Nathan Ferrance
On the Shelf

Unleashing Opportunity: Why Escaping Poverty Requires a Shared Vision of Justice

A review of the book by Michael Gerson, Stephanie Summers and Katie Thompson

In the din of caustic political rhetoric, Unleashing Opportunity rings a clarion call to remember what government ought to concern itself with: human flourishing. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson and the Center for Public Justice’s Stephanie Summers and Katie Thompson have tantalized us with a primer on justice. Concise, readable and engaging, this book avoids the abstractions that so often accompany Christians’ call to live faithfully. It also portrays the kind of government policy that really changes things, a commodity rare in our time.

Like any primer, the strength of Unleashing Opportunity is its concrete directives on how to do justice in important parts of our society – places that really matter. Government is a gift, but it’s one that is deeply tarnished. Yet the call to people of faith is to embrace the social structures of our society as sites where God’s “kingdom can come, on earth as it is in heaven.” Gerson, Summers and Thompson demand that we heed God’s call to do justice not just in personal relationships but through these very social structures and, most importantly, through our governments.

Two themes dominate the book. First, the authors maintain that all people have dignity because of their being created in the image of God. Such a premise is no surprise coming from Christians; however, their fear is that this central biblical attribute is selectively granted in practice and often withheld from the most marginalized in our society. Second, the authors lament that “something is undermining people from low-income backgrounds’ ability to advance economically.” These themes are then applied to topics such as early childhood, foster care, juvenile justice, the graduation gap and predatory lending.

Each chapter mixes a compelling narration of the problem, a biblical rubric for response and current examples where people are structurally responding. Each chapter is winsomely written. Simple – but not simplistic – analysis is followed by organizations doing real justice within the maze of each problem. Too often, the evangelical church and other Christian institutions have been slow to embrace the biblical call for justice, but Unleashing Opportunity gives counterexamples.

The difficulty with a primer is that it whets your appetite for more. While the authors point to solutions beyond personal transformation, most of their examples tend to be urgent fixes for a deeper brokenness. It’s hard to blame them for not being more foundational in their solutions. Their target is real help for real people in real distress. But their examples don’t always respond at foundational levels. For example, one chapter focuses on a solution of restorative justice. But while a restorative justice solution is a great balm for juveniles trapped in the incarceration system, it leaves untouched the profiteering of the prison-industrial complex. In the same way, legislation to limit predatory lending is difficult to champion in an economic system that often valorizes profit devoid of morality. But this is just the appetizer; CPJ has a broader corpus of writing and policies for deeper responses that should be read for the next course.

I have already used this book in a sociology class and had students from a variety of Christian backgrounds enthusiastically endorse it. They found it engaging, and it made the problems approachable. During our discussion of the foster care chapter, one quiet student became the central discussant. Her family had been very involved in foster care and she was able to confirm the issues as depicted by the authors. Many students were deeply interested in the organizations introduced in the book and wanted to find similar ones in our area.

This book introduces a compelling way to help Christians understand structural problems in our society. It is very readable and usable for discussions or classes. The societal problems explored here are enormous, but Unleashing Opportunity opens a doorway for significant responses.

Bradshaw Frey is professor of sociology at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.

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