This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2011 vol. 168 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
Power and Poverty: Divine and Human Rule in a World of NeedIVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL May 5, 2009
Hughes serves as the theological adviser to Tearfund, an organization dedicated to activating the local church in social justice and overcoming global poverty. Hughes’s other major work, God of the Poor: A Biblical Vision of God’s Present Rule [Carlisle, UK: OM Publishing, 1998] trumpets a similar theme as Power and Poverty, but it targets a more academic audience.
After twenty years with Tearfund, Hughes has accumulated numerous biblical arguments advocating the voice of the poor. In Power and Poverty, however, Hughes chiefly challenges the wealthy—those with power—to create better conditions for the poor. The purpose remains clear throughout: to expose the relationship between power and poverty and to drive Christians, through the conviction of the Scriptures, to end the abuse of power. Hughes supports his primary idea by outlining the Old Testament theological foundations decrying poverty as abnormal, the redemptive nature of godly rule represented in Christ, and the role of the church as an ordered society marching to the heartbeat of this perfect Ruler.
In the preface Hughes notes that “integral mission implies that it is impossible to separate words and actions in describing Christian mission” (p. 8). This view on Christianity steers his exegetical imperatives, and rightly so. Some points, though, appear exegetically cavalier. The first chapter searches Genesis 1–11 for the roots of poverty. And while they may reside there, Hughes’s claims exceed his substantiation. For example he states that “poverty is primarily the result of oppression, [and] those who cause the death of the poor through oppression are guilty of murder” (p. 26). Even if one grants this argument, does it surface so clearly in Genesis 1–11? Later, while discussing the Sermon on the Mount, Hughes declares, “Jesus says that entrance into the kingdom is conditional on doing the will of the Father, which is explained as putting the words of the Sermon on the Mount into practice (Matt. 7:21, 24)” (p. 127). Yet from all accounts Hughes would reject a works-based gospel, and he does reject several standard hermeneutical approaches to Matthew 5–7 (p. 126). This leaves the nature of his method unclear and unhelpful.
According to the footnotes Hughes relies heavily (sometimes singularly) on the use of the Word Biblical Commentary on CD-ROM. Also in large sections of his book he merely summarizes the thought of relevant portions of Scripture (particularly in chaps. 3, 6, and 11).
Regrettably this detracts from an otherwise excellent premise. “Poverty is overwhelmingly the result of the ungodly use of power by other human beings. . . . So the restoration of our relationship with God is a key factor in overcoming poverty” (pp. 12–13). In his chapter 5, “Old Testament Welfare Law,” Hughes writes, “What is striking about the Old Testament law is that it recognizes the very strong human bias to self-interest, [which] is why most of the law we have discussed up to this point has not focused on the poor but on putting limits on the rich and powerful” (p. 75, italics added). In other words the Old Testament eschews a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” charge to the poor. It assumes they desire as much. Rather, the Old Testament encourages the wealthy to use their power for advocacy (p. 210).
Flashes of rhetorical beauty grace Power and Poverty. Hughes’s strengths clearly dwell in the philosophical and political realms. He opens chapter 5 with a strong yet succinct commentary on the socialist movement, concluding, “The prevailing philosophy in the West is that it is up to individuals to make the best of what they have to generate wealth for themselves.” But this leads to dire conditions for some, and “the statistics are clear: the more we have, the less we share” (p. 74). Hughes presents evidence in support of this assertion: the richest nations’ utilization of their gross domestic product (p. 184), the meager generosity of evangelicals (p. 215), the geopolitical situatedness of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (p. 229), and the staggering number of “poor” as defined by the United Nations (p. 239).
In this reviewer’s opinion Power and Poverty remains an anemic treatment of the subject. Hughes seems to struggle with whether the book should be practical or biblical, while arguing that one cannot separate the two. Hughes could have easily validated the main idea of Power and Poverty and then employed his true expertise. In doing so, he would have supplied the church with a more potent resource in its war on injustice.
—Joshua J. Bleeker