November 23rd, 2010
09:30 AM ET
Editor's Note: By CNN's Gabe La Monica
At the inner Washington offices of the American Enterprise Institute, I pitted the question to Shane Claiborne and Peter Greer, both Christian advocates for the poor. They had just participated in an in-depth discourse moderated by Eric Teetsel at AEI about the existential nature of charity.
Claiborne is a lanky, tall fellow with long dreadlocks, earrings and a goatee.
The founding member of the Simple Way community in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, responded: “Jesus wasn’t anything that ended in “ist” - he was an existential lover - but I think that he was challenging all these systems, and he was pulling the best of the people in those systems out.”
Deferring to Claiborne, Greer, the crisply suited, clean-shaven, close-cropped blonde president of HOPE International, said that “Jesus was a restorer; he didn’t fit in any of the camps, but he did come to make things right.”
The discussion at the AEI event revolved around the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan and the problem of providing immediate relief for compounding and overwhelming needs but still being able to make the transition to sustainable development.
The concept of microfinance and microcredit, for which the founder of the Bangladeshi Grameen Bank was awarded the Nobel Peace prize, has been applied under HOPE International to 14 countries serving more than 250,000 clients. I asked Greer whether he thought microfinance could become a broken system, and about the phenomenon of loan sharks emerging in India's microfinancing world:
"What’s happening right now in the microfinance base shows why it’s necessary to have something else than just access to capital or some new way of providing loans to the poor; that in and of itself is insufficient to see real transformation that happens in communities.
So the situation in India - we also operate in India - but have a different operating model; we make sure that the profits that we’re generating are reinvested back into those areas. We emphasize training, we emphasize savings, and we don’t have the belief that if you just give individuals 50 dollar loans that that’s gonna result in huge transformation.
That’s an important piece. It takes money to make money. But it’s only a piece of a bigger picture of what it takes to transform a community.
Though neither is prone to depict Christ as a capitalist or a communist, Claiborne and Greer do have differing conceptions of economics. I asked Claiborne if he thought of the world economy as a fixed pie:
I wouldn’t say that I think that it’s fixed, but poverty wasn’t created by God. God didn’t mess up and make too many people or not enough stuff.
Poverty was created by us because we really haven’t lived into His vision of loving our neighbor as ourselves and of really understanding that someone else’s suffering needs to be mine and it demands something of us. When you have a massive disparity between the rich and the poor, that is unsustainable.
The world is never going to be safe as long as masses of people are living in poverty so that a handful of people live however they want. It’s all of our responsibility to figure out how the great gifts that this world has are shared amongst the people.
Greer views the world economy as an expanding entity:
It’s possible to generate wealth. It’s possible to be creative. My experience in places of poverty says that there’s no place that does not have the ability, the entrepreneurial spirit to make a different world.
To create a different village requires just a little bit of capital and the belief that individuals living in those places have abilities, have capacity and just need to be partnered with and not just pitied.
Existentialism is often traced back to the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who argued that the universe is fundamentally paradoxical, and it’s within this framework that Claiborne and Greer’s philosophies align.
Claiborne encapsulated it best when he said, “A lot of times charity is a good place to start, but it’s a terrible place to end.”
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