Over the past few weeks – in the break between semesters – I’ve been able to find time to read. I’ve read less than I wanted to (of course), but have thoroughly enjoyed each of the books I read. In this post, I will review one of these books, Slow Kingdom Coming: Practices for Doing Justice, Loving Mercy, and Walking Humbly in the World by Kent Annan. Kent is an author and speaker on the broad topic of faith-based development. He is the co-director of the NGO, Haiti Partners, which works in Haiti providing educational opportunities to children. Additionally, Kent is a brother in law to (probably) the most famous development economics blogger ever, Chris Blattman, and this relationship shows when Kent writes about data and rigorous evidence.
Slow Kingdom Coming is a short book – 139 pages including the appendix – with a broad scope. It wrestles with the question, how are we (broadly speaking anyone who seeks justice in our world, but more specifically, Christians who are called to live in this manor) supposed to orient ourselves in this world that is so far away from our collective vision? Using more technical theological jargon, how should we be living in the “already, but not yet” reality of God’s Kingdom? The book shares five meditative and reflective practices geared to assist those who want to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” (Micah 6:8) in the world. The book is slightly geared toward those who have interests and motivations to work in an international context, but is perfectly applicable for those interested in economic and social issues “at home” in their own communities.
The five practices include: attention, confession, respect, partnering, and “truthing”. I’ll try my best to briefly summarize each…
– Attention – The modern world is full of information, but are we paying attention? More importantly, what are we paying attention to? Injustices surround us and inundate us when we scroll through Twitter or read the news, but how do we avoid simply shutting it all out and ignoring it? Kent shows how attention may be one of the greatest forms of generosity.
– Confession – Many who work or in some way dedicate their lives for justice either domestically or internationally often cannot avoid the temptation to feel proud about what they do. Kent questions the sustainability of such an attitude and walks the reader through several confessions that lead to a more humble and honest perspective on the pursuit of justice.
– Respect – Next Kent addresses the importance of respect. This may seem like a cliche platitude, but through stories of personal experiences Kent shows that genuine respect carries with it a cost. By drawing an analogy to Bonhoeffer’s concept of “cheap grace”, the idea of “cheap compassion” is developed. If “cheap grace” is grace without discipleship, then “cheap compassion” is compassion without respect. The tricky part about respect is that it requires empathy – honoring others as if they were ourselves.
– Partnering – The practice of partnership is difficult because the practice itself can be corrupted. Kent shares two such examples of partnership-gone-wrong, what he calls “rescue partnership” and “fix-it partnership”. Instead, true partnership – in the way God intended for Christians who are co-creators of His Kingdom – is “partnering together with God”.
– “Truthing” – Finally, Kent broaches the concept of “truthing”, a topic development economists should be most familiar with. Three forms of “truthing” are introduced: personal “truthing” (relentlessly searching for the best way we personally can contribute to the pursuit of justice), data “truthing” (working with people who are skilled with data analysis and statistics to rigorously learn about what works best), and incremental “truthing” (understanding that this pursuit is an iterative process and that failure is part of the process of progress).
Bruce Wydick has already written a nice review about how Slow Kingdom Coming – and these practices – fit in with other books on faith-based international development. In essence this new book ties together three influential books on faith-based development. First, Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in the Age of Hunger, simply in the title, highlights the imperative of attention in the world. Over six editions – each of which humbly improves upon mistakes in the past – the reader gets a sense of the importance of confession. Second, Bryant Myers’s Walking with the Poor builds a theological framework for faith-based development work that seeks to address the importance of the holistic nature of this work. Walking with the Poor, particularly the 2011 edition, brings together and formalizes the practices of confession and respect. Finally, Steven Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts emphasizes the potential harm that can be done when efforts to help others does not address the systemic nature of many of the problems in this world and when the practice of partnering is neglected.
I’d add that Slow Kingdom Coming not only ties together the popular literature on faith-based development, but also seems to describe the key signposts on my short career path to date. My first experience that really got me thinking about development was a weeklong trip to Panama while I was in college. We spent the week sitting with families, all of whom had some sort of entrepreneurial activity, performing microenterprise consulting workshops. That week while listening to families talk about the difficulties they face when farming or simply selling handmade baskets really captured my attention. At the end of that week our group decided to donate some money so that the community could build a shared vending market for all of the goods they sold. As I flew home from Panama, I felt good about the work I had done.
So good that a year later, I returned to Panama – this time as one of the student-leaders of the trip. When we arrived we found a pile of corrugated zinc strips, cinderblocks, and steel-rebar by the side of the road leading into the village. We asked our guide what the pile of building materials was for. She replied, “Oh, yes, those are the materials you folks so generously donated last year.” I was quite taken aback. Last year we had thought that our donation was going to make an immediate impact, but a year later the materials sat unused and presumably unwanted. I needed to confess the faulty assumptions I had made that were now so obviously wrong.
Later that year I embarked on my longest “abroad” experience yet – a semester in Ghana. Two key parts of the semester were studying at the University of Ghana and working for a local organization. Working with a local organization forced me to work hand-in-hand with an actual Ghanaian. Together we traversed the busy and dusty streets of Accra performing client visits for the microcredit division of the organization. During these long and sweaty days we often would discuss movies and sports and culture and politics and, ultimately, became good friends and learned that through our difference we were able to deeply respect the other.
After graduating from college, I moved to Kenya where I worked for the Africa Theological Seminary. This was my first full time “real life” job and it was in a different country than I was used to. I was working for the seminary helping pilot a project they hoped would improve the social and economic lives of their students. I worked with a small staff of people that included several Kenyans that I had to quickly learn how to professionally work with. I had to learn what partnership was all about. Over about a dozen months we worked together to develop a program that has now been expanded both within Kenya and into other countries as well. My main role during that time was to serve as an “monitoring and evaluation specialist” so that the pilot project could learn about how to best achieve its goals. That was my first experience in “truthing”. I’ve since worked on a project that tried to verify the truth of Myanmar’s national census data. Now, I’m a PhD student in an applied economics program were I spend most of my time (at the moment) learning about statistics and how to ensure that data analysis generates unbiased and efficient estimates of the truth.
I do not know if Kent intended these practices to be understood has having a discrete order or not. Nevertheless, these five practices strike me as building upon the last. First, we start with some injustice grabbing our attention and we are immediately compelled to act. Next, we confess the inevitable mistakes that this action involves. This leads to developing a respect for the perspective of those experiencing injustice. Next, partnership is realized as necessary – but partnership without respect and confession of our faults can be damaging. Finally, we commit ourselves to the seeking of truth. A lifelong journey searching for what works, when, where, and why. While I have experienced these practices in some sort of an order throughout my career so far, reading Kent’s book has challenged me to return to these practices more diligently in my work and life in the future.
Bottom line, I’d highly recommend the book.