Sunday, March 2, 2014

Can There Be Justice Where There Is Such Poverty?

James 4:17: So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

As I work and travel to pay for my daily bread I have noticed there is more heartbreak in the boulevards. An expanding atmosphere of anxiety and painful ambivalence. More of my brothers and sisters breathe desperate breathes and claw in darkness for something to hold onto as a dark planet swirls beneath their feet.

God creates trials for all of us and no one's road is easy, but the collective terror I sense is not that of existential dread but of genuine despair at contemporary circumstance. Despair at the failure of our country and society to deal with our economic problems that leave so many living on the razor's edge and unable to find peace.

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said "True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice." Do we have justice in our land?

I would not presume to claim to understand all the ins and outs of an economy as large and complex as America's. I have a limited education and even more limited understanding of the tidal forces that pull and push earthly wealth to its various destinations. But it is clear something has changed in our fair country as the average citizen seems further and further away from the commanding heights of the economy and closer and closer to ruin.

For some this is of no concern, for them the desire to escape economic humiliation is not only a necessary incentive to encourage labor but a vindication of God's promise that life itself shall always be a struggle. For as it is said in Genesis 3:19 "By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Struggle in this life, happiness in the next.

And so it has been for me. I have labored and through the strain and sweat I have been fully blessed with always having bread on the table. Truthfully, I could even stand to lose a few pounds. Yet, there is a world outside one's own experiences and my sense of others' heartbreak is only reinforced when I see the evidence.

  • The Center For Children In Poverty reports "16 million children in the United States – 22% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level – $23,550 a year for a family of four. Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 45% of children live in low-income families."
  • The Federal Reserve reports that in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and recession "Most families have recovered much less than the average amount." Over 60% of the wealth recovery has been due to higher stock prices 80% of which are owned by the richest 10% of Americans.
  • The US Census reports "The nation's official poverty rate in 2012 was 15.0 percent, which represents 46.5 million people living at or below the poverty line."

There is no peace nor absence of tension for those struggling in that poverty. What about their justice? Can there be justice where there is such poverty?

My typical response to seeing desperation and poverty has been to give my time and resources to those heeding Jesus' call to love thy neighbor as thyself by giving direct assistance to the poor and needy. I do not consider this to have been a wasted effort, it was always a joyous experience and I never felt the sting of regret when I realized I was unable to purchase something because I had given those funds to those in need. Quite the opposite, I felt good, probably even better than I would have felt had I purchased the silly trinket I was coveting.

But while charity has immense value, it seems outmatched for our present conditions. There must be something beyond the individual and small groups. It is not getting the job done, likely because charity is not the only answer, the answer is justice. As Augustine said "Charity is no substitute for justice withheld."

So what is to be done? I do not know exactly, but it seems the place to start is to look at what we can do together, as a society, to help ameliorate poverty, to bring peace through the presence of justice.

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