Archives For Poverty

IMG_0516I spent the last week in the Highlands of Guatemala, working on a sewage system for a Maya village in the mountains. I’ve heard it before but the numbers still have the power to shock:

75% of the children in the Highlands under 7 years old are critically malnourished.

Hearing that stat my first thought, perhaps oddly, was peace.

The scriptures declare that God’s vision and promise to us is shalom, which is usually translated as “peace.”

It’s meaning, however, is much richer than what is conveyed by our English word.

Shalom means wholeness, healing, justice, and righteousness, equality, unity, freedom, and community. Shalom is a vision of all people whole, well, and one, and of all nature whole, well, and one.

According to United Methodist Bishops it is “the sum total of moral and spiritual qualities in a community whose life is in harmony with God’s good creation.” They specifically relate Jesus’ ministry to the gift of shalom and affirm, “New Testament faith presupposes a radical break between the follies, or much so-called conventional wisdom about power and security, on the one hand, and the transcendent wisdom of shalom, on the other.”

The book of Revelation imagines the completion of human history and the full realization of God’s redemptive purpose for the world in terms of “a new heaven and a new earth.” Its visionary author, John of Patmos, described when God would be with and among human beings.

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away’ [Revelation 21:1-3].

John seems to have in mind the words of Isaiah:

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind… I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.  No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; …They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.  They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—and their descendants as well…

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust!  They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord [Isaiah 65: 17-25].

10109_10200197878452575_1696261927_nOne can only imagine how these words must sound to the millions in our world today who labor to build houses for others, but whose earnings enable them only to live in homes of scrap metal and cardboard.

Who work fields owned by others, the harvest of which is shipped to another, wealthier land while they most scavenge for food in landfills.

Whose children will die with bloated bellies before they see adulthood.

The gospel of the Kingdom of God, the gospel that proclaims the promise of shalom, is surely good news for the poor.

But what is it for us? Is it message one of woe?

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.  Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep [Luke 6:21-25].

It need not be.  Matthew 25: 31-46 is typically identified as “the judgment of the nations” or “the last judgment.” It speaks of “the Son of Man” coming in glory with the angels, sitting on his throne with all the nations gathered before him.

It is judgment because it envisions sheep being divided from goats. The sheep will go to the right, the goats to the left. To those on his right, the King says,

““Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  But those on the left: “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”  

And what was the difference between the sheep and the goats, those who gained entrance to the kingdom and those shut out?  Simply, their response to the poor and oppressed determined the judgment.

Of course, the judge first expressed the matter in terms of their response to his need.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”   Both the saved and the damned professed ignorance.  ““Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?”  

His response:

““Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 

Is it a mistake to suggest that our salvation hinges on our response to the crises like the aforementioned stat?

 

 

6008952208_80ed84260d_mOver Memorial Day Weekend, I participated as a pilgrim at the Taize gathering at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. During part of our time we selected small discussion groups in which to reflect on the intersection of Christian worship and the systemic poverty and injustice of the rez.

Unbeknownst to me until much later, the facilitator of my small group was Ched Myers.

Who? (You might wonder)

Ched Myers is a biblical scholar and a Christian mediator. He’s the author of perhaps the best biblical commentary of the last few decades- and one of my favorites: Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.  BSM 20th

One of Myers’ chief critiques is the propensity among believers to spiritualize and thus neuter the message and ministry of Jesus. If Jesus’ Gospel is about the world to come the here and now can breath a sigh of relief. Fortunately, as long as Christians are stuck with the image of state-sponsored torture as our primary symbol we’ll continually be reminded that our Savior, despite our wishes to the contrary, is a thoroughly political figure.

A “spiritualized” interpretation of the references to Jesus’ ministry and gospel as “good news to the poor” misses the ways in which Jesus addressed the concrete, spiritual and material realities of his time and, specifically, of the peasant Jewish community of which he was part.

“Only a real debt-cancellation and land-restoration could represent good news to real poor people,” says Ched Myers.

Many scholars, including Myers, have noted that Jesus seems to have regarded himself as one who proclaimed and brought a new season of jubilee such as that mandated in the ancient Jewish law. The text from Isaiah that Jesus quoted and declared fulfilled at the synagogue in his hometown when he began his ministry is itself a reference to the jubilee year from the ancient Jewish law.

Many have also noted the relationship between the way in which Jesus talked about the forgiveness of sins and the forgiveness of debt. This is seen most clearly in Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer with its pleas to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”   

“The gospels agree,” says Myers that “Jesus’ first substantive clash with the authorities arose as a result of his practice of ‘unlicensed’ forgiveness of sins, which has clear Jubilee overtones.”

Richard Horsley has offered a helpful account of the relationship between forgiveness of sin and debt in the context of first century rural Galilee.

There are indications …that the people…may have been blaming themselves.  Insofar as they were suffering hunger, disease, and poverty, it was because they had sinned, by breaking the covenant laws.  They were therefore now receiving the curses.  This is surely what Jesus was addressing in this forgiveness of sins in connection with healings (as in Mark 2:1-12).   In addressing the people’s self-blame and despair, therefore, Jesus transforms the blessings and curses into a new declaration of God’s assurance of deliverance for the poor and hungry and condemnation of those who were wealthy, almost certainly because they were expropriating the goods of the peasantry.

To announce forgiveness of sins is truly good news for those who are literally poor.

Jesus not only sought to lift the spiritual burden associated with poverty, but also to transform the material relationships that produced that poverty.

Myers indicates for example that

“Jesus’ Jubilee orientation” is seen not just in his forgiveness of sins/debts but also in: 1) his instructing the disciples to “to help themselves to field produce” justifying it with “his punch line: ‘The Sabbath was created for humanity’” (Mark 2:27); 2) “his efforts to rebuild community between socio-economically- alienated groups” such as tax-collectors (Levi, Zaccheus) and the debtors they exploited; 3) and his call for radical restructuring at all levels, from the household (Mark 3:31-35) to the body politic (Mark 10:35-45).

Myers regards “table fellowship” both in Jesus’ practice and in his storytelling as the typical venue chosen by Jesus to illustrate his Jubilee claim that “first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31).

Meals lay at the heart of ancient society: Where, what, and with whom you ate defined your social identity and status.  Thus the table was the “mirror” of society, with its economic classes and political divisions.

In the extended banquet story of in Luke 14, Jesus systematically undermines prevailing conventions and proprieties which advocating a new “table” of compassion and equality.  The opening episode deals (not surprisingly) with a dispute over the Sabbath practice (Luke 14:1-6).

Next comes Jesus attack on the dominant system of meritocracy, with its hierarchies, prestige posturing, and ladder-climbing, and his invitation to “downward mobility” (verses 7-11).

He then offends his host by criticizing his guest list, rejecting the reciprocal patronage system of the elite and calling for a focus upon “those who cannot repay” (verses 12-14).

The series concludes with Jesus pointed little fable about an exemplary host who finally understands the bankruptcy of meritocracy and decides instead to build a Jubilee community with the poor and outcast (verses 15-24).

In the light of these and other “Jubilee footprints” in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, Myers finds it not surprising that the early church practiced what he calls “Sabbath economics” as exemplified in the story of radical sharing of property among believers in the aftermath of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first day Pentecost.

And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved [Acts 2:44-47].

Christian conviction is that God promises a comprehensive fulfillment of human existence in the universe.

Salvation includes our souls and our bodies, our individual and our collective or corporate existence.

Jesus’ primary metaphor for speaking of salvation was a political one, “The Kingdom of God.”

It was an economic metaphor as well.

We are bold to proclaim that among the promises of God to us is this: the situation of mass poverty and gross material inequality that reigns now shall not be when God reigns.   

And where God reigns even now in the world that he so loves, that poverty and inequality is being transformed in justice.

 

8329_1245755266240_8036607_nI tell our service teams in Guatemala over and over again that the real project we’ve come for isn’t tangible. It’s relational.

When it comes to poverty and mission, listening is more important than lugging bricks and mortar.

Here’s a piece from a book on Christian Ethics I wrote with Dr. Barry Penn Hollar a while back:

While statistics on poverty are informative and useful, they do not enable us to understand what it’s like to be poor, what it’s like to live on less than 2 dollars or even a single dollar a day.

Since the poor are often illiterate and typically spend nearly all their waking hours struggling to survive they are unlikely to give expression to their experience in memoirs, fictional stories, or poems.

It is a challenge for us to hear their voices because, among the many burdens that abject poverty imposes, the destruction of the human capacity to give voice to one’s sorrow, the capacity to connect with other human beings through self-expression, may be among the most devastating.

A project of the World Bank called Voices of the Poor attempts to overcome this significant gap in our understanding. It has “collected the voices of more than 60,000 poor women and men from 60 countries, in an unprecedented effort to understand poverty from the perspective of the poor themselves.”

It is based on the conviction that “poor people are the true poverty experts.”

Among the revelations of this study was that “poverty is multidimensional and complex… Poverty is voicelessness. It’s powerlessness. It’s insecurity and humiliation.”    I encourage you to go to the website and read as much as you can.  Here I can offer only few of the things poor people themselves have to say:

“Poverty is like living in jail, living under bondage, waiting to be free” — Jamaica

“Poverty is lack of freedom, enslaved by crushing daily burden, by depression and fear of what the future will bring.” — Georgia

“If you want to do something and have no power to do it, it is talauchi (poverty).” — Nigeria

“Lack of work worries me. My children were hungry and I told them the rice is cooking, until they fell asleep from hunger.” — an older man from Bedsa, Egypt.

“A better life for me is to be healthy, peaceful and live in love without hunger. Love is more than anything. Money has no value in the absence of love.” — a poor older woman in Ethiopia

“When one is poor, she has no say in public, she feels inferior. She has no food, so there is famine in her house; no clothing, and no progress in her family.” — a woman from Uganda

“For a poor person everything is terrible – illness, humiliation, shame. We are cripples; we are afraid of everything; we depend on everyone. No one needs us. We are like garbage that everyone wants to get rid of.” — a blind woman from Tiraspol, Moldova

Garbage

Which should point out how unwittingly destructive it can be for white-faced volunteers  to show up to a developing nation and treat people like they’re ‘poor.’

 

10109_10200197878452575_1696261927_nWe just got back from Guatemala, working on the first phase of building a sanitation system in the community of Chuicutama in the Highlands of Guatemala. If you’d like to learn more and/or support our work, as it’s a multiyear project, you can do so by clicking here:

    Guatemala Toilet Project.

Before we left a few asked me: Shouldn’t we focus on helping the poor here at home?

As though we have to choose between them.

I bristle whenever anyone asks a question like that.

First, as I like to say, Christians, not just doctors, are without borders.

Second, as I’ve frequently whined, unless you’re talking about Indian Reservations (which you’re likely not) there’s no real comparison between poverty in the developing world and the poor in the United States.

Even the poorest of the poor here can walk into a gas station and get a glass of clean water.

That’s the exception in most places.

For example:

In his book Globalization, Spirituality, and Justice, Daniel Groody has summarized an array of statistical data in compiling a snapshot of the world as if it were a “global village of 100 people.”

In that village “the resources are unevenly distributed.”

The richest person in the village has as much as the poorest 57 taken together.

Fifty do not have a reliable source of food and are hungry some or all of the time, and 30 suffer malnutrition.

Forty do not have access to adequate sanitation.

31 people live in substandard housing.

31 do not have electricity; 18 are unable to read.

15 do not have access to safe drinking water.

Only 16 people have access to the internet.

Only 12 own an automobile.

Three are immigrating.

And only two have a college education.

Overall, 19 struggle to survive on one dollar per day or less.

48 struggle to live on two dollars a day or less.

In brief, as the World Bank describes it, two thirds of the planet lives in poverty.

Groody also shares some startling statistics about what he calls “our collective spending patterns as a human family in relationship to basic human needs.”

According to these figures, the world spent as much money on fragrances as all of Africa and the Middle East spent on education in 2005. The world spends almost as much money on toys and games as the poorest one-fifth of the world’s population earns in a year. The United States and Europe spent nearly ninety times as much on luxury items as the amount of money that would be needed to provide safe drinking water and basic sanitation for those in our global village who do not have these necessities now.   Moreover, it is sobering to consider that the world spends nearly four times as much on alcohol as on international development aid.

Every hour more than 1,200 children die of preventable diseases, which is the equivalent of three tsunamis each month.

Yet even the smallest reductions in military expenditures could dramatically affect human development.

For one day’s military spending, we could virtually eliminate malaria in Africa.

For what we spend in two days on the military, we could provide the health care services necessary to prevent the deaths of three million infants a year.

For less than a week’s military spending, we could educate each of the 140 million children in developing countries who have never attended schools.