The ART of hope: ending poverty by accident
By Derek Cook
Pope Francis recently stated: “. . . the times talk to us of so much poverty in the world and this is a scandal. Poverty in the world is a scandal. In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons. Poverty today is a cry.”
In our world today, despite all our wealth, despite all our charity, poverty deepens and we are resigned to the idea that “the poor will be with you always,” and despair that nothing can be done. Perhaps the challenge of poverty is to think about it in new ways. Perhaps the way to think about poverty differently is to not think about it at all. Perhaps instead of thinking about the poor we need to think about every single one of us. Is it possible that the things that produce material poverty in some are the same things that are producing a mental, physical and spiritual poverty that affects us all? Three ideas can help envision a society without poverty: Abundance, Resilience and Trust.
In Matthew, Jesus gently admonishes us: “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Mt 6:26). We’re all so familiar with this verse that we might not recognize how contradictory it is to some fundamental beliefs that inform our world.
Our economy operates on the notion that our resources are scarce, and our wants and needs unlimited. But what we hear Jesus saying is that our wants and needs are actually quite limited, and our resources unlimited, as God provides for creation and everything ultimately comes from God. If we accept this radical notion, it leads us to some other conclusions.
In our consumer culture, “shopping” has become almost a “moral” activity. We hear daily concerns about “consumer confidence,” and our social and economic health is based on our ability and desire to consume. The market preaches that our consumer “choices” are always right (almost moral) as they drive the economy. Our ability to “find the best price” is elevated to almost heroic status, without regard to how or where our products are produced or their impact on society or the environment. Meanwhile, those who can’t consume get left behind, and our need to consume leaves us working long hours at the expense of family and community, and hopelessly in debt. But Jesus says that our value as people is not tied in any way to our success as consumers.
Our culture also prizes independence. The “self-made man (or woman)” is held up as the ideal, and “self-reliance” is touted as a worthy goal. Yet, Jesus reminds us that nobody has done it by themselves, as all things ultimately come from God. In the end we own nothing, being mere stewards of the gifts we have been trusted with, deeply reliant on God and each other. And it is in these gifts that we find abundance and the confidence to assert that we have in fact been provided for and there is enough for all.
If, in fact, we are not independent, but humbly dependent on God and each other, then we exist in community and it is in community where we discover a resilience that protects and sustains us. Poverty exists where this resilience is absent. Throughout the Bible, the “poor” are referred to almost synonymously with the “widow,” the “alien,” the “afflicted” and the “fatherless.” What does it mean to be widowed, alien or fatherless? In biblical society it meant to be outside of the structures of society, it meant to be excluded — from power and from the structures that sustained people.
If we think about our world today, we find things are not that dissimilar. Those most likely to be poor in Canada are people without families, lone-parent families, persons with disabilities, Aboriginal persons dispossessed of their land, and recent immigrants and temporary foreign workers. In short: the widow, alien, afflicted and fatherless; those who are also outside of and excluded from our own structures of power and support.
If poverty arises from a lack of resilience in community, the response to poverty must be to create that resilience through community. In Zechariah we are called by God to: “Execute true justice, show mercy and compassion everyone to his brother. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor” (Zech 7: 9-10).
(Paul Paproski, OSB, photo)
To show mercy, compassion and execute justice is not only a personal, but also a communal activity. The starting point of mercy is to recognize that we’re all vulnerable. Just as we are called to forgive, precisely because we are in need of forgiveness, we are called to show mercy, because each of us could easily find ourselves in a situation of poverty because we’re all vulnerable. Often it is just by chance (or grace) that our decisions have not had life-altering effects.
The starting point of compassion is to recognize that we are all created equally by God and God lives within each of us. We are very good at dividing people into categories. We talk about “the poor” as though they are a separate species. Once we label people, it is easy to see them as something “other” than us, and once we do that, we can easily assign blame and deny rights. It is easy to see the question of poverty as a competition between “the poor” and the “non-poor”; between “us” and “them”; between the “deserving” and the “undeserving.” God, however, makes no such distinctions. We are all created equally by God, equally loved and in need of God’s grace. This moves us beyond an “us and them” view and toward our third admonition: execute justice.
The Oxford Dictionary defines “just” as “Constituted by law or by equity, grounded on right, lawful, rightful.” We see here concepts of equity, fairness and also legal structure. In the Old Testament, we see such structures embedded in Jewish law, a good example being the practice of jubilee. In the present day, we have a similar structure in international law through the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which states that people have a right to adequate income, housing, employment and other basic needs. When we talk about rights, we move beyond charity, beyond distinctions, beyond the deserving and the undeserving, and we recognize that we are all equal.
But beyond our obligations under international law, we are challenged to think about our own social, economic and political structures. How do our choices as consumers affect the rights of others? What is the impact of our obsession with lower taxes on the most vulnerable? How are we actively including vulnerable people in our workplaces? In our churches? Are we sharing power and decision-making with those who are being affected by our decisions? Only when we start to answer these questions do we begin to address the challenge of including the excluded. When we have mercy, compassion and structures of justice, we come to realize a resilience that is present for every one of us. This is the foundation of community and it is in community that we experience this resilience.
This radical inclusion requires one further element: trust. Communities cannot exist without this fundamental building block. When we see ourselves as individuals rather than people connected within community, trust breaks down and we allow ourselves to be fractured by labels, status and symbols, and poverty is the result. So perhaps then poverty isn’t so much a problem to be solved as much as it is a wound to be healed. God’s purpose in the world is the work of healing and reconciliation: of people with creation, of people with each other and of people with God. And this healing will be found in restoring trust.
We need to trust each other in so many ways. We must trust each other and our systems to be there when needed, but we need a deeper level of trust as well. When we share resources we do so trusting that the person we are sharing them with knows what is best for him or herself, and we give them the power to act accordingly. At an even deeper level, when we come to share power and include new voices in our decisions, we place our trust radically in the hands of others. We ultimately become vulnerable in order to be resilient. Doing so moves us beyond distinctions of “us” and “them,” “poor” and “non-poor” and recognizes us all as neighbours, citizens and children of God.
Finally, as people of faith, we ultimately place our trust in God. If poverty represents the brokenness of community and a spiritual brokenness in our relationship with God, then it is through God that poverty will be healed. This brings us back to our beginning principle of abundance. To return to our starting point, Jesus admonishes us: “. . . do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ ‘What shall we wear?’ For your Heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.”
If we do believe that all things come from God and that God provides for us, and if we show mercy and compassion, and if we build a just society with equitable structures that recognize our dignity and rights, and if we place our trust radically in God and each other, does this not begin to resemble the kingdom of God? If we are committed to justice and to healing poverty, this healing will begin with our faith in:
— Resilience: that we can build a strong community through both our individual actions as well as just and equitable structures and systems; and
— Trust: that we have the capacity to trust and share power with each other as citizens of equal dignity and worth.
If we focus first on these three things, the rest may just be added unto us. If we build a community where we wisely use the abundance we have been given, where our relationships are strong and our systems are just, and if we trust each other enough to include everyone in our lives and decisions, we will have built a city that works for every one of us. And, we might have just done something about poverty too. Almost by accident.
Cook is the executive director of the Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative.