The Common Good

The Prayer of Jabez Falls Short in Africa

Sojomail - February 9, 2006

Quote of the Week : Earth to evangelicals
Batteries Not Included : David Batstone: The Prayer of Jabez falls short in Africa
Religion and Society : Cartoons a symptom of deeper prejudices in Western Europe
Culture Watch : Rabbi Michael Lerner: 'A progressive spiritual politics'
Building a Movement : World Social Forum: Another Africa is under way!
Sojourners in the News : This week's media roundup
Boomerang : Readers write
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- Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

In spite of such statements, Haggard declined to sign the Evangelical Climate Initiative against global warming that 86 evangelical luminaries, including The Purpose-Driven Life author Rick Warren and Wheaton University President Duane Litfin, signed. Last week, 22 conservative evangelicals calling themselves the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance - including Charles Colson, James Dobson, and Richard Land - admonished the NAE, saying in a statement that "Global warming is not a consensus issue" and that "the science is not settled."

Source: The New York Times

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The Prayer of Jabez falls short in Africa
by David Batstone

Bruce Wilkinson, author of the best-selling book The Prayer of Jabez, made a big splash nearly four years ago when he announced his ambitious plan to help children suffering from AIDS in Africa.

Not everything for Wilkinson has gone according to plan, unfortunately. A page one feature in the Dec. 19 The Wall Street Journal captures the sad tale in a nutshell: "In 2002 Bruce Wilkinson, a Georgia preacher whose self-help prayer book had made him a rich man, heard God's call, moved to Africa and announced his intention to save one million children left orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. In October [2005], Wilkinson resigned in a huff from the African charity he founded. He abandoned his plan to house 10,000 children in a facility that was to be an orphanage, bed-and-breakfast, game reserve, Bible college, industrial park and Disneyesque tourist destination in the tiny kingdom of Swaziland. What happened in between is a story of grand hopes and inexperience, divine inspiration and human foibles. ...[H]is departure left critics convinced he was just another in a long parade of outsiders who have come to Africa making big promises and quit the continent when local people didn't bend to their will."

It is not my aim to gloat at Wilkinson's failure. To the contrary, I mourn what this means for the millions of African children in crisis who apparently will not benefit from his efforts. I also want to honor Wilkinson's desire to help the least fortunate. It would have been easy for him to take the wealth he gained from his book sales and live a life of personal comfort.

This chain of events, however, should not pass without a moment of theological reflection. The "blessed life" that Wilkinson has helped to promote carries with it a number of assumptions about where God is present in the world, and how God acts in response to the prayers of the faithful.

The Prayer of Jabez is based on a passage out of the book of Chronicles, in which a devoted man named Jabez asks God for a favor: "Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!" The fact that God honors Jabez' prayer and blesses him with great riches indicates to Wilkinson a God-principle. If we in pure heart ask God for a blessing - and do so using the very words that Jabez prayed - then God will bring wondrous gifts into our life. As The Wall Street Journal reports, Wilkinson interprets the wild commercial success of his books (roughly 20 million copies sold combined) as yet another proof of the miraculous power of the Jabez prayer. In other words, it worked for Jabez, it worked for Wilkinson, and now it should work for you. With the fiasco in Africa now behind him - and the full Journal report makes clear that fiasco is the appropriate term - I wonder if Wilkinson has reconsidered his theology.

Maybe because I spent so many years in poor regions of the globe I could never accept the prayer-in-blessing-out approach to faithful living. Straight to the point, I have known too many devoted Christians for whom life did not bring them material blessing. Their children still died of infectious diseases that plagued their village. They could not avoid the violence that dictators and ideologues so often use to cow the powerless. Their territory did not expand because their only path for survival was a daily labor with their hands. Yet they did not lose faith, or cease praying for God's blessing.

As I ponder on their lives, I find a more fitting theology for God's presence and action in the world to be laid out in the book of Hebrews. There we are encouraged to have "faith in things not yet seen," and are offered models of individuals who tried to lead devoted lives that honor God. We read that some of them did receive great material blessings, while others ended up in the dens of lions or stoned due to their principled living. We learn, in other words, that God does hear their prayers and loves them profoundly, but it does not always bring them material riches or expanded territory.

Wilkinson's doctrine in fact implies that social structures are immaterial. An individual reciting the right prayer can transcend an AIDS epidemic in his or her village or escape being bought and sold into slavery (like 27 million people on this planet yet today). Perhaps now that Wilkinson has immersed himself in Africa, he better understands that the curse of poverty is not a spiritual punishment, or an indication of a lack of faith. To bring blessings to the orphans and widows of Africa, a dramatic shift in values - political, economic, and personal - will be required. And that challenge cannot be owned by Africans alone; it falls squarely on the shoulders of us in rich nations, who enjoy such great material "blessings."

Just like the next Bible reader, I could pick out individual passages that seem to suggest that God will give us whatever we desire as long as we ask for it with a pure heart. "You can even move this mountain" with such a prayer, as Jesus teaches his disciples in the gospels. I do not summarily discount these passages, nor do I assume that we should never pray for rain in a time of drought.

But the weight of the biblical message balances heavily toward a prayer life that yields courage, love, and compassion to do the will of God. The expectation of material gain and miraculous blessings may even distract us on that pilgrimage. The passage in Hebrews calls us, based on past heroes of the faith, "to run the race in front of us," confident that devoting our lives to God's work is all the reward we will ever need.

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Rabbi Michael Lerner

In The Left Hand of God, Rabbi Michael Lerner, renowned spiritual leader and editor of Tikkun magazine, presents a blueprint for how the Democratic Party can effectively challenge the Right and win back the White House and Congress. Lerner's vision incorporates and yet goes far beyond contemporary liberal and progressive politics. This is not a superficial call for reframing the Democrats' message, nor a plea for liberal politicians to quote from the Bible. This is a fundamentally new approach to taking spiritual needs seriously in our economic and political lives!


Cartoons a symptom of deeper prejudices in Western Europe
by Tomek Krzyzostaniak

Twelve cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed, printed last September in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten and republished in January by major newspapers in Norway, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands, have sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. Protests intensified last weekend in several Middle Eastern countries, and included outbreaks of violence and the burning of Danish and Swedish Missions. Many Muslims object to the cartoons because Islam forbids the creation of any image of the prophet, and the cartoons portray Mohammed as a terrorist. Along with anger there are feelings of confusion from those who imagined Europe as a tolerant and welcoming place.

The fictional haven was clearly shaken by the riots in France last year. If Europe was so culturally tolerant, how could so many minorities be so upset? Europeans from Slavic nations have understood the Western European superiority complex better than others. My uncle, Andrzej Lewandowski, like many other Polish businessmen, faces derogatory comments and ill treatment from his French and German counterparts on a consistent basis when traveling. Even though Poland is a full member of the European Union, the Western nations have consistently placed limitations on the ability of Poles to work and study in their countries.

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'A progressive spiritual politics'
by Rabbi Michael Lerner

Michael Lerner is a courageous and prophetic rabbi whom I am glad to call a friend. I especially admire his vision for a Middle East peace that is a bold challenge to both Israelis and Palestinians - and is what the world will ultimately have to embrace if we are to avoid endless conflict. In his latest book, The Left Hand of God, Lerner offers a "progressive spirituality" to counter both the religious fundamentalists of the Right and the secular fundamentalists of the Left. Michael Lerner is always worth listening to, and I urge you to get and read this book. Following is an excerpt. - Jim Wallis

What the Religious Right does, in essence, is to blame all liberals and progressives for the values of the capitalist marketplace. And they can get away with this tactic as long as the only answer most people hear from the Democrats and the Left is, "Keep your values out of the public sphere, which should remain neutral."

Ironically, the liberal, value-free, nonideological discourse has been appropriated by the champions of global capitalism. They present capitalism as above mere politics and as simply seeking "progress" as it destroys local economies and cultures and puts in their place the mechanisms of a global system. Global capitalism always claims to be apolitical and to have no agenda except allowing people to buy whatever they want. Those who critique the logic of the market are portrayed as ideologues, whether they be from the Left or the fundamentalist Right.

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World Social Forum: Another Africa is under way!
by Njoki Njoroge Njehu

The World Social Forum is an annual meeting held by members of the global justice movement to coordinate global campaigns and strategies and share information about grassroots movements, especially among poor people, from around the world. It was formed in 2001 as a counterpoint to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In 2006, rather than being at the traditional WSF meeting site in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the forum was held at three sites: Bamako, Mali; Caracas, Venezuela; and Karachi, Pakistan. - The Editors

On Jan. 23, in the gymnasium of the Modibo Keita Memorial Stadium in Bamako, Mali, a banner was passed from the Polycentric World Social Forum event in Bamako to a representative of the Kenyan Social Forum, which is organizing the 2007 World Social Forum in Nairobi. The gymnasium was filled with people applauding, and Kenyans danced and celebrated. It was a poignant moment because, as a colleague from Italy said, she did not think Africa would ever be ready for the World Social Forum. Many participants acknowledged the success of the WSF in Bamako, thanked the Malian committee for a job well done, and heralded the beginning of the Africanization of the global World Social Forum processes.

As a repeat offender, having participated in every global WSF event since it began, I was again overwhelmed with joy, pride, inspiration, and a little dread for the task ahead, especially for us Kenyans. The pride has much to do with what the WSF has become and the potential it holds, as people globally imagine a different world for themselves. Many have repeatedly declared the death of the global justice movement, but one only needs to attend a World Social Forum event, be a member of a church social action committee, or join a union to know that the struggles for justice, peace, and dignity are alive and well.

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This week's media roundup
Top stories:

Bono, after years of skepticism, finds partner in religion Religion News Service
Bono can quote entire sections of scripture - he used his childhood Bible to prepare for Thursday's speech - and talks in terms of national "tithing" on foreign aid, and the Bible's 2,100-plus verses on poverty. Bono has worked with Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton, conservative religious broadcaster Pat Robertson and progressive preacher Jim Wallis. America's strong religious identity has actually made it easier to preach his social gospel here than in Europe, which is now largely secular, he said.

The State of Our Values
Sojourners, a social justice-minded Christian ministry with a knack for organizing via the Internet, prompted 160 churches from 40 states to "put forth an alternative vision that embraces the biblical principles of economic and racial justice, healthy families, strong communities, a consistent ethic of life, peacemaking and caring for God's creation."

More Sojourners in the news:

The America We Believe In TomPaine.Com

'St. Jack' and the Bullies in the Pulpit The Washington Post

American Invulnerability and the War on Terror The Daily Evergreen

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GRANTS: "Partners in Transformation" awards available for FBOs engaged in disaster relief, community rebuilding efforts, and services to impoverished neighborhoods in Alabama, California, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia. Deadline March 1, 2006.


Readers write

Mary Lou and Rusty Bonham write from Albany, Oregon:

I have been sitting here weeping as I read Bono's speech to our nation's leaders ["Bono's best sermon yet," SojoMail 2/3/2006]. What a voice of truth so needed in our day. What he said resonated so deeply, and maybe touched my sense of despair and hopelessness about the broken moral condition of our country and the church, and maybe awakened in me some sense of hope that the church really can be relevant in addressing the pressing issues of justice and righteousness in our day.


Richard Brewster writes from Monrovia, Liberia:

I read with interest your stories about doing something about the crisis in Africa. Especially the speech of Bono. Very fine. I do applaud the idea. My wife and I have spent almost four years in various West African countries with Mercy Ships. We surely have seen misery and the effects of poverty. Mercy Ships has had a small part in alleviating these conditions. We are also Rotarians and that organization has done much as well. Our small Greenport, New York, Rotary Club has sent more than 500 wheelchairs to Sierra Leone and has paid for the construction of wells in Liberia.

But poverty is not such an easy problem to solve. Throwing money at it is not the answer. Lots of money has been thrown. We have seen the results. Fancy homes for politicians and money wasted on useless projects! Money drains into the sand around here. The idea is great, but carrying it out is quite another thing.


Sharon KC Reimer writes from Reedley, California:

I cried my way through your editorial about the economic conference at Davos ["What would Jesus do at Davos?" SojoMail 2/1/2006]. What a wonderful report of the true "rulers of our world." It is the economic sector that controls the future - how we in the world spend our money tells who will live and who will die - politics and politicians come and go, churches and religions come and go - but money that buys food, shelter, and health care is here to stay in one form or another.

And to think that Bill Gates is addressing health care issues gives me, as a registered nurse, hope not only for my profession but for the poor, the middle class, and the helpless in our country and the world. God is truly working through this group of people and I am so glad to be identified with them and you. Over the years I have not necessarily been proud to say I am an American or even a Christian, given the view many people in the world have of both, but I can say that I am proud to be a Sojourners subscriber and part of this ecumenical community of faith that is changing the world one prostitute at a time.


Brenda Berck writes from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada:

I was pleased to learn that religious leaders were in attendance at Davos. My hope is that they, and others, added broader moral and ethical perspectives to the deliberations on global poverty. After all the great self-congratulations of world leaders in 2005 about how the First World countries would cancel much Third World debt, the reality is that countries such as Nigeria are required to pay 40% ($12.4 billion U.S.) in a one-off payment so that $18 billion (U.S.) can be wiped off the books. Because Jim Wallis' report mentions that President Obasango attended the Davos meetings, it seems apt to mention the cost to Nigeria of the beneficence of First World countries.

I don't know how much other countries expect to receive from Nigeria; I do know that the amount Nigeria is paying Britain is almost twice the amount the U.K. spends in foreign aid to Africa. This claim on such a vast amount of Nigeria's savings suggests that the generous sentiments expressed in 2005 were words for good PR covering up an astonishing level of meanness of spirit. Think of how much health care or schooling or clean water could be provided by Nigeria to its own citizens if its $12.4 billion (U.S.) could be repaid over time, or if a lower - or no - pre-payment was required!


Anna Elliot writes from San Diego California:

I think I should start off by saying that I am not religious. I am spiritual, yes, and I believe in something, but I don't know what that something may be. For the longest time, I found myself resenting the religious people I came into contact with. I'm from a small, conservative town, and a good portion of the religious people I knew were the most close-minded and, in my mind, ungodly people I had ever met. My grandparents, devout Seventh Day Adventists who dedicated their lives to God and service, were an example of true godliness. No conversion or belief was required to benefit from their service; they simply wanted to help. They believed homosexuality was a sin but volunteered at homes for gay men dying of AIDS. I guess the point is that they had their beliefs, and many of them I disagree with, but their paramount value was love for all humanity, regardless of their sins.

But since subscribing to your newsletter over a year ago, I feel less disgusted with religion. You all recognize that what passes for religion among right-wing Republicans is immoral and against the Bible's true teachings of love and service. And that gives me hope. Knowing that Sojourners exists and preaches good common sense, as well as a doctrine of love and forgiveness, gives me hope that perhaps that message will reach others and show them the error of their ways.


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