Making poverty history—and putting a whole new set of problems in its place

The Economist recently had a lengthy take on the state of global poverty—and the news seems to be good!

In 1990, 43% of the population of developing countries lived in extreme poverty (then defined as subsisting on $1 a day); the absolute number was 1.9 billion people. By 2000 the proportion was down to a third. By 2010 it was 21% (or 1.2 billion; the poverty line was then $1.25, the average of the 15 poorest countries’ own poverty lines in 2005 prices, adjusted for differences in purchasing power). The global poverty rate had been cut in half in 20 years.

That raised an obvious question. If extreme poverty could be halved in the past two decades, why should the other half not be got rid of in the next two? If 21% was possible in 2010, why not 1% in 2030?

The potential exists, it seems, to make extreme poverty history. Hallelujah!

The whole article is worth a read, but three points in particular stood out to me.

First, the Millenium Development Goals—the so-called Eight Commandments that were agreed to by world leaders in 2000 as a framework for reducing poverty—appear to have had almost no impact.

The leads to the second point. Poverty reduction happens because of economic growth. Economies in the poor world have been performing better, lifting many poor people out of extreme poverty.

News such as this should give Episcopalians pause. For much of the last decade, the MDGs have been the framework for much of the Episcopal Church’s global mission efforts. One result has been congregations and dioceses funnelling money to a host of causes around the world. Those of you who read my writing back when I was one of the church’s global missionaries will know that I’ve never put much stock in the MDGs. But I also want the Episcopal Church to be involved in global mission in a meaningful way. If the MDGs aren’t it, then what is?

That leads to the third point we might notice about the Economist‘s coverage: there is plenty of mention of the benefits of economic growth, but no mention of its costs—environmental, social, psychological. But it is clear that economic growth does have such costs: global warming is a genuine danger, the rapid urbanization of the world is creating a whole host of new issues, and the drive for consumption in a place like China is creating new feelings of isolation and anomie.

The conclusion I draw from all this is that there is a tremendous role for the church to play—but it’s not the role it has been playing to date. Rather than writing checks and transferring funds to limited impact, it seems the church can be the single organization that uses its unique network of transnational and intercultural relationships to advocate for those who lose out in the rush to economic growth, stand with those who suffer, and—most of all—articulates a vision of a world that is so much richer than being just a place where economic growth takes precedence over everything else. The church wants to make not only poverty history, but so too the host of issues that rush to take its place.

The MDGs “expire” in 2015 and one wonders what the Episcopal Church will do when that happens. The argument here is that the church needs to refocus itself on being nothing more and nothing less than what it is called to be: a global network of mutual relationships that advocates for a rich and integrated vision of a reconciled world. If we succeeded in doing that we might finally be worthy of being called what we really are: the body of Christ.

Episcopal / Anglican Slogans

Last semester in class, we made a list of slogans, phrases, ideas, objects, etc. that we’ve heard in conversation about or relating to the Episcopal Church, Anglicanism, or any part thereof. Here’s a partial list:

  • the three-legged stool (that is, Scripture, Tradition, and Reason)
  • lex orandi, lex credendi—the way we worship shapes/determines/is what we believe
  • a logo that features a shield with obscure heraldry
  • “no outcasts”
  • Via Media, or Middle Way
  • “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” (to what?)
  • Dispersed Authority
  • The Four-Fold Anglican Shape: formed by Scripture, shaped by worship, ordered for Communion and directed by God’s mission (this is the most recent, I’d say)
We can debate some of these later, especially whether their current interpretations and usages match up with the original usage, whether the authors meant for them to have such defining weight (in the case of dispersed authority, definitely not), and whether they are even consistent. What struck me as we did the list is that you could make a similar list of slogans related to Episcopalians/Anglicans and mission:
  • Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ (1963 document from Toronto Anglican Congress)
  • Partners in Mission
  • Decade of Evangelism (the 1990s, as set by bishops at Lambeth 1988)
  • Millennium Development Goals
  • Five Marks of Mission

(Indeed, the word “mission” itself could almost be added to this list, given the reckless abandon with which it has been used in recent years.)

I don’t find many of these particularly helpful. I can never remember the Five Marks of Mission, mainly because they don’t really grab me. I think the Millennium Development Goals promote a shopping-list mentality among churches that prize dollars and cents over relationships. The Decade of Evangelism is very well-remembered in the non-western Anglican Communion (an archdeacon in Nigeria last summer told me, “The Decade of Evangelism saved the Church in Nigeria”) but I rarely hear anyone in the U.S. talk about it.

The thing of it is, despite our wonderful slogans we still seem to have difficulty articulating what the Episcopal Church is and is for (though we seem to have no problem articulating what it is not). And, we lack a clear sense of what mission is, which results in something like the Sauls’ resolution’s very thin idea of mission.

There is much to find depressing in all this but two stand out. First, these slogans replace genuine theological engagement with inconsistent and confusing sound-bites. Second, they betray the assumption that we all know what we’re talking about when we say something so we don’t need to bother figuring out what it means. This is never a good assumption to make.

As far as mission goes, there’s a third disappointment: all of these are focused outward. This is, obviously, quite good. But I’d hope that we remember that in order for us to be a missional church, we need first to be transformed by the love of God in Christ to become missional Christians. Mission is our response to God’s grace—but we need to receive that grace before we can respond.

What are your favourite slogans that I’ve left out?

UPDATE: Welcome to all who are clicking over here from Episcopal Cafe. If you like this post, you might like some others I’ve written about mission lately: the spirituality of mission or how our understanding of mission shapes our budgetary decisions.