Predicating poverty; or, how to offend others

A few days ago, a couple evangelical bloggers took some time to write on poverty.  I was pretty unsettled by what I read.  After a while, I realized the problem: they were writing jeremiads and rhetorical scoldings, but I couldn’t find any real, specific person who originally warranted such a rebuke.  It was the problem of predication.  Somewhere, some straw man was being beat up, perhaps for the sins of some other person in the past, a ubiquitous person I like to refer to as the “bigoted uncle.”

What is predication? Recall from grammar that some sentences have three parts: an object, a predicate, and a subject.  The object does something to the subject.  For instance, a girl hits a ball, or a pedestrian judges a homeless man.  To hit, to judge, these are predicate acts.  These acts must fall upon some subject, as in the ball or the homeless man.

Who is that strawman? I think it’s Bigoted Uncle!
Photo credit: Bookmart / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Now the first blog I noticed came in response to a list of habits posted on the website of a famous get-out-of-debt ministry.  Blogging on CNN’s website, author Rachel Evans took the list and its purveyor to task.

If you read the original list, there is no explicit causal claim about the behaviors of “the rich” and “the poor.”  Evans writes:

One need not be a student of logic to observe that Corley and Ramsey have confused correlation with causation here by suggesting that these habits make people rich or poor.

But Corley’s list did not explicitly make the causal connection.  As the reader who interpreted the text’s meaning, it was only  Evans who could make that implicit connection.

In something of an indignant response appended to the original list, ministry leader Dave Ramsey may well have affirmed a causal relationship.  Even still, inferring causation from statistical surveys does not amount to passing personal judgment on “the poor.” That is another implication that only the reader can bring out.  And this is what Evans seems to do (emphasis mine):

A poor family may eat more junk food, not because they are lazy and undisciplined, but because they live in an economically disadvantaged, urban setting where health food stores are not as available: a so-called “food desert.”

The question arises, who exactly called a poor family “lazy and undisciplined” in the first place?  It wasn’t Ramsey or Corley from what I can tell.  Maybe it was bigoted uncle.

Further on, Evans informs us:

And far from having contempt for the poor, Jesus surrounded himself with the needy and challenged the excesses of the rich.

Who actually had contempt for the poor?  It doesn’t seem to be Ramsey and company.  Again, it could have been bigoted uncle.

A few days after Evans’ post, evangelical writer and HBU provost John Mark Reynolds warned against “poor shaming.”  In the course of the text, we never learn who specifically Reynolds thinks has been shaming the poor in virtue of their being poor.  Recounting the overwhelming external factors that perpetuate poverty, he does opine:

One thing we should not do is have rich Christians give advice to the teeming masses from their Olympian sofas.

This kind of biting rhetoric drives me mad.  Who do these writers, a fellow sister and brother in Christ, actually have in mind?  When they lay down their thoughts in writing, each proposition is preceded by an implicit “I think that . . ..”  They are bearing in mind and making judgments either about specific persons or else some useful fiction.  They are predicating many times over, on the rich, the poor, the middle class, Christians, Americans, and so on.

If serious and thoughtful Christians are going to be predicating, let’s be sure we’re doing it with accuracy and precision.  Evans deplores painting with a categorically broad brush, and so do I.  It’s natural to talk in terms of abstractions, as in Wall Street, Main Street, the one percent, the ninety-nine percent, the rich, and the poor.  If it’s bad to judge individuals, why is it any better to predicate uncharitably on some ambiguous social construct that another person may identify as?

“The rich” and “the poor” both might as well be the Hegelian “The Other.”  If your head is spinning after all of this meta-analysis, I’m nearly done.  Now I will be silent for a time, allowing the Other to self-identify and speak for his or herself.

The Elephant in the Room of Economic Development

A couple weeks ago, David Kestenbaum of All Things Considered reported on the Indian economy, artfully mixing interviews of Indian economic experts with the slice-of-life story of an elderly, impoverished, street-dwelling shoe-shiner Umrao Singh.  The words of both the Indian academics and Singh pointed to a shared sense of fatalism.  In pondering why the Indian growth rate has in recent decades been much lower than comparable developing economies, the experts jokingly alluded to the “Hindu growth rate . . . maybe it is there in the scriptures.”  Meanwhile, Singh justifies his poverty as he looks on the dwellings of his wealthy neighbors by saying, “this is what God has chosen for me.”  Like his countrymen, he concedes that “what is written is written, you can’t change it.”
A famous destination for seekers of wisdom, peace, and enlightenment in the 1960s, India has  regained the spotlight in recent years as a new wave of thinkers and celebrities have  attempted to answer the question of “happiness.”  Michael J Fox touted the Indian culture of cosmic acceptance in his 2009 TV special, Adventures of an Incurable Optimist.  I even read a New York Times article that somehow was able to proclaim a certain Tibetan monk as if with some degree of scientific authority, the happiest person in the world.  Fatalism and acceptance are compelling themes for the frenzied denizens of postindustrial societies.  But do these ideas really do justice to the marginalized poor in developing economies?  Given the shared outlook of Singh and his nation’s experts, and the fawning enchantment of India’s onlookers, does a problem of justice and marginalization even exist?

In his report, Kesterbaum supposed India’s problem was a lack of manufacturing jobs.  And while manufacturing has been credited with building the modern middle class everywhere from America to China, it is not the key ingredient that India lacks.  Rather the one thing that will satisfy the technical questions of the economists, the existential needs of the poor, and the postindustrial search for happiness is a proper fulfillment of the Christian concept of Imago Dei.  As apologist JM Njeroge noted in a recent interview, this idea is the root of much of human progress in recent centuries.

To answer the economists’ riddle, consider the innovators and the moralists who steered their societies through the original industrial revolution.  The scientists who accumulated knowledge of the physical world and the inventors who applied that knowledge as technology took as a given what astronomer-astrologist Johannes Kepler posited in the seventeenth century: because man is made His image, we can “think God’s thoughts after Him.”  Likewise, what would become the human rights movement snowballed with the successive propositions of moral philosophers.  In the American Revolution, we clearly see ideas and corresponding actions rooted in the affirmation that man is created in the image of God.  The same is true for subsequent moral movers, including abolitionists, suffragists, and labor activists.  Even when modern authorities on development point to the necessity of institutions like the rule of law, they are indirectly appealing to the outworking of Christian faith.

A society’s confidence in Imago Dei is also the basis for its sense of agency, without which the innovators, capitalists, and producers of wealth will find it hard to be motivated beyond immediate gain.  Wherever this notion does not prevail, you will see a society’s actors either jockeying among themselves for a sliver of a fixed socioeconomic pie, or consigned as ones marginalized without
hope for advancement.  But where there exists this understanding of agency, it enables those with economic capital to grow the sum of human wealth, and it allows both reformers and the destitute an actionable hope for change.  For this reason it is important that we permit ourselves to make meaningful distinctions between cultures and parse through the differing assumptions that animate them.

Whether informed by detached, journalistic diggings like Kestenbaum’s, or the ponderous musings of would-be “happiness” gurus, our notions of human development and spiritual fulfillment will remain incomplete if we forget that the Image of God has been the singularly transforming force for good in our world.

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