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Over my years of ministry, I’ve read my share of books on helping the needy. I served on a local board to make the church’s efforts in our community more effective while reducing abuse. I tutor refugees who often struggle with finances, and I’ve observed how poverty and its causes drive people to come to the United States, despite the complications of doing so. I’ve learned by experience, so that when I read someone’s argument to pour more money into anti-poverty efforts, I cringe, knowing the problem is not simply a matter of money.

When I read the blurb for Fast Living: How the Church Will End Extreme Poverty, I was sufficiently intrigued to arrange to review it. As I read, I kept waiting to see if the main point would be government action. I was thrilled when author Scott Todd finally and clearly stated otherwise. Rather he suggests a concerted effort of business, government, and the Church, led by an energized body of disciples, is the key to ending extreme poverty.

I don’t believe Todd is spouting optimism. He describes the progress already occurring, not totally unfamiliar to me, but supplied data that surprised me.  We are already progressing toward the goal of less extreme poverty and fewer suffering people.

A key to Fast Living‘s potential effectiveness is changing the outlook of believers. I confess to falling into the trap of “the tyranny of low expectations.” Much of this is based on Matthew 26:11a where Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you….” The simple question would ask if this means poverty is an impossible problem so don’t bothering trying to deal with it. The simple answer says, “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’” For Todd’s answer, I recommend reading Fast Living.

Another barrier to seeking the elimination of extreme poverty may be theological. Much of American Christianity has been part of the movement that believes Jesus’ return is imminent and that the Church’s obligation is purely evangelistic, not compassionate. One big division occurred over the idea of the “social gospel,” which often carried along the idea that salvation was of the body, not of the soul. With that, there was also the sense of imminent cultural destruction, the end of this age; believing this has led some to reject compassionate ministry in favor of missions and evangelism. Having begun my ministry in that tradition of Christianity, I recognize the concern; I have often said that the ship (world) may be sinking, but it’s my job to bail water, to keep things afloat as long as possible, in order to save as many as we can.

Todd notes that we cannot lead people to Christ who’ve already fallen to the devastating effects of extreme poverty. Where extreme hunger of disease take the lives of countless children, simple evangelism often arrives too late. Furthermore, as I have learned, it is absurd to seek to save the soul while not also seeking to save the body where the soul resides. How absurd is it to say, “Jesus loves you,” while ignoring the literally painful reality of extreme poverty. We ignore Jesus when we attempt such a dichotomy, ignoring the Greatest Commandment, to love God and love your neighbor.

Granted, it is easy to ignore poverty far away, although far less so with modern communications. Perhaps it is easier when we are consumed with our own self-interests. Christians and congregations spend considerable money that is arguably NOT serving God, however we try to claim it is. Even with the economic issues we face, we remain among the wealthiest people in the world; our poor are as rich compared to those extremely poor folk in so many places.

Todd’s book feature a large 58 on the front, representing Isaiah 58. From this text, he draws the idea of the “true fast:” “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?  Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them…”  Todd points out that the modern American church is often negligent in observing this, risking the false worship of an unacceptable fast.  God wants us engaged in compassionate activity, not empty religious piety.

After devoting more that 2/3 of the book to correcting misconceptions and correcting them, Todd deals with method: How are we to end extreme poverty? I like this part because of what I wrote earlier. He does not suggest that we get our government to spend money, which I have read in so many other discussions. What God tells us, his disciples, to do is for us to do, not for us to pass on to others, especially not those who often serve no god but themselves. Instead he calls for us to take up cultural leadership that incorporates what business and government may do into a broader scheme that derives from the Church. This is what makes Fast Living unique in my experience and why I so highly recommend this book.  You can get involved more directly in the efforts the book describes at live58.org.

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