• Theology and good development

    Posted by Micah

    1 November, 2010

    By Steve Bevis, TEAR Australia's NSW Educator

    What can theology contribute to thinking about good development? What can theology contribute to the task of speaking out about the injustices of our world? Both pursuits have their own secular raison d'etre and long histories of critical reflection that have shaped the tools they use and the goals they aim for. Much of that critical reflection is helpful. Yet, as Christians, we first seek inspiration and guidance from God. Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden pointed out in the 1980s that the way we think and act on issues of development is related both to our theology and to our worldview. On this issue, as with many others, our theology and worldview can really make a difference. As an example, Samuel and Sugden point out that Luther's extraordinary theological insight into salvation - that it is not the goal of life but its presupposition - led him to radically re-shape his worldview and to act in new ways. They relate that:
    Luther and his colleague Karlsdat made provision in Wittenberg for the city council to provide low-interest loans for workers; subsidies for education and training for the children of the poor; taxes to support the poor - all designed to prevent- as well as alleviate poverty. Luther, through his theological insight about personal faith and salvation, thereby overturned a static conception of a society that awaits salvation and which largely left the poor condemned to the status quo. And, on the basis of his assurance of salvation, he got busy making sure political systems assisted the poor! The urgent question we need to ask ourselves today is: does our theology and worldview leave the poor at the mercy of the secular status quo?

    To answer this, not only do we need to engage God's Word carefully and theologically, but we also need to critique and shape our worldview in the light of this knowledge. It is a difficult task, which means that there is never going to be one single "theology of development". Samuel and Sugden offer their own example of an evangelical theology of social change or development.
    Their summary is worth quoting at length. They write:
    At the heart of the theology we propose for social change is the atonement, the resurrection and the work of the Holy Spirit. The cross and resurrection of Jesus spelt the decisive defeat of evil, took the consequences of man's (sic) rebellion, and made possible man's entrance to the Kingdom of God and the formation of a new humanity on earth. The cross and resurrection define the nature and purpose of God's work in and beyond the church through the Spirit of God on the basis of the work of Christ (emphasis mine). God's work beyond the church and his work in the church are complementary. Beyond the church he is working in society to open society up to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and to make possible that new humanity which is being formed in the church. In the church the Spirit is building new relationships of love and justice which model to society the nature of God's plan for man, both as judgement on society and hope for it. For Samuel and Sugden, the Spirit is building new relationships and we can assume that the Spirit is building them in the same way that God has always built relationships - through covenants.

    Perhaps the single most important idea that can inform our development practice and advocacy, that theology can discern from the Biblical accounts, is the idea of the covenant. On Mount Sinai and in the upper room, an agreement is freely made between God and his people. A set of expectations, of principles, is included, but what is fundamental is the choice to enter this relationship. Of course, the temptation for Westerners is to imagine we get to play the role of God (or inadvertently playing God by assuming we know the answers and can fix their problems)! On the contrary, we should learn from the servant nature of Christ to encourage those who are poor to take the lead in determining what shape our covenant of development takes. To agree to act on the basis of covenant is biblical through and through; it leads to wellordered new life and the development of what is already present into something mature and life-giving for all.

    Furthermore, it is also a way of living that all people, regardless of creed or politics, can enter into. Community development at its best opens up a space for the poor themselves, and for rich and poor more broadly, to enter into a new agreement, or covenant, that allows new and sustainable developments to take place.
    Even as Jesus called the New Covenant into being with his sharing of bread and wine, he reminded his followers how they were to act in this new covenant. "Jesus said to them, "the Kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? But I am among you as one who serves." (Luke 22: 25- 27)

    Surely it is our temptation in the West to act as the disciples did, to seek and clamour for power and "greatness"; and to assume we are the noble "benefactors". Theology can remind us that our "covenant" of development should lead us to be ready to learn - like the young - and to make sure that the systems and contracts we enter into serve those who are often put at a disadvantage by our culture and our ways. In a theology of development, no matter the circumstances, the poor will always sit at the table, and the meal will be life-giving for us all.

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    This article originally appeared in TEAR Australia's ChangeMakers Journal