It’s poverty awareness month, something that slipped by me until I couldn’t look past all those posts on the “9 things you need to know about poverty” (i.e., that the poor in America have flat screen TVs and the government spends way too much money on them–cue the quiet rage eyes). It’s been 50 years since that one old white guy said he was waging a war on poverty, and wouldn’t you know it, things have gotten better and worse and really stayed the same.
I’m no expert but I do have skin in the game. as in, I know plenty of flesh-and-skin poor people, am surrounded by them, am drowning in them, I have barbecues with them, learn the ABCs with them. And from here I don’t really think we need a war on poverty, nor do need any more ideologies arguing against each other. We don’t need to cut all government programs nor flood them with more cash, we don’t even necessarily need more “awareness”, educating ourselves about budgets and programming or anything like that.
What we need is to wage a war on class divisions.
And that, of course, is much harder to do. You can’t force people to interact with those who are different from them, you can’t force love and community and awkward parties when it is all so much easier and nicer to eat the food you always eat with people who look and think and act like you. Our tendency to stick tight with our own also has the added benefit that the other becomes the Other, the demonized, the entitled lazy poor, the evil greedy capitalists.
I watched a documentary the other day called The Belief in the Other Man’s Wallet. It’s a movie about our moral obligation to the poor (a damning phrase if there ever was one). The documentary, while not explicitly Christian, does interview quite a few people who believe that Jesus wants us to help the poor (people like Tony Campolo, for instance) and the director comes from a Christian background. I asked the director, Peter Garriott, if it was intentional that he interviewed so many Christians in his documentary. Why was that, I wanted to know. He responded: “There are a lot of Christians who are rethinking how to alleviate poverty. Unfortunately, a significant amount of people who attempt to alleviate poverty but don’t know what they’re doing are… Christians.”
The film shows various different perspectives on how to alleviate poverty (I really liked that there were differing perspectives, forcing the viewer to see how complex the situation really is) but my favorite part might have been the eerie shots of the filmmakers asking people in America questions about poverty. These “man-on-the-street” interviews are usually edited for brevity and clarity, but here the filmmaker leaves in the awkward silences, the stares, and the complete and total unease we as Westerners feel when being asked about poverty and our own role in it.
Be it waging war or talking about wallets, we are still far from solving the crisis of inequality in our world. Every day I see evidences of this. I am on a journey of breaking through the barriers of class that have perhaps unknowingly defined too many lives for much too long. If everyone in your life–your church, your play group, your blogroll, your school–looks and acts and thinks just like you, it might be time to start branching out, to intentionally become the outsider for once. You guys, it’s super fun and super awful.
I have met Christ, here, in the uncomfortable places. I have been asked if I love my neighbor, the neighbor I am least likely to understand, and I have stared blankly back in fear and guilt and confusion. And I have been led, by a love greater than myself, to move past the point of dwelling on unanswerable questions and to start living life with the marginalized.
How do we solve a problem like poverty? I am not waging a war, and I am not convinced wallets are going to do much good here either.
But having skin in the game might.
From the website, here is the introduction to the film:
Imagine you’re walking through a park on your way to work. Across the way, a small boy is drowning in a pond. You could wade into the pond and save the child, but you’re wearing a $200 pair of shoes and rather not ruin them. So you pass by the child, allowing the boy to drown.
The reasonable response to such a story is moral outrage. But noted philosopher and Princeton Professor Peter Singer argues you’re just as guilty when you purchase luxury items. Instead of going on vacation or even buying a $5 latte, you could donate the money to a non-profit that provides vaccines, medicine, or other life saving treatments to one of the 8 million children who die each year from preventable diseases. Choosing not to purchase a $5 cup of coffee could save a child’s life.`
To some, Singer’s solution appears too simple. There are too many steps between a small purchase at a coffee shop and a hungry child in the slums of Kenya. To others, the solution is as simple as donating used clothes, buying a pair of TOMS shoes, or traveling to Haiti to help build new homes and schools. But do these solutions help or only reflect an American understanding of prosperity?
If you would like more information/to purchase The Belief In The Other Man’s Wallet please click here*.
*I was given a promotional screening of the film. Which is one of the very, very few perks of this whole blogging gig.