A Poverty of Values, Leadership, and Imagination

Dear Fellow Americans,

Thousands more people will die due to poverty. A poverty of values, leadership, and imagination.

Let me illustrate what I mean with a microcosm of learning from the church that can be applied to our greater society.

When COVID-19 struck, churches reacted primarily in two ways, while these are generalizations, we will categorize them as response A and B.

A. Saw this as a tremendous opportunity for reset. They began to ask reframing questions like what was church, worship, and community after all? They found in their deepest historical traditions, keys to reimagine themselves in a new world. They learned, prototyped, and created new things. Some have begun to thrive in new ways they never imagined possible.

B. Saw coronavirus as a monkey wrench in the plan of business as usual. They hunkered down and waited or sought to do what they did normally in person but now online. Others rushed back into physical gatherings, and we have seen stories of infection spreading through those worship communities. In many cases, “getting back to worship” was more about collections in offering plates to keep the religious machine running.

In most situations, the difference between these two responses boils down to three things:

  1. Values: a person or community’s principles or standards of behavior, lived assumptions that can be observed and experienced by others. Values are not just ideas but are embodied daily (i.e. things you live out, not just lip service).
  2. Leadership: refers to energizing a community of people toward accomplishing some shared mission.
  3. Imagination: the capacity to dream forth new possibilities, ideas, or systems, which helps make knowledge applicable in adaptive situations and is fundamental to integrating experience and learning.

For the A group, their values were to love their neighbor by protecting the most vulnerable in the community through social distancing. So, leaders stepped up to the adaptive challenge, guiding their people to internalize their own challenges and explore new vistas of possibility. They imagined fresh ways to be a community who could love and serve God and each other.

For the B group, their values involved preserving the status quo of the religious system. Rather than leading in the adaptive challenge, they defaulted to trouble shooting surface level problems and solutions until things could “get back to normal.” They were in a state of imaginative gridlock, rather than dreaming forth new possibilities, they fell back to what worked in the past.

Now let’s apply this to our greater society.

Thousands more people will die, because our nation is experiencing a poverty of values, leadership, and imagination.

Perhaps it’s not the total lack of values, just that they are the wrong ones. Walter Brueggemann names the “marks of empire” as: 1. Extraction: empires extract wealth from the vulnerable and transfer it to the powerful. 2. Commoditization: empires reduce everything and everyone to a disposable commodity, bought, sold, traded, possessed, and consumed. Everything and everyone has a price. 3. Violence: empires enforce imperial policies and practices of commoditization and extraction with violence.[1]

While we me pay lip service to values like equality, justice, and compassion, our actions demonstrate that our true values are consumerism, wealth creation, and natural selection. Rushing back into opening the economy exposes this incongruity with stated beliefs and action. Our placement of financial well-being over human lives clearly demonstrates what our American values are.

I want the economy to open as bad as every other person. Jill and I have been significantly financially impacted. Jill lost her job in The Villages Florida, and I have lost significant income from canceled speaking engagements and teaching gigs. We are homeschooling our children. And we are experiencing the financial pinch with everyone else.

But those in the highest levels of positional power in our country are not providing actual leadership. They are defaulting to making “things great again” “getting back to normal” and “reopening the economy” without considering human life, or the underlying causes and conditions of this adaptive challenge. Their decision making is based on partisan politics and an upcoming election, rather than the wellbeing of vulnerable persons.

A virus that started with a handful of cases has killed 80,000 Americans in under three months. Do we think it will suddenly magically disappear once people are exposed in mass again? Will “getting back to normal” include some way to grieve the loved ones we have all lost?

This is a lack of imagination. This was a moment of profound reset for our society. So many things were broken about our systems, and the gift of COVID-19 was to potentially step forth and imagine a new world.   

Just ponder for a moment how in 2014 more than 2.1 billion people were overweight, compared to 850 million who suffered from malnutrition (depending of course on which continent you were born on). In 2010, famine and malnutrition killed around one million people; obesity killed three million (again determined by your continent). Globally speaking there is less extreme poverty than in the history of the world, and for the first time, poverty is not growing just because the population is.

However, in the context of the West, a small percentage of the population, the corporatocracy, are creating categories of super wealth never seen in world history. This creates a hallowing of the middle, and disproportionately effects black and brown persons. Our economic and judicial machines are a form of systemic oppression.

As Yuval Noah Harari says, “There are no longer natural famines in the world; there are only political famines. If people in Syria, Sudan or Somalia starve to death, it is become some politician wants them to.”[2]

I have served in places in the global south where children die of starvation. We know that in the United States, children do not starve because of poverty. There are plentiful food resources for children and much food in those programs goes to waste each year. Children in the United States starve due to dysfunctional parenting, which can be connected to mental illness and drug addiction. I grew up in a home like this. During the pandemic we witnessed the Federal Reserve print new money, stimulus checks get dispersed, and stockpiles of food get thrown away.

Perhaps the virus gave us an opportunity to see just how broken our economic, political, and educational systems really are.

I’m not trying to minimize the economic crisis we are all experiencing. No one likes to lose their jobs. But COVID-19 is not a technical problem that can be solved by the technical solution of reopening the economy. It is an adaptive challenge. Adaptive challenges require crystal clear values, leadership, and imagination.

So far, we have failed. Thousands more will die, because of poverty… a poverty of values, leadership, and imagination.

What if it’s not too late to reframe this dilemma? What if we could see this as our generations great crisis, our moment to define ourselves by the value of cherishing all human life, even the vulnerable? What if this is our opportunity to remake the world? To make our country a better place for all people? To truly forge a great nation for the first time, from the ashes of this global disaster?

It begins with each one of us being people who live the right values, step up in the leadership voids, and use our imaginations to dream forth a new world.


[1] Walter Brueggemann, God, Neighbour, Empire: The Excess of Divine Fidelity and the Command of Common Good (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016), 1–2.

[2] Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2017), 4.

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