Why We Should Do It

I have to confess that when I wrote last week’s journal entry, I hadn’t quite finished Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty.  Upon finishing it, I was a bit unsatisfied.  And I think it is important to explain briefly why.  First off, I think Sachs’ book is an extremely valuable one.  He presents a challenge to the world, namely to eliminate extreme poverty by 2025.  He explains, with case examples, many of the sources of poverty and speaks of concrete ways to address them.  He calls on the rich world, and the United States especially, to hear the call of the poor who ache in extreme poverty, which could realistically be eliminated with .07% of the rich world’s GNP.  In general I got the sense that Sachs is knowledgeable and experienced, and genuine in both his desire to help the poor and his hope of the attainability of his goal.

The second to last chapter of The End of Poverty is entitled “Why We Should Do It”.  At one point he quotes the National Security Strategy of the United States in 2004.  “Including all of the world’s poor in an expanding circle of development—and opportunity—is a moral imperative and one of the top priorities of U.S. international policy” (p 336).  My ears perked up at the mention of ‘moral imperative’.  That phrase carries weight.  And the National Security Strategy may have explained that term further, but not so in the quote that Sachs offers.  Indeed it simply does not seem right that poor people should be inhibited from development because they lack the ability to get themselves onto the first rung of development of which Sachs makes note.  There is something that doesn’t sit right in the stomach.  And I don’t want to take value away from that.  Stott wrote of simple, uncomplicated compassion; and I affirm without a doubt that authentic care and love does not necessarily need a well-articulated normative justification.  But even in my absurdly short five week internship, I already sensed within myself the presence of cynicism—often for good reason.  And I think that to rely on a feeling to motivate me to care about the poor is to build my house on the sand instead of the rock.

Steve Garber notes in his book The Fabric of Faithfulness that “without an intelligible telos, the possibility of forming a meaningful praxis, personally and politically, seems a cruel joke…”  And as a Christian, part of speaking with a Christian voice is being able to articulate where one’s foundation and motivation lies.  Peter tells us to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give the reason for the hope that [we] have” (1Pet 3:15). We must have a real understanding of why we do what we do (and of course this implies that we need to, in fact, be doing something as well.  We are called by Peter to have hope, making people want to ask questions.  And indeed, if one’s theology does not correspond to real action, then perhaps it ought to be reexamined).  But, as Garber affirms, sustained and meaningful praxis requires an intelligible telos.  It was for this reason that I read Sachs’ chapter Why We Should Do It with special attention.

It was not until the following chapter—the last of the book—that Sachs gets at the essence of his normative philosophical grounding for social action in the world.  He starts off making reference to Enlightenment thinking: “Yet with the early glimmerings of a new scientific and technological age, bold and brilliant Enlightenment thinkers throughout Europe and the emerging United States began to envision the possibility of sustained social progress in which science and technology could be harnessed to achieve sustained improvements in the organization of social, political, and economic life.  All of us who work toward a brighter future are intellectually indebted to the awe-inspiring geniuses of the Enlightenment, who first glimpsed the prospect of conscious social actions to improve human well-being on a global scale” (347-348).  I am ok with Sachs so far.  We are indebted in many ways to Enlightenment thinking and to the scientific and technological innovation that grew out of that tradition, which has such potential to be a force for development (and indeed has been).  I also need to be wary of the tendency within myself to think of more recent philosophical thought as being inherently more correct.

My disappointment came with a different passage.  “A fourth overarching Enlightenment vision joins Jefferson’s vision of human-made political systems, Smith’s rationally designed economic systems, and Kant’s global arrangements for perpetual peace: that science and technology, fueled by human reason, can be a sustained force for social improvements and human betterment” (349).  While I admire Sachs’ hope, I fear that on this important point—that of telos—he has fallen into optimistic faith in human reason.  He notes that “Condorcet, like Kant, believed that reason could lead to a reduction of warfare: ‘The most enlightened peoples, reclaiming the right to expend their blood and wealth, will gradually learn to see war as the deadliest scourge and the greatest of crimes’” (350).  History however, has proved this statement wrong.  This so-called enlightened humanity developed advanced scientific methods for killing one another, and constructed arguments justifying genocide.  ‘Enlightened’ humanity demonstrated it’s utter brokenness by collapsing into world war.  And while perhaps upper level Nazi bureaucrats had in fact only misapplied Kantian ethics—suggesting that those ethics with their faith in human reason are still legitimate—history has proved that human reason is not sufficient to save the world.  We are far more sinful and far more broken than that.  And I believe, similarly, that enlightenment reason cannot provide the fuel to sustain a life of service and love for the poor.  There obviously remains much to be said here, and I am not qualified to be the one to say it.

Sachs does briefly address the critics of the enlightenment, making reference to world wars and the Holocaust.  He states, “some pundits argue today that ‘progress is an illusion…’ ” (352).  He states that such a claim is wrong, and dangerously so.  “They are wrong empirically because progress in many crucial forms—scientific, technological, fulfilling human needs—has been real and sustained over the course of two centuries…” (352).  Sachs’ notion of progress is a far cry from Comte; and in fact Sachs constantly reiterates the necessity of action and the fact that progress is not inevitable.  Yet I think he makes an error.  As I have mentioned before, John Stott speaks of humanity’s need being more than physical. And I agree with Stott in holding that a rise in the standard of living or GDP does not mean a step towards salvation.

Sachs mentioned several examples of people who persisted in a life-long effort towards justice.  Two of the three he mentions are William Wilburforce and Martin Luther King Jr.  He speaks of their persistence in the continuation of what I have heard Charles Marsh refer to as the ‘un-sexy’ work towards social justice.  Wilberforce’s tedious labor in parliament can be captured in a few moving minutes on the big screen, but it’s easy to forget that those years must have been full of despair and doubt.  The irony of Sachs’ citing these two men is that their foundation for social action was absolutely not Enlightenment reason; it was strong Christian faith.  The third man Sachs cites is Gandhi.  And actually Gandhi is a person I have been perplexed by.  I think it would be disturbing not to rejoice in Gandhi’s service of the world.  And I have asked myself, how could he not be a Christian?!  Dietrich Bonhoeffer had tremendous respect for Gandhi and likely struggled with similar questions.  My answer to that question is a somewhat unsatisfying ‘I don’t know’, but, as Newbigin reminds us, Gandhi and other non-Christians who authentically love the world, are created and loved by God, and it is not for me to make claims on the state of their souls.

To return to Sachs argument, I must be honest though, I do wonder about whether it would be better (a vague term, I know) if the rich world were to take action, with enlightenment rationality in mind, and give .07% of their GNP and actually eliminate extreme poverty from the world.  I suppose this is a question as to whether one always needs the aforementioned telos.  Should we rejoice in good that is done for the wrong reasons?  I don’t think that a hungry mother with hungry children cares at all what your motivation is.  What she cares about is whether her children get fed or not.  And I think we should rejoice—though perhaps incompletely—in good that is done for the wrong reasons.  And yet, ultimately, any system of meaning and any foundation for social action other than that which is true will not sustain us.  Faith in human rationality will break down at some point under the reality of human sin.  And the effects of such a breakdown will be hopeless cynicism (Stanley Hauerwas speaks to this point).  So I rejoice in Jeffery Sachs’ book, and in everything I can learn from it (there is quite a lot).  And I must recall my duty to work beside the Sachs’ of the world (though as an intern, I think my place is more likely under the Sachses of the world, but you get my point), and in serving the world with my brothers and sisters who share the Imago Dei, I must persistently take up the task of uniting thought and voice to the service of God and his world.