Week 10, Day 2: Poverty
The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.
- Bryan Stevenson
I have lived in what I think are some of the most beautiful and engaging cities in the world: Hong Kong, with its stunning skyscrapers and dazzling fireworks displays over the harbor; London, with its history and diverse, multicultural character; Los Angeles, with its Pacific Ocean beaches, balmy weather, and culture of creativity; and Washington, DC, with its appeal to do good and make a difference, seat of so many impactful events and decisions. I have always been drawn to cities because it is there that I have gotten to see the ways that different people, cultures, and communities come together — sometimes in conflict but oftentimes through conflict into friendship, camaraderie, and collaboration for the common good.
Cities are also the places where wealth and income inequality is the greatest. As of 2017, Hong Kong ranked among the global leaders in life expectancy, per capita gross domestic product, exports and imports, with a stellar public transportation system; and in 2016, it was estimated that nearly ten percent of the population (nearly 60,000 people) were millionaires. However, Hong Kong also has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world and easily the highest rate in Asia. The city has some of the most expensive real estate (a recent study estimated that a family “would on average need to save up for 21 years without spending a single dollar to afford a home in the city”) even as thousands of poor people live in cage homes measuring only 16 square feet.
DC is not much different. The DC metro area is home to several of the highest-earning counties in the United States and property values continue to rise. And yet inequality in DC is some of the highest in the nation, with nearly a third of children in the city living below the poverty line. Think about that for a moment: in the shadow of the White House and the US Capitol, where momentous decisions are made that impact the world and the country, nearly one in three children live below the poverty line. Moreover, wealth and poverty are concentrated by geography and race.
What are we to do about such systemic issues? What can we do about such overwhelming issues? What can we do when gentrification, for example, feels like an inexorable economic wave that, instead of improving a city for all of its residents, can end up pricing out the poorer, longtime residents and pushing them out of the homes their families have lived in for generations?
READ: LUKE 10:25-37
There isn’t one set answer, one precise action, or just one solution to the problem. Nor is it simply an individual response. But each of us has a responsibility to our neighbors. In Luke 10, Jesus was asked what ‘the good life’ looked like (my reading of the lawyer’s question) and he responded with the greatest commandments.
But, Luke continues: “Looking for a loophole, [the lawyer] asked, ‘And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?’” (Luke 10:29, The Message). In other words, he realized that the greatest commandments don’t allow us to shrug our shoulders at anyone’s misfortune, and wanted to figure out what the minimum was that he could do and still be considered righteous. But Jesus, in telling the story of the Good Samaritan, emphasizes that anyone who is in need is our neighbor, whom we are to love.
Any Christ-centered, kingdom-advancing, gospel-spreading response to poverty, then, must include our own individual attitudes as well as our engagement in becoming aware of the causes and solutions to addressing it, which Christians and non-Christians of good faith can disagree on even as we work toward a common goal and the common good. What we cannot do is throw up our hands and say we didn’t know. After all, Jesus himself said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20, NIV).
I’ve heard some folks reference Matthew 26:11 (Jesus saying, “You always have the poor with you”) as a way of communicating how poverty will always be a problem and we can’t really make a difference. But Jesus was actually referencing Deuteronomy 15:11, which his hearers would likely have known: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land’” (NRSV). The existence of the poor is not an excuse to be stingy but a call to generosity and to justice. How might we live toward that?
Basil of Caesarea was a bishop, who lived in the fourth century in what is modern-day Turkey. His words continue to prick my conscience, and I share them not to guilt-trip you but to invite the Holy Spirit to challenge and convict us in the ways we need:
When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need. Thus, however many are those whom you could have provided for, so many are those whom you wrong.
REFLECT & RESPOND
Head: What is your experience with people who are poor?
Heart: What are you tempted to do in the face of poverty? Think about this in terms of individuals you know or encounter who may be poor as well as systems and structures of poverty.
Hands: Proverbs 19:17 says, “Those who are gracious to the poor lend to the LORD, and the Lord will fully repay them.” How might you be kind to the poor?
Lord, give justice to those who are poor. And may I be useful in that work. Amen.
"The opposite of poverty is
not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."
- Bryan Stevenson