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Struggling in the Rat Trap

October 18, 2014

While I was visiting Môle Saint-Nicolas, the historic harbour at the extreme western tip of Haiti’s northern finger, I poked around in the ruins of Fort George. This imposing stronghold survived a 3-year siege early in the 19th century damaged but relatively intact, but sitting at very water’s edge, more than two hundred years of relentless waves and weather off the Windward Passage have colluded to further weaken its seaward wall, bringing more of it crashing down onto the beach. I have come to see this as a metaphor for my experience of Haiti, beliefs I considered unassailable undermined and laid waste.

Haiti lifted to my consciousness a fresh lens through which things I had long viewed through a glass darkly came into focus with jarring clarity. It revealed some deeply disturbing truths—about myself, the theology I approved, the society in which I have lived my life, and the way the entire world functions—truths that before Haiti had been all too easy to ignore. But no longer.

The obscenity of Haiti (and other impoverished nations) is the upshot of avarice. There is no shortage of anything in the world; God provides sufficient for all. The problem is apportionment. It is precisely the economic system that makes us so wealthy that sentences others to a life of grinding poverty in which, paradoxically, tomorrow is unpredictable but the future never changes. For them, poverty is simply, as blogger Sarah Kendzior put it, punishment for the crime of living.

It troubles me that in our affluent society, Christians and non-Christians alike rush headlong in the unfettered pursuit of wealth, consumerist greed leaving little for “the least of these” at home or abroad. It’s so easy to ignore the wreckage left in the wake of our acquisitiveness, to disparage the poor as lazy, imprudent, extravagant and inefficient, and therefore deserving of their poverty. While I truly believe most people in wealthy nations support the ideals of equality and justice, and are even willing to give a few dollars toward those ends, I don’t doubt for an instant that they would consider sheer insanity the notion of making the sacrifices necessary to level the global economic playing field. We’ve got it good; why should we give it up? The conviction we hold of our own superiority, our sense of entitlement to our “hard-earned” wealth that is in reality created in large part by those in poverty, is a useful hypocrisy allowing us to callously relegate others to the far edges of life.

That’s certainly not what Jesus modelled. That’s not the way of the Kingdom. Christianity is centered on the subversive power of sacrificial love, not the seductive power of wealth. If there is anything that my experience of Haiti did for me, it was to radically shift the demarcation between my wants from my needs, a line almost totally obliterated by our consumer culture, and to rescue me from that culture’s understanding of the term “abundance” as more stuff. The people among whom I lived in Haiti evidenced the deep truth of the words of Jesus, “Blessed [happy] are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”. Their love-filled sharing frugality demonstrated that true joy is poor in possessions but rich in friendship and gratitude. Indeed that joy finds its truest happiness in unselfish human service, sacrifice, and unstinting love for our neighbours, enemies, and selves.

Faced with the moral conundrum of my own culpability in self-servingly tuning out passages of scripture that do not fit the consumerist worldview, I have, I believe, translated as Evelyn Underhill puts it “the squirrel-work of the industrious brain” to the “piercing vision of the desirous heart”, but subsequently converting that vision into practical reality is proving to be a quantum leap.  Our economic system is like the glue traps I used to catch the rats that plagued my home in Haiti. The more the rat struggles to escape, the more entrapped it becomes. The only way to tear away is to leave part of itself behind. I have been contemplating just what that means for me.

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