Sunday, June 24, 2007

Using the Poor

It seems like social justice is becoming trendy—at least among a certain crowd. There are lots of new books about revolutions, rebuilding under-resourced communities, alternative living with the poor. All these join the line of folks like John Perkins who have been working in community development for decades. Why this interest? I think that it taps into a major part of what’s wrong with our wealthy, selfish, society and maybe has awakened people to the fact that we can’t live the way we want without affecting others in our city and even across the globe.

I love this interest in poverty and issues of justice, but I am concerned that we not jump so quickly on the bandwagon that we do damage to others. Are we so eager to prove that we are “hip” with the poor that we organize 1-day work projects and sling our arms over the shoulder of someone we don’t know in order to show our friends how helpful and servant-like we are? What about the person in the photo after the day-long work project? Do you continue to call her? If not, if you don’t even know her name, then you have no right whatsoever to prop her up like some kind of decoration in your shiny self-image of savior to the poor.

I understand the impulse to help, but I believe our desire to have something back, something that reflects well on us, is full of the same kind of selfishness and superiority that we are trying to fight against. Culture weeds its way deeply into our hearts and we must every day again cut away the illusions to the ugly truth of what we really are.

The long-term, committed relationship that brings real change in the lives of others is a hard, labor-intensive, and often pain-filled journey. Many times with nothing like a happy ending—quite the opposite. So why do it? Because people deserve the honor of being more than a nameless prop in our photo albums. Because we ourselves cannot hope to be more than shallow props unless we risk living deeply with others.

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