May 16, 2007

Power to the People

I've been contemplating the problems of power and poverty all semester, and it sort of came to a head in my final paper for KCW. Here it is, in all its confusion. Enjoy.

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There has been a growing movement in the past several decades among many that call themselves followers of Jesus to move towards a more socialist construct of economics and government in the United States, motivated by an increased awareness of the poor and impoverished. Those in poverty are oppressed by the current system, say these Christians, and so the system has to change. Capitalism is the root of the problem, a system that encourages competition and thus encourages people to distrust one another rather than help. The capitalist system makes the rich richer and the poor poorer through its quiet movement towards consumerism, building vast wealth for a few on the backs of the many – the poor in our own country as well as many others. As a side-effect, a consumerist middle-class forms that desperately seek to work their way into the ranks of the wealthy; if they succeed, they are lauded as successes, but more often, they join the ranks of the many in poverty. Socialism, to these Christians, is the answer, for it takes the poor seriously. They maintain that more government programs can provide aid to those who need it, that salary caps for each job make it possible that all are paid fairly and are not allowed to acquire vast wealth. These are among the many claims made by these Christians as part of the socialist solution to combating poverty.

There is another set of Christians of an older variety that believe that continued faith in Capitalism is the key to solving the poverty of the world. According to these Christians, trickle-down economics will work if we simply hold out long enough and make sure that malevolent outside forces – the forces of socialism, communism, terrorism, and the like – are held at bay or defeated so that capitalism and democracy can prosper. They assert that it is not capitalism’s fault that the poor are marginalized, that the fault lies completely with the poor for not taking part in the system, for being lazy instead of working hard. Even so, malevolent outside forces must be expunged for the danger they present to the poor in other countries; these governments must be removed and replaced with democratic capitalist regimes that will begin to allow for equal competition, to allow the poor to work side-by-side with the rich for the betterment of their nation and ultimately for the world.

Both groups have mistakenly put their faith in a human system rather than in the God they claim to follow. Socialism is no better than capitalism or Marxism: the appeal of all systems, whether explicitly or by inference, lay in the suggestion that they will give power to the masses in some form. For the socialists, the power is given to the people in the assurance that everyone will receive his fair wage and a communal power through the “justice” administered to those that have held power until now (by removing their power). Capitalism purports to give power to the people through their own individualism; by working hard, it says, you might move up in the world – you control your own destiny. Additionally, communism, like socialism, gives a communal power to the lowly masses, claiming that they will now direct the rich to do their bidding .

But all of these systems deceive. In the capitalist system, the workers become fierce competitors who work for their own benefit at any cost, even at the expense of others. People other than themselves become tools to be used or burdens to be cast aside . In the socialist system, it is the laws that become oppressive; as human nature takes over, more laws are “needed” and thus created, gradually removing freedom and eventually becoming so rigid and stagnant that it is better for the individual or the family to be poor and receive benefits and handouts than it is to work for money which is then taken by taxation and redistributed to the many; inevitably, a worker will do the least amount of work possible, but still receive exactly the meager wages he has been promised.

However, while all human systems have their obvious deceptive flaws, they are not necessarily wrong on every count. Socialism is quite right in making the plight of the poor a concern for those who are not themselves poor, though its practical solution ultimately contributes to the problem rather than solving it; instead of treating the cause, it treats the symptoms. Capitalism is likewise employed well in its emphasis on effort, encouraging people to work hard for their material and social goods. However, it is the competition between workers that causes capitalism to fail, pitting people against one another to such a degree that they begin to put their faith in the material resources and their own abilities rather than in the collective effort of their community. Solutions likewise treat the symptoms rather than the problems, and often capitalism will move in the direction of socialism. There is a profound imbalance in both – and I would contend, all – systems that claim that the effort of people alone, by law or by hard work, is enough to alleviate poverty.

What most fascinates me is the way that poverty is an outgrowth of this phenomenon of imbalance. When all parts of a society are not functioning together as a unified whole, in mutually interdependent harmony, those with more material goods begin to consume an increasing number of resources, which by necessity come from those who have little to begin with. This is a natural consequence of both capitalism and socialism; even in socialism, some are ‘more equal than others.’ Yet poverty is not just about people who do not have enough material or even social goods; that some have more than others is not itself the tragedy, but that those who have the least suffer. Poverty itself is not the ultimate problem; rather it is a mere symptom of the greater cancer permeating this planet: pride, the source of greed, selfishness, and arrogance. In the Ultimate Reality originally intended for this earth, people were not meant to depend solely on themselves, but to be interdependent. We were to serve others, and the others serve us; instead of everybody fighting for scarce resources (either individuals or communities against one another).

We no longer live in that world; human pride, starting in a broken relationship, made sure of that. The Ultimate Reality broke down when Eve was lured into doing something for herself alone, and then one by one, starting with Adam, humanity followed suite. It took one free person to put a kink in the perfect system, a system designed to work only when everyone was freely cooperating. I often wonder if the system could be restored. Perhaps if there were a group of people who were to start modeling the example, in time others might catch on. This is where the church comes in; to be the model of the alternative, even at our own expense, even if we're taken advantage of by others.

For this new economy – the Economy of God – to be brought to fruition, people will have to want the change to happen. Paradoxically, the best way to introduce positive, workable change is to teach people to, in a manner of speaking, help themselves: by taking the initiative to help others (a social change as much as a spiritual and physical change), a person helps himself in the long-run. But he has to want it, to care about it more than his own initial comfort. Often he must learn how to serve (as it is not an instinctive response, hence the current poverty crisis), which is once again where the church comes in, the model of servanthood to the world, an imitation of Christ himself. It is the realization of the responsibility engendered from the freedom God has given us that we find the solution to poverty.

Handouts can sometimes be a good thing; disaster relief, for example, is compassionate aid at a time when people have no ability to help themselves. But the best way to get people back on their feet is not to give them lots of the finished products – that makes them dependent on the relief worker, whilst unable to return the favor and thus learn to serve. The best way to help people is to help them rebuild their means of providing their own resources. For example, instead of providing only food, it is better to provide an interim supply while teaching them the means of producing food – education, startup equipment, even a market in which to sell or trade goods – eventually provides a more sustainable positive long-term outcome.

Ultimately, our difficulty with this model is that we do not like that there is no instantaneous solution. A colleague of mine worked in Papua New Guinea as a missionary, and he tells a story about a duck coop that he put together for a village of the locals, intended to be a source of food and revenue for the whole village. He was called away for visa reasons, and returned to find the duck cage empty, the locals once again without food – they had eaten the ducks because they were hungry. He had neglected to explain that by not eating the ducks, they would eventually have eggs to eat and soon after that, they would be able to eat both eggs and duck as the duck population grew, even a source of revenue with which to buy other goods from other villages. But the locals were unwilling, even in light of the situation in front of them, to change their thinking – they wanted food now.

It is by the intentional long-term redistribution of power, not of material resources, that poverty will be eliminated and the Economy of God realized . Perhaps “redistribution” is an inaccurate term, for all people already have this power and often do not realize it. This power can be found in a gift we have all been given by our creator – the power to choose and to live with the consequences of those choices. What humanity must realize is the responsibility that this power requires. While we all have the power to choose, it is most often the case that we have chosen to give up our freedom.

How does an oppressed society deny its oppressors victory? By their willingness to live with the consequences of taking responsibility instead of bowing to the demands of the oppressors and bowing to the hopelessness fostered. Often, the impoverished say things to the effect of "the rich came and forced us;" and I ask the poor why the rich were allowed to continue their conquest. Human beings grant power by behavior; each of us has a God-given capacity to decide to follow or to lead, to conform or to follow a higher calling. Will a community choose to conform because they feel they have no choice, or will they choose to deny power to the oppressors by following the higher path of God’s Economy ? Are they willing to deny themselves the immediate comforts? For that is what this conformity seems to be about. For example, in rural South America, small farmers often agree to give up their land when given the choice to sell (or do nothing when forced) by international agribusiness because they find in themselves no hope for a future.

This does not deny the responsibility of those that would oppress; indeed, it denies them the power they seek to remove from the "small man." The power they foster is the power of intimidation, and if enough of the "smaller men" were committed to working together to oppose the agribusiness or the corporation or the international industries, the industries would lose their power. It is a communal responsibility when the systems – socialism and capitalism – insist that the individual is powerless (though in different guises).

What many "developing" or "third-world" nations lack are the leaders who would lay down their lives for their freedoms, those that would lead the masses in the peaceful revolt of denial of power. There is a dehumanizing power to the system; the poor are subject to it in the transfer of resources to the rich, but the rich too are subject to the system. Out of fear, the rich become seemingly unable to deny the system its power. The larger number of people, both poor and rich, would rather blame disembodied “international corporations” for taking advantage of the power the locals – now impoverished – have unwittingly given them.

Again, this does not deny the leaders and participants of larger corporations their responsibility, but it does acknowledge that the corporations are choosing to take advantage of the situation presented to them. Small communities look to the government to change their situation for them; that's why the government was started in the first place, to aid the people. But the government too has given up its purpose, and has taken up instead the call to profit and personal gain rather than the call to servanthood. The government has become a slave to the corrupt system, but once again, it has freely surrendered its freedom to make a choice to the deception of the system, making it also responsible. In this, the responsibility lies with both parties: the oppressors and the oppressed.

The individual and the community must come to understand their part in the redemption of existing systems; both capitalism and socialism are viable, so long as there is no misuse of the free will we have all been given. Ultimately, this requires that all people, of all cultures, come to a relationship with the living God, the creator and redeemer of all peoples and all systems. In this relationship is found accountability, learning, and ultimately empowerment to take responsibility for one’s self and for those around us.

Einstein once said that "we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." If those in need were desperate enough – and ultimately we must realize that this includes all of us, for all are affected by this situation in the long-term – humanity would come to embrace a solution that would improve their situation for the long-term. The solution to poverty is not merely a matter of material or social resources, or even of the redistribution of wealth, it is a matter of initiative, of motivation; if the church were to care about the solution enough to work for it together with the poor – with all of humanity – the cycle of poverty could be broken.

Christians (and more importantly, the church as a whole), as those who have been liberated by a loving God, are foremost in this responsibility. As missionaries, we are to be agents of change in all aspects of society. Missionaries to the poor must emphasize the responsibility of the poor not to wallow or become self-righteous in their poverty, but instead to work against the system by establishing a new system and denying the old its power. Likewise, missionaries to the rich must show the rich their spiritual need to act responsibly towards the poor in a material and social way; the call to servanthood. In this way is the world of the rich redeemed by once again denying the corrupt system its power. But this way also redeems the system itself, restoring it to its original function of service to all people.

We must begin to work for the redemption of the current systems, undermining them where appropriate, and ultimately teaching the masses about the power of free will that they already have and its proper use. This teaching comes in many forms. Some may be vocal about this teaching, by engaging the poor on their own terms and living with them as examples. Others may be asked by God to live as separate communities, ideals toward which other communities might strive (though realizing that they are still connected to the “outside” world). Still others might be asked to incarnate themselves into political and economic systems and work towards their redemption, the proper treatment of all people and leading the systems towards an appropriate expression of the Economy of Heaven. All creation – all people, all systems, all communities – are to be “for the other”; it is in the learned quality of servanthood – the system of power which God Himself employs – that the Economy of God arrives. This is the system of power toward which Christ-followers strive.

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