(Part 2 of my two part series on poverty in America. Read Part 1 here).
Most of us want things to be better for all of us.
The problem is the greed of the few in whom most of the power rests.
America’s rich and powerful have positioned themselves to create a system in which the government provides charity (“handouts”) instead of justice (legislating a living wage).
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We are still called upon to give aid to the beggar who finds himself in misery and agony on life’s highway.”
Charity not just necessary. It is required by God.
However, things fall apart when we allow our economic system to only offer charity to people who are struggling. Charity tries to fix people up so that the system can work better. Justice tries to fix the system so that people can work better.
Ultimately, while charity does temporarily help those in need, it also serves an important role in helping people who are not impoverished discover the meaning of life.
I remember my first mission trip to Mexico. We went to a little border town, Piedras Negras, and worked in an area known as Tierra de Esperanza, “The Land of Hope.” At first, it seemed like such an odd name for what it was. The government had filled in a trash dump with dirt and given it back to the people. The family we were helping lived on a small dirty lot, which was littered with rocks, in a cardboard hut assembled by driving nails through bottle caps into scrap pieces of wood and stick so that the cardboard wouldn’t pull out. There were five people living in that hut: mother, father and three little girls. “The Land of Hope,” indeed.
When we left at the end of the week, we had constructed a much larger three room house built out of cinder blocks and bonding compound that looked like stucco. The new house had a solid roof to keep the family dry during the rainy season and doors that locked to keep them safe at night.
I left having learned so much and my love for humanity grew deeper from the experience. I remember saying in complete amazement, “I came here to give them help, but I ended up going home with more than I arrived with.”
Charity is good. It has its place and its purpose and it is required of those of us following the teachings of Jesus. But, God also requires us to do justice (Micha 6:8). The reality is, the primary, long-term benefit of charity is for those administering it, not for those impoverished. Justice, on the other hand, assists those who are being denied basic human needs in recovering their humanity.
“We have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society. We are still called upon to give aid to the beggar who finds himself in misery and agony on life’s highway. But one day, we must ask the question of whether an edifice which produces beggars must not be restructured and refurbished.”
Dr. King saw the balance between charity and justice clearly. He also saw the answer for the problem clearly: stop pointing fingers at the poor and start pointing fingers at the system that not only allows poverty to exist, but creates the conditions for it.
We have created a world where poverty is endemic.
War creates poverty.
Lack of education creates poverty.
Health problems create poverty.
It becomes endemic because of the nasty circular nature of poverty. Not only does war create poverty, poverty can create conditions that can lead to war. Not only can lack of education create poverty, poverty can create conditions that make education difficult to achieve. In the charity focused systems of our world (particularly in the United States), the very things that create poverty are, in turn, created by poverty and the cycle then feeds upon itself. Once you are in it, it fights to keep you there.
Jesus calls us to do something about it; that is, Jesus calls us to do something more than notice it and complain. If we wish to live into our identity and our call as Christians, we must actively work at overcoming poverty.
Nelson Mandela tells us that, “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”
To live into our Christian identity we must work to overcome poverty. Acts of charity, while good and part of our call to love our neighbor, do not overcome poverty. It takes acts of justice.
In a quest to secure and continue to grow their wealth, the rich and powerful have designed systems that masquerade charity as justice but propagate the cycle of poverty. And we have allowed them to do it.
What we must never forget it that they are the vast minority and we are the vast majority.
We have the numbers.
The rich need more people to drop into poverty if they want to increase their wealth. It’s a simple question of supply. In order for some to have more, the rest must have less.
But, believe it or not, it’s ironic.
It is ironic because every time their system pulls another person under, our numbers grow and, used well, there is strength in numbers.
It is time to start a revolution.
We can do it every time we vote. We can do it by not only helping those who fall to stand up, but then standing with them as they demand to have their basic human needs met. We can do it in masses gathered outside of town halls when the rights of the working class are being stripped away.
We can do it in our churches and civic groups through outreach programs that not only provide for people’s physiological needs but extend into advocating for all of humanity to be treated equally and given equal opportunity to live fully into the unique image of God which dwells in them.
We can do it.
We must do it.
It is what God requires from us.
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