By David Gushee
(Baker Book House; $29.99) In Toward a Just and Caring Society, David Gushee has gathered essays that try to "take Christian reflection on poverty to the next level." Each contributing author, Gushee writes, shares "a passionate desire to see the poor of our nation empowered to enjoy successful participation in the bounty of American economic life." Simply by collecting so many diverse evangelical essays on poverty, Gushee takes a step toward this goal. But this collection is unfortunately plagued by many problems. First, the authors don't recognize that poor people themselves have gifts. The contributors view gifts as something belonging to "us"-we bestow them on those we help, rather than helping those in need to develop their own gifts. Second, poor folks go to church. Several of the authors refer to the church's obligation to the poor and the inner city. Yes, the church has obligations, but let us not assume that those writing articles about Christian charity represent the church. The church is alive and well in poor neighborhoods (for that matter, preaching the same conservative message regarding behavior and conduct as many of the essayists in this book). Third, these essayists fail to consider that problematic approach suburban churches take to the inner city. It is not unusual for a suburban church to set up a store-front program with the goal of saving the poor from the evils of immorality and drugs. But these churches make no effort to integrate themselves into the community or talk to existing communities of faith, which goes a long way in helping us understand why many of these well-meaning programs are short-lived and ineffective.
Finally, if we are going to have the churches in the inner city play an increasing role in combating poverty, we are going to have to fund them. Gushee's essayists talk about teen groups and young family groups and development projects, without pausing to consider that the churches in question barely have enough money for an underpaid preacher and a part-time organist. Not only that, all of these parishioners have jobs of their own. When are they going to find time to do all of this community development?
Despite its many failings, Toward a Just and Caring Society is not without merit-at the very least, it should spark a conversation about Christian charity, a conversation long overdue.