Evicted: a book review

Food, clothing and shelter occupy the bottom floor of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Housing is basic to our being—a human right. Yet among low-income families, eviction has become a way of life. A lack of livable wage, addictions, financial mismanagement, personal crises, profiteering landlords, rising housing costs are among some of the causes for evictions. And this all compounds bad circumstances making it difficult for people to find other adequate—livable AND affordable housing.

Evevictedicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond follows the experiences of eight families who are evicted from their homes. Desmond is the John Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and the co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project. For this project, Desmond conducted Ethnographic research by living as a tenant in College Mobile Home Park, a trailer park on the south-side of Milwaukee before relocating to an apartment building in the north-side’s inner city. In both cases, he shadowed landlords and property managers as they maintained property and handed out evictions. He befriended the people whose stories he shares.

This is an important book, but it isn’t an easy one to read. It is heartbreaking. Desmond tells the story of people at their most vulnerable, and things often go from bad to worse. Mounting bills and an eviction notice have a way of making it difficult for people to pull themselves back up.

Desmond highlights the difficulties faced by low-income families, though he sees this project as contributing to “a robust sociology of housing”:

We need a robust sociology of housing that reaches beyond a narrow focus on policy and public housing. We need a new sociology of displacement that documents the prevalence, causes and consequences of eviction. And perhaps most important we need a committed sociology of inequality that includes a serious study of exploitation and extractive markets. (335).

Desmond doesn’t make the evicted out to be saints nor demonize their landlords. Sometimes the evictee’s own behavior (i.e. failure to pay, addictive behavior, etc.) led to their eviction. Sometimes their landlords tried to work with tenants and gave them plenty of chances.  What Desmond does call attention to here, is to a system that values profit over people and the effect this has on the most vulnerable. People who get evicted have no network of people who are willing and able to help. Not family, not the government, not church.

Most of this book is descriptive, not prescriptive, though Desmond does suggest federal aid for low-income housing via a voucher system in his epilogue. Whether you find this solution compelling, this book is a good window into what challenges poor people face in this country. I give it four stars.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.

Change is Possible! a book review

So you want to start a revolution? Yeah, we all want to change the world. Ministers, activists, non-profits, NGOs, world-relief organizations all have a vested interest in making the world a better place. We all want to change the world. The question is what we can do to bring about transformation and lasting change to a hurting world?

Stephen Bauman is president and CEO of World Relief and has devoted years of his life to bringing about transformation to the two-thirds world. To this end, he considers his African friends his most important teachers (he and his wife Belinda six years serving at-risk communities in West Africa). He has seen the ravages of war, poverty and violence and yet he is hopeful. Though we live in hard times, God has given us a part in changing the world through Christ. So if you want to start a reformation, Bauman has a blueprint about how to go about it in Possible.

The four chapters of part one explore our call to change the world. Bauman argues that the world suffers because of a crisis of vision, not a crisis of will (6). People really do want to help and give their life for a cause but old methods and approaches don’t work.  Bauman urges us to change the world through clear vision and thoughtful action (9), and a sense of urgency to address the problems of our age. In chapter two he explores change from the periphery. Recounting biblical, historical and contemporary examples, Bauman demonstrates that this is where change happens:

Shifting our expectations from the center to the periphery is essential if we are going to seize our moment in history.  If we remain fixated on ourselves or on the “important” people. we will miss the reformation among us, the groundswell of unlikely people–some who have been written off as victims as incapable, or–worse–as unworthy (26).

Chapters three  and four zero in our personal calling. helps us take up our unique destiny and mission to bring meaningful change to the world.

In part two,  Bauman helps us reframe the problem. Chapter five discusses ‘six impossibilities’–things that keep us from pursuing the possibility of real lasting change. Two significant orientations defeat us: the belief of some atheists, that faith does more harm than good and the belief that we can not do good without God.  Bauman acknowledges that injustice has been done in God’s name through the centuries, but calls believers to act in accordance to God’s nature (75-76). While non-believers can certainly do good through common grace,  Bauman argues that God and goodness are inextricably linked whether the do-good-er acknowledges it or not (79-80). Bauman encourages us to pursue justice, the eradication of poverty and suffering by treating it by seeing them as symptomatic of the larger problem: broken relationship (83). Bauman argues that “when we reframe the fundamental conundrums in the world as relational rather than problems requiring projects, we begin to see the need for the seismic shift [in our approach]”(84).

Chapter six explores the anatomy of heart change. Bauman pictures a tree: the roots of the tree are our beliefs, the trunk our values, the branches and leaves our behavior, and the fruit our results (90). Bauman says that what we believe to be true about our world, determines our values, which determines our behavior, which effects our results: Beliefs→Values→Behavior→Results. Thus Bauman argues that change begins with changing our beliefs, so scriptural meditation is key to getting us to act in ways that welcome God’s kingdom. This also gives a vital role to teachers in effecting lasting, change.  In chapter seven, Bauman pushes us to spark genuine, relational and heart change.

Part three is a practical look at how to bring change to community. Chapters eight gives advice on creating a vision for change within your organization. Chapter nine talks about our need to be changed as we work for change. Chapter ten talks about how hope is essential to the change process.  This is followed by an afterword and two appendixes which help readers to think practically about the nature of change.

Despite its depth, this is an easy read. My summary doesn’t do justice to Bauman’s passion that his personal stories convey. He has a lot of wisdom and inspiration for those of us who care about change.. Bauman inspired me and gave me good insights on how to lead the process of change in my role as a pastor. I give this five stars and highly recommend it.

Note: I received this book from Multnomah in exchange for my honest review.

Seeking the City: a book review.

Christians through the ages have found a variety of ways of navigating wealth, poverty and politics. In the modern era, the American church is divided between fiscal conservatives and social progressives and everything inbetween. Underlying the diversity are different attitudes towards wealth and poverty and different understandings about how to respond to the poor. Chad Brand, professor of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and his co-author Bible-teacher Tom Pratt, take a look at the biblical and historical approaches to economics and politics and draw out some implications for today (from a conservative perspective).

Seeking the City: Wealth, Poverty and Political Economy in Christian Perspective begins by examining what the Bible tells us (about economics (part 1), before delving into the two thousand year history of Christian political economic engagement (part two). Part three endeavors to tell us how we should live as evangelicals in light of these biblical-theological and economic realities. Five assumptions under-gird the work as a whole. First, ‘a biblically informed  economic outlook is essential for evangelical faith and social interaction.’ Second, ‘the Bible does not explicitly lay out a theory of economics and social justice.’ Third, all Christians ought to be concerned about the poor, the widowed and orphaned. Fourth, a marketplace is essential to produce wealth and create access for it for all people (though politicians divide on how much intervention government should have in the marketplace). Finally, materialistic/secular societies are in opposition to biblical Christianity and brings us into confrontation with the wider culture (27-29)

Brand and Pratt spend roughly two-hundred and fifty pages looking at what the Bible has to say about socio-economic and political realities. Unfortunately I found this to be the weakest part of the book. They do examine the broad themes of all Scripture, looking at the Old Testament’s narrative, legal, poetic and prophetic material before examining the New Testament witness. They also make many astute exegetical observations. Unfortunately, they make conclusions here that go beyond what the biblical text warrants. For example they posit that the idea of systemic and structural evil is a modern fad whereas the Bible sees the root of our problem as personal, human sinfulness and ‘failure to rule ourselves. (73). I fail to see why these are in opposition. There are plenty of examples in the Bible of kingdoms and rulers who created structures and systems that led people into sin. This doesn’t deny personal culpability for injustice. Also, Brand and Pratt dismiss contemporary appropriations of the concept of Jubilee or the Acts church as examples of economic redistribution. The former because it was originally based on a divine fiat for Israel to underscore their Convenantal identity (97). The latter because it is nowhere commanded or repeated (192-6).  These observations are quite right, though puzzling. It is as though Brand and Pratt miss the evocative significance of having a radical socio-economic leveling in the first ever church or a built in economic reset for the nation of Israel (and yes I know that redistribution in the Jubilee sense was not a total equalization of all economic resources, simply a time to restore what was lost and originally given as Divine gift). I also found that their chief interlocutors are all Evangelicals (i.e. Craig Blomberg, Ron Sider) when there has been a great deal of  other literature done on Biblical economics which they show little or no awareness for.

Part two proceeds on much solider ground and is really the ‘meat’ of the book. As the their largest section, Brand and Pratt devote themselves to describing two-thousand years of  Christian approaches to economics and politics. They begin with Christianity under the Roman empire, take us through patristic sources, medieval scholastics, the reformation and beyond. Because they write as Americans, and for Americans, they lay particular emphasis on American economics and politics (five of the twelve chapters focus on the U.S.). I tended to agree with their analysis of medieval, and Reformation era history. As they draw closer to the modern period, they have a decidedly fiscal conservative read on current economic realities. For example, the Great Depression was aggravated because of Hoover and FDR’s New Deal (chapter 20).  However they do a great job of describing the plurality of evangelical views on economics post WWII (chapter 21).

In Part three they set a socio-political agenda for Evangelicalism today. There is some good material here, but they also devote themselves to reiterating conservative talking points (i.e. they describe ‘climate change’ as politically motivated  ‘junk’ science rather than resting on a broad scientific consensus and have little positive to say regarding creation care, though they acknowledge that it is the responsibility for wealthy nations). But they also argue for morality and social engagement (as all good conservatives would and should!) and speak intelligently about the effects of globalization. Certainly their is some good food for thought here and they have done a great deal of ground work before taking readers to this point!

All works of practical theology are written from a peculiar ideological vantage point. This book is no exception. The authors are two white middle-class evangelicals and write from that context. That doesn’t mean that they are unaware of the problems of racism and its affects on society. In fact, their preface relays a story of confronting racism during the civil rights era and they go on to make some astute observations about civil rights. However their conservative political bent also, in places blinds them to the contributions and insights from the evangelical left (or the left in general). The so-called social-gospel has at times de-emphasized the necessity for personal salvation, but the gospel is more than personal salvation. It is has social implications. Brand and Pratt are not always fair and balanced in their presentation but I appreciate their irenic tone through most this book. I find many of their conclusion ill-founded and overblown (coming from my perspective as a moderate). I give this book 3.5 stars.

Thank you to Kregel Academic for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.