End Actual Poverty First: Bible Poverty & the Second Coming of Christ

See how silly this sounds?

Perhaps you’ve noticed it. Maybe even on this site in the advertisements.

Makena can’t read the Christmas story.

End Bible Poverty.

If you want to end Bible Poverty, since that’s a thing now, with its own hashtag and everything, be my guest.

But maybe, before we do that, maybe we could think about, oh, I don’t know, doing something about actual poverty first?

Before we fret over the 1 billion people who don’t have a Bible in their own language (did anyone ask if they wanted one first?), maybe we can think about the 1.4 billion in extreme poverty every day. Maybe we can talk about the almost 3 million children who died from hunger or malnutrition in 2008. Or maybe we can put some innovation and good will toward preventing some of the 16,000 deaths that result from hunger each day. (source)

I’m not against working to get people Bibles in their own languages, if that’s what they want on their own accord. I love the Bible for who it reveals God to be. Its stories have shaped me more profoundly than anything else in the world (and I would guess people of other faiths might feel similarly to their own sacred texts or traditions). But it is precisely because I love the biblical stories so much that I have such a problem with this campaign.

At first, I didn’t understand how anyone could possibly pair the word “Bible” and “poverty” in a world where actual poverty is so destructive, rampant, and oppressive. It is offensive to those in actual poverty. And it’s offensive to the Bible itself, which is all about actually feeding people real food and seeking actual economic and social justice right now. 

Then I recognized the Wycliffe Bible Translators campaign for what it was: veiled idolatry. The entire End Bible Poverty campaign treats the Bible like a talisman — an idol, really — in which translating Scripture into an indigenous language magically transforms a culture in some perceived primitive heart of darkness into a holy and humane one.

Take for instance their indefensible maligning of the Andean Quechua. According to the campaign’s Web site, the Quechua were barbaric. Men got drunk and beat their wives. Women weren’t allowed in churches. Then they received the Bible in their own language, and discrimination ceased, and everything was all better, and women could go to church. Of course, what we don’t hear about is the systemic oppression of the Quechua by the wealthy and powers that be, the genocide of their people, their forced sterilization, and their virtual enslavement in the hacienda system. Nor do we hear about the indigenous movement, rooted in liberation theology and radical Catholic priests like Leonidas Proaño, that confronts not just the lack of words on a page, but the lack of power, equality, and economic opportunity. It’s a movement that emphasizes indigenous identity, self-determination, solidarity, and empowerment.

All we get from End Bible Poverty is the idea that these poor backward folk up in the mountains needed our help and needed some Bibles so they wouldn’t be the brutal animals they had been previously. According to the site, it’s essentially that they were lost, but thanks be to God  us and our Bibles, they have been found.

But even this industrial-savior complex isn’t the most disturbing part of the End Bible Poverty campaign. Rather, it’s the disturbing theology that seems to support it. The Web site explains,

“The day all people will have access to the Word of God is approaching. Innovation has rapidly accelerated the work, and we’re on the verge of a historic achievement. With your partnership this will happen.”

So, in other words, it’s not really about improving the lives of people around the world, as their emotional appeals would have you believe. Rather, it’s about reaching all language groups or people groups with a Bible in their own languages. This itself is coded language, common among evangelical missionaries who believe the Bible must be translated in all languages in order to reach all “people groups” at which point the Second Coming will occur.

Or in one of their own recruitment Web site’s words:

A common verse used when teaching about missions is Matthew 28:18 and Matthew 24:14, which says, “And the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, so that all nations will hear it; and then the end will come” (NLT). Essentially, missions ushers in the second coming of Christ!

In other words, once everyone has had access to the Gospel in their own language, then Christ can come back. (Source)

So, Ending Bible Poverty isn’t really about improving the lives of others after all. It’s not about ending abuse or anything so noble.

Rather, it’s about ushering in the end the world.

No wonder they emphasize an imagined poverty instead of  actual poverty.

They think the way to end poverty and suffering in the world is simply to end the world.

But see, as a Christian, I can’t think that way.

I want what Jesus prays for in the Gospels.

I want the kingdom to come on earth, not just in heaven.

About David R. Henson

David Henson received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalists. He ordained in the Episcopal Church as a priest. He is a father of two young sons and the husband of a medical school student.

  • Y. A. Warren

    I agree with you. I also believe that The Bible is the most misunderstood book in the world; either that or people (especially those in the pulpits) are purposely perverting it to garner power through instilling fear.

  • Shane

    I disagree that they are trying to usher in the end of the world by spreading God’s Word. While I agree that it is important that we fight actual poverty and physical problems of the world, as a Christian, we need to share God’s Word. I think it a noble effort, to attempt to bring the Word of God to those who don’t have any access to it.

    Aside from the physical worldly problems that we are charged to help others through, so too, are we charged with spreading the Word of God. I find the attack both premature and an unjustified judgment. As it stands now, with no proof of wrong doing and ill intent–your criticisms are all based on conjecture and quite unbecoming.

    Much like the “far right” and those involved in preaching the “prosperity gospel”, it appears much is being taken out of context here. My opinion, give them a chance first. We have a spiritual obligation as well as a physical obligation to our Brothers and Sisters in this world. Peace.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      Unfortunately, among evangelical missionaries and with this specific group promoting this campaign, there is a long and established theology that seeks to share the Bible with all “people groups” and “languages” specifically because this is what must happen in order for Jesus to return. This has been going on for decades, so it’s not like this is a new thing that we need to “give them a chance.” (See the quote in the post). It isn’t anomalous. It’s not out of context. It is the norm. It’s not conjecture; neither is it unbecoming suggesting that we ought to focus on poverty, not used the impoverished as objects to accomplish the return of Christ.

      • Shane

        Yeah, I’m very familiar with the theology of sharing the Bible and with the message of His return. Why does it have to be taken as such? Why can’t it be taken that there are those of us who believe a great deal in our faiths, and wish to share it in goodwill with our Brothers and Sisters–not to usher in a “return” and end of the world scenario, but to share the Love and Grace of God?

        When I give someone a Bible, or sit with any of the homeless in my area and talk about my faith…that’s all I’m doing. I’m not trying to accomplish the Return of Christ. He’s very well capable of doing that on His own, I’m not fighting a battle that’s already been won.

        I fail to see any righteousness in your anger and judgment, I think you’re jumping to conclusions too much on this–and lumping everyone in the same basket. Maybe I’m wrong and that’s their sole mission and your criticism is justified.

        Lastly, my reference to conjecture and unbecoming was to what I believe, is your assumption that they are simply impoverished as objects to accomplish the return of Christ. I was not in anyway implying that it’s unbecoming to help the sick, poor, homeless or hungry. You cast a mighty stone, friend. Is it too much to ask, to give folks the benefit of the doubt ever once in awhile?

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        I’m not angry. And I’m not judging. I’m critiquing a movement (to reach “people/language groups) that began post-WWII when surplus military equipment made it possible for missionaries to reach remote villages and introduce Christianity, often with little regard for the indigenous themselves. This effort is *exactly* in line with this movement and with the same movement which understands this work as ushering in the Second Coming. See the quote in the post from a Wycliffe recruiting Web site (which is behind the End Bible Poverty campaign). It’s in their own words, not mine.

        I’m not jumping to conclusions. I’m pointing out their own theology that they have on their own Web sites.

        Again, I will reiterate their own recruiting Web site and their own words about how they understand themselves: “Essentially, missions ushers in the second coming of Christ!”

        This logic is not anomalous but has a long history with evangelical mission work among “unreached people groups.”

  • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

    Thank you! As a fellow Patheos blogger, I’ve been annoyed by the “Bible Poverty” ads popping up on my blog (on the day that I blogged about community being the most important reason I take my kids to church, not their learning Bible stories,no less!). This is a great perspective.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      Yes! I have had numerous complaints from long-time readers about the ads. They find them offensive.

  • MatthewWorsfold

    There was a church planting organization that came to my undergraduate to give a presentation; regarding their work, they literally said, “We could feed the hungry, but instead we’re doing the more important work of planting churches in Montana.”

    • Sharideth

      O_o

      Because that whole feed the hungry/least of these thing was just a suggestion, right? Oy.

    • JenellYB

      That exact mentality pervades Christian religion to the core! Over the years, back before I knew better, having at the time not been “churched” since childhood, and not having yet made my venture (adventures?) into the churchly world over a decades ago, that showed me this truth, I had at times of discovering someone, a person or family, in dire and desperate need, tried to seek help for them. And not knowing better, had made approaches at various churches, and various different kinds of churches, trying to find some source of help for them. And without exception, the response was ALWAYS, in every instance, exactly along those lines, and ALWAYS delivered in distinctly condescending tones…. We/the Church don’t address people’s material needs, WE/the Church are addressing people’s HIGHER needs, their SPIRITUAL needs…. not their problems here on Earth, but their ETERNAL salvation. Now, if they need and want SPIRITUAL guidance, why, yes, tell them they are welcome to come here, Brother/Pastor/Father So-and-So will be more than happy to help them.

  • Jonathan Pelton

    Hi Dave,

    a couple of comments. I think that there is a gap between ministries on the left and ministries on the right. Those on the left seem to be saying (or can easily be perceived as saying) “Forget Heaven, sin, salvation, and all that spiritual stuff, we just need to get people bread and education and then everything will be fixed up all better!” While those on the right seem to be saying “Forget the here and now oppression; all our current sufferings are simply adding to our reward in Heaven! Give them a Bible and forget the rest!” To me, sin and oppression are two sides of the same coin. Wherever you find one you will always find the other; and we cannot hope to adequately address one without addressing the other. (BTW, if I hear you correctly, I don’t think I’m arguing against your point, I think I may be simply re-articulating the point you’re making; could be wrong though)

    I do think that the tangible struggles of our species are rooted in deeper spiritual struggles of sin and rebellion; and that, therefore, it is ridiculous to attempt to treat only the physical manifestations of those spiritual problems, such as poverty, inequalities and the like, without attempting to simultaneously address the underlying issues of sin. We can hand out all the bread in the world, but if we are still a culture characterized by greed, individualism, consumerism, and a lack of empathy for our fellow humans, then hunger won’t be solved. We have to allow the Spirit of Christ to penetrate to the core of our species and effect a racial (race of humanity) sanctification. Until this is accomplished, no amount of effort will solve our social problems.
    At the same time, our condition is exacerbated and provoked by the here and now struggles we experience. Evil is self-propogating; sin begets oppression, but oppression begets sin, which then begets more oppression. We have to remember that the purpose of Christianity, the purpose of salvation, of evangelization, and of righteousness is to end the suffering which sin begets. If we cease to love the poor, to care for the oppressed, then we have completely missed the whole point of the incarnation and atonement. So, while it is ridiculous to attempt to solve sin without Christ; it is equally ridiculous to not care for those whom Christ came to save, or to not care about the circumstances which Christ came to save them from.

    • Grandmother Angri

      I think the whole idea of this blog started with the strange ads David mentioned seeing on Patheos. His first take on this was (according to his facebook page):

      “Keep seeing ads to end ‘Bible poverty.’ Maybe we could start with actual poverty first? Just a thought.”

      I think it can be reasoned that a discussion of someone’s spirituality makes more sense when that person is not hungry. It’s the same as we were taught in teacher education… a child who comes to school hungry can hardly learn. “Bible Poverty” seems a perversion of the real hunger/poverty issues. Perhaps the phrase would be more appropriately termed “Bible Deficit”.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      Poverty is not a spiritual problem.

      What people need both the poor and the rich is solidarity with one another. We need people thinking about better economics and paradigms. I find it problematic to take such a passive approach to the world’s problems to say “we just need to be penetrated by the Spirit of Christ.” I think God is much more in the business of partnering with us than penetrating us. God wants active people that God can work with.

      Solidarity happens among Christians and non-Christians alike. I suggest the work of Paulo Freire as an example. I will take Freire over Wycliffe any day.

  • William Colburn

    The Bible can help at ‘both ends’. First, it reminds us to feed the hungry, which our mission group did among the SE Asian refugees many years ago. But it doing so we suddenly had a large number of requests for bibles – which we were also pleased to provide. Turns out that the pages were not only instructive re feeding the hungry, but were discovered to be a perfect substitute for toilet paper.

    • http://twitter.com/twbtwb Tim Wilson-Brown

      William, I was just thinking about the toilet paper issues myself!
      Bibles are often the highest-quality paper in a village, aren’t they?

      • William Colburn

        Yes, paraphrasing Paul, what an honor to be considered, along with Christ, the ‘excrement wipe’ of the world. There is nothing so ‘low’ that grace cannot accommodate and be the solution of.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      And, I think God was pleased here. No way we should think the God of the Incarnation would be upset about meeting so basic a need. Jesus washed feet that had been mired in animal excrement from walking, after all, as one of his last acts before crucifixion.

  • JenellYB

    Isn’t such things about a highly capitalized “Industrial Religion Complex” very much in the same sense as the capitalized “Military Industrial Complex?” Such a campaign presents so many income/wealth building opportunities, from donations solicited to manufacture and sales of more bibles to newly opened markets?

  • http://twitter.com/twbtwb Tim Wilson-Brown

    Can they even read the bibles they’re being given?
    Literacy is the unacknowledged elephant in the room – apart from feeling so hungry you can’t concentrate on the words.

  • Jynx73

    David, are you familiar with the work of Wycliffe at all? It doesn’t sound like it. They and their partner organizations (the Seed Company for one) expend millions of dollars a year in efforts to address people’s physical needs (food, clothing, water projects, medical care) and help address the oppression they face (literacy programs, trauma healing, ect.). While their primary work is Bible translation it is coupled with a holistic approach that is about more than solely translating scripture. I’ve seen it firsthand.

    

The problem in your rationale is the presupposition that the Bible is irrelevant to people’s eternal destinies. Your statement:,

    “the Bible itself, which is all about actually feeding people real food and seeking actual economic and social justice right now.”

    is reflective of a theology that hollows out the gospel and reduces it to a mandate for social justice. The Bible isn’t primarily about social justice. While it is inclusive of the idea of meeting people’s everyday hardships, the gospel is about so much more. Christ came to seek and save those who are lost [in their sin] and change their eternal destiny. If you’re of the belief that the Bible is nothing more than stories that might “profoundly shape” us then of course your priorities aren’t going to be in alignment with people who think it is inspired Word of God and essential in enabling people to have a saving relationship with Him.

    Are we commanded to meet people’s “real-world” needs? Of course. But if that is all we do then an unspeakably horrible injustice has been perpetrated. In my opinion, the term “Bible poverty” is an understatement of the state we’ve left them in. But it serves to illustrate the truth.

    • Jynx73

      A summary of Wycliffe’s holistic approach here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQ4nzEpfBQs

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        Jeff,

        I had not planned on responding. I thought your comment was self-sufficient. But after three separate comments in three days, I thought maybe this would offer closure.

        I get that you work with Wycliffe (or have) and are fully invested with their worldview, which I find problematic theologically and sociologically (as you have posted the not-yet-released video). The video you posted here actually confirms what I outline in my post and confirms what I have researched and read about Wycliffe both from favorable and unfavorable sources.

        We can argue and debate what the Bible is about all we want. But at the end of the day, Wycliffe and other translating organizations are pushing this because it falls in line with theologies that understand that all must have a Bible in order for the Second Coming to occur. That’s what I’m addressing in the post, and I doubt Wycliffe is interested in publicly repudiating that theology.

        Because even if the organization itself have moved passed that particularly damaging theology, it is dependent upon those who hold to it for financial support, and this current campaign traffics in it.

        Fight poverty.

        Give people Bibles in their own language.

        But let’s get rid of the off-putting phrase Bible Poverty. For we Christians who see poverty, not the lack of Bibles, as the ultimate dehumanization the phrase is deeply problematic. I found it offensive.

        This doesn’t even begin to speak to a larger discussion that needs to happen regarding some of the sociological and anthropological practices translating organizations engage in that would get actual sociologist and anthropologists potentially called in front of ethical or conduct review boards.

        If Wycliffe is interested in attracting people outside of the narrow conservative evangelical world (which I understand sometimes gets upset Wycliffe’s translation word choices), I ask you to listen to progressive Christians who have been offended by this campaign. I would never have written about this campaign (as I understand it to be a conservative evangelical one) had its ads not showed up on my own blog and offended a number of my own readers.

        Maybe better targeting is all that’s needed.

      • Jynx73

        David, thanks for responding. I, like you, understand that you are no less invested in your particular theological presuppositions and opinions- unless you are the only person on earth who lives in a vacuum of complete objectivity and I doubt you are going to claim that status. Accusing one person (or organization) of operating from a set of beliefs only illuminates the reality that you, are in fact, making judgements about those beliefs from the vantage point of your own set.

        So forgive me for repeating myself but, again, your particular judgements about Wycliffe and it’s theology are influenced by your own liberal theological disposition and presuppositions about the truthfulness of scripture. Since you seem to believe (and correct me if I am wrong) that scripture is nothing more than “profound stories” of course you are going to see a biblically based belief in the future return of Christ as unimportant. It’s just a nice, yet ultimately false, story in your view.

        However, for a person (or organization) who believes in the veracity of scripture Christ’s return is, well, quite a big deal. Safe to say the biggest of deals. You vilify the idea of motivating believers to act by reinforcing what scripture already says. But, I get that, because you don’t believe the BIble’s truth claims. However, for the people who follow Christ and His Word it would be disobedient not to talk about his imminent return.

        A biblically based understanding of the second coming begins with the reality that “no one knows the day or the hour.” There is quite good biblical evidence to support the idea that before it will happen the gospel will have reached every corner of the earth. It could be one hour or a 1000 years or more after that point that Christ will return. No one knows. Most anyone at Wycliffe would affirm that thinking. They view gospel reaching every language group on earth as a checkpoint, not the finish line. But, they are genuinely excited about reaching that point.

        The accusation that Wycliffe’s motivation for emphasizing Christ’s return is getting more money or the self-propagation is, well, laughable. Believe me the money is not that good. Haha. The vast majority of workers (including the USA president) raise their support. No one at Wycliffe is there for money. If they were they’d be somewhere else. David, if you only knew the incredible sacrifices people here (the U.S.) and abroad have made… I think you would see why some of your judgments and unfounded accusations aren’t just inaccurate, but a slap in the face to those who have literally sacrificed their entires lives not only for people’s physical needs but their spiritual ones as well.

        On the offensiveness poverty campaign: If I believed that there weren’t people starving around the world then I would take exception to people who were trying to raise money to meet that need. It’s the same here. You don’t believe that Christ is coming back, therefore you take exception to someone connecting it to a need. Likewise, you don’t believe scripture is the key to people’s spiritual transformation. Therefore, in your view, elevating it to the seriousness of poverty is offensive to you. I get that.

        On the opposite side, it’s a bit offensive that you want to take something, that some view as the one and only transformative, holy, Word of God, and relegate it to being less important than people’s physical needs. How about we try and respect the perspectives we’re forming our values from? I think it will go a long way to suave all the offense flying around.

        I doubt Wycliffe will change it’s message to please the liberal theology segment of the population. They couldn’t enough to make them happy and still be consistent with scripture. Biblical truth, in all it’s various forms, has found unfavorable judgements since about A.D. 30. Christians are sort of used to the gospel being unpopular. I’m sorry some of the ads on you blog platform don’t align with all your beliefs. That’s the cost of admission I suppose. Maybe you can take comfort in the fact that some of Wycliffe’s money is supporting your ability to have a free blog and talk about your beliefs. Seems like a fair trade to me.

        Last, what the videos do is point out how accusations that Wycliffe cares nothing about people’s physical and sociological needs (quote: “Or maybe we can put some innovation and good will toward preventing some of the 16,000 deaths that result from hunger each day”) are patently false. But, that’s self-evident and I’ll leave it to anyone who wants to watch them to make their own objective decision.

        Thanks for the discussion.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        Jeff,

        You’ve put an immense amount of words in my mouth here, regarding my beliefs, my understanding of the Bible and theology. At the same time, you’ve confirmed *exactly* what I say in the original post regarding Wycliffe’s motivating theology as an organization which believes its work translating the bible will usher in the return of Christ. That is the operating theology here for Wycliffe. And you have confirmed it as both a Wycliffe supporter and employee.

        Thanks for validating the post and proving its point so clearly.

    • Jynx73

      Here’s another one, yet to be released, that talks about some of their efforts in literacy: http://wycliffe.fordela.com/videos

  • Frank

    John 4

    13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

  • Kristina Skepton

    Thank you for this post. I always felt a tad guilty that those ads annoyed me. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why but you put words to my feelings. I don’t feel guilty any more – Thanks!
    Kristina Skepton
    Founder, SeeingGod Ministries
    http://www.Facebook.com/SeeingGod

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