Michael Metzger

When people of good conscience identify with an injustice—slavery, poverty, racism, starvation—their language changes. They begin using unequivocal verbs.

Unequivocal is not a word we hear every day. It means clear, unambiguous. Unequivocal verbs describe actions that have clear and measurable outcomes. We see this in how the Clapham circle talked—men like Thomas Clarkson. He used unequivocal verbs.

Clarkson was a Cambridge student when he won an essay contest on slavery (he later admitted he knew little on the subject, he was just a good writer). Then Clarkson had a profound spiritual experience, “a direct revelation from God ordering me to devote my life to abolishing the trade.” Clarkson began to identify with those trapped in slavery. He concluded, “it was time that some person should see these calamities to their end.”

That person was Clarkson. But note his unequivocal verbs. Abolish. End.

Clarkson was one of the twelve men who formed the Committee for Abolition of the African Slave Trade in 1787. He was given the task of collecting research, interviewing thousands of sailors (he traveled almost 8,000 miles on horseback). When Clarkson died in 1846, the poet Samuel Coleridge paid him a fitting tribute: “He, if ever a human being did it, listened exclusively to his conscience, and obeyed its voice.”

William Wilberforce was also one of the twelve. He too was a man of good conscience. He too had a profound spiritual experience, feeling God calling him to abolish the slave trade. Again, note the unequivocal verb—abolish. Wilberforce began identifying with those trapped in slavery. Sir James Mackintosh would later write, “no Englishman has ever done more to evoke the conscience of the British people.”

For most of my life, I’ve been Thomas Clarkson—before his spiritual experience. I thought I knew about the poor, the homeless. Hardly. My verbs gave me away. Engage poverty. Address it. Those are equivocal, vague. Then we moved into town, to a homeless highway. I began identifying with the homeless. I listened to them. They use unequivocal verbs. They want out. They want their poverty to endnow.

This began to stir something in me. It intensified in 2017. That’s when I first learned of the work of Jon Vandenheuvel. He’s working to build new small cities in Africa (it’s still a work in progress). We began pursuing a partnership to focus on striking similarities between the entrapment and isolation of poverty in Africa and the entrapment and isolation of poverty in U.S. cities. It too is a work in progress, but in both situations, Jon clarified how we’d define success: end systemic poverty. Not engage it. End it, an unequivocal verb. Straight outta Clapham.

Jon uses unequivocal verbs because he identifies with those trapped in systemic poverty. Baptism is identification. Jesus experienced at least two baptisms. The first was John’s, Jesus identifying with sinners like you and me. The second was Jesus’ baptism with fire, where he identified with death. The unequivocal outcome? Jesus abolished sin and death (Heb.9:25-26).

Our partnership continues to evolve as we connect with interested cities, including Annapolis. This Thursday, December 20th, we are presenting “Affordable Annapolis 2030” to the City Council. We’d appreciate your prayers. If you live in the area, please join us. The meeting begins at 3:00pm. It’s open to the public. A packed room would signal to the council that many local citizens are serious about ending systemic poverty.

Serious people feel a sense of urgency. Harvard Business School professor John Kotter says the first step for leading change is having a sense of urgency, what he calls a “gut-level determination to move… now.” Endeavors that fail do so because the leaders did not have a sense of “true urgency.” Those trapped in poverty feel a sense of urgency. They want out… now. Jon has a sense of urgency. I’m beginning to feel one as well.

No doubt we could fail. But as Teddy Roosevelt said, Far better it is to dare mighty things than to live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat. Unequivocal verbs like end draw us out of the gray twilight of opaque outcomes. They shine a light on the need for vast resources we don’t presently have. They highlight why we need coalitions of businesses, policymakers, investors, the faith community, zoning and planning, commercial lenders that don’t presently exist. Daunting? Yes. But can I, in good conscience, walk away from those trapped in systemic poverty? No—because they can’t.


Morning Mike Check


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  1. Praying for this important meeting, and for one fruit to be the growth cross-sector collaboration. Praying that you can ‘sell the problem’ and ‘call the party’ in a way that produces much fruit.

  2. Mike,

    A good cause indeed, is to end poverty. But I do not belive it will ever end until Christ Himself reappears in the second coming.

    He said, ” the poor will always be with you..”. The difference between abolishing slavery , prejudice, racism and other detestable ideologies is that they all were forced on the targeted populations by others who held to their precepts.

    Poverty is different. It does have systemic issues that help keep people in poverty embedded in social biases and enabling people to stay dependent on handouts that encourage a lack of get up and go. But poverty also has a component of self-will that outside forces cannot abolish–that of the individual not taking steps them selves to make a difference in their socio-ecomic plight.

    I know from first hand experience. Not that this example is pure in all aspects, but I have worked with an impoverished family for 20 years , offerring council, prayers, educational opportunities( by paying their way to college out of my funds), buying them tools like trucks and tractors( teach a man to fish –don’t just give thnm the fish) and so on.

    The movement away from their poverty is not detectable. I’ve provided shelter for them. I’ve tried to enforce fiscal responsibility on them ni various atainable ways. There may be small gains but it will take many years and the outcome is uncertain becasue they have to take charge of their destiny to abolish their own impoverished state and I cannot force that upon them. They have to make the choice. I have provided a lot of opportunity and support for them but their grasp of taking charge of their destinty seems empty.

    I’m not giving up nor abandoning this family. But the way out of their poverty has to be from within themselves–unlike slavery that had to be abolished externally–the slave owners had to stop their trade and they did. What assurance will I have that the Johnsons will decide among themselves to take advantage of opportunities and run with them instead of sitting all afternoon watching tabloid shows on a 50 inch TV they can ill afford?

    Between Jesus and what I see, the poor will be with us always. But that is not to say your efforts will not lift some out of it. It’s a work that will never be finished until the ” will ” of the 4 chapter gospel appears.


  3. George:

    I appreciate your faithful work with this family. It is indeed a difficult task and I applaud your hard work. It can indeed be very discouraging.

    As for “the poor you will always have with you,” many feel Jesus was describing seasonal poverty. Catastrophes happen. Systemic poverty is different. It is the +one billion trapped at the bottom. They lack access to healthcare, education, transportation, clean water, and so on. Systemic poverty is a systemic problem requiring systemic solutions.

  4. Mike,

    These are worthy insights and I am passing your insights along to others. A number of faithful people are working towards the same desires here in Baltimore. Your words are a source of encouragement and inspiration that is often needed when the currents of change flow more slowly than we’d hope for.

  5. Mike
    Regardless of the outcome (which none of us can control) it is very good to work towards ENDING systemic poverty NOW. It’s very good because it has already changed your story. The abstract truths are being torn down and the Kingdom is advancing in your heart, and therefore naturally it flows out of you in your words and actions. Praise God. But poverty exists in the middle and upper classes as well. Poverty of empathy, poverty of faith, poverty Of love. Seems as though there are enough resources for all to flourish, and I’m hoping your work will help re-source for the benefit of us all.
    Every Blessing, Perry

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