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A Sojourner’s Lament, Part 1 – Sodom’s Sister

July 15, 2014

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. (Ezekiel 16:49 NIV)

 

As Don Henley of Eagles sings on Business As Usual, we worship at the marketplace. Consumers and capitalists by training and habit, steeped in the belief that more is better, we of the developed countries of the Western world have such an abundance of material commodities around us that scarcity no longer motivates our lives. We want for nothing, but never satisfied with what we have, we constantly clamour for more. But as Jesus pointed out, the more we have, the more we become entangled in the kingdom of the world and the more difficult it becomes to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Arrogantly certain of the superiority of every aspect of our society, cocksure that God is with us (and by inference not with others), we shamelessly market our destructive ideology to the world. Though many deny it, reality is that we dominate the world by extortion, oppression, and exploitation. We enjoy our privilege and are averse to seeing it diminished in any way.

We laud as generosity allowing others the crumbs from our table. We pat ourselves on the back for giving a tiny fraction of what we have to aid the less fortunate, ignoring the fact that rather than going to succour the poor, the lion’s share of what we donate to the proliferation of organizations that compete for our charitable dollars is devoured to finance their bureaucracies. In a similar vein, with much sanctimonious posturing, our governments pledge aid, and then claw it back either directly or through national arms of the aid industry, or even worse, indifferently renege on their promises.

Despite having so much, we brazenly prey upon those who have little. Our foreign aid is linked to provisos that strip recipient countries of their sovereignty, undermine their economies and turn them into our economic vassals. While vociferously condemning other countries for selling us products that may put us at risk, we sanction the export of goods that don’t meet domestic safety standards—hazardous products, unsafe vehicles, expired medications. We tune out the fallout of these predatory practices, turning our back to the suffering of others as long as we are better off.

Our sense of entitlement pervades every aspect of our lives. We expect the most elaborate and expensive attempts to save or even better the lives of our own, while countless thousands of people outside of our circle (some of them those with whom I have shared my life over the past few years) suffer from chronic hunger and malnutrition, are crippled by minor injuries, and die of easily treatable diseases.

 

               The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.

— Paul Farmer

Amid the throes of the Haitian cholera epidemic, death gathered in a crop of almost 8,500. Hundreds of thousands more were hospitalized. Yet the World Health Organization, of which Canada is a member state, balked at the cost of cholera immunization ($2.70 per person according to their own website). It wasn’t until Paul Farmer’s relentlessly committed Partners in Health and the eminent Haitian health organization GHESKIO (world-renowned as the first institution in the world dedicated to the fight against HIV/AIDS) stepped up to the plate that a limited vaccine program got underway. Despite incontrovertible evidence that cholera, unknown in Haiti until October of 2010, was carried to the country by MINUSTAH (the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti)troops and was released into the country’s largest river system by negligent waste disposal practices, the UN has stubbornly refused to take responsibility and has claimed legal immunity against claims for compensation.

Fanatically protective of all we have, we demand vengeance for wrongs against us, both real and perceived. It was in the context of the political and economic rights of the propertied that the church’s initial dogmas of individualism, with imperatives for behavior and property protection, were classically formulated.To this day we are infatuated with property laws that favour the wealthy, but are far less enthusiastic about measures to protect vulnerable people. The bias in favour of wealth is built into every level of our criminal justice system.

As a whole we support law and order politicians who stump for “get tough” policies that are more mean-spirited than tough on crime. As the rules set to keep order become increasingly unmerciful, forgiveness is qualified and requalified, until it bears virtually no resemblance to what Jesus exemplified.

As a society we are beset by fear and loathing of poverty, contemptuous and/or patronizing of those in its grip. A Princeton University study described the prevalent attitude toward the poor as “disgust”, and suggested it is a greater problem than racial prejudice.   As a result, the poor are routinely harassed, bad-mouthed and subjected to repugnant moral rhetoric.

An Angus Reed survey conducted for the Salvation Army’s Dignity Project highlighted the wide gap between public perception of poverty and reality. Many apparently still cling to Victorian attitudes, seeing poverty as a character flaw or a lifestyle choice. According to the survey, a full quarter of us think those on social assistance are just plain lazy; nearly half believe they could quite easily find employment if they wanted to work.

Thus blinkered by the sophism that the poor are the architects of their own misfortune (a convenient untruth that saves us from guilt and allows us to justify our affluence) we deal with poverty largely by criminalizing it. As Anatole French satirically observed over a century ago,

 

In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.

 

Though the crime rate in Canada has been declining over the past two decades, our prison population has burgeoned to an all-time high. We have turned the multi-billion dollar enterprise we refer to by the rank misnomer “corrections” into a dumping ground for all manner of the poor—the homeless, the unemployed, the drug addicted, the mentally ill and the illiterate—not to mention an inordinate number of our visible minorities.

 

The animals, the animals
Trapped, trapped, trapped ‘til the cage is full.

— Regina Spektor,
You’ve Got Time (Orange Is the New Black theme)

Our attitudes are likewise reflected in the draconian nature of the anti-poverty programs in place at every level of government. Unconscionably low assistance payments, far below the poverty line (which itself is less than half the average Canadian’s income), rob society’s most vulnerable people of their health and dignity. The hoops the poor and marginalized must jump through to qualify for, receive and maintain Employment Income Assistance and other benefits are degrading, humiliating and demoralizing. The system is rife with disincentives to work that destroy initiative. It traps people, making it extremely difficult to climb out of dependence. The system is also anti-marriage: under it’s rules a single mother is far better off than she would be if she had a low-income husband.

Jesus is clear in His response to the dehumanizing scourge of poverty and injustice. He wants us to provide practical help for the poor—without qualifications! He doesn’t command us to help just the responsible poor, the Christian poor, the likeable poor, the sober poor, or the hardworking poor, He calls us to love and help everyone—no matter what!

 

If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? (1 John 3:17 NIV).

 

We have lost sight of the reality that by despising, neglecting and maltreating the poor, we are despising, neglecting and maltreating Jesus himself—that whatever we do or fail to do for “the least of these”, we do or fail to do for him (Matthew 25:31-46). If we don’t see him in the poor and needy and value them, we don’t really see him at all.

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