November 16, 2014 by christopherpdavey
The apparent focus on fasting and the “poor and needy” in the most general conference, granted me fresh energy to write on the difficult topic of poverty and responsibility. It is difficult because within the lived experience and discourse on this issue there is so much want, contrasting accumulated material abundance and misplaced judgement by those between the extremes. Addressing those who are pressed upon by serious want, or as President Monson described this last conference, “segments of society, forever downtrodden, deprived of opportunity and left with a feeling of failure,” must be done with an intentional focus on action.
Contributing through fast offerings, one-time donations, or even food bank drives are essential and form the practical foundation of our approach helping those in need. When one has been recipient of the food and other assistance resultant from fast offerings, a unique perspective and gratitude can certainly be developed. At one time or another, and perhaps increasingly so, many who thought themselves safe from the ravages of poverty, are being trapped in the cycle of life experienced by the working poor. To our detriment we often hide these experiences away either out of shame or a sense of Victorian-esque propriety.
In addition to being more open about these experiences, and trials, it is essential for us to overcome the barriers we put between ourselves (perhaps as those who have beyond the bare-necessities) and the poor “other” (those without, whether in silence, or more clearly to the naked eye). Despising the poor, whether as the generic mass characterised as state benefit recipients or those asking for money or food on the streets, or otherwise (as most poverty is invisible), is wholly condemned by the prophets and such condemnation hangs around our necks as consequence of a radical responsibility. A responsibility of giving and loving.
The act of demanding the continued invisibility of the poor, or wishing to perpetuate our own stereotypes of the lazy indolent unemployed, is described aptly in Proverbs as stopping our “ears at the cry of the poor”. Wilfully, we participate in structures and causes within our societies without wanting to consider how we and such institutions and relationships contribute to poverty through tacit or explicit support of oppressive austerity, insufficient taxation of wealth, and incomplete social safety nets. True it is that many love money at the accepted cost of debasing and gratuitous poverty.
A violent, and all too often appropriate imagery used in the scriptures is that of the rich that “grind the faces of the poor”. This is done materially, as the super-rich enjoy and accumulate wealth through immoral means, beyond comprehension, and socially as we celebrate and create a cultural propensity towards the valourization of such wealth. We encourage a sense of self-worth and social identity based on the bling and blitz of celebrity lifestyles and extravagance. The notion of “hard work” getting one anywhere can also be misleading. From the Grapes of Wrath to any in-depth studies on contemporary working poverty, it is plain to see that the lure of endless “work” without meaning and little pay is just as impoverishing as unemployment and hunger. The structural violence of perpetuating these perspectives and consequent framing of the undeserving poor serves only to weigh down those of us covenanted to alleviate such suffering. We grind their faces when we frame and conceptualize the poor as weak and irredeemably dirty.
The retort of “hard work” and discourses on the abuse of welfare benefits build walls of oppression and alienation. This wasted time, resource, and effort must be redirected away from the agendas of those who benefit (or aspire to benefit) from keeping the legal, economic and social boundaries around the accumulation of wealth, by those of us with a radical responsibility for the poor in our hearts. It also is the access to and affordability of higher education, according to our own narratives and contemporary economist Thomas Piketty, that can create pathways out of poverty. This is not about creating more bodies for a low-paid part job market filled by University graduates, but the development of worth, value and knowledge. For Piketty, the “diffusion of knowledge and skill” acts as a convergence force within societies racked by endemic poverty (Piketty, 2013, 21, 484-487). Making higher education as free and as available as possible can empower and transform.
It is all too easy to negatively abstract the poor, or to go to lengths to keep them invisible and out of the public space, however, this is squarely contrary to how the Saviour lived His own teachings. When it comes to the rhetoric of responsibility it is all too easy for us to turn outwards and commit the fallacy of seeking the mote in our brother’s eye, before casting out the beam in others’: “He that oppresseth the poor reproacheth his Maker: but he that honoureth him hath mercy on the poor.”
This responsibility is truly radical because is draws us back to the roots of pioneer Mormonism, and early Christian communities where want was diffused throughout the body of saints through the distribution of resources and wealth. Perhaps the truly honourable, honest fast is where we commit to seeing the poor and impoverished, wherever they may be, as true brothers and sisters and have them at the forefront of our actions, politically, economically, and socially. And realising that within such spheres those impoverished by whatever means are not without of our reach: in a global world, armed with a global gospel Zion is open to all. Indeed without doing this we cannot call ourselves His disciples.
See my recent review of William Vollman’s Poor People. This book challenges international norms of global poverty, with lived experience and interviews.