Poverty is Not the Problem.
As I sat in the audience at the Justice Conference this weekend, speaker after speaker cited poverty as the source of all the injustice in this world. But the more I listened to these respected experts, the more I felt their diagnosis was wrong.
More often than not, we mistake symptoms for problems. We believe our symptoms to be the end-all-be-all of the disease, when those are merely the outward manifestation of the problem itself. In reality, the true disease lies further up and further into the complex survey of the problem holistically. Though we are unaware, there is something deeper than what we are seeing, and it is at the core that we discover the source of life-threatening disease.
When we delve into the injustices of the world - trafficking, racism, and so on - we can see that poverty is certainly a unifying problem. But poverty is not the problem. If we look even closer, we see that poverty is merely a symptom of the disease of our broken human nature.
Our problem is that we are human beings, and by definition we are imperfect and fully broken. Because of our brokenness, we do not realize our utter devastation and desperate need for a perfect God, but instead break the first commandment by establishing idols in our lives that we believe will dually fulfill our greatest need for love, completion, and belonging. In simple terms, idolatry is the artificial attempt to fill a hole that can only be filled by the love and grace of a relationship with God, our Creator and Lord. It is the cardinal sin, and every human being is guilty of it, non-believers and Christians alike (see Romans 1:18-3:20). It happens when I elevate myself to God. It happens when a man seeks satisfaction in buying sex or watching pornography. In the end, it is like trying to fill a leak in a dam with a sponge. It can easily form to the shape of the aperture and block it momentarily, but soon absorbs the overflow, becoming soaked in the deluge it was intended to fix, which renders it ineffective.
In short, an impoverished heart, fed on temporal things of this world, yields a multitude of injustices: pride, greed, racism, sexism, or seeking power. Every unjust thing we see is a byproduct of spiritual poverty, which is, in turn, a byproduct of a violation of God's primary commandment: Thou shalt not have any other god before me.
Poverty (both physical and spiritual) and every injustice are the diseases that result from our breaking of the first commandment. This is why we turn to food to comfort us, sex to satisfy us, gossip to include us. And this is why we feel just as empty as we did (if not more so) after the fact than we did before. These may be trivial examples, but the injustice of the man who pays for sex is motivated by the same needs and longings as I am when I make harsh snap judgments about others out of pride (albeit they are expressed to differing degrees).
As human beings, we are all culpable, guilty of injustice. How, then, are we to strive toward reconciliation? As with anything else, awareness is key. What topics of injustice speak most to you? Take note of those whisperings in your intuition and follow that trail. Also notice your own thought and behavioral patterns that promote injustice in your own world, and take steps to make reparations.
Second, let us be people of action. Too often we go about our lives passively. However, to be passive is to condone injustice, allowing it to flourish. We must be bold in stepping out and making way for our voices to recalibrate social norms and how the world works.
Just after the Justice Conference ended, I took a walk to Lake Michigan with one of my group members. We'd literally just been discussing what actions we could take to address the injustices we are passionate about. I was explaining how my heart broke in my breakout pre-conference session on human trafficking and how we need to teach our children to respect each other by modeling respectful behavior to women in particular (I could write so much more, but I'll save that for a separate post) when we started approaching two guys. Somehow I had a gut feeling about what was about to happen, and as they passed, the guy closest to me brushed against me and cat-called, "Hey, baby." My stomach lurched and my hands clenched tighter into the fists that had been forming in the coming seconds. But I didn't do anything. Instead of jumping to action, I walked on, in so doing, sending the message that what he did was okay, even though it was a clear violation of respect and boundaries. In fact, it was sexual harassment. The further I walked away from the altercation, the more I regretted my passive endorsement of his repugnant belief about me as a piece of unrespectable ass. Admittedly I lost a lot of sleep over it (despite my ridiculously early flight the next morning), wishing I'd stood up in empowerment to make my case for myself and women everywhere.
Third, we can throw money at the crisis of poverty, but until we reach the hearts of the spiritually impoverished, we will continue to be ineffective. It requires energy and creative thinking, but I wholeheartedly believe that there is nothing like seeing the divine in our enemies and everyone around us to spur us onto connecting to others. Okay, how do I pour into the lives of the people committing these injustices? I was stumped too, and was filled with anger thinking of all the men and women who have contributed to the crisis of sex trafficking (let me point out that the pornography industry is one in the same with sex trafficking). They make me sick, and I wish I could condemn them for all the pain they have caused. But I realized that all I can do to intervene in their lives is to pray for them. It's the single hardest prayer I've ever prayed, but who knows what God will do with my request? I'll never know, but it could be the difference between a repeat offender and a contrite spirit that changes his or her ways forever.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of bringing about justice is the overwhelming realization that injustice is everywhere. How can I, just one individual out of billions, do anything to help? Think of yourself as a drop of water. You have the choice to pour your energy into the bucket of passive endorsement or active combat. Either way, you choose to either fill the bucket of condoning injustice or of ridding the world of it. Your actions matter. Which bucket will you help fill?