Will There Be Poor Always?

As I was doing my MOOC study this week, I kept hearing the following lyrics and melody of the song “Everything’s Alright” (from the musical, Jesus Christ Superstar) ringing through my head.  It’s Jesus’ answer to Judas as Mary anoints him with fragrant perfume.”

Surely you’re not saying we have the resources
To save the poor from their lot?
There will be poor always, pathetically struggling
Look at the good things you’ve got!

The story is in three of the four gospels (Matthew 26:11Mark 14:7, and John 12:8).  The synoptics have Mary anointing Jesus’ head; John has her anointing his feet and wiping them with her hair.  This was, like the story of Mary and Martha, one of those times that Jesus praised Mary for her ability to appreciate the presence of God in their midst instead of going about the “ordinary” things, like cooking and cleaning and even giving alms to the poor.  It was also, not so subtly, a foreshadowing of the death of Jesus.  But I have to admit, Jesus’ words, “You always have the poor with you …” have made me wonder … if we could ever really eliminate poverty.

millennium development goalsEradicating extreme poverty and hunger is the first of the United Nation’s eight Millenium Development Goals. The good news is that we are on schedule, well, actually, ahead of schedule, at achieving the radical reduction and near eradication of severe poverty in the next few decades.

The Millennium Development Goals are economic and humanitarian goals set by the United Nations in 2000. The eight goals, have sub-goals and targets in a variety of areas.  One of those sub-goals was to halve the percentage of the world’s population in extreme poverty between 2000 and 2015.  The 50% reduction in people living on less than $1.35 USD per day (the world bank definition of extreme poverty) was achieved in 2012; so we are on target for eliminating extreme poverty in the next couple of decades.

The recent Ebola pandemic brings world media attention to the most poverty stricken region of the world. News like this can fuel fear and despair.  The reality is much more hopeful.

It’s clear Jesus was not making a statement about poverty or its inevitability. Criticizing Mary, by suggesting she sell the jar of myrrh and give the money to the poor, misses the point … Mary’s actions illustrate her devotion to Christ and, perhaps, an intuitive recognition of the death Jesus will soon experience and the hope of what is to come.  Perhaps a subtext is that WE cannot usher in the Kingdom by meager acts of charity?  I doubt Jesus had any idea two millennium later there would be global efforts to eradicate systemic poverty.

Extreme poverty, as defined by the World Bank at a little more than a dollar a day, is not eradicated by giving a handful of change to a homeless man at the busy traffic light, by sharing your lunch with the woman sitting outside your office in the city, or even by donating canned goods to the food pantry.  The war on poverty is won by building infrastructure which allows access to jobs, electricity, communications, transportation and clean water. By helping nations, regions, and other groups of people develop their own capacity for production of food, energy and other goods.  By addressing these larger systemic issues, we can envision a day when poverty is no longer an inevitability.  You’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase, “give a person a fish and they eat for a day; teach a person to fish and they eat for a lifetime.”  Micro-loans through organizations like Kiva.org, advocacy for policies that affect agriculture and fair pay through organizations like Bread for the World, building wells or introducing solar energy through groups like Living Waters of the WorldVillages in Partnership, and Solar Under the Sun … these are ways that members of churches can partner with individuals and villages in developing nations to make an impact.

I read the book, Toxic Charity: How the Church Hurts Those They Help and How to Reverse It, this year.  I have been convinced that the ways some of us have approached mission and charity has ultimately done little to change the systemic issues … in fact, they often promote a piety that praises the work we do more than the God who is ultimately at work in the ushering in of the Kingdom.  I’m hopeful that by working together, Muslim and Christian, Jew and Atheist, Humanist and Hindi … nation to nation and partner to partner … we are, in fact, walking along the Kingdom road.

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