April 2, 2007

Chasing the Dawn

I had the opportunity to help some friends get to the airport today. They were on their way home for a family emergency and needed to get to Louisville - an hour and a half away - for a 6:25am flight down to Texas. The thing about driving at the horrendous hour of 4am is that everything seems to take less time because my mind is a bit slower ... taking the curves on back roads, for example. However, I love driving when it's dark out, especially if it's mindless highway driving. It's cooler, I get the road to myself, and it gives me a chance to listen to music, to think, to reflect.

As has happened so often lately, I ended up thinking about poverty again. It seems that the question of poverty keeps coming up in my life these days. I'm not sure why this is, unless it's God trying to get my ever-elusive attention, but suffice it to say that enough people have brought up conversations relating to this topic that I've spent significant time in thought about it. I was first dismissive, thinking that my gifts are not particularly directed in the direction of alleviating poverty. This view has since gone in the "naiive" pile. Everybody can use their gifts towards poverty elmination, because everybody plays a part in its existence.

The thing you have to understand about poverty is that it's not just about people who don't have enough stuff. Poverty - like everything - is the result of a complex set of interrelated circumstances, and as is often the case, the problem is not actually poverty; poverty is merely a symptom of a greater cancer permeating this planet: human pride, greed, and ultimately, broken relationship. As Rob Bell says, "this is about that."

In the Ultimate Reality, the one intended for this earth, people were not meant to depend solely on themselves; they are meant to be interdependent. We serve others, and the others serve us (though we aren't to serve just so we can be served); instead of everybody fighting for scarce resources, everyone is satisfied AND in relationship with one another. But we don't live in that world.

Anymore. Yet.

The problem is that at some point the Ultimate System broke down; someone decided to do something for herself alone, and then one by one humanity followed suite. It only takes one person to put a kink in the perfect system, which is why it only works when everybody is cooperating; mutual interdependence. I keep wondering how this could ever happen again. Maybe some people can start setting the example and gradually others will catch on. Which is where the church comes in, the model of the alternative, even at our own expense, even if we're taken advantage of by others.

But people have to want the change to happen. Oddly enough, that the best way to introduce change is to get people to help themselves - a paradox. By taking the initiative to help others they help themselves in the long-run. But they have to want it. And often they have to learn it, which is once again where we come in.

Handouts are a good thing sometimes; disaster relief, for example, is compassionate aid at a time when people have no ability to help themselves. But the best way to get them back on their feet is not to give them lots of the finished products - that makes them dependent on you while unable to return the favor. The best way is to help them rebuild their means of providing their own resources. Instead of providing only food, it is better to provide the means of producing food - education, some equipment, and even a market in which to sell or trade goods eventually provide a more sustainable positive long-term outcome.

As I drove home, travelling east, the sun started to rise. I was surprised that it came up as late as it did - 7am, as I was on the final leg of the trip. It had been cold when I got in the car, but I noticed that as I had travelled it had gotten cooler, not warmer. It reminded me that the sun rises when it's darkest and coldest; it doesn't warm up until the sun is up. There's an answer there somewhere.

The problem is that situations have to get worse before they get better. There's no instantaneous solution, and people don't like that, especially people who are suffering. If they're desperate enough, they just might want to embrace a solution that will actually improve their situation for the long-term, but most Americans aren't that desperate; and we tend to ignore the ones who are, or make them more dependent on our handouts. Einstein said that the nature of the solution to a problem is of a different order entirely from the cause of the problem. The solution to poverty is not a matter of material resources, or of redistribution of wealth, it's a matter of initiative; if people - both the poor AND those that could help them - care about the solution and are willing to work for it, it will happen.

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