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Social Justice Reads: Holiday Roundup

It’s time for our semi-regular compilation of book reviews for the world-changer’s reading list! These books stand out on the bookshelf because of both the topics covered are important and the deeper insight the authors give into issues that are very relevant for those concerned with social justice.

As a side note, while this list provides good reads for anyone, we especially want to encourage moms to be willing to engage some of these difficult topics. What you engage with, your children will learn about. Educating yourself enables you to better educate them.

Now on to the list!

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Enter a different world. This is the true story of Annawadi, a temporary slum in Mumbai, subsisting in the shadows of luxury hotels near the airport, and the people who call it their home.

“I felt a shortage of nonfiction about India, of deeply reported accounts showing how ordinary low-income people – particularly women and children – were negotiating the age of global markets,” shares the author in her lengthy note at the book’s end. In order to rectify that, she decided to follow the inhabitants of a single, unexceptional slum over the course of several years. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is that account. And what a story it is.

Book review of Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Written almost like a novel, the book draws the reader into the stories of Asha, an enterprising community leader who tries to leverage every advantage that comes her way; Abdul, the book’s protagonist, who finds himself in the crosshairs of India’s corrupt justice system; little Sunil who collects and sells metal to survive and desperately wants to grow taller; and the tragic Meena, whose sweet spirit is contrasted against incessant abuse and degradation.

Fair warning: the stories of these slum inhabitants – plus the many others that surround them – won’t help you sleep better at night. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is not an easy read. In fact, it might be the most disturbing on our booklist. The poverty, the injustice, the corruption – by the book’s end, the reader understand more the weight of trying to live in extreme poverty.

Why should you read? Yes, you’ll probably be depressed by the end. But that’s a good thing. We too often understand global poverty in terms of statistics released by the UN and well-framed photos on a charity’s website. Katherine Boo pulls the curtain aside and allows us to meet people, real people much like each of us, who live and love and die in the midst of unimaginable squalor. Putting a face on extreme poverty keeps us from oversimplifying the problem AND assuming there’s an easy solution.

City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence
Somalia. What do most Westerners think of when this country is mentioned? The “Black Hawk Down” movie probably. Terrorists. Pirates. Chaos. But according to Ben Rawlence, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, these characterizations of Somalians and their homeland are only a small sliver of the truth.

Similarly to Katherine Boo, Rawlence decided to dig deeper. He spent extended time in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, home to the majority of Somalia’s refugees. He befriended residents and began to learn their stories and did fact-checking, interviewing, listening, visiting multiple times over a period of four years.

City of Thorns book review

City of Thorns is the culmination of Rawlence’s efforts, and reveals a situation far, far more complex than most of us realize. The rise of Al Shabab , the Islamist terrorist group, is in large part because of Western interference, thus resulting in the extreme refugee crisis in Somalia. Many of the charity organizations that have funded and worked in the Dadaab camp have made numerous missteps, sometimes even making life worse for the refugees there. The Kenyan government’s extreme corruption has made the desperate Somalians the country’s scapegoat.  And the weather and climate often seem to have a mind of their own, working against the refugee camp residents’ survival.

Through the stories of Guled, Nisho, Tawane, Kheyro and more, Rawlence gives us an all too clear picture into a humanitarian crisis that the West doesn’t want to be entangled with. There are people who have been stuck in the camp for decades, unable to go home to Somalia and unable also to integrate into Kenyan society. As Rawlence notes, “…they hoped for a chink of light, for something to change. But mostly, they did what they had done their whole lives: they tried not to think too hard about the past, the present, or the future and they set their minds to wait.”

Yet his account isn’t a whitewashed story. The Somalians he follows are human, and their own foibles and bad choices at times contribute to making a bad situations worse. Organized crime, substance abuse and corruption flourish because no government or entity is willing to help set up a societal structure for the camp. Everything is just in waiting mode, and has been that way for years.

Why You Should Read: Somalian refugees have been unfortunately labeled as “undesirables” in our country. Politicians rail against them and the United States’ Refugee Admissions program is no longer opening the door as wide for the men and women stuck in Dadaab’s limbo. Rawlence clearly shows that the fear-mongering is misplaced and helps readers look beyond the headlines into the reality of the Somalian disaster.

The author shares this Steinbeck quote that fully summarizes the issue: “There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success.”

Return Flight by Bob Lupton
This next book moves from the realm of international poverty,  and instead takes us much closer to home, making its focus the heart of America’s inner city. Return Flight is based off the community development lessons learned by the author, Bob Lupton, as he moved his family from the safety of the Atlanta suburbs into the crime-ridden streets of the ‘hood.

For those who have read Toxic Charity or Charity Detox (other books by Lupton), this book is much shorter and more personal. He delves into the complexities and messiness of neighboring, calling it “joyful entanglements.” He addresses gentrification and calls on the faith-community to care about displacement of the poor. He shares stories of being the “White Savior” without understanding the issues the community really was facing. He invites middle class suburbanites to give up pursuit of the American dream to pursue instead the kingdom of God and walk alongside the poor.

Book review of Return Flight by Bob Lupton

The short essays in the book are not as much story and reflection as in his excellent Theirs is the Kingdom, but instead offer more practicable insights into what really works and what doesn’t. The book feels too short, so we’d recommend reading it in conjunction with Toxic Charity.

Why You Should Read: Because there are too few stories being shared in the American church of people stepping away from wealth and comfort and into danger and poverty. We’ve become too risk-averse. As Christians, we need to recognize that Jesus has called us to radical living for His kingdom, and that means taking on a deeper concern for the poor, for the immigrant, for the outsider. Maybe some WILL be called to live in the inner city. But even those who aren’t should be intentional about finding ways to dismantle materialism and to instead pursue love of neighbor as oneself.

Now it’s your turn! Any social justice reads we should consider for our next round-up? Have you done a book review you’d like to share? Let us know your favorite books in the comments section below. 

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