Social Justice, Brain Development, and Christian Responsibility

She studies how poverty might change the brain – CNN.com.

Stumbled across this interesting article. It discusses how, Dr. Martha Farah, founder of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Neuroscence and Society, examines the impact of poverty on brain development. In particular, she notes several issues:

  1. “Poor children don’t get as much exposure to language as their wealthier counterparts, research has found, and they tend to get more negative feedback. What they do hear is not as grammatically complex, with a narrower range of vocabulary.”
  2. “Stress is another huge factor in these disparities. Parents of low socioeconomic status have uncertainty about having basic needs met, dangerous neighborhoods, crowding and other factors, causing stress for children and their parents. Stressed parents are less patient and affectionate, further stressing their children, according to Farah.” On the surface, it should be plainly obvious that a stressed child will learn less. A child thinking about whether they will eat will not have the mental space to memorize facts or think beyond their immediate concern.

Granted, she has only begun her studies and so much of the article involves research hypotheses and conjecture. Also, the writer (as do I) resists the urge to say, “my environment made me do it,” and instead looks at the implications of poverty from a long-term standpoint. However, this reinforces the idea of privilege and the generational spiral of systemic discrimination. In plain English: poor and uneducated people make children who are poor and uneducated. This is a general principle, not a firm rule (I can think of at least one personal example of someone who has parents who barely graduated high school who themselves has a PhD).

It seems to me, however, that Christian responsibility demands that we care for the “least of these” by working to ensure the poor have not only access to a better way, but also the training and resources to sustain that better way as an expression of the gospel. Sidestepping the role of government in carrying this out, I assert that the role of Christians is to act as agents, advocates, champions, and support for helping children and families in dangerous and low-income neighborhoods. This doesn’t mean “hand-outs” (as in giving them stuff) or “hand-ups” (as in providing jobs). I think that Freire has it right when he advocates for cooperation and unity as a means to free the poor from the poverty cycle, as well as his idea that the “oppressed” must liberate themselves rather than waiting for the “oppressor” to liberate them. In that, I think the critical pedagogy advocates may be on to something.

Here’s the thing: Christianity (and especially evangelical Christianity) has to change this attitude of viewing the poor as the enemy, and obstacle, or a problem (as some of the political rhetoric frames it). Instead, we need to consider the poor as people who need to hear the gospel, and the manifestation and intersection of the gospel in this case has to do with their educational and economic situation. It’s time for the poor to experience the Kingdom of Heaven.

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