Who are the Poor?
This post is a part of a series to examine the interface between the Church and poverty. With any complicated issue, I have advanced ground rules for the discussion which essentially ask for respectful conversation.
If we are talking about how the Church reacts and responds to people in poverty, then it can be most helpful to get a sense of who the Poor actually are. We have to wonder if it makes sense to speak of “the Poor” and on what grounds that particular label is helpful. I do not claim to know everything around this topic so I would like to start our discussion by taking a look at this recent short prepared for FOCUS North America:
We start with this assertion: “The most powerful icon that all of us have and we see every single day is the icon that is a human person because we have been made as an icon, or as an image, of God.” This opening claim brings us right back to Genesis where we hear that God creates human beings according to His image and likeness. People will say, something to the effect of “Yeah, yeah, made in God’s image. Check. Got it. I’m good.” Woah! Wait!!!! Back up!!!!!!!! We are talking about the imago Dei, a concept that has caused our heads to spin since it was first uttered. How can it possibly be true that we, in all our weakness, can possibly make manifest the image of the invisible God???
And it is in that question and basis that we find the nature of our poverty. In that question, I find the nature of my poverty. In my willingness to move past that incredibly early and revealed truth from God about who He says I am, I encounter first-hand the depths of my poverty. If we speak about “the Poor” categorically, then we find that all humans share in a profound experience of poverty. It is not easy to start with ourselves and realize the depths of our poverty and vulnerability. We prefer to shift the burden elsewhere…
We shift the burden towards the people we label as “the poor” (in this case I have shifted to the use of a small “p”). These poor stand out within our social discourse as they have a significant lack of physical resources. Generally, these poor live very far away from us. As such, we comfortably remove ourselves from the plight of the poor, preferring instead to allow poverty to be someone else’s problem. A frequent move in developed Western societies is to declare that the government must work to address the plight of the poor. Another frequent move is to look towards voluntary (often financial) contribution to a charitable cause. Both approaches have merit; yet both approaches tend towards identifying specialists who deal with the poor. These specialists in many ways act as a buffering agent to preserve distance between us as individuals and the people we label as “the poor”
Yet I think this distancing actually blocks us from knowing who the poor are. Looking at the video (yes, watch it… 1 minute of your time), there’s a different image advanced about the poor. For starters, all of the people pictured live in the communities where the people who made the video live as well. The other thing that can be seen is that people sit alongside of others. Therefore, I try to use a working definition that “the poor” are the real-life, flesh-and-blood persons who I see in my daily life that awaken the cry of my humanity that something is not right in the world around me owing principally to an appreciable material lack.
This definition differs from the conventional definition of the poor which defines the poor as those without possessions or wealth. Two things separate my definition from the conventional definition: 1) an acknowledgment of the humanity of the poor and 2) an articulation of my personal involvement.
I have found that my experiences with people with poverty have challenged my thinking, both regarding what it means to be poor and what it means to be Poor. One thing that I have noticed is that involvement with poverty tends to be a long-term experience. There seems to be no shortage in things that need doing. In the next post, I plan to address why addressing poverty tends to require long-term efforts.