Rant: Ennobling the “Poor” Over “There,” Enabling Them “Here”

Rant: Ennobling the “Poor” Over “There,” Enabling Them “Here”

This is a rant directed at Christian faith communities, in particular, that have no problem providing for their own “needs” (buildings, programs, retreats, small groups, socials, etc.), little problem in caring for the needs of the “poor” around the world (missionaries, church projects, short-term trips, engagement in “advocacy” efforts, etc.) but seem to have a BIG problem dealing with the “poor” in their own backyards (homeless, near homeless, mentally ill, drug- or alcohol-addicted, etc.).

Now, clearly, I am not slamming every church but all too often I sense (and see) a great willingness to respond to the needs “in here” and “way out there” but a squeamishness in responding to the needs “nearby”. I have worked way out there and now work in the nearby (with homeless folks) and so I get to see all of this first hand.

First, why have I used quotes around poor? Maybe because this is where the problem starts. It seems to me that the poor out there are seen as somehow different from the poor in the nearby. So, the question is whether we are talking about the same thing at all. Arguably, the poor out there (in what is still called the “third world”) are different from those in the US. They are… well… poorer. Often lacking in basic health, water and sanitation services, often malnourished, frequently vulnerable to premature death (at all ages).

We know of these differences and yet this alone can’t explain our lack of engagement with the poor “here”. After all, they too are poor. They may have enough to eat but they are also likely to be malnourished. They may lack access to health care (or find it very difficult to access) and, they too, compared to their neighbors, are likely to die prematurely.

Basically both groups are poor–one in absolute terms and the other in relative terms. But let’s not underestimate the debilitating effects of relative deprivation. Living in the land of plenty when you don’t have “the plenty” is not just demeaning but it is profoundly disempowering. It grinds.

The lack of engagement in the nearby is not really because we believe the poor “here” are not in need. Rather it has to do with how we understand the source of that need. Over there the poor are so because of… Well we may not be exactly sure but the narrative usually goes something like this: They are poor because of the corruption of the government. Or, they are poor because women are treated poorly be men. Or, they are poor because they live on marginal land, they are uneducated, they lack know-how (possibly because of corruption), they have backward religious views, and the list goes on. In essence what we are saying is: over there the poor are victims–they are oppressed.

Well what do we say about the poor here? Here the narrative is pretty different. Here the poor are so because they are lazy or lack drive or because they made bad choices (they drink too much, take drugs or–women only–they get pregnant outside of marriage). But the narrative doesn’t stop there because once we get started on the poor here we just can’t stop. Not only are they poor but they also fail to grasp all the advantages they have. The poor have it too easy–the government enables them to stay that way and boy, do they. They game the system. They sit around and expect a handout while the rest of us work. I could go on but the accusations only get uglier from there. In essence what we are saying is: over here the poor have a choice and they choose the life they have. Oppressed, victims? They’d like us to think so… But they certainly are not.

With these distinctions firmly fixed then it becomes easy for us to respond to the poor over there while righteously ignoring them here. Indeed, because we understand the poor over there to be victims we ennoble them and their poverty and our “aid” to them, by extension, ennobles us. Here at home to help the poor is to buy into their scam and to enable bad behavior. Indeed, helping the poor over here besmirches us because, after all, they are largely playing us for the fool.

And so here is my rant… On what basis do we believe any of this? Here’s my view: poverty is always ugly up close because up close we can’t avoid looking into the face of brokenness. There are a number of things to keep in mind about the poor: 1) The poor are people and, as such, they are capable of doing some pretty bad things. Among the poor over there and here are liars, lazy folks, cheats, wife beaters and con artists. What this should tell us, first of all, is that in terms of fallenness, the poor are a lot like us. No difference. 2) The poor everywhere are downtrodden. Whatever got them (and keeps them) in the situation in which they find themselves there are very few people who will speak out for them and walk faithfully with them over the long-term. Too many efforts to “help” the poor are merely salve for open, bleeding, stinking wounds that the full effects of oppressive structures inflict on them. Healing those wounds is a long walk in one direction with the poor. And this brings us to the most important thing 3) the poor are human beings who, above all else, need to be made human. This is a relational thing. This can only happen over a long term (see point 2) while recognizing our and their fallenness–their proneness to disappoint us and our proneness to lose interest in their plight (see point 1).

The disciples were offended at a sum of money that was spent frivolously (in their view) and told Jesus exactly how they felt. He responded by saying “the poor are always with you.” True. The poor are over there and they are over here; in the far away and in the nearby. I think Jesus was laying down a gauntlet of sorts for the disciples that day. It’s as if he was saying: “What, you care about the poor? Good. So do I. They are here, they are there–wherever you go you are going to find them. You want to do something for them? Then do it. They are around. They are not going anywhere and you really don’t have to look very hard for them.”

The bottom line is this, the Bible that Jesus quoted talks about the poor a great deal and almost always in terms of the oppression they experience–the exploitation of which they are victims. Jesus had no romantic view of the poor, however. On the hillside he talked to the peasants of his time and told them not to worry about tomorrow–a perennial challenge for the poor. (Of course later on he had much harsher things to say to the rich.) He understood what kept them down and the struggle that this represented to them. He spoke of a time that was coming/that already was when things would change.

As far as I can see it is just plain wrong for us to give ourselves permission to categorize the poor–to neglect our real, flesh and blood poor neighbor in the nearby even as we distractedly congratulate ourselves for the largess we bestow on the photo-image–theoretical–poor neighbor in the far away. Am I suggesting we stop “caring” about the poor over there? Of course not–I am merely suggesting we come to grips with what poverty always looks like here and there and gear up for the long walk we need to take to really do something about the dehumanizing forces that shape the lives of the poor–here and there.

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Robb Davis