Tending to Eden: Introduction

I read a lot of books. Lately, the books that come from evangelical publishers have lots of stories. People like stories. But I usually skip the stories. You see, the real points usually come later in the chapter. Sometimes I think the stories are there just because publishers like for books to have stories.

Tending to Eden has stories, too. But I like the stories the best, because the stories are the point. You see, you can’t understand the theory behind how to defeat both spiritual and physical poverty in Haiti, for example, without knowing something about the people. And you can’t really know the people unless you know something about the land. And you learn about the people and the land through stories. The stories are the point.

Of course, that means you have to read the book. I can’t repeat the stories here with quite the same effect. Context and all that, you know.

In the Introduction, Sabin explains the difficulty of relieving poverty —

I have learned that helping the poor in a significant way is considerably more difficult than I originally thought. I naively believed helping the poor would be fairly simple. I think most people underestimate the challenges involved.

Poverty stems from much more than a lack of resources. It can’t be fixed just by giving more money or more stuff. In truth, poverty is a result of broken relationships as much as anything else.

This is an important quotation, because it means this isn’t just another naive book about how the rich West is stealing from the rest of the world and how, if we’ll all just send money, poverty will be cured.

You know, just a few weeks ago I met with a young minister — a very good one — who explained that poverty is a lack of money and is cured by sending money. Indeed, he explained with utmost seriousness, “Wealth causes poverty.” And that’s not true. It’s true, of course, that some of the rich steal from the poor, but it’s far from true that all wealth comes from theft — or that all poverty is caused by theft.

The solution to poverty is much more than sending money. It’s been tried many times. It doesn’t work. Rather, Sabin is right to emphasize the problem of broken relationships. He points to five relationships that need repair.

* Our relationship with God.

* Our relationship with our neighbors.

* Our relationship with ourselves.

* Our relationship with creation.

* The relationship between God and his creation.

We all get the first two, at least in theory. These are the two greatest commands. But we routinely ignore the third.

Over and over I have witnessed well-meaning visitors from the United States strengthen their own self-image as saviors as they inadvertently add to the sense of helplessness among the poor.

You see, rarely do we realize how severely the self-esteem of the poor has been eroded. People can’t make the changes needed to overcome poverty until they have the self-confidence to do so. And we often, without meaning to, create in the locals a sense of reliance on the rich Americans that leaves them trapped.

The fourth and fifth are also routinely overlooked by American churches. After all, most evangelical and fundamentalist churches are politically Republican, and the environment is a Democratic issue! And so we refuse to even listen to the need for environmental redemption. Now, just to be clear, I tend to be politically conservative. I am not a member of the Sierra Club. I think the environmental movement in this country routinely overreaches. But I’m old enough to remember what happens when we are unconcerned with the environment.

When I was junior high school (now called “middle school”), my family visited St. Louis one summer, staying on the fifth floor of a hotel. In the mornings, the air was so dirty we literally couldn’t see the ground. This is smog as it’s rarely found today in the US. We also visited New York City for the 1964 World’s Fair. Very cool trip. In Manhattan, we had to clean our glasses every block just to see where we were going. Those were the days when the Chicago River caught on fire! I’m all for a clean environment.

Nowadays, we’ve allowed extremists on both sides to define “environmentalism” in our minds, so we figure we have to either push for one extreme or the other. That’s what happens when Christians let politicians define right and wrong for them. I think we’d do better to find our values in the Bible rather than in the talking points of our very worldly political parties.

God cares about his creation, and so must we. That doesn’t mean we let either party tell us what conclusions to reach. It does mean that we consider the health of the environment of great concern. We can’t dismiss such considerations with “It’s all going to burn!” as some say. After all, God told us to care for it.

(Gen 2:15)  The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.


6 Responses

  1. Jay

    Your point three is great, our relationship with ourselves is vital. I have repeatedly stated in pats posts that there are three commandments, that is Love God, Love all the people around you and Love yourself. A person with a low self confidence cannot advance past his or her poor self image.

    The Gospel for Asia group talks about this in detail. Throwing money or diverting missionaries to charity is a mistake and takes away from the most important priority, that is preaching the Gospel. The person converted to the Gospel will have a better self esteem and be able to free himself from poverty both spiritual and material.

    We have been to many food banks. That is a good work but it would have been more benefical to the person receiving food to have been taught the Gospel.

    Anyway, that is why I stated that we need to have our Church meetings designed to feed the poor, make friends with them and share our self esteem in the Gospel. Isn’t that what Jesus did?

    Praise God for saving me


  2. Jay:

    Interesting points. Certainly I too am for a clean and sustainable environment. But I’m curious how the author, or you, explain all of the wealth that’s been created without any of these principals. For instance, during the Industrial Revolution there was a lot of wealth created but workers were treated poorly, as was the environment. Or India, which has one of the fastest growing economies, whose citizens are not right in their relationship with God (most are Hindu), does not treat their labor force well, and has an atrocious record on the environment.

  3. Joe,

    It’s entirely possible to get rich by destroying the environment. Of course, you can only do that for so long, but you can sure do it. But wealth does not prove you have God’s blessing.

    The point the author makes is that there are many places where poverty is caused by a destroyed environment. That’s not the only cause of poverty, but it’s very common in Third World countries. In such locations, if we don’t address the environment, we don’t address poverty.

    He points out more broadly that poverty comes from destroyed relationships. Even in the US where the environment is less of a factor, where you find pockets of poverty, you’ll find destroyed relationships. If you don’t address the relationships, you won’t address the poverty.

  4. LOL I hope the Bible is left off of your list of books where you skip the stories. 🙂

    Maybe they’re adding stories because they’re following God’s way of communicating.

    I know I’m being a bit cranky, but it is hard for me to come out of reading The Blue Parakeet and then reject the narratives other people use to communicate.

  5. @Joe

    I think there’s a big difference between “the wealth that’s been created without any of these principals (sic)” and what Jay and the author (and Scripture, for that matter) would deem true wealth.

    Wealth without those principles is just mammon.

  6. And there’s a difference between helping someone work his way out of poverty and honoring wealth as showing God’s approval. Two very different things indeed.

    The scriptures are actually very clear that we are called to help the poor.

    And if the Third World poor can actually become as wealthy as minimum-wage earning Americans, they’ll soon be sending out missionaries of their own. It’s already happening in many places.

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