FOCUS – A global community

by Dr. James ReadI’ve been reviewing the history of Thanksgiving Day, which is not far away…I discovered that the facts belie the comfortable tales that we like to tell ourselves. It was not all sweetness and light between the Plymouth Plantation Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians.

What has become a celebration of material contentment, interpersonal harmony, and football began in the seventeenth century as a somewhat uneasy and short-lived truce between Christian European immigrants and non-Christian natives. To sit down at table with strangers whose ways were so different took genuine effort.

Maybe there’s value in remembering that this year, especially. It’s been an eye-opener to many of us after September 11 to realize how strange other cultures are to us, and to discover that other people find us as strange as we find them. We need to ask how much we know about our fellow human beings, and how much we care.

According to UN reports, there are 1.2 billion people in the world who live on less than $1 a day, and 48 LDCs (“least developed countries”) where the gross domestic product is less than $3 per person per day. In one of the LDCs that has dominated our news recently–Afghanistan–the per capita GDP is about $800 a year. Meanwhile, the comparable figure for the United States is over $36,000. To put it another way, the average American is 45 times as wealthy as the average Afghani. (And that was before the war!)

Other important differences are coupled with differences in wealth. Life expectancy in America is 77; in Afghanistan 45. One-quarter of all children born in Afghanistan die before they turn five. Half of all Afghani children are malnourished. Less than half of the men can read and write–and for women it’s only 16%.

We know that what’s true of Afghanistan can be said about the world in general. If you are poor, you are likelier to be homeless, likelier to go without education, likelier to die young. It may be true that money can’t buy happiness, but the lack of it spells misery.

So what? The key question for Christian conscience is whether it’s wrong, unjust, immoral that some are rich and others are poor.

There are “realists” who will rip Jesus’ words out of context and say, “The poor you have with you always.” Some realists sleep with untroubled conscience; others are simply overwhelmed by the intractability of the situation. All of us have to admit that neither saint nor social program has yet eliminated wealth differentials altogether.

There are those who are comfortable with a “trickle-down” effect. “Look,” they say, “the poor may be poor, but they really have nothing to complain about. They would be poorer than they are now if we didn’t reward the entrepreneurial types who create wealth in the first place. The rich may be richer, but so are the poor.” In his book The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Fogel argues that just about everyone in the industrialized world is getting richer.

There are even those who go further and say that the poor (or many of them anyway) deserve to be poor and the rich (or many of them) deserve to be rich.

I can’t dismiss these arguments out of hand; and yet…

And yet, the much more compelling voices inside me cry out not to be complacent. William Booth, confronted with the evidence of mass poverty in Victorian England, issued a manifesto, his “Cab Horse Charter.” The fact that people were poor, some of them because of their own doing perhaps, was not to go unchallenged. People deserve secure access to food, shelter and work, Booth insisted, and he would fight to the end for that.

While no one in England today (or the USA or Canada, for that matter) may suffer the sub-human conditions Booth saw, the same cannot be said for everyone on earth. There’s still a need for his “charter.” I think a key part of Booth’s success was in helping his audience see England’s poor as their fellow citizens. And I think that’s part of what is needed today. We talk glibly about the global community, but how can it be a community–a place in which we have a common sense of the common good–while some have not enough to eat and many die before school age? To be complacent in the face of such facts is to say that these people don’t really count, they aren’t really our “neighbors.” And as soon as we say that the voice in our conscience should not be a whisper but a shout! As Paul said, Jesus’ mission was to break down the walls of division, to bring together the haves and the have-nots, and to create in himself one new humanity. (Ephesians 2)

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