Rich Stearns’ Speech at Mobilisation to end Poverty in Washington DC

First posted on the old blogsite on 7 June 2009

This is the text of a speech given by Rich Stearns, World Vision President and author of “The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us? the Answer That Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World” (buy now on Kalahari.net or Amazon.co.uk), at the Mobilisation to End Poverty held in Washington DC in April 2009. Although the speech is addressed at an American audience the principles are true for all of us.

Rich Stearn – World Vision
Mobilization to End Poverty

April 27, 2009

Good morning.

I want to thank Jim Wallis and Sojourners for organizing this historic meeting. I believe that our country and our world may stand at the brink of one of those momentous turning points that we usually see with greater clarity in retrospect than we do in the moment. 1776 was a turning point that changed the world order. 1860 was a turning point election that settled the issue of slavery three years later after the bloodiest war in our history. 1918 and 1945 were turning points that concluded two world wars and restructured international power dynamics while creating the multilateral institutions that would influence the world during the cold war and after. 1989 was a turning point that saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the cold war. Why is 2009 a turning point? First, just as we witnessed the bankruptcy and inadequacy of Communism in 1989, we are now witnessing the bankruptcy and inadequacy of unrestrained Capitalism in 2009. This is a tough thing for a former corporate CEO to admit. Second, we are just now beginning to accept and understand the dire consequences of the global carbon economy that was the birth mother of a global economy based on unsustainable consumption. Third, and of considerable significance and perhaps more hopeful than the first two, is that we have just had an historic election that was a radical departure both racially and generationally. It is hopeful because it may be that the ingredients for a radical shift in the direction of global politics are now in place just as they were when Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Kennedy were elected.


But such changes are almost never the work of one leader – they are the culmination of great movements which create the political and moral wind at the back of a leader who has the vision and courage to act boldly.

Ladies and gentlemen here today – I want to suggest that it is we who must provide that wind. It is we who must embody the change we want to see. It is us, each of us, that must talk the talk of our convictions and walk the walk of our faith before we can shake our fists at any of our political leaders – blaming them for our problems.

The issue I want to address this morning is not what our politicians need to do to fix our nation and our world – but rather what we – you and I – those of us in the faith community – and more specifically in the Christian community- are going to do to leave our grandchildren a world that is better than the one our grandparents gave to us. Yes, my friends, the first question we must ask is not what THEY are going to do about it – but rather what are WE going to do about it?

  • What are WE going to do about growing domestic poverty, high school drop out rates, homelessness, substance abuse, teen pregnancies and disintegrating families across our own nation?
  • What are WE going to do about the 26,000 children that die each day in our world of preventable causes – because they are poor and had the misfortune of being born in one of the nations on our planet that is mired in poverty?
  • What are WE going to do about the 15 million children orphaned by AIDS – who go to bed alone each night and wonder if anyone even hears their cries – let alone might help?
  • What are WE going to do to heal the religious hatred and violence in our world that fuels terrorism and war?
  • And what are WE going to do to stop the mind numbing destruction of the planet given to us by our creator caused by our own voracious consumption.

    Just how will we use or voices – and how will we use our wallets?

    I want to address my comments this morning to those of us who might be called the body of Christ in America – the Church. Because I believe that we must first look to ourselves before we shake angry fists at our government or at large corporations.

    We must, as Jesus said, ‘take the log out of our own eye, before we take the speck out of our brother’s eye’.

    I recently wrote a book entitled ‘The Hole in Our Gospel’ – and as the title suggests – I state that something is wrong with the gospel most of us in America have embraced. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that there is anything deficient about the gospel that Jesus Christ proclaimed – but rather, I am suggesting that we have embraced a shallow and diminished version of the full gospel of Jesus Christ.

    The word gospel literally means ‘good news’. And good news it is indeed. But most of us have embraced what I call ‘the private gospel’ – something just between God and us that restores each of us in personal relationship to our creator through the truly ‘good news’ that Christ died for our sins and that we can now be reconciled to God through Christ. Amen, Hallelujah and Amen to that!!

    But that wasn’t where the gospel was meant to begin and end – just with a private transaction between us and God. No, the ‘good news’ of the gospel was meant to be so much more.

    Yes, it was to begin with a private and personal reconciling of each of us with God through Christ – but it was then to find a revolutionary expression publically as each of us engaged our world redemptively.

    The salt and light that Christ called us to be was intended to reclaim and reform our world for Christ. Salt preserves rotting meat – a graphic 1st century metaphor that suggests that we are to act as a preservative to our rotting culture. And light dispels darkness. There is surely darkness in our world. These are the things we are called to do.

    Do you remember the Christmas story? Do you remember the famous words of the angel to the shepherds that night in Bethlehem: Behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.

    The coming of the Messiah was meant to be good news for all people. What Jesus envisioned was nothing short of a social revolution that would begin at the cross – it would begin in the most personal and private way as our sins were individually forgiven through Christ’s death on the cross.

    But it would culminate in a most public way as each of us – forgiven and empowered by the Holy Spirit- would go into the world boldly and publically proclaiming this good news but also BEING the good news – as we reached out to our fellow man with compassion and we stood up to the principalities and powers of our world demanding justice for the oppressed.

    I was hungry, Jesus said, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me – in prison and you came to me. This was the good news the gospel was meant to bring.

    Genuine faith in God requires that each of us who claim to follow this Jesus, or each of us who wants to please God must live differently. We are called to live transformed lives – to lift up the poor and the downtrodden, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, comfort the afflicted. We are charged with lifting up justice, speaking up for the voiceless, holding our government accountable, challenging racism and bigotry, working to lift the poor out of their poverty, and fighting against evil whenever we see it. We are to stand up for integrity, be faithful to our spouses and our families, raise our children with strong and positive values, work with honesty and diligence for our employers, protect the weak from the strong and be generous with our resources so that no one has to go without.

    In short God’s people were charged with igniting this social revolution with the power to change the world. We were to be at its vanguard. That was the plan – that was the good news of the gospel – the WHOLE gospel.

    But friends, have we been that good news to the world? I’m afraid history shows a track record that is not very flattering. History shows that we have more often embraced a gospel with a gaping hole in it.

    Consider these few examples.

    Between 1620 and the end of the beginning of the twentieth century – our European ancestors, many of whom came here for religious freedom, systematically marginalized and yes, exterminated, the native American people groups. Some Christians participated in this slaughter directly, the others sat silently watching it happen. Today we would call it genocide.

    There was a hole in their gospel.

    During that same period, Christians supported and perpetuated slavery in our country and ultimately fought desperately to preserve it in a civil war costing millions of American lives. Southern slave owners would go to church on Sunday morning and beat or rape their slaves on Sunday evening. Were there opposing voices within the church – yes – but they were insufficient to end slavery for hundreds of years because the majority voices prevailed.

    There was a hole in their gospel too.

    Are you ashamed as I am that my own parents lived in an America that would deny African Americans basic human rights and simple human dignity? How could they have been so blind we ask? It is inconceivable to me. But what about us? Is our eyesight any better?

    As recently as 2001 when WV did a survey of the attitudes of Evangelicals toward the AIDS pandemic in Africa which has left 15 million children orphaned, only 3% of these Evangelicals answered yes to the question of whether they personally would be willing to give financially to help these orphaned children – atheists and non-church goers were significantly more likely to be willing to help.

    So where are our blind spots today? What is that ‘sin of omission’ for our generation- the one that our grandchildren will judge us severely for?

    Where are the holes in our 21st century gospel?

    Will it be that we built bigger and bigger church sanctuaries to meet our consumptive needs while our brothers and sisters in Christ in the global south lived and died in demeaning poverty ravaged by hunger, thirst, disease and genocide?

    Will we fail to understand that our indifference to their suffering is the moral equivalent of our ancestors turning a blind eye to slavery and racism?

    Or will our great sin of omission be that we could not muster the political and economic courage to protect our planet from climate change, pollution and massive consumption of the natural abundance that God has provided us?

    Perhaps it will it be that we mourned the loss of our 401ks while 13 million of our neighbor’s children right here in America lived beneath the poverty line and homelessness grew unabated in our cities.

    Or maybe it will it be that while we invested all of our great passion and energy to stop gay marriage – we turned a deaf ear to the cries of the 26,000 children under five who die every day of preventable causes?

    Did you know that the sin of Sodom that most angered God was not their sexual immorality? Listen to the prophet Ezekiel: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy” (Ezek. 16:49).

    Do these words describe us? Arrogant, overfed, unconcerned – not helping the poor and needy?

    But, you may protest saying – look at all we are doing. Without the good work of our churches here and abroad just think how much worse our world would be?

    I don’t deny that Americans Christians and churches are doing good. The question is whether our definition of good is good enough. Is God pleased by what he sees?

    Consider this – the average American churchgoer last year gave just 2.5% of their income to Christian churches and ministries – 2.5% of our income in the wealthiest nation of Christians in 2000 years – 75% less than the biblical tithe.

    And what did our churches do with that 2.5%? Well, 98% of it was spent right here within our churches and our communities. In a world wracked by poverty, disease and human misery- in a world in which much of the Church of Jesus Christ is suffering in grinding poverty – just 2% of our church budgets were invested in all International missions programs of any kind whether compassionate or evangelistic. 98% for us – 2% for the rest of the world.

    In other words, the commitment of America’s Christians to the 2.5 billion people who live on less than $2 a day was just 2% of 2% of our income – it works out to just about 6 cents per Christian per day – –

    That’s how much we throw into the tin cup of the world’s 2.5 billion poor.

    “I was hungry, while you had all you needed; I was thirsty but you drank bottled water; I was a stranger, and you wanted me deported; I needed clothes, but you needed more clothes; I was sick, but you pointed out the behaviors that led to my sickness; I was in prison, and you said I was getting what I deserved.”

    This is the version of Matthew 25 that many Americans have embraced.

    Are you angry with our government because they do too little to help the poor? Look first to our own behavior. Consider this – that the missing tithe – the 7.5% more we should be giving to fulfill the biblical tithe – would equal $168 billion each year – it would dwarf the foreign assistance budgets of all of the wealthy nations of the world combined! – more than enough to end extreme poverty in our world and accomplish the MDGs by 2015.

    Yes my friends, before we remove the speck from our government’s eye we must first remove the plank from our own. We have work to do.

    There’s a hole in our gospel.

    And before we can point a finger at our government
    Before we can point a finger at large trans national corporations
    And before we can even point a finger at our churches and houses
    Of worship,

    We must first look to our own lives. God wants to know what WE are going to do about it – you and me. He’s not asking me about what the other guy is doing. He’s not asking me what my government is doing. He’s not asking me what the UN, the multilaterals, the corporates are doing – He’s asking me what I am doing.

    Poverty is not just some economic issue best described by macro and microeconomic formulas.

    Poverty is not just some political issue defined by policies and foreign assistance budgets.

    Poverty is not just some social issue to be studied in our universities.

    No, poverty is a human issue and it has a face and a name.

    In 1998, six months after leaving my corporate CEO job and joining World Vision, I had my own encounter with the face of poverty in Rakai Uganda, ground zero for the AIDS pandemic. That day I spent with three boys orphaned by AIDS who lived alone by themselves, forever changed the way I viewed the poor and my responsibility for them.

    It showed me the gaping hole in my own gospel.

    I realized that I could no longer say it was someone else’s responsibility. I could no longer plead ignorance – saying that I just wasn’t aware. I could no longer hide behind the bias that maybe the poor were poor because of their own bad decisions. I could no longer assume that the government would just take care of it. And I could no longer let myself off the hook by saying that it wasn’t my responsibility. It was time for me to step up.

    I believe God wants us to look into the faces of His beloved poor as Jesus did, with tender love and compassion. He wants us to know their names.

    Every one of us in this room, no matter what we have done and are doing to stand in the gap for the poor can take our commitment to a higher level – to a more personal level.

    I want you to just imagine for a moment what would happen if we in the faith community really stepped up to God’s call to care for the poor and the broken in our world.

    What if our churches turned their focus outward – away from the power point screens and praise songs and towards the pain and the brokenness of our world.

    What if we brought the whole tithe into the storehouse and embraced the whole gospel – the gospel that was truly meant to be good news to the world.

    Can you begin to catch a vision of not only what this would mean tothe world’s poor but what it would do for the image of the world’sChristians?

    ‘Who are these people?’ – the world would ask. ‘Why do they care so deeply?’ ‘Where does this kind of love and sacrifice come from?’Sometimes I dream. Sometimes I ask, ‘what if?’ What if we actually took the gospel seriously – the whole gospel – W-H-O-L-E? Let me read to you an imaginary press release. It is from the United Nations and it is dated September 13, 2020.

    United Nations Press Release – September 13, 2020

    In a meeting of the General Assembly today the Secretary General announced that the Millennium Development Goals, established in 2000, have now been largely achieved heralding a new era for the world’s poor. The number of people living on less than a dollar a day have been cut in half, as have the number of people suffering from chronic hunger and lack of clean water.

    Universal primary education has now been achieved for all the world’s children. Under five child mortality rates have been reduced by two thirds and maternal deaths by three quarters since 2000 thanks to a surge in child vaccinations, great progress in the provision of clean water and an unexpected upswing in medical volunteers. The AIDS pandemic has been stopped in its tracks, and new infections are now at a forty year low. Malaria deaths have been reduced by three quarters and breakthroughs in the treatment of tuberculosis have slowed new infections to historically low levels.

    The achievement of these goals is nothing short of stunning given the slow start experienced in the decade after the Millennium Declaration was signed by 189 nations in 2000.

    The MDGs had originally been targeted to be achieved by the nations of the world by the year 2015. However early shortfalls in commitments from wealthy donor governments slowed progress greatly. The turnaround came from an unexpected source. As funding from governments fell short, contributions and volunteerism from private citizens began to surge, starting in the U.S. By 2015, U.S. private citizens alone were giving more to tackle poverty than all donor governments combined as individuals not only gave through Unicef, international NGOs and private charities, but also through their churches mosques and synagogues. This revolution in private giving and involvement subsequently spread to other developed nations creating an unprecedented global movement of people around issues of poverty, health, the environment and economic justice. Donor governments, sensing the concern of their publics, and feeling pressure from voters, redoubled their commitments as well.

    In announcing this great achievement, the Secretary General noted that ‘Not since the end of World War II has the world come together with such a spirit of the common good in pursuit of such a noble cause.’ The nations of the General Assembly today unanimously ratified the Millennium Declaration II, which sets forth new and more ambitious goals targeting 2035 for completion.

    Could this happen? Will this happen? Is 2009 going to be one of those ‘turning point moments’ for the world? Will it be that watershed year that changed everything? I believe it’s up to us. There are 1000 of us right now in this room.

    What if?

    What if it started here?

    What if it started with our voices?

    What if it started today?

    It’s reapin’ time!

    Two thousand years ago 12 men changed the world. I believe it can happen again.

    Thank you.

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