It’s time I post part 3 of this series. Now I am supposed to share my confusion about helping the less economically fortunate. Truthfully, I have been putting it off because it’s difficult to succinctly write about what one is confused about.
To temper my confusion, I will attempt to answer three basic questions: 1) who are the poor 2) why they are poor 3) what can I, or someone like me, do to help said poverty.
There are many definitions of poverty. For some, poverty is having one car and a curved screen T.V. For others, it’s a little more serious: like only eating once a week…at best. This is the first relative side of poverty: its dependent on one’s surroundings. The second is, whatever your experience with poverty, there’s always someone who’s had it worse. And third, poverty is based on what’s important to an individual. To some, eating out is an indicator of wealth. However, just because someone living below the poverty line eats at restaurants more than I do, doesn’t mean that I am the poor one. In fact, the food we cook in our home sometimes costs me more than two McDonald’s value meals. I’ve been guilty of saying I’m “too poor” to afford the new iPad. Although a facetious definition of poverty, it shows you how muddled the term can be.
For Christians, the most important definition of poverty is Christ’s. Hear is what He says:
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” – Matt 25:35-36
In here we see 6 clear definitions of poverty: hunger, thirst, estrangement (foreigner), needing clothes, sickness, and imprisonment. Notice that the categories do not necessarily entail extreme circumstances. It says “hungry,” not starving; and “thirsty,” not dying of thirst. Sometimes people can get so focused (if not obsessed) with finding out who the poorest of the poor are, that they miss the people right in front of them who could be fed, given drink, housed, clothed, cared for, and/or visited. Now, don’t get me wrong, if God’s heart is soft towards the hungry, it absolutely melts for those who are dying of hunger; but if we miss the guy who could benefit from the other half of our sandwich, then we probably won’t be moving to Africa to build wells anytime soon (or if we do, it may not be for the right reasons).
Based on the above passage, it seems “poor” is defined as a person who does not have his/her basic human need(s) met at any given moment. This means all of us at different times have probably been in one of these categories of poverty, and will likewise encounter it on a regular basis. The duty, then, to help the poor has nothing to do with whether a person thinks they are poorer than the person without, or if a person is overall “poor.” Bill Gates could be a poor man (by Christ’s definition), if he finds himself in a Sri Lankan village market having lost his wallet, and feeling famished. At that point, Christ’s law would dictate the villager eating Naan should break it in half, and give it to Gates (copyright pending for “Made for TV” movie). The fact that Gates has billions of dollars and the Sri Lankan makes $5 a day (hypothetically) doesn’t matter in these circumstances. Get my point?
One thing I wish Jesus included in these famous remarks on poverty is: debt. Although debt is not poverty, necessarily, it usually leads to it. It can lead to a strange depravity like I presently find myself in where one must work a soul killing job in order to pay off debt. Or it can be much (MUCH) worse such as the families Josias Hansen commented about on my first blog post in this series Economic Identity Crisis Part 1. He wrote, “I heard about a family who was forced to send their child to roll cigarettes for around 8-10 hours a day for around 10 years in order to pay for their debt. Yet, their debt was the value of only $10.” Debt is an insidious disease. It almost always makes a person feel ahead in life at the start, but ravages one’s life by the end. Although Christ doesn’t directly address the indebted in the passage quoted above, in all likelihood, most of the hungry, thirsty…and imprisoned probably got to their dire straits through it.
If debt begets poverty, then greed is poverty’s grandfather. It’s a widely researched and published fact that the world is perfectly sufficient for supporting human life and meeting our basic needs. However, it doesn’t take a crack research team to see that the excess of the few has left multitudes with less than they can live on. The problem with greed is, just like poverty, it is relative. As I have been writing, I pulled out a $2 Cliff bar to tide me over until I can eat my dinner. It didn’t feel greedy to me that I ate the entire bar by myself. However, there are villages that live on less nutritional value per day than I just consumed in that bar, and the two dollars I paid for it amounts to the day’s wages of nearly half of the world’s population. Not to mention the fact that it was just my snack. My dinner will most likely consist of delicious food flown in from various parts of the world, and likely be cooked for me by my beautiful wife. It will cost me closer to $8 (or 4 day’s wages to many). Thus I sincerely pray, “Lord have mercy on me.”
Although I waste a large part of my day worrying about money as a newly married man with a negative $81,000 net worth, I spend more on food and transportation than millions of people’s average monthly wages. I don’t like to think about this because it pushes my face ever closer to the picture slot in the dictionary where “greed” is defined.
Although one could rightly call me greedy for my lifestyle, I find it difficult to rectify this fact through the resources available to me. Yes, I have many opportunities to give to organizations that are doing something to balance things like World Vision, Sojourners, certain missionaries, and of course, Bono, but this doesn’t solve the issue. I only have so much of my income to give away before I become delinquent on my debts, or unable to maintain employment at my current job which makes this relative wealth possible i.e. money for transportation. The rest goes to our lovely banks who have been such a help in making my dreams come true (thanks Wells Fargo!). Given our $80,000 in student loan debt, I couldn’t even give away all I have and “come follow Jesus” if I wanted to. Well, I could, but my only option would be a prison ministry–from within.
Now, about my job: it’s a corporate gig. Through it, I earn about $40,000/year which is a lot more than some of my friends pull in. But did you know that the average American full-time employee makes about $35,000/year while the average American CEO makes more than that in one day of work? This leads me to wonder, should I be blamed for the massive divide between the world’s rich and poor when I am living a moderate lifestyle? Sure I have a few luxuries occasionally thrown in, but that’s nothing when one considers that over half of the world’s wealth is possessed by 1% of the population. At a former job parking cars at a fancy restaurant a guy once bought 3 bottles of $3500 (each) scotch. He was pouring shots for everyone at the bar and spilling it everywhere. There are reports of alcoholics licking it off the bar table, but these have not been substantiated. Yet this guy wouldn’t even know how to call one of the 1%ers of the 1% who have NY bagels flown in their private jets to them while touring India, and what not. All of that said, blaming others for the plight of the poor will do little to establish a solution.
In my greatest efforts to even ask (let alone answer) the question of what I can do to help those in need, I have arrived at one single thought: I must help those who caused the poverty to help those who are in it. Now mind you, I am often a “causer” of poverty, so usually I am helping myself, help those in need.
Many have stated, and rightly so, that helping the poor goes beyond charity work to addressing the systemic problems that caused poverty in the first place. When we look at the big picture, we usually see the root of poverty being some type of injustice. But what if we were to zoom out and see an even bigger view of the issue? What breeds injustice? What would cause someone to betray another person’s dignity and rights? When we find this answer, we find the real issue that needs to be addressed.
In short, the mother of injustice is disconnection with the human spirit. People step on others only when they become callous to the pain of being stepped on. But people are softened when they have to repair the damage that was caused. When the vandal is forced to paint over the wall he defaced, he is not rehabilitated by gaining an appreciation for the wall, but rather for the person who owns it. In the same way, the only way to completely reverse the curse of capitalistic greed is for the capitalist to retrace his steps and make reparations where the damage was done. For Americans, there is a great deal of work to be done here. But, even in small ways, and especially in small ways, we can find our way back to humanity.
As John the Baptist so aptly points out in Luke 3:11, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” John saw very clearly that neither man was benefiting from the one having two coats, so he spoke the obvious truth too plain for most to see: share. The simple beauty being, when everyone has a coat, food, and everything else one needs, we all get our humanity back.
My wife points out that this post doesn’t end with a clear direction or practical application. I told her that would be a whole other question: “How?” She said, I needed to write it then. I agree, but it will be forthcoming as I work it out for myself first.
- Criminalizing Poverty: During Economic Crisis, New Laws Crack Down on America’s Poor, Homeless (tipggita32.wordpress.com)
- Will politicians understand hunger by experimenting with fast? (indialawyers.wordpress.com)