Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Book Thoughts: Development Work

Note: I decided recently to comment on things I've noted in books over the years. I'm calling these Book Thoughts. This is the second post.

I wrote recently about Christian economic development work, and it reminded me of a thin little book I read called, Economics in One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt. No graphs or ponderous math. Very readable.

In brief, the one lesson is this:

The art of economics consists of looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.

Sounds absurdly simple, but as I watch the world go by, it seems clear to me that it is a simple lesson that is widely ignored.

Having said that, let me go back to my Christian Development topic with a little fable (any relation to real companies or towns is pure coincidence):

Missionary Bob works in the poor town of La Luna in a Latin American country. The Big Hiking Shoes company has just opened a factory there, paying an awful wage to its workers and no benefits at all. It would pay even less if it could, but if it did it would not attract enough people away from subsistence farming to make the factory work. So BHS reluctantly improves the people's standard of living by paying just a bit more than the prevailing wage.

But Bob gets mad. BHS is "exploiting" the people by "underpaying." So, when he is back in North America he visits BHS headquarters and tells them they need to pay more, provide day care for the workers' children, and low-cost health care. If you don't, Bob hints, he's got lots of friends and he may make a fuss and generate a lot of bad publicity.

Well, even more than cheap wages, BHS doesn't want bad publicity, so its says that, "Yes, Yes, of course we are very concerned about the problems you are bringing up, and thank you very much for bringing them to our attention and we will certainly do exactly what you suggest." And BHS lives up to its word, and Bob basks in the satisfaction of knowing how much he helped the poor people of the town, and he has pictures of himself taken with the happy children at the new daycare center and sends the photos to his supporters and says that you just have to stand up to these exploiters.

But what Bob doesn't see is that BHS was planning to expand its operations in town because it was so cheap, but because of the extra expenses Bob has imposed upon the company, it's not as cheap anymore, so BHS quietly decides not to expand there. Oh, the BHS PR lady stands with Bob and smiles for the camera and boasts about how caring the company is, but it opens its new factory in Vietnam.

Nor does Bob see that Larry's Boot Company, a BHS competitor, was about to follow BHS' lead and open a factory in La Luna, but seeing what happened to BHS, it goes to Thailand instead.

So Bob strangled the number of new jobs in town, but thinks he's a hero.

Instead, what if Bob, when back in North America, had stopped by and visited Larry's Boot Company and said, "Your competitor, BHS, has opened a factory in La Luna. The people there work for very little and do fine work. I'd be happy to show you the ropes down there if you wanted to open a factory, and BHS has spent a lot of money training people to do this work, and you could offer them a bit more and get a nice workforce without the cost of training. Etc. etc."

So Larry's, just as stingy a company as BHS, opens a factory and hires away a lot of BHS' employees at a bit more than they are currently being paid. Soon BHS gets tired of losing trained people, and reluctantly offers them more money. And because two factories require more workers than one, both companies hire more people from the community and the trained people start making more money. And because they have a bit more money to spend, a few retail stores open branches there, and employ more people. And so forth.

I'm not saying there is never a place for Bob's approach, but I think that in many cases Bob is simply not thinking out the effects of what he is doing. He may easily be doing far more harm than good.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Book of Hosea

The Biblical book of Hosea is kind of like falling into a pit and then seeing a sunny garden at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

The prophet Hosea speaks of betrayal, of God's sorrow and anger, of defeat, of exile, of evil in religion and government, of human sacrifice, of punishment and of slaughter - even slaughter of pregnant women and young children. In this book there is ghastly real-world pain and suffering; it is not an old-time cowboy movie where the women and children come through safely. But on a deeper level, it is about God's love, specifically for his chosen people, Israel, even though it is a love answered by contempt and rebellion leading to suffering. But finally, and happily, it ends with God rescuing and renewing Israel.

Love, rebellion, falling into the pit of destruction, and then - far down the tunnel - restoration and renewal.

Although the book deals primarily with Israel during the depraved days before its first exile, it is also a picture of the sweep of human history, from our near and loving association with God in Eden, to our plunge into sin and suffering, to our redemption through Christ, and finally - and yet to come - to the renewal of all things.

Again, love, rebellion, destruction, restoration and renewal. An echo of Hosea's story.

Part One of the book (chapters 1 to 3) is a graphic and poetic in-the-flesh illustration painfully lived out in front of Israel by the prophet Hosea and his family. Hosea (representing God) was told to marry Gomer, an unfaithful woman (representing Israel), and by her he had children... or did he? But despite Gomer's unfaithfulness Hosea loved Gomer and payed a price to redeem her, just as God would pay a price through Christ to redeem Israel.

What is fascinating about this first section is that Hosea almost seems to be using the outline of soon-coming events (Israel's defeat, exile and, later, restoration) as a lens to look at a very similar disaster and restoration that will occur in the distant future, in the last days.

In Part Two (the rest of the book) Hosea gets down in gritty detail to the here-and-now, to the sin of the nation and its looming disaster. This part of Hosea is - until another glimpse of golden days at the end of the book - far from being poetic: it is blunt, detailed, and painful, hammering at the same themes, for clearly God did not want any griping from the people about their not being properly warned. They were warned, and in ways that should have made their hair stand on end. (I suspect this section may have been taken from a series of Hosea's sermons, which I would guesstimate are roughly chapters 4, 5-7, 8:1-8:14, 9:1-9:9, 9:10-10:15, 11:1-11:11, 12-14.)

Okay, with that intro, let me focus on just a few topics from Hosea (there are lots more and I'd encourage you to read the book):

The Last Days

First, I'd like to defend my contention that Hosea is thinking of the distant future - as well as near future - in chapters 1-3.

The reason I think this is because, on the one hand, the passage seems to promise more than happened around the time of Israel's first exile, and on the other, because the events it mentions seem to dovetail with the last days. For example, God says that he would make a pact with the beasts and birds (2:18), and "Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land (2:18)," and that God would marry Israel "forever" (2:19), and that the Israelites will "seek the Lord their God and David their king" (3:5).

But as far as I can tell there was nothing different about the animals of Israel after the first restoration, and I know that war in Israel did not cease when Israel returned from its first exile, though that fits with the millenium, and I don't see any evidence that Israel has a "forever" wife-like relationship with God at this point, though that sounds a lot like "the bride of Christ" in the New Testament, and I don't think the people of Israel sought "David their king" since David was long dead even in Hosea's time, though in the last days the people of Israel will seek Jesus, the Son of David who sits on the throne of David (Lk 1:32). And - at the risk of being obvious - in 3:5 Hosea specifically says that at least some of these events would take place in "the last days."

Prophesy of Christ

I find Hosea's use of the name "Jezreel" quite interesting I think perhaps Jezreel is a hint or prophesy of Christ. There are a few things that suggest this, and other things that seem in accord with that conclusion. First, in the stage-play of his life, Hosea plays God, and Jezreel, like Jesus, is his first-born son (1:3 says Gomer bore "him" a son, suggesting that this child, at least, was really Hosea's son, and not the son of an adulterous lover). Further, it appears from 2:22 that during the last days it is Jezreel who calls out for and receives blessing for Israel. Jezreel certainly seems to be symbolic since he lives not only during the time of Hosea, but also during the restoration and the millenium.

Also, Jezreel (named after a slaughter in the town of Jezreel committed by one of King Jeroboam's ancestors) is a living rebuke of sin, as was Jesus. Jezreel was also a reminder of judgement ("Jezreel" means "God scatters"). But he is also God's planter (his name also means "God plants"), just as Jesus planted the good seed (Matthew 13:37). And he is apparently, like Jesus, Israel's leader at its ultimate restoration, which will be a "great" day for Jezreel (1:11).

Poetic Form

It seems that a big part of chapters 1-3 follows a pattern of Jewish poetry that goes from outer to inner and then back from inner to outer. Here's what that looks like in Hosea 1-3:

Gomer's fall and punishment
  Israel's fall and punishment
  Israel's redemption
Gomer's redemption

I don't know that there is a big lesson to be learned from this, but it may be helpful in understanding the structure of this part of the book.

God's Rejection and His Love

One thing that fascinates me about Hosea is the comparison of God's love for Israel to the faithful love of a humiliated and heartbroken husband for his ungrateful, contemptuous and adulterous wife.

In the book God reminds Israel of the things He has done for her, how he helped her and blessed her and provided good things, like a loving husband for his beautiful bride, only to have her take the things He gave her and (my analogy) spit in His face, intentionally and consistently ignoring Him, prostituting herself to others and shunning him; setting up idols, worshiping them, intentionally confusing them with the true God and treating God as some odd and unwelcome stranger.

As a result, God is angry! He condemns Israel, from the leaders down to the people. God is heartbroken at His straying wife. He blocks the way to her false lovers with hedges of thorns; He speaks gently to her; he punishes Israel softly (as a slow rot damages a building), he appeals to her through the preaching of Hosea, and through Hosea's family He provides a real-live, walking-around rebuke. But the response is contempt.

And also God threatens. He will be like a lion against sheep, ripping Israel apart. But Israel responds to nothing. And finally, in the face of her contempt He will turn away his face and let the enemy destroy the kingdom and carry away those who are left into exile.

Outwardly, this is not the even-tempered god some philosophers might imagine; this is the God who is hurt, who becomes angry, who loves and hates at the same time. But deeply underlying his anger and pain is a steady love which promises that ultimately, despite its rebellion and contempt, Israel will return to Him and flourish like a well-watered plant.

To see what I mean, look at 1:9-10. At the end of 1:9 God says " are not my people, and I am not your God." But then, the very next word (1:10) is "Yet," meaning this isn't the end of the story. The rest of the story is this: "Yet the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore" and "they will be called 'sons of the living God.'"

So God cuts off his outer love, his physical blessings, just as we might say that someone "withheld love" from from another person, meaning they did not show their love. But still, beneath His anger and rejection is God's steady and unfailing love, a love that desires the best for His beloved regardless of whatever immediate pain and suffering that may cause. And, ultimately, God will not simply restore the people of Israel to being "my people," but will go beyond that and promote them to being "sons."

This story should be both a prod and an encouragement to Christians; a prod to live faithfully in order to please God, knowing that wilful sin pains God and may bring us crushing discipline. But it should also be an encouragement, knowing that if God had mercy on an Israel that acted like an adulterous wife sneering at her husband on the way out the door to meet a lover, then - just as He promised - this merciful God will forgive our sins as well.

Jehu's Slaughter

The confusing thing about Hosea condemning the slaughter at Jezreel by the king's ancestor, Jehu, is that the killing was commanded by God. Some commentators have suggested that Jehu sinned in going beyond the immediate command. Possible, but I wonder if Hosea's condemnation is because Jehu's descendants betrayed the purpose of the killings - to replace evil with good - by becoming just as wicked as the rulers they replaced, thus turning what was intended to be deadly serious act of judicial righteousness into pointless murder that just replaced one group of thugs with another group of thugs.

Covenant With Animals

I find it interesting that in 2:18 - during what I understand to be the millenium - God will "make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and the birds of the air." Perhaps this is not to be taken literally, but I'm not sure why it shouldn't be. And if it is taken literally, perhaps it means that animals during the millenium will be endowed with enough intelligence to understand and abide by an agreement. And the picture of God condescending to talk to the animals and come to an agreement with them is wonderful to me.

The Environment

God seems to be saying that sin affects everything, including the environment. In 4:3 the land mourns, the people waste away, the animals, birds and fish die because of the people's sin, and this sin does not seem to be pouring toxic chemicals in the water - though perhaps it would include that - but rather faithlessness, lovelessness, ignoring God, cursing, lying, murder, stealing, adultery and bloodshed. I don't see the connection, yet somehow it appears there is a connection between sin and damage to the environment.

The Non-Bright Spot

Chapter 5 ends with God saying Israel "will earnestly seek me," then comes a marvelous passage of repentance, and you think, "Whew! We've finally turned a corner and Israel is repenting," but then the narrative plunges right back into how God is fed up with them. You might think, "Huh? What was that all about?" I think that God was simply telling Israel how he wants them to "earnestly seek" Him, and He tells them by giving them an example of what real repentance looks like.

Admah and Zeboiim

In 11:8 God says he doesn't want to treat Israel like Admah or Zeboiim. What? Who are they? I had to look them up. They are almost-forgotten towns that were destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah. So why did Hosea choose such obscure towns for his illustration? I think that was the reason; they were obscure. They were destroyed not just physically, like Sodom and Gomorrah, but almost destroyed in memory as well.

Become What You Love

God says that when the people came to Baal Peor (9:10) they gave themselves to an idol "and became as vile as the thing they loved." It occurs to me that if it is our nature to become like the things we love, we should be sure to love the right things, and especially, to love God above all else.

Lessening Yourself

In 13:3 Hosea talks about Israel offering human sacrifice and kissing idols. Perhaps those who did this realized their actions would make them obnoxious in God's eyes, but did they also think that it might also make them important, sort of men-to-be-reckoned-with saying "I'm standing up against God"? If so, this passage should disabuse them - and us - of any notion that sin makes you a big shot. Rather, it makes you less, like a morning mist or dew that cannot even stand up to a gentle sunbeam, or like chaff and smoke that disappears before something as insignificant as a cool breeze.

The Big Warning

If this crescendo warning toward the end of the book (13:16b) wouldn't cause Israel to repent, I don't know what would. Will Israel heed even a warning that their way of living would result in the death of pregnant women and young children? God warns them of this and then immediately cries out to them (14:1) to repent. And if they do not, God would (as He did) punish them, taking away even those they love the best. Did God simply turn away from Israel, as it mentions in 9:12, and no longer protect the country, or did He actively prod the Assyrians to attack? I don't know and I'm not sure it makes a difference since God says it is His doing. But it is certainly a warning to us not to despise God, and to be thankful for his blessings and do our best to follow Him. (By the way, I suspect the reason the Assyrians would kill pregnant women and children is that they would be a hinderance during the trek into exile.)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Book Thoughts: Muhammad about Jesus

Note: I decided recently to comment on things I've noted in books over the years. I'm calling these Book Thoughts. This is the first post.

I remember occasionally stiffling the gag reflex when I'd hear some doe-eyed girl (or teacher) in high school say during a discussion that the world's problems would all be solved "if only we really understood each other."

People can understand each other clearly and still disagree, but still... the doe-eyed girl has a point; there are some problems that can be resolved just by making sure you understand what the other person is talking about, and I wonder (I'm not sure) if the following is one of them.

I was reading through a translation of the Koran (by N.J. Nawood) and repeatedly encountered passages in which Muhammad said that God never had a son and that it is wrong to say he did. And, of course, I kept saying to myself, "There's a point at which we disagree," but then I came upon this:

The angels said to Mary: 'God bids you rejoice in a Word from Him. His name is the Messiah, son of Mary. He shall be noble in this world and in the world to come, and shall be one of those who are favoured. He shall preach to men in his cradle and in the prime of manhood, and shall lead a righteous life.'

'Lord,' she said, 'how can I bear a child when no man has touched me?'

He replied: 'Even thus. God creates whom He will. When He decrees a thing He need only say: "Be," and it is.

[from the chapter, The 'Imrans]

On reading this I stopped and thought, "Hey, wait a minute! This is what we believe... so... why does Muhammad object to our saying Jesus was the Son of God?" And then it occurred to me that what Muhammad may have meant is that it is a horrible blasphemy to suggest that God is Jesus' father in the sense that he had sex with Mary to impregnate her and become his "father."

Yikes! And Yuck! If that is what Muhammad was saying, then he seems to be saying exactly what Christians have always been saying, and perhaps when he said these things he was refering to some blasphemous (or very ignorant) group of so-called Christians in Arabia who actually believed that God had sex with Mary to conceive Jesus.

With this thought in the back of my mind, I read along until I came to this passage about God which says:

How should He have a son when He had no consort?

[from the chapter, Cattle]

(The term "consort" here seems to be being used in the sense of "wife" or "concubine.")

This seemed to underline the idea that Muhammad's objection was to the blasphemous notion of God having sex with a woman. And again, I think all true Christians, near and far, now and before, would absolutely agree. And if there were so-called Christians in Arabia during the time of Muhammad who believed God had sex with Mary, then I think all true Christians would be as shocked as Muhammad and agree - on this point, at least - that he was absolutely right in rebuking them.

Finally, I'm not going to be the doe-eyed girl. I don't mean to suggest that there are no points on which Christians and Muslims disagree, but if this is not one of them, well ... great! One fewer thing to argue about.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Christian Development Work

This is my appeal to Christian development workers.

Over the past decade or so there has been a renewed emphasis in Christian circles on poverty relief and development work. I think this is a good thing, but it concerns me that development work be done correctly.

You say, "Duh," but it has been done so badly so many times that I think the point needs to be made again.

Once upon a time I believe God would have looked with patience upon a good-hearted Christian doctor who prescribed bloodletting for his patient. After all, the established medical belief was that removing some blood was a good thing and so the doctor would have been acting according to the best current knowledge and in the best interest of his patient.

But, as we now know - or think we know - bloodletting is almost always bad and potentially life-threatening.

So today, if a doctor prescribed a bloodletting to tone up the body, I believe God would condemn that.

Why? In both cases the doctor prescribed bloodletting. Why tolerate it in once case and condemn it in another? Because in the first case the doctor acted according the best knowledge he had available and with the best interest of his patient at heart. In the second case the doctor was either lazy and did not inform himself about his profession, or he had malicious intent toward the patient.

I think the same analogy applies to development work. If you don't know what you are doing, you can - despite the best of intentions - make things a lot worse. So first study and really understand what works! Don't rely on what common sense tells you ought to work, or what you think is "fair," or what your professor in college thinks should work, or what your political party says should work, but start by learning and relying upon what has actually worked in the real world! Then go from there.