Wealth, Poverty, and Politics (Book Review)
by Harley Voogd
I’m writing this review from the point of view of Christian Missions. Too often, in my opinion, Christians disconnect themselves from the context of real life, and end up living in a vacuum, mostly unaware of the world around them. Whether it is because of the love for a vision, or an idealistic view of the future, Christians can easily become guilty of the old saying: “You’re so heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good” – although I would change ‘heavenly’ to ‘spiritually’.
“[A] feeling of being on the side of the angels can be a dangerous self-indulgence in a heedless willfulness that is sometimes called idealism. This kind of idealism can replace realities with preconceptions, and make the overriding goal the victory of some abstract vision, in defiance of reality or in disregard of the fate of fellow human beings.”
(Thomas Sowell. Wealth, Poverty and Politics, pg. 420. New York: Basic Books, 2016.)
The above quote was not made by Sowell in any kind of religious/missions context, but the principle still applies. If I were teaching a missiology course at a seminary, I would make this book required reading.
The main question Sowell is asking in this book is: “Why, given that poverty is the default for humanity, are some nations wealthy?” That’s the reverse of what other poverty/economic books ask, which is: “Why are some nations poor?” To Sowell, the answer to that questions is obvious; all of humanity is flawed and ‘fallen’ and it is a ‘miracle’ that some nations get out of that fallen impoverished state at all.
Sowell looks at culture, politics, geography, history, and other factors to determine how some nations and groups of people are able to create wealth. For example, while there are large rivers in Africa, there are no rivers in Africa like the Mississippi river. The Mississippi is a slow moving river traveling along a small decline in elevation. Therefore, it is easy to travel on and transport goods on. In Africa, the largest rivers have many rapids and cascades, making it difficult to travel on. That inability to travel isolates people from economic trade and cultural trade. Some land is better for growing crops than other land. Some countries have oil, others not. Some nations have a culture of honesty and hard work, other nations view deception as necessary.
That’s really what the whole book is: looking at the various different factors of reality and trying to determine how each factor applies to the wealth, or lack thereof, of peoples, groups, and nations. My one criticism of the book is that it is too repetitive, and could have been 100 pages shorter. I read the ‘revised and enlarged edition,’ so perhaps the first edition is 100 pages shorter.
In missions the same method which Sowell uses to explain wealth and poverty can be used to explain why some nations are Christian and others are not. First off, I’m not denying the spiritual aspect of missions. The Holy Spirit kicked off the Great Commission, and continues to guide it along, but the spiritual and the physical are not two different things, but rather are two parts of the same thing: reality. We can not remove ourselves from the context of the world in which we live. Culture, geography, religion, language, etc. all play a factor in the spread of the gospel. That is a fact and can not be denied spiritually. These physical factors need to be taken into account and used as a starting point. As C.S. Lewis said, “Miracles do not, in fact, break the laws of nature.” God’s universe has an inbuilt capacity for the miraculous. “Nothing can seem extraordinary until you have discovered what is ordinary. Belief in miracles, far from depending on an ignorance of the laws of nature, is only possible in so far as those laws are known.” (Lewis)
Why is the Church growing rapidly in the Philippines, but not Thailand? What happened in South Korea, where nearly 30% of the population is Christian, that didn’t happen in North Korea? Why are the western nations, colonized by the British, the most prosperous Christian nations compared to South American nations colonized by Spain? What about India, where Christianity was supposedly introduced there 2000 years ago by the apostle Thomas? Why did Hinduism, and later Buddhism, spread so far from India into South East Asia in the centuries past?
But… this post is just a book review. I’m not going to attempt to answer those questions here.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand how the world works and why it works that way, and, using that knowledge, figure out how to predict the future and make life better for everyone.
I give it 4/5 stars. One star less than 5 for being too repetitive.
Other recommended reading:
A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell
The Missionary Movement in Christian History by Andrew F. Walls