i have just started reading a book called ‘With Justice for All’ by John Perkins, who was very much involved in the American Civil Rights movement and who i got to listen to at a CCDA conference when we were in Americaland.
This first passage, although speaking about his country, resonated with much of what we see, feel and experience in South Africa. His definition of poverty is one i wish all of those who still struggle with the idea of ‘white privilege’ could hear and really reflect upon:
‘”We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” With these words the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America holds out the noble promise of justice for all. Yet the very signing of this landmark of human freedom betrayed its own promise. For among its signers stood men who at that very moment owned other men. Justice for all didn’t really mean justice for all; it meant justice for some. The “inalienable” right of liberty belonged only to the privileged.
To this day our nation has not lived up to its goal of justice for all. Would anyone claim that a child trapped in the ghetto [for South Africa, read township – brett] has equal access to quality education as his suburban counterpart? Would anyone claim that the teenage girl in the ghetto has the same chance of getting a summer job as the girl from an affluent family? Or that the ethnic young adult, deprived of good education and job experience, has an equal chance of making it in the American job market?
Poverty, you see, is much more than lack of money: poverty is the lack of options. For millions in our land there is not justice. For them, “equal opportunity” is at best an elusive dream: at worst a cruel taunt. ‘
tbV still works for Common Change, which is an online platform that helps groups of friends to pool money together and then meet needs of people who they know and care about. i was working with them when i was in Americaland as well and one of the stories our boss, Darin, shared with us that was part of the founding of what became Common Change was the following:
When Darin was in Cuba, one day he was sitting with a friend on the sidewalk and they were trying to figure out a definition of poverty. His friend turned to him and said, “Imagine if your bank account was completely cleaned out, you lost your job and your house all in the same day. How long before you get your first meal? How long before you have a place to sleep? And how long before you have a new job?
Darin thought for a minute and then responded, “I would not miss a meal. I would have a place to sleep by tonight. And depending on the economy and the possibilities I would more than likely have a new job in a couple of weeks.” His friend looked at him and asked, “How did this happen?” Darin responded, “I called someone.”
They decided on one possible definition [which I think falls nicely alongside John Perkins’ one] of Poverty as being: When you have no-one to call. The idea of economic and social isolation.
Both of those probably help us have a better grasp of the limitation of poverty. But what about the responsibility for those of us who are not there? This second passage from John’s book helps me with that, especially as a follower of Jesus. In this passage, John is speaking about a community he moved to that had some strong racial issues:
Medenhall was overrun with the very kinds of needs the church was so strategically positioned to meet. The people had become resigned to their plight: the church could inspire hope. The promising young people were leaving the community while only the unmotivated were staying: the church was in a position to train young leaders. The public schools were struggling to provide an adequate education: the church could create a tutoring program or a pre-school. About the only recreational facilities for youth in Medenhall were the honky-tonks: the church could plan wholesome youth activities.
That was just the beginning. Our people desperately needed better nutrition, housing, child care, employment, and more. Creative, visionary leadership from the church could mobilise the people to tackle each of these problems head on.
To bring true freedom though, church leaders would not only have to be strong and creative, they would also have to be true to the gospel. They would have to stand not for some form of reactionary separatism but for reconciliation with our white brothers and sisters. Howard Snyder is right on target when he asserts:
‘Reconciliation with God must be demonstrated by genuine reconciliation within the Christian community and by a continuing ministry of reconciliation in the world. This means that in each local Christian assembly reconciliation must be more than a theory and more than an invisible spiritual transaction. Reconciliation must be real and visible. Racial and economic exploitation and all forms of elitism… must be challenged biblically. Unholy divisions in the body of Christ must be seen as sin and worldliness (1 Cor. 3.3-4)’
A local church fellowship living out a gospel which burns through racial barriers could bring freedom to blacks and whites alike. With the Spirit’s power and the wholehearted cooperation of the people, our faith could make Mendenhall a different place.’
Perhaps the biggest problem with poverty is that it doesn’t affect me. And so it’s not my problem. It’s easy enough for me to look the other way. To pretend i don’t see the man at the traffic light. To choose not to drive past the shacks. To hide behind my walls and my security and indulge in whatever aspect of the-wealth-i-refuse-to-name-as-wealth is my particular comfort and luxury. If i can do it with other people, all the better because surely if it’s not a pressing issue for them it’s not an issue for me.
Unless overcoming poverty is not a task of charity [a bonus act] but a an act of justice [a necessary task]. Unless it is not natural and was actually perpetrated on certain people and not on others. Unless it can be eradicated by the actions of human beings. Perhaps in that case i am part of the generation that is being called to be great.
And so are you.