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Review of Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself. Chicago: Moody, 2009. 230 pp. $14.99.

Good intentions are seldom sufficient to insure effective development: indeed, considerable harm has been done in the name of helping. Authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert attempt to bolster good intentions with a theology of poverty and development and a handful of contemporary development principles in their primer, When Helping Hurts. An excellent introduction to Christian humanitarian development—accessible and mainstream in its development views—it brings development into holistic Christian mission and aligns it with contemporary development thought. The book is well-suited as an introduction to mission support groups—missions committees, non-profit boards, short-term mission teams, church leaders and members—who are exploring humanitarian activities in missions and ministry.

Under Brian Fikkert’s leadership, the Chalmers Center at Covenant College (Lookout Mountain, Georgia) has garnered a reputation for Christian-based education and training in micro-level development. When Helping Hurts is the second book of national note to come from its faculty, the first being Christian Microenterprise Development (David Bussau and Russell Mask, Paternoster, 2003).

When Helping Hurts is divided into three parts, with each part containing three chapters. Part one provides a theological glance at poverty which largely adopts Bryant Myers’s (Walking with the Poor, Orbis, 1999) framework reflecting a motif of restoring broken relationships with God, self, others, and creation. Starting from a biblical framework avoids an exclusive or competing view of spiritual versus material brokenness, and includes both as subject to the redemptive work of Christ. A biblical framework also draws attention to the criticality of surfacing perceptions about the causes of poverty that shape development policy and practice as well as helpers’ self-perceptions, including “god-complexes.” The authors offer a brief historical context of Evangelicals being repelled by early twentieth-century social Christianity. (Humanitarian engagements among conservative branches of the Stone-Campbell movement appear to follow a similar trajectory, but for somewhat different reasons.)

The second part of the book addresses basic development principles. The authors begin by differentiating among relief, rehabilitation, and development and outlining the appropriate role for each. This issue is important since sustainable impact and delivery are critical considerations in effective ministry organizing; too often, Christian humanitarian practice has applied short-term responses to long-term issues. The authors proceed to introduce an asset-based approach to development (How can we build upon assets?) in contrast to the common needs-based approach (How can we remedy deficits?). They also introduce the notion of co-participant roles in contrast to paternalistic roles. These perspectives are widely endorsed in development practice and deserve additional careful unpacking and application.

The third part of the book attempts to apply the theological and development insights offered thus far to short-term, domestic, and international missions and humanitarian efforts. The authors are largely critical of short-term missions, although they offer a few suggestions to minimize their harm. They provide examples of community development (including job preparedness, financial literacy programs, and individual development accounts) and introduce microfinance and business as mission. These topics require considerable additional development before they would be actionable. The authors recognize the complexity of development contexts and responses which prevent such an introductory work from exposing the reader to the kaleidoscope of unique contexts and participants.

When Helping Hurts is an introduction. As such, it offers brief examples but no in-depth case studies or first steps toward development planning. Christian ministries and individuals engaging in poverty alleviation is the focus; the reform of national or international policy, institutions, or development efforts on a macro scale is left unexplored. A website supports the book (, offering a study guide and inviting visitors to consider training courses from the Chalmers Center.

When Helping Hurts is an initial corrective to spiritual-material dualism, paternalism and dependence, material definitions of poverty, and generic development strategies. It offers caveats on short-term relief and missions and offers rudimentary principles for those unfamiliar with development studies. The volume hints that considerable development and theological resources exist on this topic and that both are worthwhile to explore when engaging in humanitarian ventures. Equipping should not stop with this book, but it is an excellent place to begin.

Monty L. Lynn


College of Business Administration

Abilene Christian University

Abilene, Texas, USA

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Review of James Butare-Kiyovu, ed., International Development from a Kingdom Perspective

James Butare-Kiyovu, editor. International Development from a Kingdom Perspective. WCIU Press: International Development Series 2. Pasadena: William Carey International University Press, 2010. 166 pp. $9.95.

There continues to be a coming together of the two dominant paradigms in missions going back to the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in 1974. The evangelistic emphasis underlying the unreached peoples paradigm is broadening to be more inclusive of the transformational development paradigm. No longer do Evangelicals wince at ministries of justice. Today’s gospel emissaries are blending the first words of Jesus (Luke 4:18–20) with the last words of Jesus (Matt 28:18–20) as they develop their missional theology. The church is out in the community and the world in force, be it adopting an underprivileged school, cleaning up the neighborhood, planting churches, or ministering to those with HIV/AIDS.

James Butare-Kiyovu is Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics at William Carey International University. He has edited an eclectic book, many of whose articles have been published elsewhere. With chapters on the last two centuries of missions (Ralph Winter), missio Dei (Eddie Arthur), economic justice (David Befus and Stephan Bauman), ministry to children (Luis Bush), shalom (Beth Snodderly), a prayer guide utilizing the Millennium Development Goals (Micah Challenge), the genocide in Rwanda (Butare-Kiyovu), and more, there is something here for everybody who has an interest in holistic mission.

In a seminar in 2007, Ralph Winter wondered aloud if there should be a fourth era of missions. He had previously written about three eras between 1800 and 2000 (the article is reprinted in this book), but was now suggesting a fourth one: the Kingdom Era. It was this concept that helped influence the titling of this volume.

Of special interest to readers of this journal is Eddie Arthur’s article, “Missio Dei” (49–66). Arthur traces the development of the concept through history, beginning with Augustine but especially emphasizing the period from World War II through the present. He concludes by linking missio Dei to trinitarian mission and stating that the concept saves the church from having to choose between either social change or fundamentalism (61).

David Befus and Stephan Bauman’s selection, “Economic Justice for the Poor” (89–100), begins with the biblical foundation for justice. After considering the church’s mandate for justice, they conclude with a series of twenty action steps. The following two quotations sum up the main thrust of these steps: “We need to invest in women and children with the message of economic justice as a means of transforming the next generation” (97). “We need to promote understanding of the negative ecological impact of economic injustice” (99). These twenty steps provide an undeniable agenda for mission in our time.

In his chapter, Luis Bush makes an eloquent plea for involvement in what he calls the 4/14 window. Bush, who had earlier coined the well-known phrase “10/40 window,” says that the top priority for missions should be working with children, those who range in age from four to fourteen. He points to the overlap between poverty, illiteracy, and hunger that wreak havoc on children, many of whom live in the 10/40 window. He writes about children at risk: “Millions are at risk from poverty, but millions are also at risk from prosperity! Many children and young people today have everything to live with, but nothing to live for” (129). Children are not to be targeted just so that they may have abundant and eternal life, but because they can transform the world (137).

The most unique and practical entry is supplied by the Micah Challenge, “Prayer Stations Guide on the Millennium Development Goals” (143–54). The Challenge transforms each goal into a prayer station. At each station there is a comment on the specific goal, a hands-on activity related to the goal, prayer suggestions, and a brief Scripture passage.

The book’s weakness, in addition to the annoying misspellings in the references and the bibliographies, is its lack of progression from chapter to chapter. There seems to be no logical flow to this book. It is as if the editor could not decide whether his book should be a biblical study, an overview of development theory in missions, or a collection of random case studies.

Doug Priest

Executive Director

Christian Missionary Fellowship International

Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

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Review of Richard Stearns, The Hole in Our Gospel

Richard Stearns. The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us? The Answer that Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009. 303 pp. $15.99.

Richard Stearns has accomplished something very significant with The Hole in Our Gospel. Stearns presides over the US division of the well-known Christian humanitarian organization, World Vision International. Out of his experiences before and after assuming that post, he writes a moving and challenging call to all who identify themselves as Christians to move beyond common reductionisms and embrace the whole gospel of the kingdom of God. Specifically, he challenges the spiritualized gospel that overlooks Jesus’ good news for the poor and oppressed regarding their actual life circumstances—and therefore overlooks the church’s responsibility as proclaimers of that holistic message.

In keeping with the intention to reach a very broad audience, the book is written on a popular level. Stearns compellingly weaves together autobiography, narrative, biblical commentary, and statistics, making for an enjoyable but gripping read. The personal touch of his own story of calling, resistance, and revelation exudes humility, conveying to the reader that he writes from a place of empathy rather than judgment. In this way, he is able to make the bold claim that the very gospel the reader may have heard or accepted might be an incomplete and therefore falsified version of Jesus’ message and claim on the would-be disciple. In fact, the answer to the overlong subtitle is, “God asks us for everything” (1)—a claim the affluent American Christian audience that Stearns targets could easily dismiss as hyperbole were it not for the finesse of his presentation.

The main idea of the book, then, is that the very essence of Christianity—the gospel—has been profoundly misunderstood by the majority of believers, in the Western world at least. This is, of course, a deeply theological claim that requires substantiation. Yet, it is a claim that the less accessible theological literature already widely confirms. Stearns admits he does not have theological training, though he evinces a familiarity with at least the contours of the corresponding academic discussion. In fact, the book fairly represents the emerging scholarly consensus on the holistic nature of Jesus’ kingdom message. The result is that the real contribution of the book is its ability to communicate more widely and effectively than other kinds of publications, which it accomplishes spectacularly.

Though there is a logical progression to the book, the sense of structure is minimized by the interjection of personal stories throughout, as well as the fact that some of the autobiography is not chronological. The movement begins with the problem (Part 1: The Hole in My Gospel—and Maybe Yours). It then brings the reader through a corrective (Part 2: The Hole Gets Deeper), an introduction to the need for the whole gospel (Part 3: A Hole in the World), and a look at the church’s common failure to respond (Part 4: A Hole in the Church). Finally, it ends with a challenge to practical action (Part 5: Repairing the Hole). It is a good introduction to the concerns of Christian charities and developmental organizations, from the core beliefs that motivate them to the challenges they face. Stearns’s portrayal of the struggle to bringing churches into substantial partnership may be particularly illuminating for readers from church traditions that have been historically reticent to allow parachurch organizations to do what ought to be the church’s work.

As someone who has become jaded about the emotional ploy of so many “sponsor a child” television commercials (of which World Vision has aired its share), I greatly appreciate the line that Stearns walks between guilt and motivation. In large part, the book’s emotionally convicting stories strike me as his personal testimony to the way that committed praxis has shaped his theology. That is a significant point by itself. The chapters on the “hole in the world” are especially well done, conveying the rather overwhelming statistical data in an understandable and humanized way, while at the same time managing sensitivity to the hopelessness that the information can instill. Another very helpful section is the brief discussion of the historical parting of the ways between liberals and conservatives over the social gospel. Stearns makes it clear that neither side came away with the whole gospel according to Jesus, helping some move beyond that dispute and conscientizing others to historical forces that shape their assumptions.

The author’s theological training aside, any book written for such a broad audience will inevitably oversimplify some things. With a view to the book’s purpose and style, that cannot be a criticism but must be an observation. This volume is a wonderful starting place for renewed reflection on the gospel, but the church cannot stop here. Notably, there is an overrealized eschatology evident in Stearns’s presentation. His rhetoric is probably justified, because the church is already so hesitant without mentioning the “not yet” aspect of God’s kingdom, but we must faithfully represent Jesus’ total message nonetheless.

There is also a Christendom mentality in the book, and Stearns actually refers to “Christendom” explicitly (216, 238). His vision for what could happen if all of Christendom were mobilized into generosity and service is a hopeful one, and an organization like World Vision cannot discriminate in its acceptance of donors and sponsors—nor should it. Yet, theologians in the late modern era have decried Christendom for good reason. Stearns needs to consider the implications of affirming Christendom on the basis of its economic potential, lest he sell out the whole gospel he intends to reclaim.

With these cautions registered, I heartily recommend the work as a vital and timely contribution. May the church ever return to a vision of the whole gospel!

Greg McKinzie


Arequipa, Peru

Visit to learn about the developmental ministry happening in Arequipa.

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Wounded Healers: The Poor Caring for the Poor in Post-Genocide Rwanda

Most of us know that a sick person needs someone to care for them. This seems to be the reality everywhere. Yet, there is another truth many people may not know—that of the sick person caring for others.

Those who are familiar with world events might know about the catastrophe that occurred in Rwanda in 1994, a genocide where around a million people were killed in only one hundred days. No one could imagine the future of a country left with brokenhearted people, orphans, and perpetrators of genocide. Obviously, the next thing to happen was for the people and the country to fall down without hope to get up again. Many of us were left with very deeply wounded hearts. This was my story.

I was born in Rwanda. When I was a young boy, I was so embarrassed by the hatred and ignorance that the former government and people had of my people group because of our ethnicity. I wondered if we had been created like other people. My question was, why are we hated for nothing? I could never find a satisfying answer.

I was born into a large family. Of seven children, I was the fifth. When I was only 5 years old my father died, and we struggled to survive with just my mother. Eight years later, she also died. At age of 13 I was an orphan.

Honestly, I did not enjoy my childhood. It was full of pain.

When the genocide took place against my ethnic group in 1994, I was 14 years old. To be honest my thought was that we were completely abandoned by everyone in the world, including God. From the morning of April 7th until April 20th, my siblings and I were stuck about one mile from the escape to Congo. We were one mile from freedom and life. Despite our effort, we did not manage to cross that one mile because of the rebel groups on the roads. Not to be able to pass one mile was the biggest shock of my life. By the grace of God I survived—but not without great loss. Before April 20th, 1994, I was the fifth born in my family; afterwards, I was the oldest.

The day after losing my siblings, as I was exiting the country, I looked back on the hills and thought, “How could anyone on earth not despise this place?”

One month later, I came back to Rwanda, passing through Uganda. Post-genocide Rwanda was an undesirable place to live. At 14 years old, I wondered how to continue to live in a situation of such pain, with no home and no family or friends. It seemed that everything was destroyed, and I did not have any idea of what to do next. I felt that my responsibility was to be a father for my remaining younger sister and brother. It was very strange to have such a feeling of fatherhood for my sister who is only three years younger and my brother who is only five years younger than me.

Later, my sister and brother went to live with my aunt, and I went back to boarding school. During the holidays I did not have a home; instead I was left jumping from home to home among different relatives, then going back to school. It was a challenge to find someone to read my report card. It made me feel such pain not to have a family. Within such a story of pain, I didn’t have any idea of where things were heading.

Many times I thought that my life would be miserable and hopeless because of what I had passed through. But God surprised me and turned that painful story into a good story. I committed to help others not to pass through what I had faced, and today I have a good life, full of compassion, peace, hope, and joy. Truly, my joy comes from using my broken story to redeem other broken stories. Since we started to serve and allow God to use our painful lives to bless others, we learned that orphans can be a blessing to others instead of a burden! Orphans could be generous like everyone else. There are several typical examples; one of them is a story of a young man called Jean Bosco Mugemana.

Bosco Mugemana is an orphan who lost his father in the 1994 genocide. He survived with his mother and three siblings. Three years later his mother died. He was eleven when he lost his mother, and he suddenly became the father of three. By the grace of God, they survived those struggles.

Two and a half years ago, I got to know him and met several people at his home. I asked if they were all relatives, and he explained to me that many of them were not. He told me that many of them were orphans like himself who had no place to stay. My next question was about where they got food. With a smile he responded, “God blesses us in our crops.” Even though I have been an orphan longer than him, I hold him as a role model of generosity and Christlikeness.

Xtra Mile Ministries has grown from stories such as Bosco’s and mine. The idea that those with no family could receive a family led us to form the Xtra Mile community. Its purpose goes beyond ordinary meetings; it is a family gathering. We share meals, study the Bible, solve problems, assist those who are sick, and also have lots of fun. Through this community, God has touched many people’s hearts. It was a dream for some of them to find a community where they would feel that they are free to share from their hearts.

But one community is not enough. Around the country of Rwanda there are thousands of orphans who need someone to visit and comfort them. The Xtra Mile Mobile Family is a group of people who are committed to be family to these orphans. To be in such a group requires the price of being away from our comfort zones. Sometimes it means walking many kilometers to arrive at the orphans’ homes. The cost of Mobile Family is simply to be like Jesus.

The typical trip involves an overnight (or multiple nights’) stay in someone’s house, some form of tangible blessing (building a fence or garden, for example), followed by a fellowship where the Word is shared in small groups. Orphans who succeed in school are rewarded with an Xtra Mile T-shirt. Finally, we encourage them to form their own community that functions as a family centered around Jesus and the simple values of XM (love, trusting in God, sharing, and patience).

Mobile Family includes volunteers who have families as well as orphans who are devoted to be family for those who live alone. When it started, few orphans participated, but today more than 90% of Mobile Family volunteers are orphans! How great it is to see orphans visiting and comforting other fellow orphans!

Through my relationship with Jean Bosco and other orphans like myself, I’ve learned that the worst poverty is in the heart and mind and that material poverty is much easier to solve. The only problem the world has is that it needs to know what God wants people to be like.

Jesus, at the house of a leper named Simon, tells his disciples the often quoted saying, “The poor will always be with you” (Matt 26:11). He is quoting Deut 15:11, which continues, “therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land” (NIV). Far from justifying poverty, the indicative of the poor being in the land implies an imperative, even a command, to be “open-handed.” Jesus’ allusion to this Deuteronomy passage comes right after the parable of the sheep and goats, where Jesus tells his disciples that when they serve and care for those in “poverty” and “pain” that they are actually encountering and caring for Jesus himself. Jesus entered into the thunderstorm of humanity, identified with the impoverished, the poor, the weak, and the brokenhearted, and he invites us still today to encounter him there.

I have encountered Jesus in several orphans like Jean Bosco, who may be called very poor from many people’s perspectives, but their life makes more sense and is much closer than others’ lives to the image that Jesus commands.

My conviction is that God has blessed people with enough. There is enough for everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed. The next concern is to know how to use our blessings. Bosco took his struggles and made his home a home for those with no family.

What about you and me?

Charles Kabeza is the founder of Xtra Mile Ministries (, which seeks to rebuild family among Rwandan orphans.  He is also the National Director for Africa Transformation Network (  Charles lives in Kigali, Rwanda.

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What Is Good News to the Poor? (Inner-City Indy)

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Jesus (Acts 1:8)1

It was about 17 years ago that my wife and I left the staff of an inner-city ministry in Chicago and moved back to my hometown of Indianapolis. I had been hired by a suburban megachurch to serve as the Minister of Urban Outreach. And this wasn’t just any church. This had been the first megachurch in Indiana. And it had been the first one within my tradition of the Restoration Movement, serving as the flagship, admired from near and far. The church had set the standard for foreign missions giving 50% of the budget to outreach and had led the way in church planting, having caught the vision long before it was on the radar screen of most suburban churches. And now they were committed to being engaged in ministry to the city. The senior minister, who was approaching retirement, had served in that role for 45 years and was considered the elder statesman of our movement. A man of quiet strength and a great teacher who that year had been recognized by a local publication as “The Most Influential Clergyman in Indiana,” ahead of what they called more media-savvy pastors.

For me it was a thrilling time. My wife and I were committed to continuing to live in an impoverished community. I would do the reverse commute, heading out to the suburbs on most days and back into the inner city in the evening. I was going to have many opportunities to teach and even an occasional turn in the pulpit. I was excited to share with others about our specific call; to a ministry among the poor and a ministry of racial reconciliation. And I was charged with leading the church’s effort to establish a “significant presence in the inner city.” We had visions of unleashing an army of Christians willing to leave the four walls of their church, bringing with them their time, talent, and treasure. And we believed the best strategy was to come alongside churches and Christian ministries already working in the city, to learn from them and establish lasting and mutually beneficial partnerships.

As I look back on that time I don’t think I was a particularly naïve person. I had a secular career after college and then God led me to seminary. I had been working in urban ministry for a number of years. But it didn’t take long for me to get slapped in the face with the realization of how daunting the task before me was. On my second weekend at the church I was asked to teach the largest Sunday School class. There were approximately 100 people there, mostly middle-age folks or older, some of whom had been with the church back when it moved to the suburbs from the city in the 1970s. There was a scattering of current and former elders along with deacons and other leaders.

I decided to start with a little experiment that I had once heard about another pastor doing. I started by asking the group to give me one or two word statements in answer to the question, What are the major themes in the Bible? I really wanted to see how many other things would be mentioned before somebody said something about caring for the poor. I started writing their responses on the board. I got about 15 answers before things started to slow down and 31 before they seemed to stop completely. When I stepped back to look at what I had written I saw the words: love, grace, forgiveness, evangelism, Spirit, Jesus, atonement, the Father, sin, Heaven, Hell, the law, obedience. The fruit of the Spirit was there. Redemption and judgment were in there. It didn’t happen until the end, but a couple of people managed to get money and idolatry on the board.

But to my shock and surprise I didn’t see anything about the poor, or any of the subcategories like the widow, the orphan, and the alien. The next hour became an exercise in trying to point out that they had missed the second most prominent theme in the entire Bible without sounding like I was scolding them. I was wise enough to know that that wouldn’t be a good way for a young minister to introduce himself to the leaders of the church.

I would walk that line for the next seven years, and not always effectively. I had some in the church affirm what they believed to be the prophetic voice in me while others expressed their displeasure at my arrogance and lack of respect. At one point, in response to an article that I had written about our spending priorities, I had an elder jam his finger into my chest and tell me, “Don’t judge my house or my car. Judge my heart.” He seemed to miss the part of the article where I talked about the biblical notion that the main way you can see what is in a person’s heart is to see how he spends his money.

Well, the church struggled to replace the outgoing senior minister and floundered for many years without strong leadership. Membership became something of a revolving door with 50% of the church membership turning over in just three years. We managed to start a wonderful after-school sports ministry in partnership with some caring inner-city churches. And despite my best effort, eventually the initial excitement surrounding our urban ministry effort wore off. I was asked to fill some needed roles at the church including becoming the primary preacher in contemporary worship (with topics chosen by the elders). Urban ministry was afforded less and less of my time and the church’s attention.

So it was no surprise that during a difficult budget year the elders decided to reduce the staff. Four ministers were let go. I was one of them, as my position was officially eliminated. Two years later, after a new senior minister was hired, the church cut off financial support to many ministries in the city, including the program that it had birthed.

Looking back at the time I felt like my ministry had been a complete failure. When asked I expressed very little hope that the American church, dominated by suburban megachurches and their leaders, would ever get serious about God’s mandate to care for the “least of these.” I myself did not heed advice that I often gave to others about not underestimating what God can do and not dreaming too small. While we continued to live in our community and work with our neighbors, I left full-time ministry, took a job working construction, and started preparing to go to law school.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the Bar. Just before starting school I was contacted by the board of the ministry that I had helped start. They asked me to consider stepping in as executive director, a position for which I was not really qualified. But after praying about it for many weeks, I agreed to assume the position on an interim basis, deferring my matriculation to school for a year. That was six years ago, and I am still there but no longer the director. We merged with a larger, healthier ministry and began to operate at four different locations.

And in the oddest twist of God’s providence I now spend a considerable amount of my time teaching and training at our partner churches, made up mostly of suburban megachurches. But where I once felt despair, I am beginning to see hope. Where I became discouraged, I am now uplifted. I have begun to sense a real hunger in these churches for a form of Christianity that is less focused on self and more focused on others.

These churches are led by relatively young ministers or by more mature men that have come to the ministry from other vocations. They preach and attempt to model a gospel that is much more comprehensive than the one I grew up hearing about. They dedicate time to issues of justice, mercy, and caring for the poor. In one of our partner churches I was asked to come and teach a six-week introduction to poverty class called Poverty 101. Over 700 people attended the class including the senior minister and a majority of the staff. In the spring I will be teaching that class at another church for the third time. This year our ministry is partnering with an entire presbytery of the PCA to provide teaching and training for mercy ministries.

And these days I see many churches are focused on getting their congregations out the door to serve. Many are catching on to a trend of canceling weekend services in favor of a “Weekend of Service.” Our ministry has been asked to help find service projects for as many as 1000 people at a time. That is not an easy task, but it is a wonderful problem to have. My favorite t-shirt last year was one that declared, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the church has left the building.”

Beyond being willing to forego a weekend offering (not an insignificant sum), these churches are increasing their budgets in the area of local missions. Here in Indy a few churches are partnering to focus on one of the poorest communities, each church committing $100K per year to the effort. And while they are increasing their giving, they are reducing the number of places that the money goes, in order to engage the church and individual members of the congregation more intentionally. These churches are putting their money behind their words.

And I have been pleased to see that it is not a movement characterized by a paternalistic approach. These churches don’t enter impoverished neighborhoods with the attitude that they are experts sent to save the people there. There is a great recognition that God is already there and that faithful saints and servants are doing his work. They are submitting themselves to the Spirit and asking God, “Where would you have us serve?” and “With whom would you have us partner?”

I honestly believe that what we are seeing in these churches is a movement of the Holy Spirit like the one foretold in Acts 1:8. I consider this verse something of an addendum to the Great Commission. Our Lord told us to go and, as we go, to make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And in Acts he tells us where to go: Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. The American church has focused pretty well on three of those places. We have taught our congregations how to share the gospel using The Four Spiritual Laws tracts, and trained them in Evangelism Explosion and any number of other programs so that they would be equipped to share the gospel with their neighbors (Jerusalem). We have ignited a church planting movement that focuses on establishing an evangelical witness to growing communities throughout the country, but it is rarely cross-cultural (Judea). And we have a long and rich history of sending missionaries throughout the world. We have missions agencies that help us strategize and focus on the unreached people groups so that everyone can hear the gospel (the ends of the earth).

But what we haven’t done well is focus on Samaria. To the audience hearing the words of Jesus, Samaria was the area nearby where the people were different, hated, and feared at the same time. Our Lord understood that this was an area to which the New Testament church would not really want to go. He understood that the Jews’ hatred and fear of Samaria needed to be dealt with. He knew that the prejudice was likely to carry over to the church. And so time and time again he poked the Jews with stories and actions designed to remind them of the humanity of the Samaritans and his Father’s love for them. Luke tells the stories of the Good Samaritan (10:25–37) and the Samaritan leper (17:11–19). And John tells the story of the Samaritan woman at the well (4:1–42). And if we look at the history of the New Testament church, we see that the lesson didn’t take very well and had to be taught again. In Acts 10 we see the Holy Spirit dealing with Peter in what is called his second conversion, where he utters the words, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (10:34–35). That was from the undisputed leader of the New Testament church.

Samaria, to the American church today, is the area nearby where people are different racially, economically, and socially. It is our inner cities. It is our immigrant communities, urban, suburban, and rural.

To travel to Samaria today means crossing the county, the city, the neighborhood, or even the street. It means crossing boundaries that are more cultural, traditional, and economic than geographic. It means journeying over lines that are rarely traversed. It means tackling some of our biggest sins and biggest issues, overcoming fear, prejudice, and social pressure. And the words of our Lord make it clear that we do not have a choice. To quote Ray Bakke:

The whole gospel is for the whole world. One does not have the right to do an end run around the nearby socially displaced peoples to go to the ends of the earth in the name of Jesus. Humanly speaking, to evangelize people you hate is an incredibly radical act. To offer the good news of forgiveness by God and reconciliation with God and with each other will pave the way for other social services.2

So what is “good news to the poor”? I believe it is the fact that the Evangelical church is undergoing something of a revival, and in this revival it is being reminded of its mandate to care for the poor. And we are growing in our understanding of what it means to walk alongside the poor, to share the good news, to share our blessings, and to share our lives. I believe that the only hope, the only real hope, in making a difference in the lives of the poor is found in the Holy Spirit working through the Body of Christ to bring the gospel message of Jesus Christ to all. Making a difference in the lives of the oppressed, the widow, the orphan, and the alien is about the transformative power of God’s Spirit demonstrated when the church lives out its mandate to care by leaving the four walls and heading out into the world.

And as I have spent the last twenty years with one foot in the world of the poor and the other in the church I find what is happening to be very exciting. But the coolest part for me is that leaving the building and heading out into the world is the only hope for the church as well. Taking the gospel message of Jesus Christ outside the walls and to the hurting people in the world around us is about saving us too.

The church today, particularly the Evangelical church, has a problem. We have a problem. We have been so caught up in the world—in a materialist culture, in a self-serving society, in a struggle for political power—that we have become irrelevant to most of society. It is hard today to tell who is a believer and who isn’t. Our God, our Creator, our Redeemer, our Lord has a special place in his heart for the poor and oppressed. And if we are not out doing his work among them, then we fail to be the counter-cultural agents of change that he wants us to be.

Alexander Berdyaev says:

There is no longer any room in the world for a merely external form of Christianity, based upon custom. The world is entering upon a period of catastrophe and crisis when we are being forced to take sides, and in which a higher and more intense spiritual life will be demanded of Christians.3

But if the church pursues this higher and more intense spiritual life, which includes caring for those that the world would rather forget, then we “will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor” (Isaiah 61:3). The hope expressed in Isaiah 58 is the same hope the church can have today:

To share your food with the hungry

and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—

when you see the naked, to clothe him,

and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Then your light will break forth like the dawn,

and your healing will quickly appear;

then your righteousness will go before you,

and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;

you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,

with the pointing finger and malicious talk,

and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,

then your light will rise in the darkness,

and your night will become like the noonday.

The Lord will guide you always;

he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land

and will strengthen your frame.

You will be like a well-watered garden,

like a spring whose waters never fail.

Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins

and will raise up the age-old foundations;

you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,

Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. (58:7–12)

Tim Streett is the Assistant Director of Shepherd Community Center, a faith-based, non-profit organization established with the mission of breaking the cycle of poverty on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis. Read Tim’s bio at

1 Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.

2 Raymond J. Bakke, A Theology as Big as the City (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997), 142.

3 Bob Kelly, ed., Worth Repeating: More than 5000 Classic and Contemporary Quotes (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2003), 50.

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The World is Flat? Not Yet!

Columbus sailed toward India to prove the world was round. While traveling from America to India 500 years later, Thomas Friedman discovered that “the world is flat.”1 In his “brief history of the twenty-first century,” Friedman describes how the connectedness of the world through technology has leveled the playing field for small businesses and individuals to compete in local, national, and international commerce—“flattening the world” to an unprecedented and unpredicted degree. Does this have implications for the church?

Outsourcing, insourcing, sharing information, and high-speed communication make it possible to increase production, raise efficiency, lower costs, and accomplish all of this at record speeds. Data can be transferred safely and instantaneously to other sites anywhere in the world at almost no cost. Friedman discovered that his tax return, being handled by a firm in Chicago, may be sent to Mumbai to have all the data crunched by professionals there and then returned to Chicago. Airline tickets can be arranged by a travel agent with a New York address as she sits at her laptop in the living room of her rural Utah home (someone had to stay home and watch the kids). An unmanned military drone, controlled by a young lady in a military office in Las Vegas, takes high definition video of an Iraqi neighborhood that is simultaneously viewed on wide screen monitors at a command post in Baghdad. The polite young man taking a customer’s order at the double lane drive-thru at a McDonalds in Missouri facilitates the burger purchases via video for three different restaurants at the same time at a monitor in another state.

Not only is the world smaller but these advances make it possible for the average person to compete with much bigger businesses. EBay and Craig’s List seem to make everyone a successful merchant. Opportunity is available to the little guy. The playing field is flattened. Friedman extends this metaphor of a “flat world” brilliantly through 600 pages of anecdotes. It is not a surprise that he is a Pulitzer Prize–winning author. He successfully demonstrates how technology has enabled us to shrink the world to a manageable size, “from everywhere, to right next to you,” making interaction both global and personal.

It occurs to me that there has been a flattening of the world in terms of church opportunity as well. Yesterday, I was able to correspond with Peter, a friend and Christian brother I met in a small village in western Kenya. He wrote me and I wrote him! It was fast and easy but represents an interaction that would have taken a month, two aerograms, ninety cents, and a trip to the Kenya post office back when we first met in 1984. Our church can have an e-mission committee meeting and include deaf Christians from Europe who are using sign language in front of a camera. We can deposit a thousand dollars into First Security Bank in Abilene, and pull it out of an ATM machine anywhere in the world. Recently, another dear friend called from Nairobi just to say hello. I asked if I should call her back, but she said it was no problem; she could talk for 20 minutes for about a dollar. Claudia and I paid four dollars per minute in the Eighties (I’m still sore about that). Things have changed!

Early missionaries took weeks to cross the world in ocean vessels. For example, J. C. Shewmaker and his family sailed to Zambia in 1939 and had one furlough in forty years, but air travel has made it possible for missionaries to take furloughs every few years. Elders and church members can visit foreign fields to oversee and to encourage missionaries and brothers and sisters from new churches. Missionary newsletters are available to thousands of people as online PDF files with color pictures (some newsletters are still available on real paper). In times of crisis, tens of thousands of people can be contacted in hours via email. Cell phones are everywhere. Internet cafés seem to open overnight.

The world is getting smaller. But there are still certain perspectives from which the world has not leveled out. After sharing some of these thoughts with a friend from Venezuela, he said he agreed with Friedman; that in many ways the world had flattened, but in others, it is still unlevel because “all the goodies seem to roll over to one side.” The mountains are higher and the valleys are lower. A quick Google search indicates that 25,000 people die of starvation every day (many estimates are closer to 50,000). Over a billion people (more than one in six) do not have access to clean water to drink. Every eight seconds a child dies from waterborne disease.2 In 2007 it was reported that 881,000 people died of malaria,3 1.7 million people died of tuberculosis,4 and 2.2 million people died of HIV/AIDS.5 These are treatable and preventable diseases and problems, yet they cannot be prevented or treated without access to the necessary resources. The number of people who have fled armed conflict and are living in refugee and IDP camps is a staggering 42 million.6

But there is good news on the horizon. Solutions are within reach. The cost of providing clean drinking water to half of the 1.1 billion who need it is $15 billion a year.7 Though that is a lot of money, it is less than 3% of the US national defense budget.8 Antiretroviral medications for HIV/AIDS cost $140 per patient per year, down from $10,000 ten years ago.9 Malaria could almost be eliminated with bed nets ($6 each), anti-malarial treatments ($2 per dose), preventative treatment for pregnant women, and indoor residual spraying.10

Progress has been made in almost all of these areas of need. Much of the assistance given to desperate people has come from government and non-government organizations outside of the Christian community. Yet, as Christians, we have a mandate to demonstrate this kind of love to our neighbors. If the same question were asked of Jesus today that was posed 2000 years ago—“Who is my neighbor?”—I suspect he would answer with a story that would surprise us. It might include a Palestinian. Or an Iraqi. An Afghan, African, Indian, or homeless person in Nashville. The story might end with words like, “I was hungry and you fed me . . . I was thirsty and you gave me drink . . . I was sick and you cared for me.”

Isaiah prophesied about Jesus’ coming and the appearance of his predecessor. John the Baptist was:

A voice of one calling in the desert,

“Prepare the way for the Lord.

Make straight paths for him.

Every valley shall be filled in,

Every mountain and hill made low.

The crooked roads shall become straight,

The rough ways smooth.

And all mankind will see God’s salvation.”

(Luke 3:4–6; cf. Isa 40:3–5)11

John was to preach of a flattening of the earth and a straightening of the way. He told his followers to bear fruit in keeping with repentance and spoke of an axe that was already at the root of fruitless trees. His disciples asked, “What should we do then?” Is it coincidence that all of his answers dealt with helping the poor—the privileged helping their neighbors?

“The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”

Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:11–14)

This account of John the Baptist’s interaction with the crowd is recorded by Luke in the book he addressed to “most excellent Theophilus” (1:3). This title may indicate that Theophilus was a wealthy man, certainly a man of privilege. His Greek name means “God-lover” and implies that he comes from Greek heritage; a Roman citizen perhaps. It is more than coincidental that this Gospel contains more information about how to deal with wealth and how to respond to poverty than any other book in the Bible. These issues represent the second most prominent theme in the Bible right behind idolatry, and often the two are related. It is estimated that approximately one in every seven verses in the Gospel of Luke has bearing on this topic.12

When Friedman wrote The World Is Flat, he included a chapter about “the unflat world.” I wept when I read it. It was the chapter I was looking for. His stories of the untouchables in India tore at my heart. Our family lived in a developing nation for ten years, and I know how unflat the world seems from that vantage point. Our team worked with over ninety Kenyan churches, thirty of which had a building. Some met in houses, others under trees. Most Christians walked to church, some rode bikes, and two (out of over three thousand) had motor vehicles. Unemployment figures were consistently over 90%. We ate meals with our hosts, but typically offered them a jug of clean water to use for cooking and drinking. I would like to think that our gift of water was driven by love, but it was primarily self-centered in motivation. We knew few families who had never lost a child. Now there are few who have not lost a family member to AIDS. Four in ten adults between the ages of 18 and 40 in our Kenya hometown of Rongo are infected by HIV. Thousands of orphans need care. The world is not flat.

When Luke wrote to Theophilus, he wrote to me. I want to be a “God-lover” and I want to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. I want to help those entrapped in the valleys of despair, imprisoned by poverty, to be lifted to the high places. In contrast to the rest of the world, I am certainly born to privilege. I was raised by godly parents in a Christian home. I have enjoyed opportunity to advance in my education, employment, and financial status. I have never been forced to go 24 hours without access to clean water, food, medical facilities, or insurance even when I did get in a bind. I am Theophilus. I am the rich young ruler. I am the wealthy land owner. But I do not want to build bigger barns. And though it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, I will not walk sadly away. It is hard to be like Jesus, but I want to live in his kingdom. As his instrument of peace, as his vessel of mercy, as his ambassador, perhaps my family can help daily to knock the top off our mountain and fill in the valleys and flatten an unflat world.

Steve and Claudia Greek, along with their three daughters, served as missionaries in Kenya from 1984–1995. Since that time Steve has taught in public schools in Texas and in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee. Steve is currently working as an educator of the hearing impaired in Austin, TX. Contact him at or to find out how you can help the widows, orphans, and needy of East Africa.

1 Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005).

2 UN-Water, “Factsheet on Water and Sanitation,” International Decade for Action: Water for Life, 2005–2015,

3 Global Malaria Partnership, “Key Malaria Facts,” Roll Back Malaria,

4 World Health Organization, Media Centre, “Tuberculosis Fact Sheet,”

5 World Health Oranization, “UNAIDS Global Report,” 2009,

6 Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders, “About Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs),”

7 UN-Water.

8 United States Department of Defense, “DOD Releases Fiscal 2012 Budget Proposal,” News Release,

9 World Health Organization, “UNAIDS Global Report.”

10 Murray, Sarah. “Mosquito Nets: Simple Tool Highlights the Cost of Free Aid,” Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria,

11 Scripture quotations are taken from the New International Version.

12 See Jim Wallis, Faith Works: How to Live Your Beliefs and Ignite Positive Social Change (New York: Random House, 2000).

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Practical Suggestions for Short-Term Missions among the Poor

In this article, we contend that giving money and goods can be a helpful tool in sharing the good news on a majority world mission field. Yet, giving can also be detrimental. Acts of generosity ought to be guided by the wisdom of a community so that gifts to the poor can have a positive and lasting impact. We introduce first-time short-term missionaries to the complexity of poverty and highlight appropriate and inappropriate responses to poverty on a short-term mission trip.

In the movie Avatar, when Jake Sully rolls his wheelchair out of the plane, viewers are struck by the complete otherness of the alien planet. There is an onslaught of novelty. In that moment, without a single spoken word, it is clear that this is a completely different world where what was once known is now unknown.

During a short-term mission trip to a majority world mission field, you may experience a similar onslaught of novelty. You will likely awaken to a new environment where every one of your senses is attacked by the uniqueness of your setting. The air may loom large with a smell that might be best described as putrid. It may, however, smell fresh, pure, and clean. The familiar rumble of cars may be replaced by the boisterous honking of horns or the constant croaking of frogs. The faces you see, though friendly, may be scuffed and dirty. As you look into people’s eyes, you might see both hope and desperation. Quite simply, it is a whole new world.

In many ways, visiting from place to place, working, building, interviewing patients, teaching VBS, doing operations, and knocking on doors will feel like the easy part. But during quiet moments of the day you may struggle with your emotions. Unexplainably, something is mentally occupying you. When you and your thoughts are left alone, that is when you ask questions to which the answers always elude you:

How could people be living like this in this day and age?

What is my responsibility with my own wealth?

What can I do to help?

What should I do with the feeling of guilt I experience?

When speaking of the issue of poverty, Seth Godin claims our response is an issue of “proximity and attention.”1 He claims we often give attention to the poor only when we are so close we cannot avoid them. In a majority world country, the poor have our complete and undivided attention. Though poverty has existed for centuries, in this close proximity we now experience the reality of the poverty of the majority world. Poverty now transitions from a soft subtle knock in the background to a loud boisterous pounding. It can no longer be avoided. For the glory of God, you commit yourself, your energy, your resources, your knowledge, and your finances to addressing the issue of poverty. Lord willing, God will open many doors that will allow you to touch and positively impact people with the love of Christ.

We offer a word of caution. In order to bless people by your generosity, you must have boundaries in place to guide your giving. Ironically, a good heart and a loving action do not always lead to a positive result. At times, giving can cause more damage than good. We pray God will lead you through this article so the Holy Spirit can offer you the wisdom to know when giving helps and when it hurts.

Not All Giving Helps

When I (Craig) went on my first short-term mission trip to a majority world country, I decided to give most of my clothes to a friend I had made on the field. I felt honored that God had allowed me to help my new friend in this way. However, I now look back on that experience and wonder if I did the right thing. Why would I now doubt that action done out of a glad and sincere heart? Living in Papua New Guinea, I have seen Christians bicker over MP3 players, Bibles, clothing, and more. At times, gifts given with best intentions flare up jealous rivalries and bitter accusations. Only after having these experiences as a full time missionary do I wonder what the response was when I left all of those clothes to one friend I made during our mission trip. I wonder if I left a path of jealousy, bitterness, and quarreling or a path of appreciation and thanksgiving. I’ll never know because I wasn’t around to see the aftermath.

There once was an intern who left her study Bible with a local evangelist. The church was thankful that he had access to the extra resources offered by a study Bible. That Bible has traveled up and down the coast being used to teach and preach. The Bible is now a lot older and the pages much dirtier, but that generous gift continues to be a blessing.

How can we possibly begin to know if our gifts will be a blessing or a hindrance to people? We would like to suggest an approach where you sit quietly, pray deeply, listen intently, and rely on God’s Spirit to give you wisdom. This requires working closely with local church leaders and/or missionaries while frequently asking them, “Would this help?”

If you follow this approach, at the end of your mission trip when the jet roars to a place you call home, you will sense that something is starting—not finishing. Instead of ending something, you will realize that you are just starting a new chapter in life. This is because when you work with the poor, you never get to experience the luxury of feeling like your job is done. Missionaries who have served in a majority world country for decades know there is much yet to be done. Perhaps this is because our mission is not to solve anything but to live a Christlike life in the midst of the poor. We do this over a week, a decade, or a lifetime, and we never quite finish. If you leave the mission field having represented the love of God, changed as an individual, and with a greater compassion for the poor, then, in our opinion, you have succeeded. Regard the mission trip as the beginning of a journey that might never be completed.

Majority World Poverty 101

The tap in your tub is turned on, but the plug is not in place. Water flows excessively down the open drain. What do you do? Do you turn the water on higher, or do you put a plug in the tub? Most, so it seems, would put a plug in the tub or turn off the water.

In many poor countries, poverty exists because of broken systems. The structure, government, family system, and cultural rules of interaction need change before any amount of money can help. Pouring money into a broken system makes as much sense as turning the water on high when the plug is out.

There are three things every short-term missionary should know about poverty:

  1. Poverty is complex. The issue of poverty cannot be solved by one short-term mission trip.
  2. Poverty is a system. A system is anything in which there are interdependent parts. If you change one part of the system, the entire system will adapt. Poverty is a system because solving a problem (on the individual or micro level) does not solve the problem of poverty. When the system is healthy, there is hope for sustainable change.
  3. Poverty is a symptom. Poverty vividly shows deep-seated cultural and personal issues.

How Can Giving Be Dangerous?

Since poverty is complex, we believe that it cannot be solved by simple actions. The paradox of poverty is that one can give and unintentionally do more harm than help. Thus, good intentions do not always produce good results. As a result, before we introduce the blessings of giving, we first introduce a couple of the potential hazards associated with giving money or goods as a short-term missionary.

Giving can create dependency, and it can promote a false definition of needs.

In 1996, two men came to preach in the Highlands region of Papua New Guinea. On the flight from the States they were each allowed two pieces of baggage. One bag consisted of personal possessions, and the other was a portable baptistery. At the end of their short-term mission trip, these men left both baptisteries with local Christians. The intention was that the local Christians could use the baptisteries to continue the good work. For decades, missionaries have been baptizing individuals in the plentiful rivers of PNG. However, following this visit, people started to ask the missionaries to write letters to churches overseas so that the overseas churches would send money to help them buy their own baptisteries.

By giving in an inappropriate way (and by giving inappropriate items), these men promoted two unhealthy concepts. First, their actions insinuated that the local Christians did not have at their disposal what was necessary to preach the gospel. Second, their actions allowed people to conclude that churches overseas should supply the funds to purchase the baptisteries. To be fair, it is likely that neither missionary intended either of the above ramifications, but the actions of the local Christians highlighted that more harm was done than good.

We might do the same if we provide a vehicle or even a bike to a local evangelist to help him do mission work. Other evangelists might assume that a bike or car is also necessary for them to do their work. If we buy a sound system so everyone can hear the preaching, other churches might feel the need to write overseas churches to get their own sound system. In our opinion, it is not healthy to put any ministry on pause while the local church waits for overseas resources.

Giving may distort the gospel truth.

It is impossible to comment on all cultural practices, but here in Papua New Guinea there is a long history with something called “cargo cult.” The cargo cult belief supposes that the “whites” have a secret that leads to prosperity (cargo). Thus, when missionaries arrive carrying a good news message, some people are attracted to the message for cargo, not for truth. When we give in this context, we may be reinforcing the local belief that the gospel is a money movement rather than a religious one.

Notice that connecting the gospel with money might be the furthest thing from the missionaries’ intentions. However, we must try not to look at situations through our own eyes, understandings, or perspectives. We must seek to ask, “How will the local citizens interpret this action?” Our concern is not for what we intend to communicate, but rather for what will be interpreted.

How Can Giving Be a Blessing?

Just because there are inherent dangers associated with giving does not mean we should not give as short-term missionaries. On the contrary, we must continually be seeking ways to bless others. Undoubtedly, amazing things can happen when people give. Craig Ellison suggests the following three reasons why we should address the felt needs of the poor (city-dwellers in the context of his book): “To do so (1) provides a point of redemptive connection with those who are spiritually lost, (2) adds credibility to our communication of the gospel, and (3) is commanded by God and demonstrated by Christ.”2

Addressing felt needs provides a point of redemptive connection to those who are spiritually lost.

God can use the wealth of a short-term missionary to open doors. Many people who visit majority world countries find that people often come to them, seek them, and approach them. This is God’s way of opening a door of connection. By serving individuals through a mobile medical unit or construction project, you are effectively putting flesh into the message you bear. Perhaps there are some who simply come to see what you are doing, but in the end, they hear what you are saying.

Addressing felt needs adds credibility to our communication of the gospel.

We are reminded in Jam 2:16 that wishing the best upon people without actively participating in blessing others is of little value. Our faith is one that is exemplified in action. What we do communicates as much as what we say. People may dismiss the good news message if our actions constantly undermine the message we seek to teach.

Addressing felt needs is commanded by God and demonstrated by Christ.

God has a heart for the poor, the despised, and the rejected. Christlikeness is shown in our compassionate actions towards the poor. We are a vessel of God’s interaction with the needy.

Thus, we make it our goal to be sure that our giving enforces one of these three positive aspects of giving while avoiding the dangers associated with giving. Ultimately, the wisdom to know the difference might never be fully attained. In the remainder of this article, we will introduce what we believe are appropriate and inappropriate ways to respond to poverty in light of these potential blessings and dangers.

During a short-term mission trip, what are appropriate and inappropriate ways to respond to poverty?

Don’t make independent giving decisions without local consultation, when possible.

The short-term missionary (along with the long-term missionary) should avoid actions that develop or encourage an attitude of dependence. In many majority world countries, one can reinforce an unhealthy mindset by giving money to people. In essence, what you are teaching is that depending on outside gifts is the only or best way to get something. It is this dependence that is crippling many majority world cultures. The challenge is to find the right way to assist people without creating an absolute dependence on outside resources.

To be clear, there will be occasions where immediate benevolence is needed. The Good Samaritan did not say he needed to go ask someone if he should help. The need and the response were clear. There may be situations involving medical needs or hunger that need to be dealt with immediately. In those cases, make wise and compassionate choices guided by the Spirit. However, when possible, it would be wise for the short-term missionary to ask local citizens or local church workers to help them assess the legitimacy of the request. In this way, you can seek the wisdom of the community. This is something that we still practice after nearly five years on the mission field. Whenever possible, we seek out a local resource to help us make wise decisions.

We must learn to harness our sense of injustice so we can appropriately filter information. In the process of helping people, we must humbly remind ourselves that “poverty is a culture, not a lack of money.”3 Some problems should first be understood before they are fixed. A local resource person will be invaluable when it comes to determining the best course of action.

In some cases, the problems are not as much an issue of a lack of money as a lack of leadership. John Perkins suggests:

Refilling the leadership vacuum of our urban areas will require committed, quality, unselfish leadership at the grassroots level: individuals who see the problem clearly, nurture a vision for solving it, and willingly make personal sacrifices.4

The same is true of majority world poverty. Leadership may be needed more than money. If the local leadership has taken a certain stance or approach to working with the poor during your short-term mission trip, it is advisable to work within the existing strategy of the local church. By supporting the existing leadership, you help them make the necessary long-term changes.

When we minister to the poor, our compassion must be married to wisdom. When we deal with the poor, we must always remember that doing something is not the same as helping. In other words, “no” can be as much a word of compassion as “yes.” Only God can give us the wisdom to know when “no” is a word of compassion and when “yes” is a word of compassion. Many immediate solutions are merely putting a Band-Aid on a festering infection, but with the involvement of the community, you might be able to address some of the deep-seated issues through your benevolence.

Looking back on my (Craig’s) earlier experiences as a short-term missionary, I wish now that I would have asked the local Christians to help determine the legitimacy of my actions. Quite simply, I think I was ill-equipped—emotionally and spiritually—to make those decisions. Of course, short-term missionaries who return multiple times to a country will be much more prepared to make wise benevolence decisions. Nevertheless, a full-time missionary or local church leader may be able to give you some wise suggestions on how to help minister to people. After years of living in PNG, I rarely reply to people’s benevolence requests without first seeking the advice of a cultural insider.

Do listen to the stories and verify the facts.

Many majority world countries share deep oral traditions. In hearing their stories, you come to learn who they are as people. Since poverty is about more than money, it is not until you listen to their stories that you can see underlying issues causing the problems. Take time during your mission trip to expose yourself to the root issues and contributing factors of poverty. Then act according to God’s timing. Henri Nouwen suggests that when we look into people’s eyes, “we can catch a glimpse of at least a shadow of their world.”5 There is no better way to get to know people than through stories.

Beyond using stories to give you a general understanding of the complexity of poverty, you will also listen to individual requests. When someone shares their personal needs, you might consider some of the following suggestions to help determine the legitimacy of the request:

  • If the facts are verifiable, postpone the request until you can gather the information. Is the brother really sick? Check at the hospital. Did the person really just lose his job? Check with the former employer. Does this person have a reputation of telling false stories? Ask a local Christian.
  • Is the person making the request willing to sacrifice something to achieve the desired means? Will he or she do work in exchange for the gift? Is the person willing to cover a portion of the cost?
  • Is the requested item actually a guise? If a person asks for money for an item (food), give the item instead of the cash equivalent.
  • Has the request already been denied? Work through the existing structure at the church to see if a request has already been addressed by the local church.

Don’t elevate the importance of money.

Jacob Loewen tells the following story referring to a time when he was teaching a group of people from South America:

“Every tribe and culture uses one or more of these . . . the most important center or hub of their way of life.  It is like the axle of a wheel, which forms the center around which the whole wheel turns.  You say that you have known the missionaries for about twenty years.  Can you suggest one of the items in this list which you would consider to be the axle of the missionaries’ way of life?”  “Money!” the group of teachers from a South American Indian tribe exclaimed unanimously and unhesitatingly.6

This statement is startling. Western Christians must refuse the temptation to think of money as the solution to every human ill we encounter. Instead, we ought to present ourselves in such a way as to reaffirm God as the solution to every human ill. Since the Western world has money, manages money, and spends money, those to whom we minister might think it is money that has filled the Western world with goodness. Short-term missionaries need to help correct that misunderstanding. Joy comes from Christ, not money.

No missionary ever intends to insinuate that money is a source of their hope. Yet, it clearly seems as though the missionaries referenced above gave the impression that money was central to their living. Their actions subtly communicated something they did not intend to communicate.

While the majority world poor may not possess what the Western world possesses, there are things the majority world possesses that Westerners have lost. Many Westerners have gained money but in the pursuit of money have also lost, for example, a sense of community and fellowship. Short-term missionaries who sit with the poor will find their own lives lack certain things that the majority world has.

Do immerse yourself in the Word.

Some Bible verses will be truly difficult to hear until you have first witnessed poverty. By reading the Bible as a short-term missionary among the poor, you learn to think about the poor as God does. Allow God to help you feel the insensitivity, injustice, and complexity of poverty. Journey through the Bible and God will slowly transform your thinking and give you some much-needed wisdom.

Do join pre-existing good works.

God is always working (John 5:17). Joseph was sent ahead of his family to prepare the way for them during a time of famine (Gen 45:7). There are many faithful stewards who are already doing good works to minister to the poor. There are individuals who are focusing on addressing the systemic issues that cause poverty. Through their experiences, they are making a difference in the lives of the poor. Rather than being the sole administrator of your resources, entrust them to people who have shown the Spirit of God by their stewardship.

Examples of this might include certain stateside organizations like Healing Hands International.7 It might include overseas ministries of local churches. You may be able to give to a church benevolence committee and ask them to administer the funds. Giving can also be done through local organizations like hospitals, AIDS clinics, or youth programs.

Don’t place a financial reward or incentive too close to the gospel.

Perhaps a person with more wisdom could define “too close.” We, however, cannot, because with the appearance of the gospel comes a promise of holistic improvement. It was Jesus himself who announced:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19)8

Jesus fulfills the desires of his Father.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jer 29:11)

So with the gospel comes life. A life in abundance (John 10:10) follows the proclamation of the gospel. Yet, that source of abundance is God. Short-term missionaries participate in social fulfillment of the good news of the kingdom, but they are not the source. As such, short-term missionaries can be viewed as a vessel of holistic gospel truth or as an ATM hiding behind a Bible. The balance is a difficult one to keep, yet necessary.

Do things with people, not for people.

On occasion, it is possible to come across a missionary who has an unfortunate case of Supermanitis. This is not a symptom of short-term missionaries only but of all missionaries, ministers, and humans. The symptoms are seen in a person’s language, conduct, and actions. They think they will somehow save the poor. Likely, you will not find a person with a full-blown case of Supermanitis, but to be human means all of us struggle with it in varying degrees.

Jonathan Bonk claims, “Affluence leads to social disparity and presents illusions of superiority.”9 If Bonk is correct, there is a temptation to think that because a person has more she is better. When the affluent enter a majority world country, they often receive special attention. They are treated better at health clinics. They will have grievances heard more quickly. All this undue attention may lead to an inflated self-view.

However, we should always seek to serve local Christians. To serve them means we do not take shortcuts because we are “superior.” Seek to take as much as you plan to give. The goal of short-term missions is not just to transform but to be transformed. Avoid situations where one person is superior and the other is inferior. Consult the local leadership when planning projects related to your trip. Humbly listen to all ideas and suggestions. Consider the following words: “STM [short-term mission] trips can play a positive role in the lives of all those involved, but a different paradigm is needed. Rather than going as ‘doers,’ some powerful dynamics can be unleashed if STM teams go as ‘learners’ from the poor or as ‘co-learners’ with the poor.”10

Don’t be overcome by analysis paralysis.

At times, the complexity of the poverty issue may paralyze us. When we feel paralyzed, we must remember that the goal of all giving is to help improve the lives of people, to advance the kingdom, and to witness to the love of Christ. If our giving does that, we should move forward with boldness and confidence. The suggestions we have offered in this article are intended to heighten our awareness of the issues associated with poverty but not to default to a state of analysis paralysis where we do nothing to serve the poor. As such, we need to embrace appropriate ways to give, such as those suggested.

Do remind yourself of the potential of helping.

Dealing with a physical or benevolence need should never be seen as a distraction to your ministry. Ministry is not an event to accomplish but a series of relationships to build. As such, we should willingly take time out of our schedules to listen to those who come to us in their need. Your response to that need may just open the door to a closed heart.

Helping is an important part of the ministry of any missionary—short-term or long-term. Thus, we must recognize every request as a door that God opens to a willing heart. This may not simply be a request for an exchange of something spiritual, but a bond between two people. This incarnate action of love may in fact be the light on the hill that someone needs to see before their ears will be open to hear.

Conclusion: The Frustration of Intimacy

Yesterday, the problem of poverty seemed so simple. Today, the ministry with the poor makes us feel exuberant, then frustrated, then disappointed, and then elated. Undoubtedly, our emotions run from one end of the spectrum to the other—sometimes faster than a tense elastic band that has just been released.

This journey with the poor is not simple. Each day that passes, there may be more questions and fewer answers. Each day the problem seems even more complex than it was the day before. However, rather than trying to solve the problem of poverty, our burden is to bring the salvation of Jesus Christ into the midst of the poor. It is an extremely challenging and rewarding endeavor.

This, so it seems, typifies Jesus’ ministry of presence. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). Jesus’ life with us was motivated by compassion. Jesus said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matt 23:37). It is clear that Jesus tasted the fruit of the frustration of intimacy when he said, “O unbelieving and perverse generation, . . . how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” (Matt 17:17). Living in the midst of any type of brokenness is burdensome.

Therefore, we propose that you approach your short-term mission trip as a student participant. A student of a culture. A student of yourself. A student of God’s goodness. A student of poverty. A participant in God’s ministry. A participant as an ambassador of Jesus Christ. A participant in God’s redemptive work. In this way, on the mission field you will do many tremendous and wonderful things.

Perhaps the words of Henri Nouwen summarize what we ineffectively seek to say. He writes, “the deeper he [the Christian leader] is willing to enter into the painful condition which he and others know, the more likely it is that he can be a leader, leading his people out of the desert into the promised land.”11 The deeper we go, the more effective we become. But in the depths, we might find our own psyche battered.

The call of this article is for you to give yourself fully to your short-term mission trip. Experience and expose yourself to an entirely new world. Re-experience the words of the gospel. Revive your passion for the Word of God. And, in the midst of everything, exercise caution when giving. To exercise caution does not require that you do nothing. In fact, it requires the opposite. You verify facts, seek out local input, and creatively challenge yourself to find healthy ways to help people.

During your short-term mission trip, you will serve. You will touch the lives of people. You will minister. But, when that 50,000-pound chunk of metal miraculously lifts into the sky to take you back home, you’ll likely leave with an unresolved tension, not whispering the words “mission accomplished.” In my (Craig’s) own life, short-term mission trips were an introduction to the world of poverty, and these trips served as a catalyst for my desire to seek out ways to be part of a long-term solution to the tragedy of poverty. May God grant you the opportunity to start a new chapter in your life—a phase in life where your lack of proximity to the poor no longer dictates your lack of concern and passion for issues related to the poor. In that way, you can become a catalyst for positive change, an advocate for right action, and a disciple whom God can use in service to his kingdom. You can do that both in your home culture and on any foreign field where God leads you in the future.

In the end, may we each be able to share the humble words of Ron Sider, “We have worked furiously, prayed frantically, failed frequently, despaired sometimes, and, thank God, on occasion succeeded.”12

Craig and Jeri Ford moved to Alotau, Papua New Guinea in 2006. They have three young children. Craig is a graduate of Harding University (MDiv), and Jeri is a graduate of Freed-Hardeman University (MEd). They co-authored The Short Term Missions Handbook, a practical guide for short-term missionaries. Craig is also a semi-professional blogger who deals with the topic of Christian finances at
As a special offer to Missio Dei readers, we are happy to offer our book at 25% off. Use the coupon code missiodei at checkout. Visit to learn more about the handbook. By using this link, you also help Missio Dei as the journal will receive 50% of all sales through this link. Contact us directly ( to purchase discounted multiple copies. Just let us know you were referred by Missio Dei.


Bonk, Jonathan J. Missions and Money: Affluence as a Western Missionary Problem. New York: Orbis, 1991.

Chalmers Center Staff. “Doing Short-Terms Missions without Doing Long-Term Harm.” Mandate  2008, no. 1.

Ellison, Craig W. “Addressing Felt Needs of Urban Dwellers.” In Planting and Growing Urban Churches: From Dream to Reality, ed. Harvie M. Conn, 94–110. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997.

Ford, Craig, and Jeri Ford. Short Term Missions Handbook. Self-published electronic document.

Godin, Seth. “Fear of Philanthropy (Avert Your Eyes).” Seth Godin Blog.

Healing Hands International. Home Page.

Loewen, Jacob A. Culture and Human Values: Christian Intervention in Anthropological Perspective. South Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1975.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. New York: Image Books, 1972.

Perkins, John M. “The Character of a Developer: Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Leader?” In Restoring At-Risk Communities: Doing It Together and Doing It Right, ed. John M. Perkins, 61–72. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995.

Sider, Ronald J. Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007.

1 Seth Godin, “Fear of Philanthropy (Avert Your Eyes),” Seth Godin Blog,

2 Craig W. Ellison, “Addressing Felt Needs of Urban Dwellers,” in Planting and Growing Urban Churches: From Dream to Reality, ed. Harvie M. Conn (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 94.

3 Craig Ford and Jeri Ford, Short Term Missions Handbook (self-published electronic document), 22,

4 John M. Perkins, “The Character of a Developer: Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Leader?” in Restoring At-Risk Communities: Doing It Together and Doing It Right, ed. John M. Perkins (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 62.

5 Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (New York: Image Books, 1972), 26.

6 Jacob A. Loewen, Culture and Human Values: Christian Intervention in Anthropological Perspective (South Pasedena, CA: William Carey Library, 1975): xi.

8 Scripture quotations are taken from the New International Version.

9 Jonathan J. Bonk, Missions and Money: Affluence as a Western Missionary Problem (New York: Orbis, 1991), 46.

10 Chalmers Center Staff, “Doing Short-Terms Missions without Doing Long-Term Harm,” Mandate  2008, no. 1,

11 Nouwen, 63.

12 Ronald J. Sider, Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 16.

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Exodus, the Poor, and Worship

In the book of Exodus, Israel transitions from a people enslaved in the midst of Egypt to a nation in service to the God-in-their-midst. The memory of this exodus story grounds both Israel’s theology of poverty and worship. But do these two relate? This essay argues that the book of Exodus intimately connects Israel’s ethic toward the marginalized with the concern for the formation of a worshiping community.


In this essay I explore two major themes within Exodus and how they relate: God’s concern for the poor, and worship. At first glance, these two motifs appear to serve as bookends for the book. The first fifteen chapters of Exodus develop the theme of God’s acting on behalf of the oppressed Israelites. The final fifteen chapters (save chs. 32–34) are devoted almost exclusively to the accouterments of the tabernacle. I suspect that many, even those whose only encounters with the book have come through Hollywood portrayals, are most familiar with the first theme and even consider liberation of the oppressed as the de facto thesis of Exodus.1 This part of the story has no doubt inspired various groups of the oppressed and poor to struggle for deliverance throughout the ages, and the emergence of liberation theologies in the latter half of the twentieth century has heightened awareness of this theme even more so in the academy.2 Indeed, one of the great gains of liberationist readings has been the lucid explication of God’s partisan concern for the downtrodden vis-à-vis the exodus.3 And yet, some scholars have criticized liberation-centered readings for overplaying this motif and ignoring how the theme of liberation is integrated with other important themes within Exodus.4

In this essay I argue that these two motifs are woven together such that in the book of Exodus a theological understanding of care for the poor does not make sense apart from a concern for the formation of a worshiping community. My thesis entails that I first investigate how Israel’s understanding of God’s actions in the Exodus formed the matrix out of which she came to view her role in caring for the poor. Second, I briefly explain why Israel’s ethic toward the poor as developed through their exodus experience can serve as paradigmatic for Christian readers. Third, I demonstrate how in Exodus the matter of worship functions as an overarching theme that provides a significant and distinctive texture and telos to Israel’s theology of poverty. Finally, I conclude by noting a few implications of my argument for participation in the mission of God.

The Exodus and Israel’s Understanding of the Poor

The call for the protection and fair treatment of the poor permeates much of Israel’s literature.5 Israel’s concern for this segment of her community was not unique in the ancient Near East.6 However, her convictions about the poor grew out of her distinctive theological self-understanding which was shaped by the exodus.7 Her own beginning in vulnerability and powerlessness demanded a certain attitude toward the vulnerable and powerless in her midst. God’s redemptive action exhibited in the exodus—to establish a new, worshiping community where the well-being of every member, especially the poor, was a central concern—formed the theological paradigm by which Israel understood and showed compassion for the poor.

Before turning to the book of Exodus, it is necessary to define briefly the language of the “poor” and “poverty” and its application to the text.8 The semantic field of words used in the Hebrew Bible to identify the “poor” and their condition is much broader than the English translation “poor.” Among the most frequently used are: ⁽ ānî (80 times),  ⁾ ebyôn (61 times); dal (48 times); rāš (22 times); maḥsôr (13 times); miskēn (4 times). These all have considerable nuance that cannot be captured by the catch-all translation “poor.” In addition to these, the triad “the widow, the orphan, and the alien” are often singled out as groups in particular need of attention due to their situations of vulnerability. The words translated “poor” together with the widow, orphan, and alien reflect the vast majority of the Israelite destitute. The lack of economic resources, social status, and respect combined with the vulnerability to exploitation and the inability to reverse the situation comprises the multitude of situations of “poverty” for various individuals in Israel. In a few words, powerlessness and vulnerability are the fundamental markers of the “poor” of the Hebrew Scriptures. In the following exposition, I show how these characteristics of powerlessness and vulnerability rest at the heart of the root identity of the Hebrew nation.

The Exodus account opens with the suffering of the Hebrews under the oppressive and exploitative power of Pharaoh’s regime. The biblical tradents describe their situation in Egypt with an impressive burst of vocabulary that emphasizes the mounting oppression:

Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. (Exod 1:11–14)9

The repetition of language lays upon the reader the burdensome oppression that weighs down the Israelites. The situation goes from bad to worse as the maniacal policy of Pharaoh moves from forced labor to national genocide. By the end of the opening chapter, hopelessness and powerlessness characterize the social context of the Hebrews.

The slaves signal their incapacity to alter the situation and express their deep distress by their emotive outcry in Exod 2:23–24. The Hebrew uses four different verbal roots to vivify the severity of their plight:

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned ( ⁾ ānaḥ) because of their slavery and cried out for help (zā⁽ aq). Their cry (šaw⁽ â) for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning (n ⁾ āqâ). (ESV)10

Although their cry does not have an immediate addressee (v. 23b), it nevertheless reaches the divine ears. No explicit mention of God’s active presence for the Israelites is found within the narrative11 until the narrator reports God’s initial response with four action verbs: “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew” (2:24–25 ESV).12 In the following call-story of Moses, the reader again overhears God revealing to Moses that this God of the ancestors has seen, heard, and known the Israelites’ plight: “Then the Lord said, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know (yāda⁽ ) their sufferings’ ” (3:7 ESV).

This emphatic, repeated divine response (cf. 3:9) is critical to the development of Israel’s theology of the poor. God has freely chosen not to be indifferent to the outcry of the Israelites in their powerlessness.13 Moreover, in this context the Hebrew verb yāda⁽  indicates a relational, experiential knowledge.14 In other words, Israel’s God goes beyond just being cognitively aware or even sensitive to the suffering of Israel—he intimately involves himself with it.15 God’s hearing and seeing their groaning (2:24; 3:7) leads him to remember his covenant with their ancestors (2:24) and thus to gain an intimacy with their plight. All of this moves God to act for their deliverance (3:8). That God is moved by and identifies with the outcry of the powerless is a fundamental conviction that grows out of Israel’s experience with God in their exit from Egypt. Israel learns through the exodus event that God is the champion of the oppressed even when such championing pits God against the seemingly legitimate human powers of the day.16 God acts in sovereignty to bring Israel out from under her oppressors and in the process dismantles the structures that legitimate the oppression and social injustices of the Egyptian empire.17

In more than one way, God insists that Israel must not forget her exodus-shaped identity as it relates to her ethical practice. The prologue of the Ten Words manifests this consciousness: Israel is reminded that God brought her out of the Egyptian “house of slavery” (20:2, cf. 19:4). Not coincidentally, the following collection of laws starts with the demand that Hebrew slaves be treated fairly (21:1). In language evoking her corporate exodus experience, God commands Israel not to oppress widows or fatherless children. “If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry” (22:23).18 In similar fashion, God commands an Israelite to return a cloak before sundown to a dependent neighbor who offered it as a pledge. Otherwise, the vulnerable neighbor will have nothing as a cover for sleeping, “and if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate” (22:27). Finally, Samuel Balentine observes that an apodictic law section (22:21–23:9) is framed with warnings to Israel against abusing aliens in her midst precisely because Israel is a community with a history of such vulnerability: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (22:21; cf. 23:9). He asserts that “by framing the apodictic laws with a concern for the aliens, the Book of the Covenant insists that justice for the socially and politically disadvantaged, no less than love of God, is the essential requirement of covenant fidelity.”19 The exodus becomes formative for Israel’s commands and social organization, the central vision of which focuses on justice in the context of community.20 Yhwh educates Israel at Sinai in the nonnegotiable aspects of the covenant, one of which is that Israel will show concern for her “neighbor”—the poorer members of her community in particular.

That Israel’s origins lie among the powerless should not be underestimated. To give just one example, a later creedal-like statement that an Israelite was to rehearse at his offering of the harvest’s firstfruits features this fact as the centerpiece of the Israelite’s identity:

A wandering21 Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deut 26:5–9)22

God’s actions toward Israel in the exodus grounded her historical identity in a consciousness which necessitated an ongoing sympathy and compassion for the poor and the marginalized of society. A neglect of the poor, then, was no less than a fundamental denial of Israel’s self-understanding.23 In the same chapter of Deuteronomy, the Israelite testifies before God after paying the triennial tithe:

I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments . . . (26:13)

Christopher Wright surmises that this text “makes care for the poor the litmus test of covenant obedience to the whole of the rest of the law.”24 At least in this instance, the Israelite’s ethical behavior toward the poor functions as “somehow definitive or paradigmatic of [the worshiper’s] response to God as a whole.”25

It comes as no surprise then to see in light of the exodus a newness of values that sympathizes with the plight of the marginalized for theological reasons.26 Israel’s communal life adopts God’s character as revealed in the exodus and structures itself around God’s interests. Brueggemann has well stated that Israel’s law collections evince a “preferential option for the ordering of a neighborly community.”27 The practice of social justice, in turn, goes beyond keeping the rules to pursuing aggressively the good of the community.28 And the good of the community depended greatly on how its most vulnerable members fared in the community’s economic and social structures.

Exodus as Paradigm: God’s Concern for the Poor

There is little doubt that the theme of God’s concern for the marginalized has gained significant traction in the last few decades. Moreover, just in the last few years in America, social justice for the poor has emerged as a hot topic of conversation among a variety of religious leaders and commentators.29 Christians who desire to treat the poor justly and wish to ground their intuitions in Scripture may cite the exodus event. Yet, the book of Exodus is unambiguous that God’s particular concern for Israel stands behind his redemptive movements. It is legitimate to ask then, “If God is truly about identifying with and liberating the poor from their oppression, why is God’s concern qualified by Israel?” In other words, I wish to address briefly whether this exodus motif indicates a universal disposition of God toward oppression of marginalized members of society, or if God’s compassion at the beginning of Exodus can only be understood as his partiality to one specific nation.30

The narrative admits in 2:23–24 and 3:7–8 that God’s concern for human misery and God’s covenant memory together operate as “triggers” for God’s redeeming initiative.31 The latter, of course, points back to God’s covenant with Abraham when he declared his intention to bless the world through Abraham’s seed (Gen 12:1–3; 15). The covenant promise is central to God’s response, and thus there is much more at play here than a mere concern for the marginalized. God chooses to act because it is Israel crying out, not just enslaved peoples.32 That having been said, Israel represents God’s chosen means by which salvation comes to all the families of the earth. Thus, God’s concern for Israel stems from a larger concern for creation, and such concern continues to draw God to the aid of Israel both in the exodus and beyond.33

A creational perspective on the book of Exodus opens further avenues for understanding God’s concern for the poor as a more universal paradigm while not denigrating the special place of Israel. Terence Fretheim has shown convincingly how creation theology underpins much in Exodus. For example, the opening chapter (1:7, 12) casts Israel’s situation in terms that hearken back to the creational directives given to humanity “in the beginning.”34 Egyptian slavery, then, frustrates the creational vocation of Israel in addition to quenching the creational promise that Abraham’s seed would be a blessing to the families of the earth. Second, God’s stated rationale for his power-contest with Pharaoh highlights the creational dimension of the exodus: “But this is why I have let you live: to show my power, and to make my name resound through all the earth” (9:16).35 In other words, the work of God in the exodus is forecasted as an action that is meant to be a showcase to other nations concerning the priorities of the Creator God. Israel’s salvation is a concretization of God’s concerns writ large so that the world can take heed.36

In fact, to view the entire narrative as a cosmic drama set in the framework of creation further elucidates the divine response.37 God the Creator actively seeks to free people from the oppressive forces of chaos (represented by Pharaoh) that oppose God’s purposes in creation.38 Thus, the salvific act of the exodus includes liberation but more broadly involves a re-creation or reordering of life to match God’s original goal of wholeness.39 He desires to create anew a community that stands in direct opposition to the chaos that is Egypt.40 This new community emerges with the expectation that they are an “incarnation” of God’s desires for society. God’s redemption of Israel functions as a paradigmatic microcosm of God’s macrocosmic will.41 I suggest, then, that the exodus drama can be legitimately read as a theological paradigm for God’s basic disposition toward poverty, but only with the qualification that Israel’s total experience—from Egypt to Sinai—offers the window into that disposition. As I detail in the next section, only by taking into account the entire journey of Israel from slavery to service do we develop a biblically responsible concern for the poor.

The Concern for the Poor and Worship in Exodus

The truly distinct feature of ancient Israel’s theological understanding of care for the poor is found in the integration of this concern with her theology of worship. Norbert Lohfink observes that many commentators who expound upon Israel’s concern for the poor seem unaware that Israel was not unique in her regard for the poor.42 After a brief survey of other ancient Near Eastern laws, Lohfink concludes, “In light of the stated similarities between the Old Testament and its environment, it would seem that much that is today referred to as ‘option of the Church for the poor’ is not in any way specifically biblical and is therefore not specifically Christian.”43 I think Lohfink overstates the case,44 but nevertheless he is right to highlight that a special concern for the poor alone fits well with the practice of Israel’s contemporaries. Rather, what Lohfink regards as making Israel distinct is the exodus event that gave rise to Israel’s liberation and subsequent understanding of poverty. More to the point, the exodus facilitates a transition from oppression to the calling and construction of a new society that embraces God’s agenda. Lohfink again:

Yahweh’s interaction does not aim, as do such acts of assistance elsewhere in the ancient Near East, to lighten the suffering while leaving the system intact or perhaps even aiding its renewed stabilization. Instead, the poor are removed from the impoverishing situation. Nowhere else in the ancient Near East have I encountered in the context of divine aid to the poor even the remotest suggestion that a god might physically remove the poor who cry out to him or her from the world that oppresses them as human beings.45

To summarize, the “exit from” is incomplete without the “entrance into”; they are tethered together theologically. In other words, Israel’s compassion is distinctive only in relationship to the horizon of the formation of a worshiping community.

One of the most significant ways in which these two themes are conjoined becomes clear by attending to the theme of worship. Throughout the book of Exodus there is a continual wordplay on the root ⁽ -b-d, “to serve.” The root occurs 97 times in the narrative. Figure 1 illustrates the number of occurrences of various forms of the root in the forty chapters of Exodus. It occurs in three principle forms: the nominal “servant” (⁽ ebed),46 the verbal “to serve” (⁽ ābad),47 and a second, abstract nominal “service” (⁽ ăbōdâ):48

Figure 1: Occurrances of the ⁽ -b-d Root in Exodus

The largest grouping of terms collect at the beginning of the narrative. The next large cluster occurs around and within the law collection (chs. 20–24), and the third noteworthy grouping falls in the account of the construction of the tabernacle in chapters 35–40.

In Exodus the root has a significant second meaning: it can also be translated as “to worship,” and often both meanings are intended. For example, following chapters 2–3 where the narrator has taken pains to stress the oppressive service under Pharaoh, God assures Moses: “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship (or serve; ⁽ ābad) God on this mountain” (3:12). Similarly, God instructs Moses on the demand to be made to Pharaoh: “Let my son go that he may worship (⁽ ābad) me” (4:23).49 This command (and variations thereof) appears throughout the plague narrative (7:16, 26; 8:16; 9:1, 13; and 10:3) so that it becomes quite clear that God’s purposes for bringing Israel out are wrapped up in worship. After Moses and Aaron’s initial meeting with Pharaoh to deliver God’s directives, Pharaoh responds by inflicting harder service (⁽ ăbōdâ) on the Israelites (5:9, 11, 18).50 The exchanges between Pharaoh and Moses continue to revolve around the question, “Whom will Israel serve/worship—Pharaoh or God?”

The narrative from the beginning, then, frames the liberation event within the larger contours of worship/service. While still in Egypt Israel begins to fulfill this aim of true worship/service: the community worships upon Moses’ return (4:31) and at the end of the first Passover in preparation for the tenth plague (12:27). The Egyptians as well are involved in the elaboration on the theme of worship. Though it is an overstatement to say that the Egyptians become worshipers of God, the narrative nevertheless traces God’s desire for them to acknowledge the Lord as the one true God (e.g., 5:2; 7:5, 17; 8:22; 9:14; 10:3, 16; 14:4, 18).51

Worship takes center stage in the book on the other side of the Red Sea. The Songs of Moses and Miriam summon Israel to a collective liturgical recital of God’s victory over the powers of darkness at the Sea. Fretheim observes that this liturgical act underscores the integral role that Israel’s worship plays in accomplishing God’s purposes in the exodus (and his salvific work more generally). Besides expressing gratitude, Israel’s praise testifies before the world that God has done what he said he would do. Thus, Israel’s worship in a significant way participates in and contributes to the purpose of the exodus as articulated in 9:16: “so that my name may be proclaimed throughout all the earth.”52 And at the mountain, just as God promised Moses in 3:12, the Israelites worship God (24:1, 10) after the covenant ceremony.

Exodus emphasizes the movement from one “service” to another to make the point that God “is not merely intent on liberating slaves but on reclaiming worshipers”53—“worshipers” understood as a quintessence of what it means for Israel as a new nation to embody God’s agenda. As Pleins notes, “To truly realize the exodus trajectory, the text points toward the ultimate purpose of such a freeing: The community must find a way to structure itself ritually and legally so that an enduring community might function in the wilderness and beyond.”54 Such a transition necessitates that Israel is schooled in the practice of right service/worship. Egyptian service is in opposition to the service God has bequeathed to humankind from the beginning (Gen 2:15), a service defined by the limits of Sabbath (Gen 2:2–3; cf. Exod 20:8–11; 31:17). Ellen Davis points out that it is no coincidence that the first mention of Sabbath comes in Pharaoh’s first speech to Moses: “And Pharaoh said, ‘Behold, the people of the land are now many, and you make them rest from their burdens [you would give-them-sabbath (wĕhišbattem)]!’ ” (5:5). Davis asserts that Exodus narrates a counter-proposal for good service rightly ordered in the construction of the tabernacle (chs. 35–40), a service that attends to Sabbath rest from the beginning (35:2).55 She concludes: “Building a sanctuary and keeping Sabbath have the same aim: namely, worship, intimacy with God.”56

Finally, all of these interwoven strands prepare for the tabernacle account that dominates the latter half of Exodus (chs. 25–40). If the book of Exodus has a principal climax, it is arguably neither the dramatic sea crossing nor the delivery of the law at Sinai, but the descent of God’s presence in the tabernacle (ch. 40) that is the finale of the book. The narrative draws multiple verbal and thematic parallels between the construction of the tabernacle and God’s creation of the world.57 Thus, the construction of the tabernacle is presented not just as the climax of Exodus but as the culmination of God’s work begun in creation. Here, in the tabernacle, God’s hopes for humankind’s true worship/service are “recreated.”58 That this task is so central to their identity and societal formation is a point of Exod 32–34, where the people forfeit this vocation, worship falsely at the foot of the mountain, and stymie (momentarily) God’s larger intentions. Neither liberation nor the law is the clear telos of the book; rather, they are necessary prerequisites for the formation of a worshiping community with the presence of God in its midst. God answered Israel’s cry for help in order to transform her oppressive service into expressive, world-forming, world-resounding worship. God articulates this goal from the beginning, and the book concludes with the community gathered around the proper aim for their affection.

Conclusion and Implications

The exodus liberated Israel from oppression but more enduringly bequeathed to her a peculiar identity rooted in that deliverance. God freed Israel, but God’s redemptive actions were preceded by a deep identification with Israel’s suffering. God’s intimacy with Israel before and through the exodus taught Israel what was to be her own posture toward the powerless and vulnerable in her midst. Her concern for the poor was not unique in the ancient Near East, but her theological rationale for it was: her redemption informed her ethic. Moreover, her redemption was tied from the beginning to God’s desire to bring out a people who would worship/serve as a paradigm of God’s creative intent. Whatever one says about Israel’s theological appropriation of her experience in Exodus, then, is interwoven with her subsequent emergence as an alternative society. In short, Exodus is as much about an entrance as it is an exit; there is not one without the other. And what Israel is called to enter into is a community that orders its life by the orienting practice of worship of the one true Lord. This movement from God’s compassionate concern for the oppressed in Egypt to the rightly ordered community of Israel worshiping the Lord is not a sequential drama with discrete acts and scenes. Rather, God’s concern for Israel from the beginning tied liberation and sacred service together.

The theology of Exodus yields valuable insights into Christian participation in the missio Dei. I briefly highlight two implications for mission that flow directly out of my analysis. First, the church as a covenant community of Yhwh cannot ignore the plight of the poor. Just as with Israel, a denial or avoidance of an intimate empathy with and compassion for the poor is a fundamental betrayal of Christian identity, which is rooted in vulnerability and powerlessness (cf. Rom 5:6–8). Following the paradigm of God’s desires evident in Exodus, the church understands mission to embrace the whole of human misery, especially in relationship to the marginalized (cf. Luke 4:17–19). The people of God do not neglect the economic, political, and social aspects of life because they recognize God’s profound interests in these areas.59 Study of the book of Exodus, perhaps more than any other book in Scripture, can deepen Christians’ theological acumen of the centrality of the poor in Scripture.60 In short, it demonstrates how care of the poor is seamlessly woven into the fabric of the missio Dei. Indeed, such concern is at the heart of the missio Dei.

A second implication follows from the fact that an exodus-shaped concern for the poor is tethered theologically and teleologically to the desire for the formation of Yhwh-worshiping communities. In many public spaces it is increasingly becoming socially and politically acceptable to call for a more rigorous justice and support of the poor. In some Christian conversations, a (re)vivification of this notion in Scripture has motivated congregations and mission points to engage in various social ministries and/or humanitarian efforts. Christians can certainly welcome this revival of interest. Nevertheless, a Christian ethic toward the poor, in addition to being motivated by theology, should ultimately be liturgically and ecclesially oriented if it is to remain distinctively biblical. I am not suggesting that Christian love of neighbor be somehow contingent on the neighbor’s participation in some aspect of the church life. Nor am I implying that Christian compassion be viewed through the framework of “pre-evangelism.” Yet, the theology of Exodus raises caution against a practice of mission that does not give due regard for the neighbor’s redemptive integration into the worshiping life of the local congregation. Yhwh’s concern for the poor is deep, so deep that he desires for all, especially the most vulnerable, to experience just, neighborly community rightly formed (and continually reforming) by true worship. Further, it is foremost in the witness of worship/service, in both liturgy and deed, whereby God’s people respond to and engage with God’s missional agenda to make his glory abound in all the earth.

Appendix A: The Poor in the Literature of Israel

Each genre of the Hebrew canon includes information relevant to comprehending how Israel viewed her poor. The theme is so pervasive in the Hebrew Bible that to address every noteworthy contribution of each genre is beyond the bounds of this appendix.61 Nevertheless, I include below significant contributions of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings on the care of the poor in Israel.

The Torah

The concern for the poor is nowhere more visible in the Torah than in Israel’s law collections.62 These collections in their present form derive from different time periods and compilers and editors, thereby reflecting different social situations.63 The study of the evolution of these law collections reveals a certain amount of development over time, but the same motif of attentiveness to persons on the margins of society is common to them all.64 For instance,65 the law forbids the general mistreatment of the vulnerable (in these contexts, namely, the widow, orphan, and sojourner) and issues a call to care for them (Exod 22:21–22; 23:9; Deut 10:19; Lev 19:33–34; 24:22). Israel’s law also forbids specific actions that would take advantage of the poor, such as taking a garment as a pledge (Exod 22:26; Deut 24:17), charging interest on a loan to a poor person (Exod 22:25; similarly Deut 23:19–20; Lev 25:35–37), or depriving the poor of fair measure on a sale or on land (Deut 19:14; 25:13–15; 27:17; Lev 19:35–36). The biggest concern evidenced in the law, however, is the demand for justice for the poor in court (Exod 23:1–3, 6, 8; Deut 1:17; 16:19; 19:15–21; 24:17–19; Lev 19:15).66

In addition to prohibiting the exploitation of the powerless, the law made provision for both the feeding and freeing (in the case of slaves) of such groups. The instruction regarding the Sabbatical Year (Exod 23:10–11) directed that every seventh year the land was to remain fallow in order that the  ⁾ ebyônim could gather food from it. Variations of this command to allow the poor to benefit from a plot of land not their own are attested in Deut 24:19–22 and Lev 19:9–10 and 23:22. Similar to the Sabbatical Year and its analogous counterparts is the institution of the Jubilee Year (Lev 25). This law requires both the return of property to the original owner and the release of Hebrew bondservants.67 Regardless of the actual implementation of these commands in Israel, the fact that her law collections include such measures indicates that Israel understood her responsibility for the welfare of the poor among her.68

The laws relating to the sojourner demand additional attention. As mentioned above, the sojourner was characteristically vulnerable to exploitation and oppression along with the widow and orphan. Thus, the law provided for his protection (Exod 22:21; 23:9; Lev 19:10, 34; 23:22; 25:6; Deut 10:18–19; 14:29; 24:14, 17). Some scholars postulate that these particular provisions for the sojourner reflect the measures taken by Solomon and others to protect the cheap labor force needed for building projects.69 However, a declaration reminding the Israelites to remember their own experience in Egypt when dealing with the sojourner follows many of the commands concerning the sojourner in the text.70 This fact, when considered alongside the unique interest of Israel for the sojourner’s plight, leads most naturally to a theological justification for such laws.71 Thus, the concern for the sojourner is consistent with and revealing of Israel’s self-understanding operating out of the exodus paradigm.

Deuteronomy 15 provides possibly the clearest statement on Israel’s call to aid the poor.72 The passage first expresses the ideal that “there shall be no poor among you” (v. 4). Farther along the passage acknowledges that “there will always be poor among you” (v. 11). The biblical call for the care of the poor commands the elimination of such conditions but realizes the systemic nature of its existence.73 Israel’s laws do not try to rationalize the existence of the poor in her midst; instead, they recognize the effects of humanity’s sin in the social sphere.74 These affirmations pertaining to the responsibility of Israel for her poor indicates that her concern was more than altruism. Her interest could be described in concrete terms.75 Therefore, the law collections contained within the Torah demonstrate a major concern for the poor in Israel.

The Prophets

The Latter Prophets76 include many statements calling for social justice. In fact, their contributions to the issues of social justice are the most striking in the biblical literature. The eighth century, the period in which classical prophecy began, was a time of negative social change.77 Israel experienced relative peace and prosperity, while the gap between the rich and the poor widened. This, in turn, produced an environment conducive to social injustices.78 Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah each contribute to an exposé of contemporary Israelite society vis-à-vis social justice.79 These prophets decried Israel’s lack of commitment to justice and righteousness and aimed their message at the government as well as individuals.80 They operated out of Israel’s covenantal traditions, calling the nation to live according to its Torah.81

The prophetic literature contains numerous descriptions of problems within society and records appeals that would affect change. When the pre-exilic prophets became specific in their accusations about social injustices, they recalled the same issues addressed by Israel’s laws pertaining to the treatment of the poor.82 The prophets did not think that these exhortations were an appeal for charity; rather, they understood that the community was responsible for the well-being of every member of society.83 Although Zechariah prophesied in the post-exilic period, he offers a succinct summary of the social message of the prophets. He proclaims that Israel should “render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another . . . [should] not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor . . . [nor] devise evil in [their] hearts against one another. ” (7:9–10). The commands that Zechariah gives describe the Old Testament social ideal of a covenant community.84 The fervor for social justice exhibited by the prophets is unmatched in the literature of the ancient Near East, and as such should not be mistaken for propaganda. On the contrary, their words reflect a commitment toward the covenantal concern of the poor.85

The Writings

Israel’s liturgy, as contained in the Psalter, supplied an abundant resource that reminded her of God’s interest in the plight of the poor.86 The Psalms address God’s concern for the poor more than any other aspect of social justice.87 They give voice to both individual and communal laments, hymns, and prayers that express physical and spiritual needs to God. Frequently, the psalmist maintains faith in God’s willingness and ability to vindicate situations of injustice.88 In her worship Israel constantly encountered the fact that the God she proclaimed was continually attentive to the situations of the poor.89 The language of the poor in Psalms reflects concrete social and political realities.90 However, the portrayal of the neediness of the poor often merges with and corresponds to an inner spiritual disposition of neediness before God.91 Thus, an understanding that the individual and the nation possessed a universal religious need for God is also present in the Psalms.

Israel’s worship encouraged her to re-examine God’s call for a community committed to social justice. In other words, the Psalms are “self-critiquing rather than self-legitimizing” for Israel’s understanding of every aspect of life.92 Psalm 112 describes the lifestyle of righteous people who are “gracious, merciful, and righteous . . . deal generously and lend. . . [and] have distributed freely, . . . have given to the poor” (vv. 4, 5, 9). Such actions parallel the character of God described in the previous Psalm 111. Psalm 82 declares God to be the only true God among the other gods of the nations because of his primary concern for the well-being of the poor and oppressed (v. 3). Israel’s king also legitimated his throne with a similar claim. Psalm 72 asserts that the king’s rule is dependent upon his interest for justice and compassion upon the poor.93 In general, the Psalms prompt Israel in worship to remember her self-understanding before God and realize how her behavior should mirror God’s concern for the poor.94

The Proverbs articulate similar sentiments regarding the care of the poor. Israel’s Wisdom literature95 appears to lack connection to the covenant relationship between Yhwh and Israel. However, the wisdom tradition does involve a theological perspective that demonstrates a connection between Israel’s daily experience and her worship of God as creator and redeemer.96 Moreover, the Wisdom literature’s treatment of social issues does not represent a conflicting viewpoint on the poor.97 The Proverbs do not attempt to explain the reason for poverty but give grounds for why a person should work. This fact makes understandable the seeming discrepancy between the Proverbs and the rest of the biblical witness on these matters.98 In fact, most proverbs advocate generosity toward the poor99 and concern for social justice.100 Justice is arguably a primary theme of the entire book (Prov 1:3), and God’s concern for justice is the theological underpinning of Proverbs’ statements about social issues.101 The Proverbs attest that God, who is creator of all humanity, demands kindness, compassion, and justice toward the powerless members of society.102

Appendix B: Who Are the “Poor” in the Hebrew Bible?

The semantic field of words used in the Hebrew Bible to describe the “poor” and their condition is wide.103 This overview does not exhaust the nuances and usages of every word. Rather, here I provide a brief discussion of the main terms that are typically translated by the English word “poor” and suggest an essential meaning for each. It is recognized that such generalizations do not hold for every usage in each context. In addition, my overview includes the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner because their life situations are representative of those who comprised the poor in Israel. I will conclude by positing that powerlessness and vulnerability are fundamental markers of the “poor” in the Hebrew Bible.

Several Hebrew words are frequently translated “poor” in the English Bible.  ⁾ ebyôn (61 times) commonly describes the economically or legally distraught (i.e., the destitute). The  ⁾ ebyônim were day laborers who depended solely upon the good will of others for daily sustenance.104 A second term, dal (48 times), connotes the small landowners who because of their vulnerability105 often fell victim to political and/or economic exploitation at the hands of powerful.106 A third term, ⁽ ānî, is the most common term in the Hebrew Bible used to denote the “poor” (80 times). ⁽ Ānî107 means “humble, needy, or afflicted” by difficult circumstances and describes the economically exploited as well as the oppressed person.108 The fourth term, maḥsôr (13 times), primarily occurs in Proverbs and represents those who lack material goods.109 The fifth term is miskēn (4 times), found only in Ecclesiastes; it is a late Hebrew word meaning simply poor.110 The final term is rāš (22 times) and refers to the economically and politically inferior. It appears mainly in wisdom texts.111 This overview of the Hebrew words translated “poor” and “poverty” leads to two conclusions. First, the condition described denotes economic hardship and the lack of material resources. Second, the “poor” are also politically disadvantaged and often experience oppression.112 These are the quintessential characteristics of the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner.

A recurrent theme in the Hebrew Bible pertinent to defining the “poor” involves care for the widow, orphan, and sojourner.113 The Law and the Prophets in particular single out these three groups as in need of special attention due to their position of vulnerability.114 The situations in which these groups found themselves normally were a result of inadvertent circumstances, and regularly their plight was permanent.115 The widow ( ⁾ almānâ) possessed no association, or kinship ties, with a male figure commonly held responsible for her maintenance (husband, father-in-law, brothers, or sons). In the absence of male kin, she lost her economic and social well-being and faced a life of alienation and poverty.116 The orphan’s (yātôm) circumstances were similar. A yātôm was fatherless and unable to support him/herself.117 Finally, the gēr118 identifies a resident immigrant given some protection under the law.119 Despite being able to work, the gēr’s predicament was one of uncertainty and vulnerability, often characterized by poverty, because he too had precarious links with the social structure.120 Taken together, these three groups constituted a subset of Israelite society dependent upon the goodwill and compassion of their neighbors and vulnerable to oppression.121

The English term “poor” fails to portray the array of nuances of the Hebrew words. “Poor” denotes primarily economic concepts. However, as demonstrated above, the various Hebrew terms allow a broader sphere of interpretation which includes economic, political, and social aspects. The words translated “poor”—exemplified by the widow, orphan, and sojourner—reflect the vast majority of the Israelite powerless. The lack of economic resources, social status, and respect, combined with vulnerability to exploitation and the inability to reverse the situation, comprise the full range of an individual’s “poverty” in Israel. In a few words, powerlessness and vulnerability describe the poor of the Hebrew Scriptures.122 Powerlessness caused the poor only to fall into deeper poverty. The ability to survive their vulnerable positions depended on the generosity of neighbors and their faithfulness to the Torah.

Nathan Bills is a ThD student at Duke Divinity School. His focus is in Old Testament, and he is particularly interested in the intersection of Old Testament theology, ecclesiology, and communities of poverty. After his program Nathan will serve on the Bible faculty of Lipscomb University, where he anticipates teaching and living in this intersection. You can contact Nathan at


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1 For example, in a short prologue to his epic production, The Ten Commandments (1956), Cecil B. DeMille stresses freedom as the leitmotiv of the movie. Similarly, the DreamWorks animated blockbuster, The Prince of Egypt (1998), locates the climax at the crossing of the Red Sea. The movie soon concludes rather abruptly with the children awaiting Moses’ return from Mount Sinai, with no coverage of the events from the Red Sea to Sinai.

2 See for example Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, trans. and ed. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988), esp. ch. 9. J. David Pleins, The Social Visions of the Hebrew Bible: A Theological Introduction (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2001), 156–78, provides a critical review of how the exodus narrative has been appropriated by liberation theologians.

3 Gutiérrez, xxv–xxviii; Daniel G. Groody, ed., The Option for the Poor in Christian Theology (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007).

4 See the exchange between Jewish scholar Jon Levenson and liberationist Jorge Pixley in Alice Ogden Bellis and Joel S. Kaminsky, eds., Jews, Christians, and the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures, Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series 8, (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000), 215–46, for a window into some of the issues involved. See also Norbert F. Lohfink, Option for the Poor: The Basic Principle of Liberation Theology in the Light of the Bible, ed. Duane L. Christensen, trans. Linda M. Maloney, 2nd. ed. Berkeley Lecture Series 1 (North Richland Hills, TX: BIBAL, 1995).

5 See Appendix A. I suggest that Israel’s ubiquitous concern for the underprivileged throughout her canon is best explained as a trajectory of the exodus.

6 For an introduction to this discussion, see F. Charles Fensham, “Widow, Orphan, and the Poor in Ancient Near Eastern Legal and Wisdom Literature,” JNES 21, no. 2 (April 1962): 129–39; Moshe Weinfeld, Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995); Herbert Niehr, “The Constitutive Principles for Establishing Justice and Order in Northwest Semitic Societies with Special Reference to Ancient Israel and Judah,” ZABR (1997): 112–30. Most recently, David L. Baker, Tight Fists or Open Hands? Wealth and Poverty in Old Testament Law (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), has given extensive treatment of Israel’s laws on wealth and poverty in relationship to the ancient Near East.

7 The distinctiveness of Israel’s social ethics in her cultural milieu is a point of dispute among scholars. It is undeniable that Israel shared many of the “constitutive principles” of justice and righteousness with her neighbors (see previous note), but to what extent was her particular theology definitive for her practice? Many recent commentators are quite pessimistic that Israel’s social legislation represents much else than an ideological power struggle masquerading in the altruistic garb of religion (e.g., Pleins, Social Visions; Harold V. Bennett, Injustice Made Legal: Deuteronomic Law and the Plight of Widows, Strangers, and Orphans in Ancient Israel, The Bible in Its World [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002]. For a levelheaded attempt to exegete the complexity of motives behind various ethical texts, see Walter J. Houston, Contending for Justice: Ideologies and Theologies of Social Justice in the Old Testament, rev. ed. [New York: T&T Clark, 2008]). Often, such positions presuppose that the exodus and legal narratives are late, fictitious constructions.

For this paper I will presuppose that the historical texts relating the early history of Israel contain authentic, though heavily edited, information about the pre-monarchic era. My argument will provide evidence that it is sensible to trace Israel’s social ethics back to her historical experience in the exodus. Jon D. Levenson, “Poverty and the State in Biblical Thought,” Judaism 25, no. 2 (Spring 1976): 230, wisely contends that “the historical dimension is especially important, for, in the religion of Biblical Israel, history is the mother of theology.” He goes on to assert that Israel’s historical experience in the exodus was so formative for her traditions that where parallels exist between her norms and other societies, they “must not be confused.” Similarity of content between Israel’s laws and other ancient Near Eastern law collections is undeniable. What is contestable, though, is that Israel’s (self) understanding represents a fundamental and thereby substantially distinctive tradition in comparison to her contemporaries precisely because of her theology. My argument does not stand or fall with such dating. Rather, it seems reasonable from a canonical perspective to conclude that the compilers of the canon surely intended the exodus to be understood as a theological watershed event that shaped Israel and her subsequent legislation.

8 For a fuller treatment, see Appendix B.

9 All citations of the biblical text are taken from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

10 In this section I will only transliterate the lexical stems of words. In the Hebrew Bible the verb for cry (zā⁽ aq), which occurs here, and its nominal form (ṣĕ⁽ āqâ), which occurs in 3:7, frequently denote cries for help in the context of acute situations of injustice or suffering; see A. Konkel, “זָעַק ,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 3:827–30. As such it is usually a cry that is directed either implicitly or explicitly to someone who can provide relief. Thomas B. Dozeman, Exodus, Eerdmans Critical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 93, notes that the lack of an inobject for the Israelite’s cry is unusual and “underscores the anguish of their situation and most likely their lack of knowledge of God.” For a comprehensive account of the “cry” in the Hebrew Bible, see Richard Nelson Boyce, The Cry to God in the Old Testament, Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 103 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988).

11 In Exod 1:20 God is said to have dealt kindly with the midwives who opposed Pharaoh’s genocidal policy; but it is ambiguous whether the midwives are Israelite or Egyptian. For discussion see Dozeman.

12 In the Hebrew there is no object for the last verb, though most translations supply one. The reader is left to speculate what exactly God knew until God supplies an answer in 3:7.

13 God’s compassion for the cry against injustice is not necessarily a new development. God has already demonstrated a similar response to the crying out (ṣā⁽ aq) of Abel’s blood (Gen 4:10) and the outcry of injustice (ṣĕ⁽ āqâ) against the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:21; 19:13).

14 Terence E. Fretheim, “יָדַע,” NIDOTTE, 2:410–11. See also Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1991), 60: “God does not look at the suffering from the outside as through a window; God knows it from the inside. God is internally related to the suffering, entering fully into the oppressive situation and making it God’s own.”

15 Bruce C. Birch, et al., A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 112. The authors’ words are worth noting: “Such a radical divine identification with human suffering and the plight of the dispossessed at the heart of Israel’s birth story makes understandable the constant return throughout the canon to themes of God’s special regard for the powerless, the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized.”

16 Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 180, identifies this as the “most radical of all of Israel’s testimony about Yahweh.”

17 A theme that I will not emphasize here but one that is heavily stressed (too heavily, in my opinion) by Leslie J. Hoppe, There Shall Be No Poor Among You: Poverty in the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004), esp. 18, 21–24 is that of the origin of poverty and oppression. The exodus roots Israel’s suffering in the choices of the powerful Pharaoh. Poverty, Hoppe believes, is consistently presented in the Bible as a result of the conscious decisions of the powerful. Thus, God’s actions in the exodus were also to teach the Israelites that poverty is maintained by the abuse of power and is not primarily a “natural” condition. God overcomes the Egyptian powers because they are built upon the unjust exercise of power by the privileged (cf. Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination[Minneapolis: Fortress, 1978], 19ff.). Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2004), 169–71, gives a succinct overview of the causes of poverty in the Old Testament. He rightly observes that the Bible recognizes that poverty can have natural or self-inflicted causes, but that by far the most widespread cause is oppression.

18 Indeed, in language that seems almost out of place, God details the consequences for breaking this command: “If you do abuse them . . . my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans” (22:23–24).

19 Samuel E. Balentine, The Torah’s Vision of Worship, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 132–33.

20 Brueggemann, Theology, 184, 199, 611. Bernhard W. Anderson, Contours of Old Testament Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 148, asserts that the exodus and Sinai traditions belong together for this reason.

21 The Hebrew root is  ⁾ -b-d, perhaps better translated “perishing,” emphasizing the vulnerable nature of the ancestry of the Israelites.

22 Cf. Num 20:14–21.

23 Levenson, 231.

24 Wright, Old Testament Ethics, 174; italics original.

25 Ibid., 175.

26 Brueggemann, Prophetic Imagination, 16, notes the social reality to which Israel is called must have a theological origin to explain adequately its revolutionary character.

27 Brueggemann, Theology, 193. The cliché “God’s preferential option for the poor” used to summarize the Bible’s treatment of the poor overlooks God’s larger concern for justice. See Walter Vogels, “Biblical Theology for the ‘Haves’ and the ‘Have-Nots,’ ” Science et Esprit 39 (1987): 192–210, for a thought-provoking suggestion that the conquest provides a way to talk about God on the side of the oppressor as well.

28 A point stressed by Brueggemann, Theology, 461–62. He cites four passages as evidence: Ezek 34:3–4, 14–16; Isa 58:6–7; Job 31:5–39; Ps 112:5, 9. Baker’s study demonstrates that Israel is much more “aggressive” in her pursuit of the community’s good (and particularly the good of its weaker members) than are her contemporaries.

29 Exhibit A is the commotion caused by Fox News pundit Glenn Beck’s outrageous claims that “social justice” was a code word for socialistic politics. A variety of responses from Christian leaders, which offers a window into the discussion in America, is conveniently gathered together at the web forum “On Faith” located at

30 This is no small question, for what is at stake is how one understands the role of election of the Jewish people in the biblical drama. Jon Levenson rightly calls out interpretations that ignore the chosenness of Israel as anti-Jewish and effectively unbiblical (see his two essays, “Liberation Theology and the Exodus” and “The Perils of Engaged Scholarship: A Rejoiner to Jorge Pixley,” in Bellis and Kaminsky, 215–30 and 239–46, respectively). On the other hand, Pleins, Social Visions, 170–75, believes that fully appreciating the nationalistic dimensions of the text finally usurps any ability of the text to address contexts of social liberation. In my opinion, Pleins reads far too much of his own postmodern power ideology into the text to merit his conclusion, though he appropriately notes the nationalistic context present in the text. The issues are multiple here. For the purpose of this essay, I will only present a way to read Exodus that does not dismiss the chosenness of Israel, although admittedly does not deal fully with it either.

31 I am here borrowing language from the helpful discussion of Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 272–75. Wright points to Gen 18:20–21 as previous context in which the outcry against injustice causes God to act among a non-elect people. I might add that the covenant with Abraham is equally present in this text as well (vv. 18–19).

32 Though Amos 9:7 stunningly suggests that the exodus for Israel is not unique.

33 Wright, The Mission of God, 274. Wright briefly discusses other texts where the exodus motif is evoked as the background for God’s judgment against injustice both for and against Israel, and then concludes: “All these affirmations about God, made at the time of the exodus, are repeated elsewhere in universalizing contexts. So although the exodus stands as a unique and unrepeatable event in the history of the Old Testament Israel, it also stands as a paradigmatic and highly repeatable model for the way God wishes to act in the world, and will ultimately act for the whole creation” (275).

34 Fretheim, Exodus, 24–26.

35 There are other variants of this in 7:5; 8:10, 22; 9:14, 29.

36 Arguably, God’s first words to Israel at Sinai (Exod 19:4–6) couch Israel’s existence as a priestly people whose work is to mediate God’s blessings to the whole earth by becoming a distinctive counter community. By her practices Israel provides a paradigmatic picture of God’s intentions for the entire world. Granted, this centripetal movement is not at the forefront in Exodus (cf. Deut 4:6–8). However, Second Isaiah obviously saw in the exodus a pattern that could be extended and applied to the world stage. Isaiah explicitly calls Israel God’s “witness” to the nations of the transformation of the world (42:3–6; 49:6; 51:4–5; 55:4–5). I suggest that what Isaiah prophesied about Israel’s future is latent in Israel’s past experience of the exodus (see Lohfink, 53–58).

37 Fretheim, Exodus, 58–62. The Song of Moses (Exod 15) celebrates the exodus in such transhistorical terms. The historical events are magnified by cosmological language of creation. Cf. Pss 74:11–17; 89:8–13; Isa 51:9–11. On the “cosmologization” of the exodus, see Bernard F. Batto, Slaying the Dragon: Mythmaking in the Biblical Tradition (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), ch. 4.

38 Birch et al., 107. See Exod 9:14, 16.

39 Ibid., 120.

40 Brueggemann, Prophetic Imagination, 17–18. He further states that an understanding of Israel in any terms other than a call to “alternative social reality” is wrongheaded.

41 Enrique Nardoni, Rise Up, O Judge: A Study of Justice in the Biblical World, trans. Seán Charles Martin (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 59–60: “By virtue of God’s presence, the Exodus event transcends its supposed facticity and becomes a foundational event, a memorial, and a paradigm of liberation. One might even say that the biblical Exodus is not a paradigm in itself, rather it is the application of a paradigm—the fight of the God of order against the power of chaos. Since the Exodus from Egypt is, however, the event par excellence that embodies the extension of creative action into history, one could say that it is paradigmatic for any possible later Exodus. In fact, the mythical battle that pervades the narrative gives it a suprahistorical dimension, and it makes it applicable to similar situations. Moreover, since the struggle is that of God the creator against the power of chaos and because all people come from the hands of the same creator, the lessons of Exodus can be extended to all people who suffer the tragedy of oppression in its diverse forms.”

42 See nn. 6 and 7 above.

43 Lohfink, 20.

44 Most recently, in his judicious and thorough treatment of the laws on wealth and poverty, Baker, esp. 307–15, demonstrates that while Israel’s laws overlap substantially with other ancient Near Eastern laws, Israel’s laws go beyond most other ancient Near Eastern collections particularly in the responsibility for humane treatment of the most vulnerable of society and the “rights” conferred on such individuals.

45 Lohfink, 32–33.

46 Exod 4:10; 5:15–16, 21; 7:10, 20, 28–29; 8:5, 7, 17, 20, 25, 27; 9:14, 20–21, 30, 34; 10:1, 6–7; 11:3, 8; 12:30, 44; 13:3, 14; 14:5, 31; 20:2, 10, 17; 21:2, 5, 7, 20, 26–27, 32; 32:13.

47 Exod 1:13–14; 3:12; 4:23; 5:18; 6:5; 7:16, 26; 8:16; 9:1, 13; 10:3, 7–8, 11, 24, 26; 12:31; 13:5; 14:5, 12; 20:5, 9; 21:2, 6; 23:24–25, 33; 34:21.

48 Exod 1:14; 2:23; 5:9, 11; 6:6, 9; 12:25–26; 13:5; 27:19; 30:16; 35:21, 24; 36:1, 3, 5; 38:21; 39:32, 40, 42.

49 Interestingly, it is not until 7:16 that Moses makes this explicit request to Pharaoh. On his first visit Moses changes (softens? disguises?) the demand: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness’ ” (5:1). William H. C. Propp, Exodus 1–18: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible, vol. 2 (New Haven: Yale, 1999), 207, notes that there is evidence for Egyptians giving their workers week long vacations for religious holidays, so that Moses’ initial request could have sounded reasonable to Pharaoh (though Moses says nothing about a return).

50 Propp, 257, nicely accents the irony of 5:18: Pharaoh dismisses the complaining Israelites without compassion: “Go, work.” Pharaoh will utter that exact phrase when he finally gives in to Moses’ full demands: “Go, worship” (12:31).

51 Donald E. Gowan, Theology of the Prophetic Books: The Death and Resurrection of Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1998), 137.

52 Fretheim, Exodus, 163–64.

53 Wright, Mission of God, 270.

54 Pleins, Social Visions, 162.

55 Ellen F. Davis, “Slaves or Sabbath Keepers? A Biblical Perspective on Human Work,” ATR 83 (2001). See Balentine, ch. 5, for an astute discussion on the relationship of Sabbath, creation, and worship. In a personal communication, Dr. Davis also pointed out to me that it is significant that the slaves of Israel’s community were specifically included in the Sabbath legislation (Exod 23:12).

56 Davis, 83.

57 See Balentine, 136–41.

58 To take one example of how a liberationist-centered interpretation of Exodus is shortsighted, Gutiérrez’s reading fails to see that one of its principal concerns, namely, a liberated Israel who can freely “shape their own political destiny,” finds in the construction of the tabernacle the epitome of such a “world building” activity (35:20–36:8).

59 The interplay of worship and service should cause us to hesitate with categories that bifurcate the focus of God’s salvation. For example, the dichotomization of mission into spiritual or physical, soul or body, is an unhelpful way to frame mission talk because it is finally unbiblical.

60 On the issue of the Old Testament’s contribution to missional practice more generally, it is widely recognized that David Bosch’s seminal Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series 16 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), gives scant attention to the Old Testament as a resource for missional theology. Unfortunately, his approach is largely illustrative of the discipline as a whole; see the discussion of Stephen B. Chapman and Laceye C. Warner, “Jonah and the Imitation of God: Rethinking Evangelism and the Old Testament,” Journal for Theological Interpretation 2 (2008): 43–51. More than anyone else, Chris Wright’s 2006 volume, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, is moving the Old Testament back into the center of the conversation. I heartily recommend his chapters on Exodus and Jubilee as a place to begin re-envisioning how the Old Testament proves most fertile for a theology of mission.

61 Several recent book-length studies survey the immense breadth of this theme in Scripture: Pleins, Social Visions; Hoppe; Nardoni; Bruce V. Malchow, Social Justice in the Hebrew Bible: What is New and What is Old (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996). A succinct article length treatment is provided by Mignon R. Jacobs, “Toward an Old Testament Theology of Concern for the Underprivileged,” in Reading the Hebrew Bible for a New Millennium: Form, Concept, and Theological Perspective, ed. Wonil Kim et al., Studies in Antiquity and Christianity (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000), 1:205–29.

62 The Book of the Covenant (Exod 21–23), the Deuteronomic Code (Deut 12–26), and the Holiness Code (Lev 17–26) constitute the three basic law collections of Israel. The most thorough study on this issue is Baker.

63 See Martin J. Selman, “Law” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 500–8, for an overview of the different opinions regarding the origins of the law collections.

64 Richard D. Patterson, “The Widow, the Orphan, and the Poor in the Old Testament and Extra-Biblical Literature,” BSac 130, no. 519 (July–September 1973): 228.

65 This summary follows the succinct work of Malchow, “Social Justice in Israelite Law Codes,” WW 4, no. 3 (Summer 1984): 302–5.

66 Some of these Scripture citations do not specifically mention the poor, but the cry for fair justice nevertheless applies to such people. Moreover, the commands are likely directed to such situations because of life’s exigencies which render people vulnerable socially and economically (cf. Donald E. Gowan, “Wealth and Poverty in the Old Testament: The Case of the Widow, the Orphan, and the Sojourner,” Interpretation 41, no. 4 [October 1987]: 350).

67 For a discussion on the institution and practice of the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years with different conclusions, see Stephen A. Kaufman, “A Reconstruction of the Social Welfare Systems of Ancient Israel,” in In the Shelter of Elyon: Essays on Ancient Palestinian Life and Literature in Honour of G. W. Ahlström, ed. W. Boyd Barrick and John R. Spencer, JSOT Supplement Series 31 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1984), 278–84; Baker, 77–94, 223–32; Houston, Contending for Justice, 191–204.

68 Brueggemann, Theology, 190; cf. Houston, Contending for Justice, 195–203.

69 C. G. Moucarry, “The Alien According to Torah,” Themelios, n.s., 14 (October–November 1988): 17–18; Mark Sneed, “Israelite Concern for the Alien, Orphan, and Widow: Altruism or Ideology?” Zeitschrift für Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 111, no. 4 (1999): 504. Christiana van Houten, The Alien in Israelite Law, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991): 161, says the evidence is not clear enough to determine if all sojourners were used for such projects. See her discussion on 158–78 for relevant information.

70 Exod 22:21; 23:9; Lev 19:34; Deut 10:18–19; 24:17.

71 Baker, 177, remarks that the ancient Near Eastern texts show no comparable interest in the sojourner.

72 John T. Willis, “Old Testament Foundations of Social Justice,” Restoration Quarterly 18, no. 2 (1975): 77.

73 Levenson, 236. He states succinctly that Israel is “fond of the poor, so fond as to be committed to their disappearance.” Houston, Contending for Justice, 180–88, sees a contradiction in this passage.

74 Houston, Contending for Justice, 180–88.

75 See Jeffries M. Hamilton, Social Justice and Deuteronomy: The Case for Deuteronomy 15, Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 136 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992), 135. His treatment of Deut 15 (pp. 99–138) is especially valuable in relating the exodus to the care for the poor (133), but is more significant in showing the centrality of Deut 15 to Israel’s testimony to Yhwh’s rule in the community. See additionally Brueggemann, Theology, 188, for commentary on the exodus paradigm in this passage.

76 The Jewish canon includes Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, and 1–2 Kings under the rubric of the Prophets. These books comprise the Former Prophets, and the Major and Minor Prophets (in the Protestant canon) comprise the Latter Prophets. J. David Pleins, “Poor, Poverty (OT),” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 5:413, notes that these narratives exhibit little interests in the social issues concerning the poor. The lack of vocabulary for the “poor” in these books leads him to this conclusion. He is right to conclude these narratives are less interested in the plight of the poor; but their interest in critiquing the kingship and subsequent foreign invasion is surely related (if not central) to understanding the concern over social issues related in the Latter Prophets. Furthermore, the Former Prophets are not completely silent on the issue. See 1 Sam 2:4–8; 8:3; 12:3–4; 2 Sam 11–12 (the David and Bathsheba narrative is a story about, among other matters, the abuse of power); 1 Kgs 17:8–16; 21:1–21; 22:1–28; 2 Kgs 4:1–7. Hoppe, 42, is closer to the mark: “If one focuses on the number of times words for ‘the poor’ appear in the Deuteronomistic History, one could conclude that the oppression of the poor and the need for a just society were not part of the Deuteronomist’s agenda. But that would be to misjudge the writer who wished to tell the story of how Israel acquired and then lost the land. What happened to the poor and the oppressed is at the heart of that story.” See his discussion on 42–67.

77 Stuart Love, “Failing to Do Justice: The Quandary of the Poor in Eighth Century Israel and Judah,” Leaven 1, no. 2 (1990): 11–12.

78 For an overview of different theories/models of the ancient social context that gave rise to the oppression, see Houston, Contending for Justice, ch. 2.

79 Amos 2:6–8; 3:9–10; 4:1; 5:7–12, 14–15, 24; 6:12; 8:4–6; Hos 4:2; 7:3–7, 16; 8:4–10; 10:6–15; 12:7; 13:10; Isa 1:17, 21–23; 3:14–15; 5:7–23; 10:1–27; Mic 2:1–5, 8–9; 3:1–3, 9–11; 6:8, 10–12; 7:3. This summary of verses follows Love, 13. Other prophets also have much to say about the plight of the poor. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel offer much on the subject, although they speak from different time periods. Their message concerning social justice is in harmony with the eighth century prophets. See, for example, Jer 5:26–29; 7:4–16; 22:2–3, 13–17; Ezek 18:5–9; 22:7–12. Cf. Houston, Contending for Justice, ch. 3.

80 Weinfeld, 8. See Ezek 18.

81 Gowan, Prophetic Books, 10. Ronald E. Clements, Prophecy and Tradition, Growing Points in Theology (Atlanta: John Knox: 1975), 55–56, says that the traditional view of the prophet was as a “spokesman of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel,” although he states that the eighth century prophets are silent on the issue of covenant. On the contrary, Anderson, 181, notes the covenantal language of these books leaves little doubt that they worked out of a covenantal understanding. See Amos 2:4; 3:1–2; Hos 1:9; 8:1; 11:1; 12:9, 13; 13:4; Jer 2:4–6, 8; 7:5–7. Cf. Houston, Contending for Justice, 93.

82 See, e.g., Amos 2:8; 5:12; Hos 12:7, Isa 5:23; 10:1–2; Mic 3: 9–11; 6:10–11.

83 Brueggemann, Theology, 645.

84 Gowan, “Wealth and Poverty,” 341, calls attention to this text.

85 Malchow, Social Justice, 47.

86 Rick R. Marrs, “Worship and Social Responsibility in the Psalms,” Leaven 1, no. 2 (1990): 6.

87 Malchow, Social Justice, 55. Many other psalms speak of the righteous activity of people who are imitating the character of God. See Pss 9:7–9, 16–18; 10:14, 17–18; 12:6; 15:5; 22:5; 35:10; 37:21; 40:17; 72:1–4,12–14; 82; 86:1–7, 15–16; 94:1–6, 15–17; 99:4; 102:17; 111:5; 113:7; 132:15–16; 146:7–9.

88 For example, Pss 10:14, 17–18; 34:7; 86:1–2; 140:12. Temba L. J. Mafico, “Just, Justice,” in ABD, 3:127–129.

89 McPolin, “Psalms as Prayers of the Poor,” in Back to the Sources: Biblical and Near Eastern Studies, ed. Kevin J. Cathcart and John F. Healey (Dublin: Glendale, 1989), 80.

90 These include economic disparity, political oppression, affliction, etc.

91 Hans-Joachim Kraus, Theology of the Psalms, trans. Keith Crim (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), 188–93.

92 Marrs, 9.

93 Walter J. Houston, “The King’s Preferential Option for the Poor: Rhetoric, Ideology and Ethics in Psalm 72,” BI 7, no. 4 (October 1999): 560, states that Psalm 72 harmonizes the interest of the kingship and the poor, but only at the expense of abolishing the doctrine of the divine right of kings. In other words, the psalm is no longer a text “intended to validate [the king’s] rule” as some scholars, who want to see only an elitist rhetoric in the appeal to do justice, would maintain. Rather, the text “becomes, because of its ethical foundations, a warning or challenge” to the king’s right to reign.

94 For a good example of how a psalm calls Israel into this understanding, see Walter Brueggemann, “Psalms 9–10: A Counter to Conventional Social Reality,” in The Bible and the Politics of Exegesis: Essays in Honor of Norman K. Gottwald on His Sixty-Fifth Birthday, ed. David Jobling, Peggy L. Day, and Gerald T. Sheppard (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 1991), 3–15.

95 Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes comprise Israel’s Wisdom literature. This discussion will revolve around Proverbs, but significant passages in Job and Ecclesiastes include Job 22:5–7; 29:11–17; 31:16–22; Eccl 4:1; 7:7.

96 Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 124. Murphy states that “the covenant relationship to the Lord does not figure in directly in the wisdom experience; it is bracketed, but not erased.” See chapter 8 for his fuller treatment. Anderson, 260, says that the sources of wisdom included the Torah. See Jer 8:8; 18:18.

97 Pleins, ABD 5:413, asserts that the parts of the Wisdom literature (Proverbs in particular) present a “divergent position,” reflecting an elitist tradition that regarded the laziness or judgment of God as the source of the condition of the poor (Prov 10:4; 13:18; 19:15). Roger N. Whybray, “Poverty, Wealth, and Point of View in Proverbs,” ET 100, no. 9 (June 1989): 332–36, questions this conclusion. He defends the view that the Proverbs offer a consistent view of the poor throughout.

98 In this way Gowan, “Wealth and Poverty,” 348, explains the proverbs that seem to say the condition of the poor is deserved. These proverbs are not justifying the conditions but encouraging diligence to stay out of such circumstances. This observation is in harmony with the Wisdom literature’s overall emphasis on daily life. Hoppe, 104–8, points to the elitist origin of much of Proverbs as the reason for its particular take on the poor. Proverbs that appear to blame the poor are better understood as warnings to sons of the wealthy against sloth and foolishness with resources.

99 Prov 11:24; 19:17; 22:9; 28:27.

100 Prov 13:23; 16:11; 19:5, 9, 28; 20:10, 23; 21:28; 22:22; 24:23–26; 28:21; 29:7, 14; 31:8–9.

101 Prov 11:1; 14:31; 15:25; 17:5; 19:17; 22:2, 22–23; 29:13.

102 Whybray, 335.

103 This analysis follows the work of Pleins, ABD 5:402–14. The order of words discussed corresponds to his treatment with the exception of the placement of ⁽ ānî. Also, the texts cited for each word usage are representative, not comprehensive.

104 Exod 23:6, 11; Deut 15:4, 7, 11; Isa 25:4; 29:19; Jer 2:34; 5:28; Amos 5:12, 8:4; Pss 9:19; 72:4; 107:41; 109:16; Prov 31:20; Job 24:14; 29:16; 31:19. Pleins, ABD 5:403–405; W. R. Domeris, “אֶכְיוֹן,” in NIDOTTE, 1:228. Every genre includes the word; however, it is rare in the Wisdom literature. The word further connotes an undernourished, economically deprived individual.

105 Several factors besides the aggressive agenda of the greedy or covetous resulted in vulnerability. See Ronald E. Clements, “Poverty and the Kingdom of God—An Old Testament View,” in The Kingdom of God and Human Society, ed. Robin S. Barbour (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), 13–17, for a discussion about poverty in light of the agricultural practices of that time.

106 Exod 23:23; 30:15; Lev 14:21; 19:15; Isa 10:2; 14:30; Jer 5:4; 39:10; Amos 4:1; 8:6; Zeph 3:12; Pss 41:2; 82:3; 113:7; Prov 14:31; 19:17; 21:13; 22:16; Job 20:10, 19; 31:16; 19:10. Pleins, ABD 5:405–7, notes that dal is a preferred word in the Wisdom literature. M. Daniel Carroll R., “דָּלַל,” NIDOTTE, 1:951–54, states that the Bible does not regard the dal as completely destitute, supporting the understanding that the dal is a poor peasant farmer.

107 Recent discussion over this word centers around its relationship to both ⁽ ānāw and its plural form ⁽ ānāwim; see Pleins, ABD 5:413–14; W. J. Dumbrell, “עָנָו,” in NIDOTTE, 3:454–56; Marrs, 7; Susan Gillingham, “The Poor in the Psalms,” ET 100, no. 1 (October 1988): 18; McPolin, 92–97. Some have postulated that the ⁽ ānāwim (particularly in the Psalms) denotes a pious political movement among Israel’s poor. Others believe ⁽ ānāwim is simply the plural form of ⁽ ānî /⁽ ānāw and reflects a socio-economic understanding of the term. The former argument finds support only if the relationship between ⁽ ānî and ⁽ ānāw is distanced, leaving room to define ⁽ ānāw in a metaphorical sense of humbleness with no connection to physical circumstances. However, the majority of texts suggest ⁽ ānî and ⁽ ānāw derive from the same root. Furthermore, the contexts in which ⁽ ānāw and ⁽ ānāwim occur (when read in light of ⁽ ānî texts) customarily envision an authentic distress or need. The Psalter occasionally uses these words to refer to a spiritualized poverty. In some cases, the poor in the Psalms are those who recognize their abject neediness before God. However, on the whole the word’s socio-economic nuance is to be preferred. See Hoppe, 128–29.

108 Deut 24:12, 14; Isa 10:30; 14:32; 41:17; Amos 8:4; Zech 11:7; 9:9; Pss 25:16; 35:10; 37:14; 40:18; 68:11; 70:6; 86:1; 109:16; Prov 30:14; 31:9; Job 34:28; 36:6. Dumbrell, NIDOTTE 3:454, connects ⁽ ānî with physical disability, but Pleins, ABD 5:408, stresses the concept of oppression. Deut 27:18 and Lev 19:14 are two texts that specifically address the physically disabled. ⁽ Ānî, dal, and  ⁾ ebyôn constitute most of the language used for the poor in the Hebrew Bible except for the Wisdom literature (see discussion above).

109 Prov 6:11; 11:24; 14:23; 21:5; 22:16; 24:34. Pleins, ABD 5:407, distinguishes it as a wisdom term and declares that its usage in Proverbs reflects self-inflicted poverty as a result of laziness or excessive living.

110 Eccl 4:13; 9:13–16. Pleins, ABD 5:407.

111 Prov 13:23; 14:20; 18:23; 19:1; 19:7; 28:3; Eccl, 4:14; 5:7. Pleins, ABD 5:407–8.

112 Pleins, ABD 5:402. J. Emmette Weir, “The Poor are Powerless: A Response to R. J. Coggins,” ET 100, no. 1 (October 1988): 13 notes that these two situations are related. In addition, even though nearly all the language insinuates economic and/or political categories, the factors of honor and shame also underlie thoughts about poverty (T. R. Hobbs, “Reflections on ‘The Poor’ and the Old Testament,” Expository Times 100, no. 8 [May 1989]: 293). This observation opens another discussion, but is mentioned in passing here to point out that not only did the poor contend with harsh realities of life, they also faced social distresses of which the Western world knows very little. On a similar note, McPolin, 88, comments that initially the poor in Israel suffered largely in economic terms. However, with the change in social, economic, and political structures, the powerful began equating economic inferiority with social inferiority.

113 For an overview see Patterson; Baker, ch. 7. There are thirty cases in which widow and orphan appear together and eighteen instances when all three appear. For example Deut 10:18; 24:17–22; Pss 94:6; 146:9; Jer 7:6; 22:23; Mal 3:5.

114 See, for instance, in the Torah: Exod 22:21–24; 23:9; Lev 19:10, 33; 23:22; Deut 16:11; 14:29; 24:17–22; and in the Prophets: Isa 1:23; 10:1–2; Jer 7:1–14; Ezek 22:6–7, 25, 29; Zech 7:9–10.

115 Clements, “Poverty and the Kingdom,” 14–16. H. Eberhard von Waldow, “Social Responsibility and Social Structure in Early Israel,” CBQ 32, no. 2 (April 1970): 185–87, maintains that these persons did not enjoy the security of a natural kinship group. Thus, the law provided measures to aid these situations. But Gowan, “Wealth and Poverty,” 347, notes the law assumed that such people worked to alleviate their harsh circumstances—they just needed regular assistance and protection.

H. G. M. Williamson, “The Old Testament and the Material World,” EQ 57 (January 1985): 16, remarks that “Israel’s law, her instruction literature and her prophetic writers are deeply influenced by her understanding of society which works for the benefit of the poorest rather than the most privileged.” On the more general discussion of welfare measures in ancient Israel, see Baker; Kaufman, 277–86.

116 C. van Leeuwen, “אַלְמָנָה ,” in NIDOTTE, 1:413–14; Paula S. Hiebert, “ ‘Whence Shall Help Come to Me?’: The Biblical Widow,” in Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, ed. Peggy L. Day (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 137. There has been some discussion over whether or not a widow did own property. Hiebert makes clear that although property ownership for a widow was possible, it by no means could have supported her.

117 V. Hamilton, “יָתוֹם,” in NIDOTTE, 2:570; Gowan, “Wealth and Poverty,” 346; Johan Renkema, “Does Hebrew ytwm Really Mean Fatherless?” VT 45, no. 1 (January 1995): 119–22, argues that an orphan has lost both father and mother.

118gēr can be translated alien, stranger, or sojourner. The precise identification of the gēr has been subject to much debate (see Baker, 178–82). The Hebrew word tôšāb more appropriately fits the designation of alien in our sense. The tôšāb is less integrated into society than the gēr; for example, the tôšāb cannot celebrate Passover (Exod 12:45). It occurs 14 times, half of which are in Leviticus 25. See A. Konkel, “תּוֹשָׁב,” in NIDOTTE, 4:248.

119 A. Konkel, “גּוּר,” in NIDOTTE, 1:836, says he is “generally in the service of an Israelite.” Some laws pertaining to the gēr are Deut 14:29; 16:11, 14; 24:14; Lev 17:8–16; 19:10; 24:22; 25:6. Also see Moucarry, 17–20.

120 Baker, 188, lists two: they own no land and have no family network.

121 Sneed, 500, believes these categories constitute the “worst of the worst.” He notes that the frequent inclusion of the general “poor” with the triadic formula, widow, orphan, sojourner, indicates that these three groups represented the “poor par excellence.”

122 For similar conclusions, see James Limburg, The Prophets and the Powerless (Atlanta: John Knox, 1971), 25–38; Gowan, “Wealth and Poverty,” 344; Whybray, 334; Weir, 13–15.

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“Good News to the Poor” (Editorial Preface to the Issue)

The gospel message bears witness to the glorious intervention of a transcendent, yet profoundly loving and compassionate, God in the events of human history in order to introduce hope and healing to the world. Human beings had been separated from their loving God as a result of their own disobedience; separated from the presence of the only true source of peace and joy, thus leaving humankind grasping for alternative sources of wholeness in the material objects that merely bear the fingerprints of their creator. Nevertheless, the path towards redemption did not rest upon the goodness of fallen beings, but rather upon the infinite graciousness of the Creator, manifested in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

Still, centuries after the events culminating in the redemption of humankind, the vestiges of sin, separation, and suffering remain. The struggles that face humankind, upon close examination and reflection, make followers of Jesus cry out, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.” In the face of war, famine, corruption, greed, and poverty, followers often feel powerless to bring about significant change. Yet, even while they feel powerless, they remember their Lord’s teachings about the seeds, the soil, and the slow-growing mustard tree. They reflect on the growing kingdom of God that even the gates of Hades will not be able to withstand. And followers are encouraged by the words of their master, assuring them of his perpetual presence even in the darkest of times.

And it is exactly in those dark times that we Christians are called to be light and salt, infusing the lost world with the message of salvation that we have heard and experienced. It is exactly in the brokenness of this world that we, like our Lord, are called to take the form of servants and embody the love that seeks wholeness and healing for those that suffer; and even suffer ourselves so that others can share in the riches of God’s grace.

But the follower of Jesus is often left wrestling with questions that can at times feel overwhelming: What does the embodied Christ-life look like in the face of human suffering? How can the community of Christ faithfully bear witness to the good news of Jesus in the various realms of human suffering? What are the many ways that humans suffer, and how can we help in each of these areas? What is the wholeness that God desires for all people, and how can we offer that wholeness in all of its manifold complexity? These are only a few of the questions with which the disciple might struggle; the intricacy of the question of human suffering is evident.

This issue of Missio Dei seeks to serve as a springboard for thought, reflection, and discussion concerning one specific issue of human suffering, namely poverty. The realities of human suffering due to a lack of resources necessary for abundant human life are increasingly known and published in the modern world. Technology and globalization have shed light on the suffering of our fellow human beings throughout the world. The call to obedience through loving in word and deed becomes louder with every new fact, figure, and face that reveals the crushing realities of world poverty. But what does such obedience look like?

As we seek to live in obedience to bring the good news of Jesus to every nation, tribe, and people, let us remember that, in a very real way, the act of sharing with others in need allows us to experience the life that is truly life (1 Tim 6:18–19; Luke 12:33). Let us remember that it is the fool who hoards only for himself (Luke 12:13–21). Let us remember that our Lord’s quotation of the Old Testament in reference to the poor (Matt 26:11) came from a passage that encouraged open generosity towards the needy (Deut 15:7–11). And may we always remember that the manner in which we act towards the “least of these” in the world directly reflects the care and concern that we have for our beloved Savior (Matt 25:34–40). May we, like so many godly Christian witnesses ahead of us, see the face of Jesus in every person that we meet.

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How Liberation Theology Changed My Life

I had the wonderful opportunity to study Liberation Theology at a Catholic Seminary in São Paulo, Brazil in the 1980s. This article describes some of the profound changes in my way of interpreting the Bible and doing ministry/missions because of that experience. Topics include an introduction to early Latin American Liberation Theology, Marxism and Dependency Theory, God’s special concern for the poor, how structural sin influences church planting that targets the middle class, and contextualization.


My wife and I were blessed to be able to serve as missionaries in São Paulo, Brazil for eight years during the 1980s. Though we have been gone for twenty years now, that time in Brazil continues to be extremely influential in our lives and ministries. We began our family there, and our three children tend to see Brazil as home. Our ministry was primarily church-planting, which was extremely formative in our lives, especially in terms of turning more to the Bible and trusting traditional interpretations less, understanding the mechanics of evangelism and church organizing, and learning to emphasize the poor like God does.

While our entire ministry was formative, my time doing doctoral work in theology at a Catholic seminary was by far one of the strongest forces for personal change. I did the course work for a Doctor of Theology degree from Faculdade de Teologia Nossa Senhora da Assunção (Our Lady of the Assumption College of Theology; NSA hereafter) and began a dissertation on Liberation Theologians’ View of Capitalism and Social Sin. The classes were four hours long, and numerous students smoked during class. The courses were all taught in Portuguese but liberally sprinkled with Spanish and Latin. As far as I could tell, all of the 600 students in the seminary were ardent socialists except for me and one Seventh Day Adventist. Some students repeatedly identified President Reagan as the antichrist and the USA as the beast. Some greatly desired to join the guerillas in Central America but settled for organizing demonstrations in front of the US consulate.

I went to this school looking for intellectual challenge and growth and for opportunities to further study biblical languages and investigate this Liberation Theology that was becoming so influential. There I was taught by several prominent Liberationists (Clodovis Boff, Julio de Santa Ana, Milton Schwantes, and others), experienced the best exegetical course I have ever had, had my eyes opened to what the Bible says about poverty, and saw the underside of capitalism as it is often practiced in the world.

The purpose of this article is to share some of my experiences and areas of growth with the reader in hopes that it will provoke similar challenges and stretch one’s understanding of God, the Bible, and ministry. I will start with an introduction to early Latin American Liberation Theology and some changes that I had to make in my social and political presuppositions, and then I will proceed with areas of growth in my understanding of the Bible and changes in ministry and missiology.

Introduction to Early Latin American
Liberation Theology

This is an introduction to early Latin American Liberation Theology, since I studied this theology through the 1970s and 1980s and have not been able to continue detailed study since then. I believe early Latin American Liberation Theology1 to be the most important version, however, since it provided the sharpest challenge to traditional theology during those years.2

I believe that the shortest definition of early Latin American Liberation Theology is that it is the Bible read with Marxist presuppositions, and the LT that I experienced seemed to have the five essential elements discussed below.3

Very Real and Deep Poverty

LT was born in the poverty-stricken areas of Latin America. The poverty there is very real and oppressive. While my wife had lived in Africa for a while before our move to Brazil and affirmed that the poverty there was more widespread and deeper, Latin America certainly had its suffering. What provoked my initial interest in LT was the poverty of Christian families that I knew, who worked hard and were thrifty, but were very poor even though we lived in the wealthiest part of Brazil, with the largest middle class! Here is a striking example of poverty from the Boff brothers’ experience in other parts of Brazil:

One day, in the arid region of northeastern Brazil, one of the most famine-stricken parts of the world, I . . . met a bishop going into his house; he was shaking. “Bishop, what’s the matter?” I asked. He replied that he had just seen a terrible sight: in front of the cathedral was a woman with three small children and a baby clinging to her neck. He saw that they were fainting from hunger. The baby seemed to be dead. He said: “Give the baby some milk, woman!” “I can’t, [sir],” she answered. The bishop went on insisting that she should, and she that she could not. Finally, because of his insistence, she opened her blouse. Her breast was bleeding; the baby sucked violently at it. And sucked blood.4

Paulo Freire also affirmed that the first challenge in teaching rural Brazilian adults to read in the 1950s was to convince them that they were human!5 Many of them thought that they were simply smarter cattle.6

This extreme poverty found in Latin America was probably the main engine that drove the development of LT, especially the concept of the “preferential option for the poor.” First mentioned at Medellín and further developed at Puebla, Jorge Pixley and Clodovis Boff gave the fullest treatment in their book of that title (in the original Portuguese).7 They traced God’s special attention, concern, and action for the poor and oppressed through the Bible and then continued on with the church’s behavior for the last two millennia.8 The combined power of the biblical message on poverty and the pain I observed in Brazil made a difference in my life that I will further discuss later.

“Liberal” View of the Bible

Milton Schwantes taught the best exegetical course I had ever taken when I was at the Catholic seminary in Brazil.9 As we went through the historical books covering the monarchy of Israel, he explained the text in great detail, showing differences in various Hebrew words, giving background information and showing correlations to other texts, but then he suddenly came to a halt and said something like, “The next ten chapters were written in defense of the king, and we’re not interested in that, so we’ll now jump to chapter . . .” He was not saying that he was simply not interested in those chapters, but that they were not authoritative because they were written from the “wrong” perspective, defending the powerful.10

Alan Myatt also encountered such practices. He claimed that many Liberation Theologians assume liberal scholarship and the methods of higher criticism that deny the notion of absolute truth, citing José Míguez Bonino as a specific example.11 He also clarified that when LT claims that all theology must be evaluated from the present historical situation, it is presenting another authority, not Scripture as the sole authority.12

An essential element of early Latin American LT is a liberal view of the text—the Bible is primarily a human creation, and only parts of it are inspired or considered authoritative. Liberation Theologians that I met loved those texts of the Bible that show oppression, social conflict, and poverty (and they are there in the text!), but ignored those instructions to live at peace and submit to authorities.13

Of course, the Catholic Church has for centuries claimed that some of its traditions were as authoritative as the Bible, but one participant in a conference on LT went so far as to exclaim, “We’re writing the Newest Testament!”14


It is well known that Marxism had a very strong influence on LT. Clodovis and Leonardo Boff, in their book entitled in Portuguese “How to Do Liberation Theology,” clarify:

Liberation theology freely borrows from Marxism certain “methodological pointers” . . . such as:

  • the importance of economic factors;
  • attention to the class struggle;
  • the mystifying power of ideologies, including religious ones.15

Let me explain what I believe are the most important influences of Marxism on LT.

What drives history? What causes one society to be one way and another different? Max Weber thought that ideas, principally religious ideas, were the key movers of history.16 Émile Durkheim taught that collective consciousness formed societies.17 Karl Marx taught that the most important factor in the development of a society was the mode of production. Mode of production includes several factors, but the key ones are (1) who produces wealth and (2) who keeps/owns the wealth. Implicit in that distinction is oppression of the workers and growing power of the owners. In broader terms, Marx says that the economy forms the society (social rankings, religion and ideology, politics, etc.). This was the key conflict between LT and Black Theology, which claimed that racism was the fundamental issue in society.18

Marx promoted dialectical materialism—it is the material universe that is important, not God, and this universe is at war over wealth. Liberation Theologians believed in God but agreed that the world is a dialectical reality. Class conflict is the best known version of this dialectical reality and was an important part of early Latin American LT.19 For example, Frei Betto affirms, “In this perspective, the social dimension of sin can only be understood from the internal structure of the society that engenders sin in the form of oppression, division of men into antagonistic classes, submission of a poor country to a rich country, etc.”20 For this reason, LT focused on promoting the growth of socialism in Latin America, which would first deal with internal class conflict and then deal with international dependence.

While class conflict was emphasized, Lenin’s Dependency Theory was equally important to early Latin American LT. While LT vigorously denounced class conflict in terms of the rich oppressing the poor and the existence of an enclave of middle-class working-class that lived relatively well (which developed from foreign investment), it was the rich countries (like those in Europe and North America) that stole the wealth of poor countries (like those in South America and Africa) that really caused widespread poverty.21 Later, the emphasis switched from wealthy countries to multinational corporations and organizations, such as the Trilateral Commission, in order to explain “third world” poverty.22

Based on these earlier affirmations, Marx taught that ideology is always oppressive. It is the wealthy who form the ideology (and religion is just a form of ideology), and its purpose is to promote their continued wealth and power while pacifying the mass of poverty-stricken workers. It seems that this would be a problem to LT since it is, after all, a Christian belief system, but the Liberation Theologians quickly affirmed that LT was not an ideology but a utopia, which existed to unmask the prevailing ideology. This rejection of ideology was also very convenient for them, since every time I presented information that contradicted their conclusions, they claimed that my suggestions were not “scientific.” I eventually realized that according to them only Marxism was scientific or critical; all other arguments were ideologically based.23 In the same line of thinking, Marxism could not be an ideology, since it promoted the poor and criticized the rich.

Marx and LT also affirmed the necessity of praxis—an informed, critical, questioning, practical application of learning. Marx went so far as to say that learning that was not put into practice was not learning. It appeared to me that utopia and praxis were in conflict, but I needed to understand the terms in Marxism thought. Utopia is not a perfect place but a way of criticizing the status quo. I asked the students one day what would happen to LT if they did actually succeed in implanting socialism in Brazil, and they then declared that they believed they would never succeed! Their purpose was to criticize; actual change was a hoped for but somewhat unattainable goal.24

Paulo Freire’s Views on Education

Paulo Freire was a Marxist educator who developed a method for teaching Brazilian adults to read in an incredibly short time, sometimes in as few as six classes. (This was possible since Brazilian Portuguese is written exactly as it is spoken and vice versa.) Freire developed the concept that education was conscientização (conscientization). Developed from a Marxist concept of praxis, it stated that one was learning only when one was beginning to judge one’s social environment and commit to changing it. Freire thought that simply accepting information developed by others was indoctrination.25

Freire used this concept to teach adults to read by first listening to the peasants’ concerns, then showing them how those concerns appeared in print, together with additional information that was often lacking. An example was the plantation owner who said that he could not pay the seasonal workers for any more work because he did not have the money. The language teacher then showed the workers a newspaper that reported that the prices of crops had risen during last year and that the plantation owner and family had just left for a four week tour of Europe! For his contributions to society, Freire was exiled by the military coup of 1962, but he eventually returned and became Minister of Education for the state of São Paulo in the 1990s.

Freire is important to early Latin American LT because it adopted conscientization as its almost singular method of operation in society. Hennelly specifies Freire’s method as one of the “three key components of LT’s initial phase,” “later adapted for use by the church,” and puts a selection from Freire’s work as the first reading in his documentary history of LT.26 He even dates the genesis of LT to the 1950s in part on the basis of Freire’s work.27 The plan for implanting socialism in Latin America was to open CEBs (Base Ecclesial Communities) among the lower classes throughout the continent and teach them to interpret critically both the Bible text and their own social realities. In other words, the plan was to understand the dialectical nature of reality, overcome ideology, and begin praxis as they sought to change the economic system, which would then transform the entire society and culture.28

Juan Luis Segundo calls this the second type of LT, which sought to work from within the framework of the poor. He also notes that there is often a certain “involuntary contradiction between the claim of having been evangelized by the poor and taught by them, and, on the other hand, the pretension of relocating in people’s minds the true meaning of the cross and suffering.”29 Or, as one of my professors at NSA commented in class, “the people come to the wrong conclusions about the Bible unless there is a conscientized priest or nun there to guide them.”

European Theology and Philosophy

As I struggled to read LT for the first time, I worked through the new level of Portuguese language but still struggled to make sense of it. Sometimes, I read a paragraph and understood every word, but could not summarize the significance. James Baird, who did his doctorate in philosophy at Oxford University, helped me in a personal conversation to understand what was happening. If I understood him correctly, he said that American theology was very concerned with being systematic and precise, nailing down every possible conclusion, but European theology was focused on constructing a grand theory, full of nuances, sweeping implications, and future development. Being precise was often too limiting.

Juan Luis Segundo points out that earliest type of LT appealed primarily to dissenters from the Latin American middle classes, “which were integrated into a European culture.”30 All of my teachers in the Catholic Seminary, and almost every significant early Latin American Liberation Theologian, studied in Europe. If you read their material, you will see one reference after another to Jürgen Moltmann, Johannes Metz, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Rudolf Bultmann, Karl Barth, and so on.

The dialogue between José Míguez Bonino and Jürgen Moltmann is very informative. Bonino admitted that LT was dependent on Moltmann and that LT had an affinity for his work but then criticized Moltmann.31 Moltmann replied that Bonino was too European in his theology: “One gets a quite ambiguous impression as regards the Latin American theological criticism of European theology: one is first criticized intensely, and then, to one’s surprise, finds that in the end the critics confirm with their own words exactly the same thing that [one] oneself had said.”32 Moltmann continued about LT’s philosophical and political basis in Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation:

Gutiérrez presents the process of liberation in Latin America as the continuation and culmination of the European history of freedom. One gets a glimpse into this history of freedom by being enlightened about Kant and Hegel, Rousseau and Feuerbach, Marx and Freud. The “secularization process” is portrayed in detail through the work of Gogarten, Bonhoeffer, Cox, and Metz. This is all worked through independently and offers many new insights—but precisely only in the framework of Europe’s history, scarcely in the history of Latin America. Gutiérrez has written an invaluable contribution to European theology. But where is Latin America in it all?33

Based on these experiences, I concluded that if LT was born in poverty-stricken Latin America, it was conceived in Europe.

Changes in My Socio-Economic Views

I learned that Marxism and LT had a lot of valid criticisms of capitalism as a theory and capitalism as it was practiced throughout the world but few valid solutions.

Ideas I Accepted from LT, with Revision

Challenged by Dependency Theory, I attempted to research if it was true that Europe and the US took unfair advantage of its colonies in an earlier age and of so-called “Third World Countries” today. The debate is the definition of “unfair.” After research, in my own untrained way, I agree that it is true.34 Europe and North America bought huge quantities of raw resources at very low prices from poorer countries to process them and sell them back to the poorer countries at much higher prices. It appeared to me, though, that beginning about 1982, Brazil began to practice that same kind of economic dominance and abuse of other countries in Latin America. Of course, today the global economy is changing things even more, and some propose that Europe and the US are losing their privileged positions in the global economy.35

As I conducted research above, I discovered other concepts of how to improve the economic life of Latin America and Africa, principally what is called modernism or developmentalism (desenrollamento). This concept is that societies modernize by passing through certain phases, and in this case the “Third World” was simply earlier in the process—there was nothing unfair about it.36 And in many ways the capitalism that I saw in Latin America was the capitalism practiced in the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s before unions and government regulation began to curb the excesses. At the same time, I agree with LT that this definition of economic development was often used as an excuse for continuing abusive practices. Ronald Chilcote and Joel Edelstein provide a good history, comparison, and evaluation of both dependency and development models.37

Challenged by LT, I began to perceive greater differences between capitalism as practiced in the world and economic principles taught in the Bible. While anyone can easily see forms of private property and the market in the Old and New Testaments, the meanings of those terms may be very different now. Justo González clarifies that capitalism as we know it has been heavily influenced by practices of the Roman Empire.38 In very terse terms, I would express the differences thus:

Capitalism Biblical Stewardship
Private property–to use and abuse Stewardship and sharing (koinonia)39
Market controls economy God’s sovereignty40
Competition causes increase Faithful work / God’s blessing41

When the Bible teaches God’s will for us economically, it includes the notions of hard work and production, but also the Sabbath Year, Year of Jubilee, and true koinōnia, which is the sharing of life and physical necessities. On one hand, perhaps many developmentalists too readily accepted that capitalism was God’s economy,42 and on the other, early Latin American LT, it appears, too readily equated biblical teaching with socialism. I think both lacked critical evaluation.

I liked Paulo Freire’s view of education, but detached the necessity of class conflict from its formulation. In other words, I agreed that one is not learning unless one can better evaluate and change one’s own situation. For example, one does not really learn Systematic Theology unless one learns how to evaluate the work of others, do it oneself, and let the new knowledge make a difference in how one lives.

Ideas I Rejected

Dependency Theory itself is flawed. I asked a fellow student at the Catholic seminary who was also finishing a masters in Economics for the best introductions to Dependency Theory. He suggested two books by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who was in exile at the time but later became president of Brazil. The most remarkable example of the flaw in Dependency Theory is an endnote I found in one of his books: “Between a rigor that would lead to paralysis and a flexibility which would deliver positive results, we decided on the second alternative.”43 In other words, given the choice between saying only what the economic data supported and developing a theory that would deliver the results he wanted, he chose the second!

The Marxist maxim that the economy determines the society certainly has some validity, but it ignores the power of other influences, and LT has gradually begun accepting that. The earliest push to change was the encounter with Black Theology, but it was also influenced by the fall of the USSR and other socialist economies. The prevailing thought today is systems theory—that the multiple interdependent forces of economics, religion, ideology, and history all influence each other. But I would suggest that we Christians must include God in the mix:44

Although it is obvious that the mode of production does have a strong influence on the formation of the society, Marx’s position is so extreme that it is simplistic and lacks a holistic view of man. That the Bible does talk a great deal about economics is surely a sign of its importance and influence over humans, but the Bible would see human life as God-centered. It is God who created the universe (Genesis 1). It is God who owns the earth and all its wealth (Leviticus 25:23). The God depicted in the Bible is one who is alive and active in human affairs.45

How Liberation Theology Influenced My Understanding of the Bible

Working in Brazil had profound influence on my understanding of the Bible, both in the questions I confronted in church planting and the challenges I had from LT. I will cover the three most important areas where I grew in understanding the Bible (poverty, structural sin, and “real” people), followed by an exegesis of Amos 2 that illustrates those areas.


Once I stopped reading “spiritually poor” whenever the biblical text said “poor,” I realized that poverty pervaded the text. For example:

  1. I thought that the fundamental event of the Old Testament was God’s covenant with Abraham, but the biblical texts that retell the Old Testament story seem to give greater emphasis to the exodus and settlement in Canaan.46 For the Jews, the fundamental event of the Old Testament seemed to be God’s saving them from oppression (economic and civil) and giving them their own land (in an agricultural economy, land is the source of economic survival and wealth). Along with that land, God’s law provided numerous safeguards against the oppression and poverty of his people in this new society.47
  2. The Historical Books of Ruth and Nehemiah cannot be understood properly outside the context of deep poverty. The book of Judges’ repetition of backsliding, suffering, and salvation necessarily includes poverty as a part of the suffering.
  3. The Wisdom literature presents both sides of poverty—poverty caused by one’s own foolishness48 and that caused by oppression,49 as well as the deep pain that comes from suffering (the Psalms).
  4. The prophets railed against the idolatry of the Israelites, but also against the economic oppression of one another.50 (See the exegesis of Amos 2 below.)
  5. While all the Gospels mention poor people during Jesus’ ministry, Luke emphasizes Jesus’ interest in and compassion on the poor through the Magnificat (Luke 1), the inauguration of his ministry (Luke 4), the blessings and woes of the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6), and repeated references to social outsiders: the poor (at least 16 times), the sick (at least 17 times), and women (at least 11 times).
  6. The early church practiced a level of financial sharing that we just do not get. Part of our difficulty in understanding the text is that the poor people of American society usually still eat well, and in fact are often overweight! Another part of our difficulty is a fear of communism. But the fact remains that the Old and New Testaments for the most part reflect societies that were based on agriculture, with huge proportions of poor farmers, sharecroppers, and seasonal laborers that were in real danger of going hungry in a bad year.
  7. When I read Rev 21–22 or Rev 7:15–17, which describe heaven, I often focus on no more pain and no more death, which is great news. Yet, I think that in most of the world for most of human history, people would have rejoiced over free housing, food that grows year-round, and no more darkness, all things I take for granted. The point is that even now, when I read the biblical text, I miss a lot because I just have not suffered much.

Structural Sin

I was surprised that Portuguese Bibles continually had “justice” in verses where my English Bibles had “righteousness.” I researched to prove the Portuguese versions wrong and found that both the Hebrew and Greek words included elements of both personal and social rightness. My English versions had distorted the translation in one direction, while the Portuguese versions had distorted it in the other. Studying at the Catholic seminary, I was introduced to a similar difficulty—that of identifying personal sin versus social or structural sin. The LT concept was originally called “social sin” but changed to “structural sin” in the 1980s to identify the social structures as the carriers of sin, not just the society. Let me explain it and then give its strengths and weaknesses.51


Structural sin in LT is based on Marx and Durkheim’s view that the society determines the individual.52 Stated simply, structural sin is an evil that is exterior to the individual, is passed from generation to generation through the social structures, and imposes its will on the individual.

We say, before anything else, that independent of any consciousness, unjust structures or oppressors are objectively an evil. For this reason, they are “sin” in the material, structural sense. These unjust structures are to the society what lust is to the individual: they carry and even drag one to evil.53

In this perspective, the social dimension of sin can only be understood from the internal structure of the society that engenders sin in the form of oppression, division of men into antagonistic classes, submission of a poor country to a rich country, etc. . . . This oppression does not come from evil desires of someone or a group of men. It comes from the structures themselves that assure the way this society produces and distributes material goods necessary to human life. This mode of production determines among the men who are part of this society ways of relating that are necessary and independent of their will.54


Biblically, they have some support. North American Evangelicals also developed similar concepts based on the biblical uses of “the world,” “the powers,” and “the elements.”55 My own experiences also supported the concept.

Growing up in the US, I tended to blame poverty on the poor themselves—they were lazy or had too many kids, didn’t work hard or take education seriously, and so forth. My presuppositions were challenged by José Luiz and Maria José, a Christian couple in the church we planted. José Luiz worked very hard for long hours, and his family was very poor. As I began to understand the structural nature of social problems, reality was shocking! Others have had similar experiences:

He screamed at the top of his voice, “Saandeee!!! Ssaaanndeee!” All of Nairobi West shopping center stopped and turned to watch the drama as the policemen and women beat and dragged the street boys away to custody.

As I watched through a church window I flushed hot with anger. We have been trying fruitlessly for over two years to get a bar out of our property where all manner of illegality takes place, including open prostitution and drug deals—never once helped by the police. So they spend their energy beating up on little street boys—whose worst crime is stealing bread from the rich. Bitter gall was rising up underneath my tongue.

But there was something else about the scene. The name the street boy was desperately shouting was David Sande’s, one of our ministers to the street children. They were calling for the man of God to intercede for them.56

Another missionary tells of swimming onto a beach covered with the blood of lepers who were being slaughtered by natives under the watchful eye of the police.57 And Robert Linthicum was shocked to discover that it was the New York City police who were beating a young man weekly to force his sister to prostitution.58 Unfortunately, these experiences are not that rare once you get out of the North American suburb.59

When I returned to the US, lost my support, and had to begin a new career hampered by a large debt, I began to see structural injustices in my own country. It is the working poor of the US who pay the highest prices (when you measure by price per quantity) and pay the highest taxes in the country (when you include all taxes and measure by percentage of income).60 I had to admit that slavery in the past was not just a personal choice for some but was built into the economic and political systems of my country. While abortion is a choice for a woman, there is an industry and media dedicated to promoting it, an educational system used to encourage it, and a political party sworn to defend it.

And influence from our society even reaches into the church. During my ministry in Brazil, I fielded so many questions about why we do what we do at church, I had to admit that Christianity in general, and even Churches of Christ, had been highly influenced by our social situation.61


The weakness I found in the concept of structural sin was that its proponents appeared to be as one-sided in its application as I had been in my application of personal sin. Marxism taught that it was the economy that formed the society, and a corollary was that the person was determined by the economic situation. Liberation Theologians used phrases such as “imprisoned in sin,”62 “a type of external power [that] dominates . . . us,”63 and “the I is always inhabited by others.”64 Although they recognized the dialectical relationship between personal or structural sin,65 they also denigrated volunteerism such as charity as inhibiting advancement in the real battle, which was their “noble struggle for justice.”66 As Gutiérrez explained it, fighting sin seems to be primarily social: “In the context of class struggle today, to love one’s enemies presupposes recognizing and accepting that one has class enemies and that it is necessary to combat them.”67

While anyone who has studied cultural anthropology or has adapted to a very different culture cannot deny that we are all culturally formed or culturally embedded, the Bible does not affirm that an individual is a helpless pawn in the struggle against sin.68 The key is to see both the personal and structural natures of sin and resist it on both levels.

“Real” People and the Bible

Amid the work of interpreting the Bible for those who questioned my traditional answers and answering questions I had never imagined before, unconsciously using concepts that I had learned from cultural anthropology to understand both Brazilians and the peoples of the Old and New Testaments, reading Gerd Theissen’s two books,69 and hearing a Marxist interpretation of the Old Testament monarchy in class with Milton Schwantes, I realized that the people portrayed in the Bible were real people. They often felt and acted like people around me, and, even more frequently, they seemed to have much in common with tribal or peasant societies in Africa or Latin America.

Many readers will likely say, “Of course, they were real people!” I used to say that, but I always saw them as “flat” characters that simply performed certain actions. I have learned to look for “round” characters that have fears, expectations, social pressures, gender roles, family concerns, and dreams.70 To be honest, as I interpret the Bible now, I often ask myself, “How would I feel in that situation,” “Who could be pressuring me in that situation,” or “What would my alternatives be?” I now understand that just as some concepts of cultural anthropology, sociology, and psychology can be helpful to understand people today, some of those same concepts can help me understand what was happening in the biblical text. The text is always the authority as inspired Word, but these social and behavioral sciences can illuminate the drama, interpersonal tensions, fears, and dreams of biblical characters.71

Related to this discovery of real people in the Bible were the educational concepts of Paulo Freire and the second type of LT, encouraging the poor to interpret the Bible for themselves.72 With all the fervor of the newly minted MA, I believed the story I heard in graduate school about the professor who said that most discussion classes about the Bible in church were a sharing of ignorance. It is embarrassing to say this now, but after reading Freire, I hesitantly began asking the congregation to make their suggestions about the meaning and application of the text. I made two discoveries: (1) writing down their comments on a marking board was a great way to show appreciation for their ideas, focus the discussion, and make connections between apparently independent concepts, and (2) they were better at making good applications of the text than I was.73

Case Study: Exegesis of Amos 2:6–16

Let me illustrate how these new ideas from LT work in my life and Bible study.

The Context of Amos

There are ample commentaries on Amos that describe the social context of this text, but one short quote is sufficient:

The prophet whose work lies at the core of the book attacked the patriotic and pious conservative reaction that had gained currency among the upper classes during the prosperous reign of Jeroboam II. The greedy upper classes, with governmental and juridical connivance, were systematically expropriating the land of commoners so that they could heap up wealth and display it gaudily in a lavish “conspicuous consumption” economy. Hatred of other nations, military swaggering, and religious rhetoric were generously employed to persuade people to accept their miserable lot because it was, after all, “the best of all possible societies.”

Much of the monopolized wealth was poured into spectacles of sacrificial and liturgical worship at splendidly refurbished sanctuaries. Amos savagely attacked the overheated religious fervor as a fraudulent and despicable “cover” or “mask” for the leaders’ gross selfishness and practical atheism.74

The Literary Structure

The text seems to have four parts: vv. 6–8, 9–11, 12 vv. 13–16. Verses 6–8 speak in third person, detailing Israel’s sins, while vv. 9–11 switch to first person—God rehearses how he had expressed his love for Israel through mighty acts. Verse 12 demonstrates the Israelites’ rejection of God. The fourth section, vv. 14–16, explains the results of such rejection.

Figure 1

Possible Structure of Amos 2:6-1175

Israel’s Sins

God’s Past Love


6 This is what the LORD says:

“For three sins of Israel,

even for four, I will not turn back [my wrath].


9I destroyed the Amorite before them,

though he was tall as the cedars

and strong as the oaks.

I destroyed his fruit above

and his roots below.


They sell the righteous for silver,

and the needy for a pair of sandals.

7 They trample on the heads of the poor

as upon the dust of the ground

and deny justice to the oppressed.

Father and son use the same girl

and so profane my holy name.


10I brought you up out of Egypt,

and I led you forty years in the desert

to give you the land of the Amorites.


8 They lie down beside every altar

on garments taken in pledge.

In the house of their god

they drink wine taken as fines.


11 I also raised up prophets from among your sons

and Nazirites from among your young men.

Is this not true, people of Israel?”

declares the LORD.

The first two sections may have a parallel structure as shown in Figure 1. Such a parallel structure, therefore, means that A and A′ are talking about God’s wrath on Israel and the Amorite, B and B′ are talking about slavery versus liberation, and C and C′ are talking about exploitative revelry versus asceticism.

Verse 12 is a summary statement contrasting the sins of Israel with God’s actions. Verses 13–16 describe God’s judgment on Israel for their sin. What is unique about these last verses is that they all apply God’s judgment to the military complex—the swift, strong, warrior, archer, soldier, and horseman! No mention is made of God’s wrath on the leaders, women and children, or cities, as in other prophetic texts, so evidently the meaning is not what is commonly asserted by many conservative interpreters—that even the strong will fall or that the strong will not be able to protect the society. The emphasis is on the military. While the coming punishment will touch all the Israelites, in this passage the emphasis is on the fall and punishment of the military.

Social, Political, and Economic Factors

There are other traces of corporate and social factors in this text:

  1. What is the significance of sandals? While many commentators conclude that this exemplifies the low value of human life at the time, the verse can also be interpreted, “They sell . . . the needy because of a pair of sandals.”76 Some claim that sandals were not used by the commoner unless he was conscripted into military service.77 Thus, the sale of people for a pair of sandals would imply a military-commerce relationship—the selling into slavery of military conscripts who could not afford sandals.
  2. “Father and son use the same girl” implies slavery and/or cult prostitution, both social structures.
  3. “Lying down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge” would imply an alignment of the dominant economic group with the religious hierarchy. While it is doubtful that this sexual encounter occurred in the temple of Jerusalem, that it occurred at all in Israel transgressed the law of Moses. Such alignment was common in non-compartmentalized societies—the temple of Jerusalem often served as treasury for political powers of the ancient Middle East (Judg 9:4; 1 Kgs 14:25–27; 15:16–19).
  4. The wording of v. 6 is repeated in Amos 8:4–6, which supports this as a commercial topic—the buying and selling of human beings, cheating, injustice, and miserly greed.


This text includes references to slavery, unlawful interest and loan structures, prostitution, and exploitive commercial transactions. It clearly implicates an alignment of the economic structures with the military powers in a social structure that was controlled by them and aided, or at least not opposed, by the religious establishment. The text also clearly expresses God’s condemnation of this exploitive alignment against the poor and weak. I have learned that life today is not much different.

How Liberation Theology Influenced My Ministry and Missiology

Because of heavy debt, I have never been able to work full-time in the usually low-paying ministry with the poor. I have volunteered for years with Habitat for Humanity and done some work in community development. My wife and I have striven to live a modest lifestyle, though usually without much temptation since that was all we could afford! I admire Howard and Jane Norton, who promised themselves when they returned from 16 years in Brazil that they would not buy into the American dream and gradually grow into “needing” more and more luxury.

As a minister, especially in Louisiana, I have received hundreds of calls to the church asking for financial help. I strive to deal with each person personally and with respect because I have heard them describe the ways they are ignored, alienated, patronized, and angered by insensitive churches. But I seldom let them manipulate me with guilt since: (1) I have seen truly poor people, and most poor in the US would be considered doing well in most of the world,78 and (2) I believe that what most needy people in the US need is a nurturing friendship, not money.79 I encourage the church to be proactive about helping people in constructive ways rather than simply reacting, and unfortunately, often reacting with guilt, frustration, and impatience. For more on this topic, see my article on the challenges of poverty to the North American church.80

I’ve come to despise the “industry of poverty”—the slum lords, pawn shops, check cashing stores, social workers, politicians, and the rest who depend on continued poverty for their livelihoods or careers.81

On a more theoretical basis, however, my missiology has changed. Since missionaries and ministers do such important work, I think we always look back with some regrets about things we wish we had done differently or better. Three areas that stand out for me are the focus of my church planting in Brazil, my understanding of the structural nature of church problems (leadership and classism), and the impact of structural sin on contextualization.

Evangelism Focus

Before we moved to Brazil, we had a typical US tendency toward the middle class and had observed the work of the São Paulo Mission Team, which focused on evangelizing middle-class Brazilians. Moreover, we were strongly encouraged to focus on the middle class by Continent of Great Cities (CGC). At that time, the only way to get a visa to Brazil was through CGC, which required that we attend a class on Brazilian culture and history. While one important motive for requiring this course for all future missionaries was the opportunity to defend military intervention in Brazil (a military regime was in control at the time), the other major concern was to emphasize the importance of focusing church planting efforts on the middle class. In 1992, CGC defended this emphasis thus:

It is indisputable that we must reach people of all classes with the Gospel. With few exceptions, however, the poor will not provide the leadership or financial resources necessary for impacting a nation. The church—and especially the first, large, downtown congregation—needs the strengths found in the middle class. . . .

That is why the Continent of Great Cities encourages building the church around a nucleus of middle-class families without neglecting the disenfranchised.

When we emphasize a thrust toward the middle class, we can still win many of the poor and even some of the rich.82

There is not space here to critique at length several of the positions adapted by CGC at that time, including the ability of the middle class to evangelize across class divisions; the need to first plant one large downtown congregation; and whether even the Brazilian middle class could provide the finances and leadership for a large, downtown church (given that the model itself may be more North American than was previously thought). Nonetheless, I definitely believe that it was a mistake to focus so much on middle-class evangelism. Even the article by CGC quoted above bases its argument on Randall Wittig, who was promoting a move from evangelizing the poor to evangelizing the middle class despite his admission that “a high degree of poverty encourages Protestant growth.”83

I believe that many of my generation of missionaries from Churches of Christ in Brazil failed to see in their own work the extraordinary church growth that was occurring in other faith groups because we focused on evangelizing the middle class and on planting one large, downtown church. In fact, if one looks at the areas of Brazil that have had the highest growth rate among Churches of Christ, I submit that one would find that most of the growth took place among the poor in multiple smaller congregations. If I were to return to Brazil to do church planting again, I would certainly look for ways to plant numerous small churches in a variety of social levels. Most, however, would likely be among the lower classes, and most would probably be house churches that could be self-supporting from the very beginning.84

Besides the concerns over church growth mentioned above, I believe that we largely ignored Jesus’ own model of work, where he was good news to all, but it was principally the poor who followed him. While there are sometimes valid reasons to focus one’s work, I believe it to be antithetical to the gospel for a whole generation of missionaries to Brazil to be focused on the middle class.

Leadership, Social Structures, and Structural Sin

When I began my studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I had the opportunity to visit with missionaries to Latin America from several different denominations. I discovered that we were all struggling with the same problem in leadership—the seeming impossibility of finding leaders that would cooperate with each other!

The problem appears to be based on the patron-client relationship, which most social scientists would agree is, along with the family, the primary social structure of the continent.85 With a long history of paternalistic plantation owners, military-like bandeirantes (bands of colonists seeking gold and slaves in the interior of Brazil), paternalistic industrial magnates, political demagogues, and Catholic god-fathers, the very definition of leadership to most Brazilians implies a solitary strongman who imposes his will on others. The connection to LT is that the socio-economic structures do indeed influence church structures and that these structures may be sinful.

Reed Nelson gives an excellent introduction to how this plays out in Protestant churches,86 but Anthony Leeds is even more helpful since he describes how these patron-client relationships develop into igrejinhas, small groups of supporters led by one strongman.87 This is exactly the organizational type of many of our churches, led by o responsável (the responsible one). This is one reason why it is so difficult for us to appoint elderships comprised of multiple leaders.88 My point is that this tendency to a solitary strongman leadership may also be considered an example of structural sin.

Structural Sin and Contextualization

A final story: one of the unintended consequences of studying LT at the Catholic seminary was that it qualified me to enter a PhD program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. The first class I took through Trinity was Contextualization of Theology, taught by Harvie Conn, offered as an extension course in São Paulo. This course taught us how the never-changing gospel should be made understandable, relevant, and applicable to diverse societies.

I invited Harvie to dinner at my house so that several of my fellow missionaries could meet him. As usual, my wife served an excellent meal, and as everyone finished the main course, the women began gathering the dirty dishes to take them to the kitchen. Then Harvie stood and began to gather dirty dishes! Embarrassed, I joked, “If we (male missionaries) weren’t contextualized to the Latin culture, we would also help.” Harvie replied, “Sometimes gospel judges culture,” and then carried the dishes into the kitchen. The question is, How far can one go in contextualization if one recognizes the existence of structural sin?

On an institutional level, Penny Lernoux published a scathing report of how American multinationals abused their power in Latin America.89 I’m sure that in every case, the Americans involved would say that what they did was facilitated by nationals or was certainly no worse than what national corporations had done. It is this abuse and freedom to abuse that led the US Congress to pass a law stating that US corporations could be prosecuted under US law for actions in other countries.

While the debate on the limits of theological contextualization continue and are very important, we often forget that cultural adaptation can have economic, political, social, personal, and moral implications. While US corporations have at times gone too far in adapting to local business practices, I have also seen myself and other missionaries do questionable things on the “mission field” (language, TV and films, alcohol, dress, payment of employees) in the name of contextualization. Many of the missionaries I have talked with have decided to go with o responsável organization in churches because it is cultural. While societies vary in cultural norms and many of these issues are judgment calls, we must not let contextualization become an excuse for pushing the envelope of moral and biblical issues, because we must remember that the host culture has many elements that are also sinful.


LT forced me to acknowledge the many presuppositions that I had about poor people, capitalism, sin, ministry, the Bible, and more. I learned that I was often imposing my own culture, worldview, and social position on the biblical text. I learned that I must listen to others who are very different from me as they interpret the Bible so that I can better understand it myself while at the same time guarding against this other culture taking me to another, equally false, extreme. I learned that God has a special place in his heart for the poor and oppressed—a place in my heart that I seemed to have filled with pull-myself-up-by-my-own-bootstraps individualism. I learned, indeed, “the gospel is for all.” May God forgive me for my ignorance and presumptuousness in Bible study! May God transform me to have the mind and heart of Jesus! And may God use me as he sees fit in his mission!

Mike Landon was blessed to marry a wonderful woman and have three delightful children. God continued to bless him with opportunities to study at Oklahoma Christian University, Harding University Graduate School of Religion, Faculdade de Teologia Nossa Senhora da Assunção, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and to be a missionary in Brazil, minister in several US congregations, and teacher at a few Christian colleges. He can be contacted at


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Maria de Jesus, Carolina. Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus. Translated by David St. Claire. New York: Signet, 1962.

Mason, John D. “Biblical Teaching and Assisting the Poor.” In The Best in Theology, edited by J. I. Packer., 2:295–322. Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 1988.

McCann, Dennis P. “Liberation and the Multinationals.” Theology Today 41, no. 1 (April 1984): 51–60.

McGovern, Arthur F. “Dependency Theory, Marxist Analysis, and Liberation Theology.” In The Future of Liberation Theology: Essays in Honor of Gustavo Gutiérrez, edited by Marc H. Ellis and Otto Maduro, 272–86. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989.

Míguez Bonino, José. Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation. Confrontation Books. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975.

Moll, Peter. “Liberating Liberation Theology: Towards Independence from Dependency Theory.” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 78 (March 1992): 25–40.

Moser, Antonio. “Mais desafios para a teologia de pecado.” Revista Eclesiástica Brasileira 40, no. 160 (December 1980): 682–91.

Mott, Stephen C. Biblical Ethics and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Mouw, Richard J. Politics and the Biblical Drama. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976.

Myatt, Alan D. “Liberation Theology and the Kingdom of God.” Lecture given at the Evangelical Theological Society Meeting, Kansas City, MO, November 21–23, 1991.

Myers, Bryant. “We Are a Cursed People.” MARC Newsletter 98, no. 1 (March 1998): 3–4.

________. “What Is Poverty Anyway?” MARC Newsletter 97, no. 1 (March 1997): 3–4.

Nelson, Reed E. “Organizational Homogeneity, Growth, and Conflict in Brazilian Protestantism.” Sociological Analysis 48, no. 4 (Month 1988): 319–27.

Novak, Michael. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

Pilch, John J., and Bruce J. Malina, eds. Biblical Social Values and Their Meaning: A Handbook. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993.

Pixley, Jorge V., and Clodovis Boff. The Bible, the Church, and the Poor. Translated by Paul Burns. Theology and Liberation Series. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989.

Regan, David. Igreja para a libertação: Retrato pastoral da igreja no Brasil. Fermento na massa. São Paulo: Paulinas, 1986.

Reppart, Jim. “A Cry for Help!” World Radio News 30, no. 4 (July–August 1993): 12.

Rich, Arthur. “Imperativos objetivos de la economia y pecado estrutural,” Selecciones de Teologia 24, no. 93 (January–March 1985): 33–46.

Rohrbaugh, Richard, ed. The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996.

Schaeffer, Franky. Introduction to Is Capitalism Christian? Toward a Christian Perspective on Economics, ed. Franky Schaeffer, xv–xxix. Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1985.

Schwantes, Milton. Lecture given during a course on the Israelite monarchy at Faculdade de Teologia Nossa Senhora da Assunção, São Paulo, Brazil, 1987.

Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops (Medellín). Conclusões de Medellín. 6th ed. São Paulo: Paulinas, 1987.

Sievernich, Michael. “O ‘pecado social’ e sua confissão.” Concilium 210, no. 3 (March 1987): 60–72.

Theissen, Gerd. The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth. Edited and translated by John H. Schütz. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982.

________. Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity. Translated by John Bowden. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.

Third General Conference of Latin American Bishops (Puebla). Puebla: A evangelização no presente e no futuro da América Latina. 6th ed. Petrópolis, Brazil: Vozes, 1985.

Viola, Frank, and George Barna. Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2008.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons. Scribner Library Lyceum ed. New York: Scribner, 1958.

Weston, Liz P. “How Social Security Cheats You to Pay the Rich.” MSN Money Central.

Yoder, John H. The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972.

1 Hereafter, I will refer to early Latin American Liberation Theology simply as LT, though I will occasionally use “early Latin American LT” as a reminder of the version I am representing. When I refer to later Latin American Liberation Theology or other versions, I will clarify.

2 After the fall of the USSR and because of continued influence from other areas, principally Black Theology of the US, LT became more open and less strident in the 1990s and beyond. See Alfred T. Hennelly, ed., Liberation Theology: A Documentary History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990) and Ignacio Ellacuría and Jon Sobrino, eds., Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993) for introductions to early LT. For later LT, see John L. Kater, Jr., “Whatever Happened to Liberation Theology? New Directions for Theological Reflection in Latin America,” Anglican Theological Review 83, no. 4 (Fall 2001): 735–73.

3 This does not imply that others do not interpret the Bible based on presuppositions, or that Marxism is necessarily wrong in all of its assertions. While “Marxism” remains a flash word to most Americans, Marxist thought has been integrated into the very way history, economics, anthropology, and sociology are practiced throughout the world. No longer is Marxism promoted solely by foreigners and “liberal universities” in the US, but the use of some Marxist tenets is the normal practice of most academicians.

4 Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, trans. Paul Burns (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1987), 1–2.

5 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Continuum, 1991), 50.

6 See also Carolina Maria de Jesus, Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus, trans. David St. Claire (New York: Signet, 1962).

7 Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops (Medellín), “Document on the Poverty of the Church” in Hennelly, 114–19; Third General Conference of Latin American Bishops (Puebla), “Preferential Option for the Poor” in Hennelly, 253–58; Jorge V. Pixley and Clodovis Boff, The Bible, the Church, and the Poor, trans. Paul Burns (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989).

8 Medellín openly admitted and discussed the apparent contradiction of a “wealthy” church that preaches God’s preference for the poor (Hennelly, 114), but this tension applies to me as well.

9 The seminary had begun a new policy of bringing in Protestant teachers. Schwantes taught in a new masters program in Bible that first drew me to the school, though I ended up taking the doctoral program in theology.

10 Eta Linnemann deals with this view of Scripture in Historical Criticism of the Bible: Methodology or Ideology? trans. Robert W. Yarbrough (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), ch. 6, especially pp. 85–86 and 92, where she describes the use of a canon within the canon and Marxism in biblical criticism and interpretation.

11 Alan D. Myatt, “Liberation Theology and the Kingdom of God” (lecture, Evangelical Theological Society Meeting, Kansas City, MO, November 21–23, 1991), 2.

12 Ibid., 3–4, 19.

13 E.g., Rom 12:18; 14:19; 2 Cor 13:11 and Rom 13; 1 Pet 2.

14 David Regan, Igreja para a libertação: Retrato pastoral da igreja no Brasil, Fermento na massa (São Paulo, Brazil: Paulinas, 1986), 52. Translations of Portuguese texts by Michael Landon.

15 Boff and Boff, 28.

16 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons, Scribner Library Lyceum ed. (New York: Scribner, 1958), 88–92.

17 George E. G. Catlin, introduction to the translation of The Rules of Sociological Method by Émile Durkheim, ed. George E. G. Catlin, trans. Sarah A. Solovay and John H. Mueller, 8th ed. (New York: Free Press, 1938), xxx; Steven Lukes, Émile Durkheim: His Life and Work: A Historical and Critical Study (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 151.

18 James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 20th anniversary ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990), xvii–xviii, 23–28. See also Dwight N. Hopkins, Introducing Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), 167–72 for the story of the first meetings between the two groups.

19 At NSA, I had a course taught by Julio de Santa Ana on the hermeneutics of early Latin American Liberation biblical scholars where we studied the hermeneutical methods of Jorge Pixley, Severino Croatto, Juan Luis Segundo, Rubem Alves, José Miranda, Elsa Tamez, Gilberto Gorgulho, Ana Flora Anderson, Pablo Richard, Milton Schwantes, Marcelo Barros, and Carlos Mestres. On the last day of the course, Santa Ana affirmed that although each author was different, every one of them used class conflict as part of their hermeneutical method.

20 Frei Betto, “Dimensão social do pecado,” Grande Sinal 29 no. 4 (July–August 1975): 501, emphasis added.

21 An early version is Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, trans. Cedric Belfrage (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973). See Pixley and Boff, 10–13. The bishops of Latin America clearly accepted the tenets of Dependency Theory in the final document of their second general conference (Conclusões de Medellín, 6th ed. [São Paulo: Paulinas, 1987], 26–27), but in their third conference, they warned against the uncritical use of Marxism in church pastoral work (Puebla: A evangelização no presente e no futuro da América Latina, 6th ed. [Petrópolis, Brazil: Vozes, 1985], 544).

22 Hugo Assmann, ed., A Trilateral: Nova fase do capitalismo mundial, trans. Hugo Pedro Boff, 3rd ed. (Petrópolis, Brazil: Vozes, 1986).

23 See Arthur F. McGovern, “Dependency Theory, Marxist Analysis, and Liberation Theology,” in The Future of Liberation Theology: Essays in Honor of Gustavo Gutiérrez, ed. Marc H. Ellis and Otto Maduro (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989), 280 for a similar evaluation.

24 A weakness of LT that I observed was that it focused on sweeping changes of the society that had only a tenuous link to personal change. See my article, “The Social Presuppositions of Early Liberation Theology,” Restoration Quarterly 47, no. 1 (2005): 17–28. (Unfortunately, through my error several of the footnotes in that article are not precise.)

25 Paulo Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness, ed. and trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Continuum, 1990), translated from Educação como prática da liberdade, 2nd ed. (Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1969) and Extención y comunicación (Santiago: Institute for Agricultural Reform, 1969), 149.

26 Hennelly, xviii, 2, 4–13.

27 Ibid., xix.

28 Ibid., xvii–xix; see also Otto Maduro’s last three chapters on the role of the church and priest in raising class consciousness in Religion and Social Conflicts, trans. Robert R. Barr (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1982), 136–44.

29 Juan Luis Segundo, “Two Theologies of Liberation,” in Hennelly, 360.

30 Ibid., 359–60.

31 José Míguez Bonino, Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation, Confrontation Books (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 144–50.

32 Jürgen Moltmann, “An Open Letter to José Míguez Bonino,” in Hennelly, 197. For LT’s dependence on Teilhard de Chardin, see John W. Cooper, “Teilhard, Marx, and the Worldview of Prominent Liberation Theologians,” Calvin Theological Journal 24, no. 2 (November 1989): 241–62.

33 Moltmann, 198.

34 See Michael Landon, Sweating It Out (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2006), 33–36 for more information about the specifics of how this economic abuse took place. This research referred to here formed one part of the NSA dissertation that I began but never finished. See McGovern, 277–79, for a similar evaluation.

35 Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

36 For a short introduction to this concept as developed by W. W. Rostow, see Wayne G. Bragg, “Theological Reflections on Assisting the Vulnerable,” in Christian Relief and Development, ed. Edgar J. Elliston (Dallas: Word, 1989), 64–65.

37 Ronald H. Chilcote and Joel C. Edelstein, Latin America: Capitalist and Socialist Perspectives of Development and Underdevelopment, Latin American Perspectives 3 (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1986).

38 Justo González, Faith and Wealth: A History of Early Christian Ideas on the Origin, Significance, and Use of Money (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990), 15.

39 Lev 25:14–17, 23, 35–43; Deut 15:7–11; Acts 2, 4.

40 Lev 25:2–7, 18–22.

41 Prov 6:6–8; 13:11; 21:20; 22:3, 7; Deut 30:15–20.

42 Possible examples are Robert A. Sirico, co-founder of Acton Institute,; Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), among many other books and articles; and Franky Schaeffer, introduction to Is Capitalism Christian? ed. Franky Schaeffer (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1985), xvi–xviii.

43 Fernando H. Cardoso, Política e desenvolvimento em sociedades dependentes, 2nd ed. (Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1978), 210. It appears the problem he encountered was a lack of enough data to have statistically valid conclusions. See also Peter Moll, “Liberating Liberation Theology: Towards Independence from Dependency Theory,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 78 (March 1992): 29–33 and Dennis P. McCann, “Liberation and the Multinationals,” Theology Today 41, no. 1 (April 1984): 52–53.

44 One of the greatest blessings in my life was encountering the literature and person of Paul G. Hiebert. The article in question here is “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle,” Missiology 10, no. 1 (January 1982): 35–47, where Hiebert denounces the tendency for Western Christians to split reality into two separate and unrelated realms—physical and spiritual. His writings have been life-changing, and, in person, he was a very kind and loving man.

45 Landon, “Social Presuppositions,” 23–24.

46 Ps 136; Neh 9; Acts 7; Heb 11.

47 See Mason’s summary in Landon, Sweating It Out, 133 or in John D. Mason, “Biblical Teaching and Assisting the Poor,” in The Best in Theology, ed. J. I. Packer (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 1988), 2:300.

48 E.g., Prov 13:3; 22:22, 26–27; 28:3.

49 E.g., Prov 6:6–11; 13:18; 21:17; 24:30–34; 28:19.

50 See the list in Landon, Sweating It Out, 137.

51 Much of what is written below is described in greater detail in my article, “Social Presuppositions.”

52 See Edward Farley, Good and Evil: Interpreting a Human Condition (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 252–3 for an introduction to the four principal philosophical and religious ways of interpreting evil.

53 Clodovis Boff, “O pecado social,” Revista Eclesiástica Brasileira 37, no. 148 (December 1977): 693.

54 Betto, 501. See also Arthur Rich, “Imperativos objetivos de la economia y pecado estrutural,” Selecciones de Teologia 24, no. 93 (January–March 1985): 37.

55 John H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 135–62; Richard J. Mouw, Politics and the Biblical Drama (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 89; Stephen C. Mott, Biblical Ethics and Social Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 4–10.

56 Jim Reppart, “A Cry for Help!” World Radio News 30, no. 4 (July–August 1993): 12.

57 Harvie M. Conn (lecture given during an extension course on contextualization,Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, São Paulo, Brazil, 1987).

58 Robert C. Linthicum, Empowering the Poor (Monrovia, CA: MARC, 1991), 5–6.

59 On conspiracy against the poor, see Michael Lipton, “Why Poor People Stay Poor: Urban Bias in World Development,” in The Urbanization of the Third World, ed. Josef Gugler (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 45.

60 For example, they pay the highest percentage of income into social security. Liz P. Weston, “How Social Security Cheats You to Pay the Rich,” MSN Money Central,

61 The best studies for Churches of Christ are Richard T. Hughes and C. Leonard Allen, Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry of Churches of Christ (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1988) and Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996). For Protestants in general, see Tony Campolo, Partly Right: Learning from the Critics of Christianity (Dallas: Word, 1985); Frank Viola and George Barna, Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2008); and David W. Bercot, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up: A New Look at Today’s Evangelical Church in the Light of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Tyler, TX: Scroll, 1999).

62 Michael Sievernich, “O ‘pecado social’ e sua confissão,” Concilium 210, no. 3 (March 1987): 68.

63 C. Boff, “Pecado social,” 690.

64 Leonardo Boff, A graça libertadora no mundo, 3rd ed., Publicações CID, Teologia 12 (Petrópolis, Brazil: Vozes, 1985), 172.

65 Antonio Moser, “Mais desafios para a teologia de pecado,” Revista Eclesiástica Brasileira 40, no. 160 (December 1980): 690–91.

66 Pixley and Boff, 2, 141–42, 159–84.

67 Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, trans. and ed. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1973), 276.

68 E.g., 1 Cor 10:12–13.

69 Gerd Theissen, Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978) and The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth, ed. and trans. John H. Schütz (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982).

70 It appears the original concept of flat and round characters was developed by E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988 [1927]), 73. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says, “Flat characters are two-dimensional in that they are relatively uncomplicated and do not change throughout the course of a work. By contrast, round characters are complex and undergo development, sometimes sufficiently to surprise the reader.” Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, “Flat and Round Characters,” accessed February 9, 2011,

71 I find these beginning texts to be especially useful: Richard Rohrbaugh, ed., The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), or John J. Pilch and Bruce J. Malina, eds., Biblical Social Values and Their Meaning: A Handbook (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993).

72 Segundo; Freire, Education.

73 The result of one such class formed the introduction to my article, “The Psalms as Mission,” Restoration Quarterly 44, no. 3 (2002): 165–75.

74 Norman K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 356.

75 Scripture quotations are taken from the New International Version.

76 William L. Holladay, ed., A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 262.

77 Milton Schwantes (lecture given during a course on Israelite monarchy, Faculdade de Teologia Nossa Senhora da Assunção, São Paulo, Brazil, 1987).

78 Experts recognize two levels of poverty: relative poverty and absolute poverty. Very few in the US meet the criteria for absolute poverty, though millions do in Africa and Asia. See David Gordon, “Indicators of Poverty & Hunger,”

79 Poverty is not simply a matter of material resource but of a state of mind, principally hopelessness. See Bryant Myers, “What Is Poverty Anyway?” MARC Newsletter 97, no. 1 (March 1997): 3–4 and Bryant Myers, “We Are a Cursed People,” MARC Newsletter 98, no. 1 (March 1998): 3–4 for short but excellent discussions.

80 Michael Landon, “The Challenges of Poverty to the North American Church,” Restoration Quarterly 47, no. 2 (2005): 105–15.

81 Michael Hudson, Merchants of Misery (Common Courage Press, 1996), quoted in Fred Clark, “Merchants of Misery,” Prism 5, no. 3 (March–April 1998): 38; Business Week, “Minting Money Off Poverty,” MSN Money Central,

82 Continent of Great Cities, “Latin America’s Middle Class Holds Answer,” Continent of Great Cities South America (Spring 1992): 2,

83 Randall Wittig, “Latin American Evangelicals Must Look Beyond Short Term,” World Pulse, “in a recent issue,” quoted in Continent of Great Cities, 2.

84 There are indications that Continent of Great Cities is becoming more flexible in their approach.

85 S. N. Eisenstadt and Louis Roniger, “Patron-Client Relations as a Model of Structuring Social Exchange,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 22, no. 1 (June 1980): 49 and Larissa Lomnitz, “Reciprocity of Favors in the Urban Middle Class of Chile,” in Studies in Economic Anthropology, Anthropological Studies 7 (Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association, 1971), 104.

86 Reed E. Nelson, “Organizational Homogeneity, Growth, and Conflict in Brazilian Protestantism,” Sociological Analysis 48, no. 4 (1988): 319–27.

87 Anthony Leeds, “Brazilian Careers and Social Structure: An Evolutionary Model and Case History,” American Anthropologist 66, no. 6 part 1 (December 1964): 1336. Igrejinha does not refer to a church, but to any group led by one strongman.

88 This does not imply that the US understanding of elderships is without influence from our society.

89 Penny Lernoux, Cry of the People: United States Involvement in the Rise of Fascism, Torture, and Murder and the Persecution of the Catholic Church in Latin America (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980), esp. chs. 4 and 7.