Poverty and Development”
A review of
By Claudio Oliver.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
Pamphlet: Relational Tithe, 2010.
Buy now: [ Relational Tithe ]
Claudio Oliver, a pastor and community developer from Curitiba, Brazil stands in a rich tradition of recent Christian social critics that includes Ivan Illich, John McKnight and Jacques Ellul. Indeed, my very first exposure to Claudio’s work was stumbling upon an online video of him defending his graduate thesis on Ivan Illich, Leo Tolstoy and Paulo Freire (HERE, but be forewarned, it’s in Portuguese). Oliver’s first English publication, a pamphlet entitled Relationality, has recently been published by Relational Tithe. This little gem of a pamphlet follows Ivan Illich’s and John McKnight’s critiques of poverty and development (especially Illich’s Toward a History of Needs; read an essay that basically summarizes the book here), but does so in a clear and narrative style that is simple to read and thoroughly engaging. One of Oliver’s main points here is that “[Poverty] is not fundamentally not the lack of things or of stuff, but rather the lack of friends. To be poor is to have no friends” (14).
Thus, the deeper problem is that of individualism, the lifeblood of Western Enlightenment thinking, which is deeply engrained into American culture. Claudio observes:
Within a very short span of time, the impact of rapid Westernization has transformed small-scale, traditional communal societies into modern mass societies… [Although almost everyone agrees that something needs to be done about this trend, what all the various sorts of solutions] seem to have in common is what they take as a given; namely, the concept of the individual and individual’s disconnectedness and “dis-membered” way of life within this same society. Moreover, they adhere to a common faith in the power of technology, therapeutics and the happiness that comes from consumerism and development as the normative, universal experience” (19).
Of course, one could – and perhaps should – spend a lifetime unpacking a statement like that but of course, one should not do so alone, and despite the poignancy of his critiques of Western culture, perhaps the most refreshing part of this little work is its ecclesiology. The church, Oliver argues should be intensely communal and intensely local, but just as God is an open community, we also should be an open community. He eloquently concludes:
I do believe that there is no global solution for global poverty. We have been created as local people, in local environments, in a pluriverse of possibilities and expressions instead of a universe of where a unique version of reality offers “one size fits all” solutions. To arrive in our local contexts, or to move to different ones, requires the same basic attitude that was in Jesus (Phil. 2:5-11): to arrive with a willingness to self-empty, in an attitude of service, being available to incarnate, enjoy and interact with the flavors, smells and tastes that are local and from where we can become capable of finding the best way to be Good News to the friends we meet on the way.
The booklet concludes with two helpful appendices. The first of these is “The Parable of the Toilet,” a brief, pointed story that conveys the book’s basic concept. The second is a series of reflections, questions, exercises and resources that are very useful for engaging the ideas of this little book in a community setting.
Claudio Oliver summarizes many of the intuitions that we at Englewood Christian Church have had about the mission of the Church in the world – intuitions based, I would add, on reading many of the same social critics that have been essential to Oliver’s formation. However, Oliver has the gift of communicating these ideas in clear, simple and engaging ways. Relationality preaches a sermon that all followers of Christ need to hear, a sermon about what it means, in very practical terms, to love our neighbors. Its message is especially pertinent for Christians who have a passion for social justice or are involved in various forms of development in the U.S. or around the globe!
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com