Power and Poverty: Divine and Human Rule in a World of Need – Book Review

Power and Poverty: Divine and Human Rule in a World of Need
Author:  Dewi Hughes
Publisher:  IVP
ISBN 13:  9781844743124

Book Review by Andy Kingston-Smith, Assistant Lecturer in Mission, Redcliffe College.

On picking up the book, I was immediately struck by the paradox explicit in the title, illustrated graphically on the front cover by a slum family sitting by their ‘tents’ against the backdrop of the fast-rising skyscrapers that are rapidly changing the Mumbai skyline. The illusion of wealth from afar comes to a sticky ending when zooming into to ground level.

The key issue the author poses strikes at the heart of many dilemmas we face – to what extent is poverty (or any other suffering in this life) the result of human action/inaction, or can it be attributed to other forces beyond human control. Are the poor trapped by harsh worldviews propagated by cruel religious systems, or by economic and political factors, which favour the rich and powerful, or by ignorance, or a lack of, or a misapplication of Christian truths? To what extent are they the victims of globalising forces or the negative fall-out of inept local policies or power- politicking? To what extent have the poor always been the victims of selfish and disproportionate allocations of global resources? To put it another way, the author contends that “the earth and human ingenuity have always ensured enough provision for everyone. Poverty is fundamentally a matter of distribution of the adequate provision that has always been there” (p.11). In short, power has been systematically applied in abusive and corrupt ways right from the beginning of humanity’s narrative; so what can we learn about this age-old conundrum?

The book begins with what the author considers to be “the root cause of the abuse of power that causes the crying of the oppressed” (p. 240), which he attempts to demonstrate as being caused by spiritual issues, as well as social, political and economic forces at work, with “its deepest root [being]…alienation from God” (p.240); this is seen from family/clan squabbling right up to empire building and the more than one billion abjectly poor on the planet represent palpable evidence of the consequences such conflict ultimately creates. This line of thought permeates the tracing of the rule and governance, or misrule and mis-governance, of great OT leaders right through to Christ’s righteous governance, whilst his “death and resurrection would bring about a reconstituted humankind to populate a new heaven and earth” (p.242).

Essentially, the author provides a scholarly and extensive critique of Old Testament ethics (part I), Jesus’ Kingdom message and example (part II), before devoting the final section to the application of the Christian message into this context (part III), in the form of the Church.

The questions posed in the first part relate to human power entrusted by God, in the beginning, and then tracing the development of OT laws and justice. The second part includes an interesting treatise on ‘insecurity’ and the argument that this, through exclusion and risk-aversion, is a key factor in ensuring the non-eradication of poverty. What is that insecurity? Quite simply, our alienation from God. To deal with the root problem, we need a restoration of that relationship and the rediscovery of right living. If it sounds simple… well, it is and it isn’t!!

Quite deliberately, in the author’s view, and one which I wholeheartedly agree with, there must be a closer examination of, and a greater emphasis on searching for solutions to this fundamental problem of poverty, in Jesus’ message. A large part of the book is devoted to this, chapter 11’s treatment of the Sermon on the Mount being a prime example.

Part III’s examination of the Church’s role contains a brilliant assessment of the tension Christians face in the Kingdom of God vs. kingdoms of this world conflict. Fortunately, we are not left hanging anxiously, but in solid chronological order, we are finally led to hope in the power of the resurrected Christ and the exaltation of Jesus whom we reflect to a broken world as “people who speak the living words of God” (p. 15). This is encapsulated in the use of the two most powerful weapons we have been given; prayer and prophecy.

Whilst acknowledging the significance of political, economic (the author suggests a moving away from unhelpful classifications of right-wing free-market and left-wing state-interventionist polarisations), material (etc.) factors, “there is clearly a need for a deeper, spiritual understanding of the origin of human beings and the type of human behaviour that leads to poverty and away from it” (p.12) and so the “conviction underlying this book is that the Bible provides such an understanding” (p.12). Dewi Hughes masterfully argues this rationale through the extensive biblical and theological panorama that he paints, in which the canonical approach to biblical interpretation is adopted to ensure understanding of original meaning and a true hermeneutical interpretation leading to the ‘pot of gold’ at the end; the demonstration that what “the Bible says speaks at a profound level to our contemporary circumstances”.

I appreciated the author’s passionate call to embrace the radical upside-down ethics of God’s Kingdom. It is a calling that requires us to walk a tough and unpopular path through life, but one which is infused with the indwelling Spirit as our guide; for it is “better to die in the service of a kingdom that will never end than live comfortably in an empire that is passing away” (p. 243).

What’s our response to be? “…better to listen to the crying now and respond in prophetic speech, prayer and acts of love, than shut our ears and say and do nothing…” Dewi Hughes demonstrates the ability to convincingly portray the honest truth for so many ills in this world without ever allowing us to lose our hope and our focus on the salvation-solution Christ’s resurrection power provides us. It is a book that should make you think, and think hard until it hurts! If you are looking for easy and practical solutions, you will find it difficult to stomach, for it is not a “thirteen steps to…” approach. It is a serious study, which demands time, thought, and most of all, shifts in our thinking; a must read for those who wish to explore a biblically in-depth analysis and be ready to assume the challenge that the book leaves us. We cannot remain neutral, nor diffident!!

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