Blog Action Day 2008: Poverty

October 15, 2008

Evidently over 9,000 blogs will post about poverty today as part of an effort (supported by, among other folks, the U.S. association of Catholic charities, from whom I heard about it) to raise awareness and stimulate people to think about poverty as a soluble problem.

I'm not sure what I think about this idea of ending poverty – when goal fatigue is a problem, a goal with such an exceeding grasp can be worse than nothing. Within a Christian context, leaning on Jesus and (em/pathetically) looking forward to the Day of the Lord when poverty will truly be ended, the goal of ending poverty might make some kind of sense. What Peter calls “speeding the coming” of the Day of the Lord (2 Peter 3). By the grace of God, we might be able to pull together a preview of coming attractions, even if the feature presentation is unimaginable. However, not everyone is operating within that kind of context – not even all the Christians!

So, not so broad as ending poverty: let's start with mitigating American poverty. We're told over and over that our nation is a great one, and I believe it. Also that its wealth is great – and I believe that too, although much of that wealth is in the hands of particular American citizens, and I wonder how many of them would allow us to speak of it (even for rhetorical effect) as “ours.” Still, why criticize the rich for that? I'm sure there is a much vaster number of poor people for whom, in a similar way, the phrase “our wealthy nation” would stick in their throats. They might acknowledge, even boast, that they live in a wealthy nation. To see it as “ours,” however, to truly experience themselves as full citizens, part of the “us,” however, would be a stretch. If by some feat of the moral imagination they consider the nation and all of its wealth “ours,” they would have to contend with the many wealthy people whose imagination does not extend that far.

There's a lot of worthwhile conservative talk to do about how the self-perpetuating interior effects of poverty can be uprooted – that is, how to get people to stop acting in such a way as to worsen their own poverty. There's also a lot to be said for “spreading the wealth around” as McCain put it tonight, i.e. if you want to mitigate the effects of being cash-deprived, go to the people who actually have some cash. That's liberal talk, and I think it's also worthwhile, in this case it's even something I'm qualified to do. I can speak as one affluent American to other affluent Americans, and talk about why we should give a shit and bounce around some ideas of what we can do to help.

There are a few levels I want to talk about.

CARING.

I'm a big believer in art as a way of nourishing and redirecting one's own emotions. Let's take movies, for example. While some folks use well-meaning “issue” films as a kind of economic pornography, voyeuristically discharging some worthy emotions on a fictional or fictionalized situation as a prophylactic against actually changing their lives, there are many others whose consciences are provoked and motivated by an encounter with a story or an image captured by a good movie.

For those of us who continually slip into apathy, and who are habitually consumers of culture, we could do worse than to consume the following. They are all available on Netflix.

1. Rosetta. (1999. dir: Luc Dardenne. 95 minutes.)
2. Born into Brothels. (2004. dir: Ross Kauffman, Zana Briski. 85 minutes.)
3. Not One Less (2000. dir: Zhang Yimou. 106 minutes.)
4. Maria Full of Grace. (2004. dir: Joshua Marsten. 101 minutes.)
5. American Heart. (1993. dir: Martin Bell. 114 minutes.)

PRAYER.

Maybe prayer should come before caring, because if you don't care but think you ought to, then praying to God to change your own heart is a very sensible thing to do. In any case, once you start to care at all you immediately find out how fickle and easily distracted you are. So we all continue to have to pray for our hearts of stone to become hearts of flesh, that is, to insist that God deliver on his promises of restoration for his people. I once heard someone pray, “I want my heart to be broken by the things that break God's heart.” A dangerous prayer but one that bears repeating. Also, I have no doubt that there are those people God uses to move mountains by their prayers, and we should all be vigilant about prayer in case we turn out to be among them.

EDUCATION.

It's my own natural temptation to loiter in this level forever. Nonetheless, it's a must. Ani DiFranco has an early lyric:

he said, “change the channel i got problems of my own
i'm so sick of hearing about drugs and AIDS and people without homes,”
and i said, “well… i'd like to sympathize with that
but if you don't understand then how can you act?”

And there's an interrelationship with the other levels. Understanding gives shape and force to our prayers, as well as direction and vitality to our feelings about people bearing the burden of poverty.

One thing I suggest is finding a handle. If you read a book like David Shipler's The Working Poor it's not long before you see that poverty is a hydra and it can be helpful to find one head out of the writhing multitude and focus on it, so as to meet its baleful gaze head on. Education is one dimension of poverty; hunger another. Ministries to immigrants, to prisoners, to children, to the elderly all have to come at it from a different angle. Go ahead and get situated: no one ever did anything about poverty in the abstract, only about particular people wrestling with particular demons.

As soon as possible, having exercised some selectivity and started reading some books, add to your research diet some eyewitness observation. Find a local program working in your geographical area and in your area of interest and try to get a look at what they do. Just physically stand in the place where things are actually going on. Your body might get a taste of an irresistible new reality.

FUNDRAISING

Raising funds is as simple as using the same machinery you use to pay your bills to send money to people who are taking action in a recognizable way. It can be a lot more complicated too. The idea of taking $20 (as one parishioner did at a church in England) and instead of contributing it to the goal using it to buy ingredients for a bake sale, and simply through bake sales earning over $800 from that original $20 is kind of dizzying. At higher levels of wealth it gets even weirder. In 2006, International Justice Mission raised over $12 million and spent $1.5 million to raise it. So if you take $20 out of your wallet today and figure out a way to turn it into $200 over the next year, you did even better than they did.

DO SOMETHING

This is perhaps the most important and most interesting of all the levels, and I'll say very little about it. I only want to emphasize that most people's logic works like this:

a) I'm crazy busy right now just with what I have on my plate, so
b) I haven't got any time to volunteer or take any action on behalf of others, so
c) if I get myself all riled up about an issue I'll only set myself up for hypocrisy, so
d) I should avoid educating myself about the misery around me, or else
e) if I start to care about it, I'll only make myself miserable.

I believe the way God works in many people's lives is by an entirely alternative logic.

a) I'm crazy busy right now just with what I have on my plate, so
b) I'd better start praying before I forget why I'm doing it all and burn out, and
c) as long as I'm praying I guess I should pray about all the things I feel helpless to change, and
d) while I'm praying about this issue, I guess I can stand to think about it more, so
e) I guess it wouldn't hurt to learn more about it…

And from understanding and compassion to action. By the time you get to action your life has already changed. You don't have to change your whole life in order to take action. The heavy lifting you envision from the other end, that you fear, often just doesn't materialize, because when your heart changes, the distance between you and some righteous behavior you can't admit to aspiring to just doesn't seem all that far. I'm not saying it's effortless, and it can often take a long time. But when Christ called his burden “light,” I think it could be applied quite well to this kind of question: how do we go from being ignorant, or even well-meaning but ineffectual, to actually doing some good? Trying to get your mind around the idea of changing your life to address some of the suffering around you is ass-backward. Cling to God, and let God be the lever that from a small initial motion ends up bringing you places you never expected to find yourself.

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