Theoreticians, practitioners tackle questions of faith and poverty at UN Church Center Forum

By Gustav Spohn
Director of Communications and Publications

NEW YORK, NY—Representatives of the faith community, academia, and NGOs addressed pressing issues of global poverty at the Church Center for the UN on Sept. 22 in the shadow of the ongoing summit on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.

AttridgeQuestions of complexity and complicity, the role of the faith community in addressing poverty, unmet challenges, all played a part in the discussion.  But a creative tension that held the various strands of conversation together dwelt on the themes of hope and misgiving.

Sponsored by Yale Divinity School, the Church Center gathering featured observations and lively interchanges by a panel of 10 leading experts responding to questions in conversation with Yale Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge. (Click here to view video of entire event.)

High security surrounded the setting, with New York streets in the immediate area shut down and secret service in the streets and on rooftops.  The Church Center gathering began moments after President Obama’s New York address, in a large windowed room looking out on the UN.  Over 100 persons attended the event, including many YDS alumni, along with educators, church people, and representatives of NGOs and the UN.

The Church Center gathering served as the occasion for the official launch of the fall 2010 issue of Reflections, YDS’s magazine of theological and ethical inquiry, entitled “No More Excuses:  Confronting Poverty.”  The issue features a number of prominent thinkers on the subject of poverty, and all of the panelists at the event were among the contributors.

AudienceIn his opening remarks, Attridge set the stage by citing some daunting figures about poverty: The latest U.S. Census figures reveal that 43.6 million Americans live in poverty, or one in every seven.  Globally, 2.6 billion people live on less than $2 per day.

In response, some of the panelists emphasized the positive aspects of the fight again poverty, but those observations were challenged by others who stressed the enormity of the problem and difficulties inherent in making structural changes that they believe are necessary to eradicate—not simply alleviate—poverty.

“I’m just profoundly hopeful, because hundreds of millions of people have escaped from extreme poverty in the last 20 years,” said David Beckmann ’70 B.A., president of Bread for the World and a participant in the MDG Summit.  “More could have happened, more could be done.  But this is an extraordinary liberation.  When I look at what’s happened, and I believe in God. This is God moving in our history.  This is our loving God answering the prayers of hundreds of millions of people.” 

And Katherine Marshall, executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, said, “The fact is that there is a commitment, that’s the historic commitment of the Millennium declaration in the year 2000, the sincere effort to bring the best tools that we have of discipline, of accounting, of accountability, of deadlines, of measurement, of standards.  So we have really a historic engagement, a historic promise, and that I think is grounds for enormous hope.”

But Melinda St. Louis, deputy director of Jubilee USA, an organization that advocates debt forgiveness for impoverished nations, warned against too much optimism and too much reliance on statistics.

Said St. Louis, “When we’re talking about poverty we need to move beyond talking about specific goals and benchmarks and actually start talking about economic justice.  That piece is extraordinarily important.”

PoggeAmong the things that need to be taken seriously, she noted, is “holding lenders responsible for making bad loans to countries... We need to continue to push that agenda.”

Thomas Pogge, the Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale, said “rosy” and complex statistics can be misleading.  He suggested serious consideration of a straightforward, important number:  “Look at how many people are hungry, and you’ll get a good sense of what’s happening from the ground with regard to poverty.”

“There are millions of success stories,” Pogge acknowledged. “There are many, many people doing good work... Thousands of good stories of progress.”  But he added a cautionary note:  “The remarkable thing is that things are getting worse despite all these successes.  So there are much larger forces at work against the poor than all these wonderful good forces in favor of the poor.”

Pogge asserted that out of $120 billion in global aid to poor countries every year just $15.5 billion is spent for basic social services.  “The rest goes for all sorts of other stuff more of interest to rich exporters or rich elites in the developing countries than to poor people.”

He cited embezzlement of funds and the stashing of those funds into secret bank accounts in the industrialized world, including the U.S., as contributing to the problem.

“If there weren’t this enormous headwind against the poor, then they would rise along with the average income in the world,” said Pogge, “and poverty would long have gone.  The poor are not participating proportionately globally in economic growth.”

PeppardChristiana Peppard ’05 M.A.R., scholar in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and visiting scholar at the Center for Ethics Education at Fordham University, offered an interpretation of what “collective action” against poverty entails.

“It’s not just charity, though that’s important,” she said.  “It’s not merely lobbying your legislators, though that too is important. It also includes taking a deep, deep look at these institutions, and by institutions I mean arrangements of political economy that permeate the global context in the present day, to see how power, wealth, money—all theses things—flow, and with what kinds of predictable consequences.”

Collective action is often a good way to fight some of the psychological barriers to working against poverty, according to Peter Singer, the De Camp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University's Center for Human Values.  Often, he said, individuals of good will can begin to engage in “futility thinking,” where they come to believe that their individual efforts, including small donations to charities, are too small to make a difference.  But working in a group context, he said, can help overcome that feeling.

Abagail Nelson, senior vice president for programs at Episcopal Relief and Development, also held up the idea of working collectively.  Said Nelson, “If you combine the fire of the idea... which is that we can end world poverty... with all of the statistics, the intellectual discussion, and zillions of papers and speeches that are out there, and build alliances with those that are like-minded, we can do a great deal.”

Arthur Keys ’73 M.Div., president and CEO of Washington, DC-based International Relief and Development (IRD) and a United Church of Christ minister, suggested that church organizations should consider making more ties with secular anti-poverty agencies.

KeyesSaid Keys, “Theologically, I think you would have to say no, the churches are not fully engaged... There’s certainly much more potential.

“A lot of the kind of mainline mission agencies are weaker I believe than they used to be,” he remarked, adding that there are good opportunities to widen the church impact by partnering with secular groups.

Willis Jenkins, the Margaret Farley Assistant Professor of Social Ethics at YDS, told listeners that the response to poverty should reach beyond questions of delivery of goods and services to the needy.

“Like it or not, how we respond to poverty is reshaping the earth and that means we have to respond to poverty in imaginative, beautiful and creative ways, not just delivering packets of resources and calories,” he said.

Jenkins, author of the book Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology, has argued for a redefinition of real wealth to include biodiversity and ecological integrity.

On the practical level, there are important issues that need to be addressed as well, according to one of the panel’s practitioners, Debbie McLeod Sears ’09 M.Div., director of Grant Me The Wisdom Fund.

She cited the need to look at anti-poverty programs as “multi-purposed.” One example, said Sears, is in the area of microfinance, which she suggested should involve adult education programs, as well as the provision of funds.

From a broader perspective, Sears added, “Any effective poverty reduction program must include equipping and empowering all to question authority and to use critical thinking skills to question government abuses and their current social order.”

Marshall said reasons for her hopeful attitude include the moral certitude of the call to eradicate poverty and the availability of resources.

“We have his situation of knowing that it can be done, knowing that we have the resources,” said Marshall.  “And that I think gives an imperative, which we’ve never had in human history, because through most of human history poverty was inevitable as a part of life.”

“It’s morally not only straightforward, I think, it’s morally absolutely compelling. So there is at least a moral clarity there.”

One complexity that is often overlooked, according to Keys, is that agencies such as his own often have to do development in conflict zones.

“People often look at this chronologically, that you have peace and then you have development,” observed Keyes.  “But I think the world is more complex than that so I believe that you have to have development as you’re working towards peace.  If your mandate is to deal with the least of these, the least of these are people who are caught up, often through no fault of their own, in conflict areas.”

Some of Pogge’s comments underscored the entrenched nature of the problem, though, including the complicity of developed nations: “We are facilitating corruption.  We are protecting our markets against imports from the poorest of countries.  In many different ways... we are harming the global poor and the income distribution of the world is shifting against the poor. It’s not surprising that the rules do not reflect the interests of the poor because the poor are not at the table when these rules are being negotiated.”

St. Louis voiced disappointment in the MDG Summit. “I didn’t see the urgency from world leaders to really take that next step and to pay back the debt that developed countries owe to the world’s poor. So to me it’s a galvanizing call of, we are able to organize, we’ve made great change, but in order to feel optimistic we really need to hold elected leaders’ feet to the fire on this, and it’s not going to happen without that.”

And Singer threw out a challenge to the faith community, asserting, “I think the religious institutions, and perhaps the Christian churches in particular, have really failed to convey a serious ethical message, which I would take to be, as I read the Gospels... if you are not doing something substantial for the poor you are not living an ethical life.  I find a huge amount of complacency in the United States, among Christians too.”

Nelson suggested a way forward for the faith community while acknowledging both the statements of hope voiced by panelists and warnings about the entrenched nature of poverty raised up by others.

“As a people of God, we need to be a people of hope, and so let’s not allow the statistics and the power of those hurricane winds to stop us from engaging and from pushing into what are those circles of power.

“They (the poor) need hope, they need opportunities to move forward in life, they don’t need us to get paralyzed by the enormity of our reports or the hardship of the path that lies ahead of us.”

Attridge closed the session by thanking panelists for their participation and expressing hope that the discussion “will be useful to all of you and to all of those who are going to read and use Reflections to push the conversation along and to do things in meeting some of these challenges of world poverty.”