think we received about 10cm.

Life isn’t fair

These are real people that I’m going to write about, but I’m not going to use their real names.

Elsie and Elizabeth were already quite elderly when we knew them; the story of their earlier life was told to us by others. They were sisters, born in pioneer days on a prairie farm and grew up during hard times.

Elsie was the oldest and was born before her mother was married. Her mother appeared to find her a constant reminder of her shame and treated her harshly. Elizabeth, on the other had, was her mother’s favourite. Both girls grew up and married. Elsie and her husband moved several times and endured many hardships; four or five of their children died when quite young. Elizabeth and her husband were never very prosperous but all of their children grew up and married.

When we knew them late in life, Elsie was a sweet and caring lady. She was interested in others, thankful and content, never complained, a joy to visit with. Elizabeth was the one who seemed bitter about how life had treated her, and appeared to have little interest in others. Both would have called themselves Christians and were faithful in attending church. I don’t know all the story and it is not up to me to judge, but the difference in attitude was striking. What impressed me the most was that the one who might have had reason to complain that life wasn’t fair was the one who was the happiest.

Sheila was a young girl we got to know on our visits to Saskatchewan. Her mother subsisted mostly by welfare and had a series of live-in boyfriends, some of whom had fathered her children. Sheila was eleven years old when we invited her to spend a few weeks with us in Ontario. We spent a night with friends along the way and in the morning the husband took Sheila out to show her his chicken barn. Sheila was a city girl and that morning she learned for the first time where eggs came from.

The following year we heard that Sheila had cancer. Along with that we learned that she had been sexually abused by one of her mother’s boyfriends. We were back in Saskatchewan when she had her first chemotherapy treatment. We had a little contact over the next few years as she continued to battle the cancer.

When she was fifteen she flew out to BC to spend some time with her mother’s aunt. We were travelling to Saskatchewan again that summer and arranged to meet her and her mother at the airport when she came home. We met Sheila as she got off the plane, but her mother never showed up. “She never does,” Sheila told us, “even when I come home from the cancer clinic in Saskatoon, I have to find my own way home.” We took Sheila out for a meal and a visit, then drove her home. That was the last time we saw her alive; she died shortly after her sixteenth birthday.

This was certainly a disadvantaged child, yet she was the most stable and mature person in her family. When she was twelve and in the hospital for chemotherapy, she was trying to teach her brothers to behave. She loved her mother and never complained about her. This was just the way things were and Sheila accepted that. We didn’t sense any anger or bitterness in her.

We don’t know how much exposure she had to the Bible or Christian teachings. Certainly, there was none at home. She talked of attending Salvation Army services at times. In the short time she spent with us, she experienced how we prayed before meals, had family devotions every day, and she attended Sunday School and church with us. Members from a nearby congregation went into Saskatoon to sing for her several times when she was there for chemotherapy.

Considering the setting she came from, could she still have been in a state of childhood innocence, or had she at some point made a decision to follow Jesus? I don’t know if even Sheila could have given a clear answer to that, but there was something about her that gives us hope that we shall see her again one day.

Life isn’t fair, but the things that happen to us do not determine whether we are happy or unhappy, whether we are saved or lost. It is the way we react to those things that makes all the difference. “Therefore choose life,” Moses told the people.

They that seek to be rich

The sinful woman [who anointed Jesus’ feet] sought the company of the righteous; but these seek the company of the unrighteous. They visit each other to talk all manner of foolishness; to injure their neighbour’s reputation; to defame and backbite; to speak disgracefully of one another, speak of costly furniture, houses, goods and handsome companions, men and fine clothing. In short, their works openly show that they have not the faith of the sinful woman, and belong not to the congregation of the righteous.

The sinful woman sat at the feet of Jesus and heard his holy word; but these hear teachers, who can tickle their ears, and preach to please them. In short, why need I say much? it is, O God! so corrupted, that we find the whole world filled with foolish men and women, I mean spiritually, deaf ears, unenlightened hearts; the blind are leading the blind, and they will all fall into the pit of eternal death, unless they are again enlightened, if we believe it to be true what the mouth of the Lord has taught us; for their doctrine, sacraments, and worship are altogether false ; their unbelief, and carnality prevail every where. Behold, reader, here take notice, how vastly this sinful woman differs after conversion in her faith and conduct, from the faith and conduct of the world. They are like the sinful woman before her conversion, but not after conversion. Whether such are believers, I will let the sensible reader to reflect upon with the Spirit and word of the Lord.

I know of a certainty, that a proud, haughty, avaricious, selfish, unchaste, lecherous, wrangling, envious, disobedient, idolatrous, false, lying, unfaithful, thievish, defaming, backbiting, blood-thirsty, unmerciful and revengeful man, whosoever he may be, is no Christian, even if he was baptized one hundred times, and attended the Lord’s Supper daily; for it is not the sacraments, or the signs, such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but a sincere, Christian faith, with its unblamable, pious fruits, represented by the sacraments, that makes a true Christian and has the promise of life.

But our rich people seek more and more, how they may increase their money and possessions, build their houses splendidly, and add farm to farm. They do not defend the cause of the poor and needy; are unmerciful, proud, avaricious and wanton; do not remember what is written concerning them, “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you ; your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten; your gold and silver is cankered, and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire,” James 5:1-3. Neither do you reflect on what David says, “I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like the green bay-tree; yet he passed away, and lo, he was not: Yea, I sought him, but he could not be found,” Ps. 37:35, 36. Ah! what a hard saying which the Lord uttered, “Woe unto you that are rich, for ye have received your consolation,” Luke 6:24, and “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” Matt. 19:24.

[Excerpts from the Complete Works of Menno Simons.  Menno Simons (1496-1561) was a Dutch Roman Catholic priest who united with the persecuted Anabaptists after his conversion.  He was an effective preacher, writer and church leader of the persecuted church. ]

 

What is Christian Stewardship? Part 2

The parable of the unjust steward, found in Luke 16, has mystified many commentators.  The conduct of this steward is clearly contrary to popular notions of good stewardship.  Yet verse 8 says “And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely”.  Some commentators try to wriggle out of this corner by noting that this was the lord of that steward speaking, and our Lord would never condone such behaviour.  This mind-set misses the point that Jesus instructs us to take the behaviour of the steward for our example.

The conclusion of this parable is found in verse 13: “No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.  Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”  This verse is an integral part of the explanation of the parable of the unjust steward.  To separate it is to find the parable confusing and perhaps meaningless.

What is the message of the parable of the unjust steward?  Here is a man who has been a servant of Mammon, exacting all that was due his master in order to gain a living and security for himself.  It was his responsibility as steward to set the rent each of his lord’s tenants in order to provide for the needs of the lord’s household.  He then added enough to each tenant’s rent to cover the needs of his own household.  The steward in this parable appears to have been living in abundance.

He is called unjust, not because of unfaithfulness to Mammon, but because of his close alliance with mammon, which itself is unrighteous (verses 9 and 11).  As eventually happens to all who trust in Mammon, he finds himself betrayed.  All that he trusted in is to be taken from him.  In this setting the light dawns and he turns around.  Before he had oppressed others in demanding payment to the maximum of their ability.  Now he administers a measure of grace to his master’s debtors in releasing them from a portion of their debts.  It is entirely within his power while still a steward to do this and it would appear that he simply erased the portion that he was taking for himself.  He now sees that it will be in his best interest in the long term to do what he can to release others from their burdens.

This interpretation may be problematic for Christians who see stewardship as being principally concerned with the gain and care of material wealth.  We may say that it is God’s will that we exercise good stewardship of our material possessions in order to  be able to share with others and support mission programs.  However, an onlooker might question whether we are motivated more by the portion that we want for themselves than by the portion that we plan to give to God.

Are the needs of others very high in the minds of Christians who are busy endeavouring to be good stewards?  Indeed, there is not much room for compassion in this type of stewardship.  It becomes easy to see that the poor are poor because they don’t want to work and don’t take care of what they do have.  A distinction is often made between the “deserving” poor and those not so “deserving”, which provides a neat way out when faced with those whose needs are very real, though perhaps self-inflicted.

We say that everything we have belongs to God and that we are only stewards.  Would an impartial observer of our business practices and lifestyle come to that conclusion?

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