John Wesley was not the greatest preacher of his day. His occasional friend and sometime nemesis George Whitefield was that. “My brother Wesley acted wisely,” Whitefield said. “The souls that were awakened under his ministry he joined in societies, and thus preserved the fruit of his labor. This I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand.”
That’s an arresting image. A rope of sand may seem to the eye like a rope of cords. At a glance you might think you could secure a ship to a dock with it. But as soon as you touch it, it falls to dust. Wesley himself used the image to describe the Christianity against which his people reacted in eighteenth-century England: “Those who were desirous to save their souls were no longer a rope of sand, but clave to one another, and began to watch over each other in love. Societies were formed, and Christian discipline was introduced in all its branches.”
Wesley’s genius as a leader was not simply a virtuoso performance for others to applaud. He harnessed his undeniable individual charisma into an institution that could train more ordinary people, like the bulk of us, to carry on his work. Whitefield’s brilliance remains in anecdotes about Benjamin Franklin emptying his pockets in Whitefield’s offering plates despite his intentions to do no such thing and Franklin’s longing to hear Whitefield’s melodious voice pronounce Mesopotamia. There are no Whitefieldian societies now. But there are tens of millions of Wesleyan believers around the world.
Those who responded to Wesley’s preaching were organized into “class meetings” for the subsequent spiritual quest for sanctification—based on the understanding that, without a later move toward holiness, the earlier move toward justification counted for little. Class leaders would introduce sessions with such arresting questions as “So, did anyone sin this week?” Catholic one-on-one confessionals were here made public, corporate, and more difficult—and thus more likely to induce holiness, by fear of shame if not by love of God.
Wesley’s gift for organizing was also obvious in the early Methodists’ loan fund. Methodist preaching attracted many of those left behind in Britain’s early industrial society. Wesley worried about this—holiness made you frugal, frugality made you rich, and riches were spiritually dangerous. Still, money could do some good as well. Wesley suggested that “those who had this world’s goods . . . assist their needy brethren,” and found that a paltry loan improved people’s lives dramatically while keeping them away from pawnbrokers. “Will not God put it into the heart of some lovers of mankind to increase this? . . . If this is not ‘lending unto the Lord’ (Prov. 19:17), what is?”
These Wesleyan gifts for organizing and empowering the poor survive in institutions launched by Methodism and its ecclesial offspring: universities, hospitals, and orphanages. The small-group organizing that has fueled the American megachurch movement also owes its institutional DNA to Wesley. But a more surprising descendent may be Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. Yunus showed the lending world that poor people were not simply a credit risk but a major financial opportunity. He’s shown foreign-aid donors that what is a minuscule amount to Westerners, if given directly to a woman in a Bangladeshi village, can improve her entire family’s life dramatically—and that this can be repeated millions of times over around the world.
Yunus achieved a repayment rate comparable to what Chase Manhattan enjoys among wealthy Americans, by organizing Bangladeshi women into small groups: If one woman failed to pay back her loan the entire group’s access to credit would be put in jeopardy. Small groups make for greater individual discipline and likelier accomplishment of goals, as Alcoholics Anonymous, WeightWatchers, and Oprah-inspired book clubs have shown in contemporary America. In a Bangladeshi context, shame is a powerful influencer of behavior in village life. Yunus managed to harness that energy into eager loan repayment. Social pressure, which the poor had in spades, was a substitute for collateral, the absence of which barred the way to affordable credit.
Theologians may have almost instinctive reasons to be wary of such enterprises as Grameen and such terms as social entrepreneurship, of which Yunus is a prime exemplar. Isn’t this sort of capitalism necessarily exploitative? Yunus is clear that Grameen is not charity—it’s a business venture, owned by and primed to help the poor. The bank insists on loan repayment even when a natural disaster strikes or a business venture is otherwise destroyed. Those trained in academic theology may have worries that derive from Michel de Certeau’s distinction between strategies and tactics. Isn’t microlending a strategy—the approach of the dominant who control the powerless?
Intellectuals, Yunus pointed out, “say all kinds of things about the world, but they won’t talk about the neighborhood.” He came to the idea of microlending almost accidentally—by talking to villagers near his university in Chittagong. He listened to poor villagers for years simply out of local interest, shared national heritage, a desire to know what’s going on in his neighborhood. This is precisely the sort of listening local pastors must do if they’re to be faithful and effective in ministry.
He found that exorbitant credit rates were leaving the poor in what amounted to bonded slavery—600 percent a month will do that to you. For the equivalent of only $26 disbursed in the village, dozens of villagers could go to work for themselves and escape their indenture and, perhaps eventually, escape poverty itself. Yunus also learned a valuable first lesson when he was shortchanged at repayment time. This operation would have to stay nimble, close to the ground, ready to learn from mistakes. And the villagers themselves would have to run the show: “When villagers determined the structure and the rules, their local organizations had flourished.”
Bangladesh had by then seen $25 billion in international aid, dumped into it by well-meaning but misguided Westerners, and had grown poorer. Microlending would be a tactic, if you like, not a strategy (to use a slightly dubious distinction). Or, to use Yunus’ own language, his scheme would eschew a bird’s-eye view for “a worm’s-eye view.”
Looking from that low angle paid off. Grameen Bank mushroomed through government help, international aid, and Yunus’ own perseverance. It became a genuine alternative to the usual banking practice, to the point where some employees would describe themselves as “freedom fighters,” and many more would refer to it as a counterculture. Yunus didn’t want to hire the best and brightest of Bangladesh. He asked one applicant simply whether she could walk far. He wanted people of character who care about their community.
As for loan recipients, to qualify for this kind of loan you had to prove you were under the threshold Grameen had set. This bank doesn’t wait for the poor to come to them and quiver under their bright lights and rules and power over their future. Rather, Grameen goes out into the villages to find poor people and organizes them into groups for loans and disciplined repayment. The present worldwide mass emigration from rural to urban areas potentially could be held in check by this approach, for here the capital moves to the villages so villagers don’t have to move to the capital. And the vast majority of the loan recipients are women. The rationale is that their receipt of the money is far more likely to help their entire family than if men took the loans. (Men buy watches, women buy food and medicine, according to David Bornstein’s reporting in Price of a Dream.)
Yunus describes the counterculture this way: “Other banks assume that you are a potential cheat. That’s how they tie you up [with collateral]. We assume that you are the best person ever. And there are margins of error in both cases. But if their repayment is 98 percent and so is ours, they’re wrong in 98 percent of the cases and we’re right in 98 percent of the cases.” Loan recipients find their readiest customers for their fledgling businesses in one another—since they all severally now have access to spending power. Bornstein calls it “bubble-up economics,” in a striking contrast to America’s love for “trickle-down” efforts to help all by helping the rich.
And it all looks startlingly like Wesley. “Only those judged worthy by their neighbors are accepted into borrowing groups in the first place,” Bornstein writes. A Wesleyan insistence that there is no holiness that is not social holiness is here replicated with almost terrifying intimacy. Just as early Christians canvassed the neighbors of catechumens to see evidence of the holiness they claimed, here Yunus’ workers canvass the neighbors of those claiming to be trustworthy enough for loans.
The discipline applied here looks startlingly like that of Wesleyan class meetings. If there is a problem with a borrower not showing up for group meetings, these have to be aired publicly, not through backdoor gossiping. If a grievance is deemed legitimate, the offending party has to promise publicly to make amends. The prescription in Matthew 18 for church discipline has rarely been so carefully followed.
Of course small groups, whether Wesleyan or Yunusian, are not merely about discipline. They are also about mutual support and encouragement. As one leader said, “When I talk to these women, my troubles seemed like nothing. They would disappear.”
Yunus took his bank national long before his recognition by the Nobel Prize committee in Norway. But he quickly wasn’t the only game in town, and he wasn’t at all disappointed with that. His blueprint was open to copying by all, and Grameen is now only one of 700 organizations in microcredit in Bangladesh. Muhammad Yunus is no inimitable genius (despite common criticism and praise to that effect).
His is an organization, a type of institution, that can be and has been copied by others, going viral to bring health. While its success has often led to its being called a miracle, it most expressly is not—it can be repeated as as any scientific discovery. And it is being repeated all over the world, including in the United States.
While Grameen is attentive to the local, poverty does have universal characteristics. Some poor people in Bangladesh intentionally maim their children to make them more effective beggars. It is hard to imagine a deeper hell than such desperate poverty. Yet the poor are used to hard work, since they’ve had to do it just to survive. “The poor have tremendous management capacity,” Yunus’ lieutenant Muzammel Huq said. And the price of helping them is minuscule—the cost of employment opportunities for 2 million families is less than the cost of two F-16 fighter jets.
Yunus is not hoping, but planning, for a world without poverty by 2030. Naturally the burden of proof is on the one who makes such a bold, almost eschatological prediction. Christians are right to be wary of such claims. “The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus said, and, whatever he meant by that, we can at least agree to be cautious about grand claims for ending sin before the eschaton.
The question for Christians is whether this kind of organizational building for the alleviation of suffering and defeat of poverty isn’t the world doing the Church’s job better than the Church ever did. Many of the heirs to Wesley’s organizing genius mentioned above bring healing and wholeness not less than Grameen. But many, including some megachurch, self-help, and reading groups, can be simply self-indulgent. By contrast, microcredit launched by a secular economist in one of the world’s most desperately poor countries is lifting millions out of poverty—14 million families in Bangladesh by the end of 2005, according to Bornstein.
Wesley’s loan fund makes it clear that his vision of salvation was not only social, it was holistic—including bodily and economic well-being. The Methodist revival swept across the world because its preachers and converts saw a chance at a renewed, holier, and ultimately more joyful life now as well as eternal life in the future. Grameen has no interest in the latter. But it would be just like God to use a secular Muslim economist-turned-banker to remind the descendents of the Wesleyan movement just what it means for salvation to be both personal and social.
Jason Byassee and L. Gregory Jones are executive director and CEO of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School. Jones is also dean of Duke Divinity.