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Engaging the Bible in Mission Theology Scholarship: Bryant Myers' Walking With the Poor

Engaging the Bible in Mission Theology Scholarship: Bryant Myers' Walking With the Poor

This post is a book review of: Bryant Myers, Walking With the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 1999).  The book was revised and updated in 2011.

I originally published this review in Transformation 18.1 (2001):  62-64.

Bryant Myers, Vice President for International Program Strategy at World Vision International, seeks to bring together three streams of thinking and experiences in this recent work: (1) the theories, principles and practices of the international development community, (2) the theories, principles and practices of the Christian community involved in transformational development, and (3) a biblical framework for transformational development.  As such, the book is primarily theoretical, with a few examples from practice occurring more in the last three chapters.  Nevertheless, one quickly appreciates how the author’s understanding of field practice has shaped his evaluation of various theories on poverty and development.

The book is a good primer for Christians involved in development work.  The novice will learn of several key theorists in the last two to three decades, David Friedman, Robert Chalmers, and Jayakumar Christian in particular.  Myers builds on such theorists, presenting his own view of ‘transformational development’ throughout the book but in particular in ch. 5: ‘Toward a Christian Understanding of Transformational Development.’  The various lists, tables and models provide grist for many discussions in development, and they will also prove useful in missions in general as well as in ethics.  The book also offers a good starting point for discussion about the character of holistic transformational development practitioners and the principles which guide them (especially ch. 6), and about planning and evaluating such work (ch. 7).

Something of a theology of development emerges over the pages of this book.  The key notions are: (1) holistic worldview: holding the spiritual and material together not only in ministry but in our very understanding of the world as beyond scientific explanation and human activity, finding a place for spiritual power and encounter in our outlook on life; (2) transformational development: development work with a goal beyond giving material aid, seeking to see material, social and spiritual transformation (thus the twin goals of transformational development are a changed people--a people with a new identity defined by life in the Kingdom of God (they are children of God and their ‘true vocation [is] as faithful and productive stewards of gifts from God for the well-being of all’ [p. 14]--and just and peaceful relationships; (3) Christian witness: a witness to the good news of a relationship with Christ which goes beyond oral proclamation (evangelism), involving witness by life, word, deed, and signs (of God’s reign; ch. 8 focuses on this issue); (4) personal and social evil/personal and social gospel: sin and salvation are not only applicable to the individual, they are also social, addressing economics, politics, culture, and the church as an institution (e.g., poverty is seen as ‘a system of disempowerment [in society] which creates oppressive relationships [which involves holding the wrong values in relationships] and whose fundamental causes are spiritual’ such that the poor lack freedom to grow); (5) revelation: revelation from God rather than our own observation through the social sciences must also be a part of development work, thus prayer, fasting, meditation and so forth are important alongside proper training in the social sciences for the development worker; (6) a narrative approach to (a) Biblical reading and (b) sociological encounter: (a) a Biblical understanding of Scripture should primarily be a narrative reading of the Biblical story/stories, and (b) in development work the narratives of development workers and the communities with which they work involves both an encounter and convergence of stories.

The subtitle of the book highlights Myers’ interest in ‘principles’ and ‘practices’ of transformational development.  The principles are four: (1) ‘the ownership of the development process lies with the people themselves’, which primarily means appreciating their own story, spiritual self-understanding, and knowledge about how to survive; (2) ‘Management-by-objectives’ does not work with social systems; emphasis on vision, values and evaluation will better enable people to learn their way towards transformation; (3) Empowerment is the goal of participation; and (4) Participation must build community.

The practices of transformational development focus on people.  In particular, people are to be understood as created in the image of God capable of becoming children of God.  Using the work of others, Myers offers something of a tool kit for the practice of development work: (1) understanding development less in terms of needs and more in terms of social analysis, particularly through Mary Anderson’s and Peter Woodrow’s analysis of vulnerabilities and capabilities; (2) Participatory Learning and Action (PLA); (3) Appreciative Inquiry (David Cooperrider), with its assumption of health, vitality and life-giving social organisation in every community; (4) how to evaluate the work; (5) other critical issues, such as listening to women and children, pacing the work properly, giving proper attention to the spiritual dimension of development work.  Finally, since the practice of transformational development involves Christian witness, Myers discusses the practice of Christian witness.

Myers’ establishes his reflections on poverty upon a three-fold foundation.  The most important part of this foundation is a theological understanding, and Myers approaches theology primarily from a narrative biblical theology.  As Myers’ presents his theological understanding in ch. 2, what emerges is a combination of narrative readings of the Bible, more traditional theological doctrines (‘image of God’, Trinitarian theology, incarnation, redemption), and classical Biblical theological categories (kingdom of God).  This type of an overview is, by nature of its brevity on the one hand and wide scope on the other, open to many criticisms or at least unresolved questions.  For example, are we justified in interpreting ‘image of God’ to have to do with God’s Trinitarian being and a triune self-understanding?  Should we understand the nature of Jesus’ ministry (e.g., in Galilee) as instructive for us today and, if so, how do we properly interpret this?  For example, Myers believes ‘Galilee’ means ministry on the periphery rather than in the centre of power (a not uncommon understanding of the political status of Galilee and yet the whole argument at this point reflects little knowledge of the socio-political realities of Galilee, such as the significance of Galilee as a central cross-roads for an expanding mission--hardly on the ‘periphery’).  He does not interact with the more traditional interpretation of the non-Protestant Church along these lines: the narrative of Christ calls disciples to imitate his life of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  While I also approach Biblical theology within a narrative framework, many hermeneutical and theological issues still need to be worked out with greater scholarly care by those of us promoting this approach.  Myers’ use of narrative categories is based on the belief that one’s world-view is fundamentally shaped by stories, one’s own life is a narrative, communities have their own narratives, and the Bible contains a basic narrative centred on Jesus and numerous additional narratives (creation, the Fall, liberation narratives--the Patriarchs and Exodus, the prophets’ interpretation of Israel’s story, the Church’s unfolding story, and the eschatological story).  A narrative reading of the Scripture permits Myers to work with the following theological notions: relationships, universal and cosmic interests, plot development, liberation and working with the poor, holistic mission, transformational development, a continuity between the Biblical Story and the ongoing work of the Church (without identifying Kingdom and Church--an important point).

The Bible affords interpreters multiple and conflicting answers to the question, ‘Who are the Poor?’ (following Mouw; cf. p. 60).  Myers’ social analysis takes the household as the basic building block for society, with its social, political and psychological power resources for its governmental, territorial and productive interests (following Friedman).  Poverty is understood as more than a deficit of things; it is more than a systemic entanglement (so Robert Chalmers) entailing physical weakness (including mental causes due to poor nutrition, illness, alcohol, drugs), material poverty, vulnerability (social conventions [e.g., Emmanuel Todd’s argument that cultural potential is related to family structure], disasters, physical incapacity [cf., e.g., Jared Diamond’s discussion of geographical resources, social power for exploration and domination, and immunity to germs], unproductive expenditures, exploitation), powerlessness (by resources being kept from the poorest poor, robbery, and paying unfair prices to the poor), isolation; it is more than a lack of organisation and access to the institutions of social power--government (the executive and judiciary), politics (independent political organisations), society (the household, churches, voluntary organisations), and economics (corporations), with its eight bases of social power --social networks, information for self-development, surplus time, instruments of work and livelihood, social organisation, knowledge and skill, defensible life space, and financial resources (so Friedman).  In addition to these, poverty is also spiritual (so Jayakumar Christian).  By ‘spiritual’, Myers means one’s self-understanding (the poor’s belief in the lies told about them and their own delusions about life), moral poverty (absence of love, responsibility and righteousness), and the cosmic, personal evil powers behind the individual and social causes of poverty.  Not only so, but poverty is fundamentally ‘a result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable’ (p. 86).  By ‘relationship’, Myers means the self in relationship with itself, with the community, with the environment, with others, and with God.

How shall we understand ‘development’?  Modernity approaches development through social control and rational thought, which cannot overcome evil, and believes things are getting better.  But development is not ‘saving’ through economic growth, modern medicine, agriculture, water development, technological advance, and so forth.  Salvation is only through the cross.  ‘Transformation’ can also be understood in a number of ways: to do with souls, physical bodies, mental, social systems, violence, creation (fig. 4-1, p. 93).

Wayne Bragg argued in the development conference called Wheaton, 1983 that transformation must include not only social welfare but also concerns for justice.  He posited the following interests in such an approach: life sustenance, equity, justice, dignity and self-worth, freedom, participation, reciprocity, cultural fit (a respectful attitude towards local cultures), and ecological soundness (p. 95).

David Korten (Getting to the 21st Century, 1991), argued for a ‘people-centred’ rather than growth-centred development approach.  Myers adapted Korten’s argument as follows:

Growth-Centred Development                                  People-Centred Development
Material consumption                                                   Human well-being
Wants of the non-poor                                                 Needs of the poor
Corporation or business                                               Household
Competition                                                                 Community
Export markets                                                            Local markets
Absentee ownership                                                     Local ownership
Borrowing and debt                                                     Conserving and sharing
Specialisation                                                               Diversification
Inerdependence                                                           Self-reliance
Environmental costs externalized                                   Environmental costs internalized
Free flow of capital and services                                   Free flow of information

Korten defines development as ‘a process by which the members of a society increase their personal and institutional capacities to mobilise and manage resources to produce sustainable and justly distributed improvements in their quality of life consistent with their own aspirations’ (1990, 67; Myers, p. 96, italics mine).  Development work should change its focus over time from addressing (1) the shortage of things to (2) the shortage of skills and local inertia to (3) the failure of social and cultural systems to (4) an inadequate mobilising vision (Myers, p. 97).  These stages involve not only a change in one’s perception of the problem being addressed but also the time frame, scope, chief actors, role of the agency, and management style (cf. figure 4-3, p. 98).
John Friedman’s understanding of poverty as ‘limited access to social power’ leads to an understanding of development as ‘a process that seeks the empowerment [decision-making, local self-reliance, participatory democracy, and social learning] of the households and their individual members through their involvement in socially and politically relevant actions’ (1992, 33; Myers, p. 99).  Among other things, Myers criticises Friedman for assuming that empowered people will work towards a just end and that empowerment is not also spiritual.

Robert Chambers (Whose Reality Counts?  Putting the First Last, 1997), sees the end of development as ‘responsible well-being’ (thus going beyond the question of wealth and poverty), the means of development as livelihood security (adequate levels of food for basic needs, rights to access resources, security against shortages) and capabilities, and the principles of development as equity and sustainability.  These five concerns in development are interdependent.

Jayakumar Christian sees development as a kingdom response to powerlessness, much of this having to do with unmasking the lies people believe by hearing the truth of the Kingdom of God.  That is, Christian is not calling for a view of the Kingdom of God embracing the use of force.

Myers offers his understanding of Transformational Development in ch. 5.  (1) He begins with his understanding of stories: ‘every development program is a convergence of stories’, the development workers’ stories, which includes God’s story, and the communities’ stories (p. 111).  In this convergence of stories, Myers is concerned on the one hand that the community owns the story and on the other hand that God’s story (the Biblical story as it emerges in the canon) is clearly offered to the community as the larger story in which they might place their own story of transformational development.  Myers further describes the work of transformational development as (2) offering a better future to the community.  This better future is defined as ‘shalom’--’just, peaceful, harmonious, and enjoyable relationships with each other, ourselves, our environment, and God’, having to do with the physical, social, mental and spiritual aspects of life (p. 111).  Citing Newbigin (1989, 129; Myers, p. 114), Myers notes that this vision of a better future is understood in terms of the Kingdom of God and not in terms of projects, programs, ideologies and utopia.  Myers also insists that ‘it is impossible to imagine a transforming community without a transforming church in its midst’ (p. 115)--a model of what the options are for the community as a whole.  (3) Transformational development has the following goals: (a) a changed people (recovering true identity and discovering true vocation),  (b) just and peaceful relationships, (c) sustainability .  (4) The process of change involves: (a) affirming the role of God in transformation; (b) affirming the role of human beings; (c) focusing on relationships; (d) keeping the end in mind; (e) recognising pervasive evil; (f) seeking truth, justice, and righteousness; (g) addressing causes; (h) doing no harm; (i) expressing a bias toward peace; (j) affirming the role of the church.  All this is reshaped into a diagram on p. 136.

Myers examines how to work with the poor and non-poor in transformational development (ch. 6).  The principles to guide this work are: (1) respecting the community’s story, which in practical terms means understanding the community’s history, discerning where God has been at work in the community’s history, and listening carefully to their whole story, including its understanding of formal religion, folk religion, and folk science; (2) learning the community’s typical survival strategies, including the role of their supernatural, unseen world; (3) respecting indigenous knowledge.  The practice of transformational development should be less management-by-objectives, which assumes a linear approach to social development, and more a ‘vision-and-values approach’, which assumes the unpredictability of social development.  This means working with short-term planning, evaluating, and placing priority on people rather than things.  But a people focused approach must move beyond participation to empowerment, and it must focus on community building with the poor.  The rest of this chapter describes the attitudes of, characteristics of, formation of, and care for the holistic practitioner.  The appendix to this chapter offers a profile of the practitioner in terms of knowledge, character, technical skills, and attitudes of the heart (p. 167).  This chapter includes more examples than previous chapters do, although the emphasis is still theoretical.

This detailed description of the principles and practices of the people involved in development leads to a chapter on the learning tools to use in this work (ch. 7).  The first tool is social rather than needs analysis.  The second tool looks at the various groups’ (e.g., genders, economic classes) vulnerabilities,  and how to enhance their capacities.  The third tool is community organisation through networking, coalition building, action-reflection-action, leadership empowerment, and the birth of a community.  The fourth tool is participatory learning and action (PLA).  The fifth tool is Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a post-modern tool opposed to mechanistic, problem-solving approaches and rather appreciative of and trying to enhance the community’s forces which organise and build it.  Myers notes that this approach has worked well in Tanzania’s World Vision: ‘Insisting on a discussion focusing on what has worked and on when and how the community has been successful in the past is very helpful in getting past the initial view of the NGO as the giver of good things’ (p. 178).  The sixth tool is Logical Framework Analysis and is a management-by-objectives approach, but when used by the community itself, not so much for problem solving as for working out its dreams, it can be useful.  It looks like this:

Objectives                Objectively verifiable        Means of verification          Risks and assumptions

Seventh, appropriate evaluation is even more important than planning.  This needs to be participatory (see the chart, p. 181) and go beyond how the problems were faced to community building questions.  It needs to look at lasting outcomes, changes in identity, vocation, relationships, worldview, values.  It needs to develop outwardly turned systems and structures, supporting and enhancing life in the community for all.  It also needs to ask if those involved are doing the right thing ethically, such as by preserving human life, working for justice, ensuring staff safety, and preserving human freedom (so Hugo Slim; Myers, p. 187).  Slim further describes a moral responsibility framework: (1) intention and motivation; (2) capacity for doing something; (3) knowledge and ignorance; (4) deliberation; (5) mitigation of negative effects of our actions (Myers, pp. 187f).  The spiritual dimension of transformational development also requires evaluation (pp. 188f).  Finally, Myers notes several additional critical issues in planning and evaluation: listen to women and children, get the pace right, and let the spiritual come through.  This chapter concludes with four appendices showing various tools used in planning and evaluation.

The final chapter addresses Christian witness in transformational development.  Noting that a ‘going and telling’ approach to evangelism is anti-developmental (it treats the community as an object rather than empowered participant finding its own answers to its problems), Myers looks about to find an alternative approach to offering a community the ‘best’, that is, the good news of God’s story.  He suggests that actions should provoke questions from the community, which then give the development workers an opportunity to tell the Gospel.  Witness occurs by one’s life, deeds, telling, and the signs of God’s reign.  Discipleship, furthermore, is not a personal, spiritual activity without also being a way of working the Gospel message throughout our society’s ideas and attitudes (politics, economics, culture, race, and so forth).  In all this, the question of the use of Scripture is important.  Throughout this book, Myers emphasises looking at Scripture in terms of its overarching narrative--God’s story (with tribute to Trevor McIlwain of New Tribes Mission, pp. 232ff).  In this way, the development workers can discuss the epic story in which they have found their meaning to groups which often have their own epic stories.  Alongside this narrative approach to Scripture, Myers cites positively two reader-response methods of interpretation (Scripture Search and The Seven Steps).  This sort of approach actually fits well with many home Bible study methods inasmuch as the role of teachers in the Church is minimised or even deprecated.  While this reviewer believes that such approaches to Scripture regularly denigrate its authority and abuse the text’s meaning, perhaps the best place to begin further discussing this matter is by interacting with the plethora of material now being published in biblical hermeneutics by evangelicals.  While this book regularly examines various methodologies and theories as they pertain to transformational development, this sort of scholarly interaction is lacking in the discussion on the use of Scripture.