On “Helping” and Brian Fikkert’s “First World Poverty” Q Talk #QNashville

The Q talk I’ve been thinking about this week is “First World Poverty” by Brian Fikkert.

Some readers of this blog might know him from his book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … Or Yourself that he coauthored with Steve Corbett.

Lately, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with that book. I appreciated when I read it, but it was all the conversation that I had with those who read it (and said they read it :) that I found some frustration. Normally for me, the conversation brings added dimensions and greater appreciation for the book and while some of that happened, there was also an unexpected negativity and condescension. To be cheeky, the book isn’t titled, Helping Hurts but in fact preceded by the word When.

My frustration was this part of the conversation didn’t push people to help more and in a better way, but instead, it pushed help away (This is a similar point I tried to make in yesterday’s post). Now this not the intent of the book of course, it argues the opposite, but it’s a pattern that keeps getting repeated in my small corner of life.

So when I saw Brian Fikkert listed as a presenter, I had a mixed reaction. First one being, I’m kinda tired of this conversation, perhaps time for a differently framed one, maybe I’ll skip this one. Glad I didn’t because in all truth, his talk was one of my favorites.Here are some of the notes my friend and I took (thanks Jon!):

1. How would you describe success in your own life?  Strong family. Healthy Church. God-sized call.
2. How do you think you can get there? The Spirit, the Church, and community.

Western Economist believe that success is consuming more things, so you need more income.  So you need greater access to capital (material resources), and improved technologies.

How does this affect first world poverty?  When you give material resources and tech to poor people it doesn’t necessarily make them successful.

The goals we have for the poor reveal our notions of success

If we hurl resources at poor people, we create dependency.
We turn the rest into the west.
Implicit goal in most poverty inniative is making them like us.

Book Title: The Deep Things of God
– Hardwired to Connect: The Happy Land of the Trinity
Mental illness is caused by a lack of connection. (Personal Note: I would need to read this to comment further but this threw me off why the author of Deep Things or why Brian highlighted mental illness in regards to many other issues that could be caused by a lack of a connection).

Created in the Image of God
1. Substantive Dimension: The structure/
2. Relational Dimension:  God, self, creation, others
– Sin is not just a legal problem; it’s a human flourishing problem
– We are wired for communion with God

Material poverty is a symptom of relational (human flourishing) problem
Individuals and systems are broken

Son-Father-Holy Spirit

The effects of the fall on Image-bearing
(Tire picture starts getting distorted)

“I would submit to you that western civilization is not working” (fundamentally)

Good News: Trinity on Mission.  Salvation is union with Jesus Christ; I am organically connected to Jesus Christ.

The goal is not to turn Bangladesh into the United States.
The goal is to turn Bangladesh and the United States into the New Jerusalem.

When need a biblical theory of change.


My Commentary: Again, glad I went to Q. Afterwards I couldn’t help but think it’s time to re-read When Helping Hurts (this time the Expanded Edition! ;) but from my memory of it, much of what he said was reframed and felt fresh. Perhaps this will serve as a helpful restarting point for me. Quick side note, he mentioned during the Q&A Talkback that their goal was never to stop people from helping but to help readers think through all that is involved when one helps and another receives help. The intent is needed and overdue on a number of fronts but it was nice to hear him acknowledge that consistent feedback. Perhaps my corner of life was not quite that unique.

Regarding the presented content, indeed I appreciate his points of Western visions of context versus the many non-Western visions and values. It feels like a growing American population is understanding this as globalization continues to grow, as Millennials are being educated in schools and in some churches, and as X’ers, Boomers, and Builders find their access points. It should be noted that many in the mature generations have been having this conversation for some time now. None of this is “new” but much has been hidden and undistributed. Again, the value of good books, conversations, gatherings, conferences etc.

Brian only had 18 minutes but I would have loved to have heard him unpack “I would submit to you that western civilization is not working (fundamentally).” He’d probably say what’s been said and offered an intelligent additive or two. But it was weeks after the Talk Back did I wish I could that I could have asked him if he could help us identify a civilization that was working fundamentally and what would be the basis of that criteria.

So here is where I find myself today: I love it when people like Brian, the many in Christian Mission/Kingdom/Practical theology crowd talk about the why of helping. It isn’t simply because “we’re nice.” This is part of the basic narrative of the Christian faith – we help because our Creator/Redeemer helps. Thus it’s in our nature and in our calling as followers.

And to turn the question I posed earlier to myself on what a working civilization looks like. Relative to context, it seems unwise to identify any civilization or culture that is working fundamentally. But I can identify pockets of people, communities, inniative, efforts that are contributing to the building of what works across civilization fundamentally. Some of this is found in the work of the Church, some outside, this goes back to the Common Good conversation.

And then there was the great summary of the tension and solution in his last line:
“The goal is not to turn Bangladesh into the United States.
The goal is to turn Bangladesh and the United States into the New Jerusalem.”

So good, so true. Great talk, hope to listen to it again when it becomes available.

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