Building the Good Life for All

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L. Shannon Jung
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , September
     2017.
     128 pages.
     $19.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780664263188.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Economic inequality has been portrayed—by such illustrious figures as Barack Obama and Pope Francis—as the defining issue of our times. Social science researchers such as Thomas Piketty, Joseph Stiglitz, and Robert Reich have illuminated the causes and potentially dire implications of the increasing gap between rich and poor. The growing body of literature on inequality naturally invites further contributions of every genre imaginable.

L. Shannon Jung, the author of several previous books on ethical issues relating to food, ecology, and rural ministry, has produced a highly accessible and quite convincing account of some particularly promising community-based efforts to foster human flourishing and thereby to address our nation’s deep sources of inequality. A teacher, community-based activist, and Presbyterian pastor who brings a scholarly but always locally engaged eye to the challenges associated with poverty and distributive justice, Jung employs an idiosyncratic acronym for the working poor: ALICE—meaning “Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed.” He considers the potential contributions of four strategies to contribute to the flourishing of those disadvantaged by low incomes: relief (or charity), self-help, cultural value formation, and advocacy/governmental action. A lifetime of ministry, activism, and involvement in local community groups has convinced Jung of the efficacy of these four particular action strategies for closing the income gap and empowering those currently living paycheck to paycheck to improve their lives.

Jung demonstrates well-founded enthusiasm for each of these four strategies, and especially for the prospect of synergies available when community-based efforts pursue them simultaneously to make beneficial interventions. The power to change lives in sustainable ways depends upon a multifaceted commitment to invest time and energy in cooperative efforts. The middle two items, self-help and cultural value formation, are perhaps the least well known of the four, so Jung’s description of these two emerges as the most original and compelling material in the entire volume. Still, the reader will likely come away from this work, as valuable as it is, with as many questions as answers. Is the proposed model of social transformation workable, scalable, and applicable in the full range of social settings (urban, rural, post-industrial, deeply pluralistic)? How will these insights fare when their acknowledged Christian spiritual underpinnings are absent and in contexts where other motivational supports are required? Is Jung’s optimistic assessment of the possibilities of future rapprochement and social transformation ultimately tenable?

The conundrum of persistent poverty and sharpening inequality in a land of unrivaled plenty has a way of outliving even the most perceptive treatments of the maddeningly complex topic. Over the decades Upton Sinclair, Michael Harrington, Frances Fox Piven, Richard Cloward, and countless others helped raise our collective consciousness and clarify our thought about the tragedy of poverty, but have also left far too little by way of lasting change in the landscape of policy, practice, or attitude. Nevertheless, the reader will benefit richly from the consistently insightful set of proposals contained in the pages of Jung’s new volume, designed as it is for group process work, featuring both discussion questions and workbook-style exercises for community groups such as church social ministries. Particularly refreshing is Jung’s insistence on unrelenting social engagement and on the absolute interdependence of rich and poor in our nation. In a society with a shrinking middle class, neither socio-economic group will long thrive without constructive and enhanced spiritual and material interaction with the other. To cite a related insight at the very heart of this volume, “the truth is we cannot fully flourish when the least among us are not safe and well fed. This is an issue of spirituality” (20).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas Massaro, S.J., is Professor of Moral Theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University, Berkeley, California.

Date of Review: 
March 29, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

L. Shannon Jung is Professor of Town and Country Ministry Emeritus at Saint Paul School of Theology, studying poverty and affluence, and a Presbyterian pastor who served churches in Tennessee, Minnesota, and Iowa. He has been involved for several years with a study and action group assessing the plight of the working poor in Central Florida. He is active in the Society of Christian Ethics, the American Academy of Religion, and the Catholic Theology Society. He is the author of nearly a dozen books on rural ministry and theology of food.

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