It is the beginning of the second week of Lent, the week that in our devotional A Journey Into Wholeness Is devoted to reflecting on issues of hunger and poverty. In past years Tom and I have engaged in the $2 challenging, restricting our food budget to $2/day for a week in solidarity with those who live on less than $2/day not just for their food budget but for their entire expenditure. This year we are not doing this.
In my Ash Wednesday post this year I commented Lent is not really about sacrifice and deprivation, it is about freedom and transformation and as I sit here reflecting on the horrors of poverty and chronic hunger, that is what comes to mind. Depriving myself and giving the money to the poor may alleviate their suffering for a moment, but what can I do that will change their situation permanently? How can I bring freedom to those who are bound by the injustices that create poverty? How can I help to transform the lives of those who seem to have no hope of enjoying the privileges I take for granted?
It’s not easy to always shop or live with the world in mind, but all my life decisions have consequences for others and often, by ignoring the issues, I condone the injustices under which God’s beloved children live. I can buy cheap clothing because Chinese garment makers work long hard hours for a pittance. I buy cheap food and enjoy cheap meals because many farm and restaurant workers do not receive a living wage.
Tom and I have already made some changes to our lifestyle that encourage more ethical living and help to provide for some who live at the margins. We buy fair traded shade grown coffee from Camano Coffee Roasters, partly because of their partnership with Agros International, a Seattle based community development organization that works to empower the poor in Central America. We also buy only fair traded locally produced Theo’s chocolate. We try to support local organic farmers and artisans and give generous tips in restaurants. I am also currently investigating ethical clothing companies. And we try to live simply and sustainably in order to reduce our carbon imprint and free up more resources to help those at the margins. Our goal is to give away half of our income each year.
But these seem like such minor changes and I realize the need to grapple with more substantial decisions that can have major consequences for our poorest neighbours. My question is what changes can I make over this season of Lent that will not only transform my own life and the way I live every day of the year, but the lives of others as well?
One area I have looked at is ethical or socially responsible investing which seeks to consider not just financial return but also social good. This has become a booming market in the last few years, but I struggle because it seems that financial gain is still often more important than social good. I also struggle with how to do that without replacing the bondage of slavery with that of dependency. How do we truly bring freedom and liberation?
One form of social investing that is very attractive to many Christians, microloans, is often geared towards the poor and seems to have the potential to bring freedom and liberation not just to those who live in poverty but to the rich too. I first learned about this form of transformative help when I worked with David Bussau of Opportunity International, on a document on the Biblical basis for micro finance in the early 90s. That document states:
A strong economic base provides the springboard for many dimensions of a family’s life. The provision of capital and income for a man who has been unemployed and ashamed of his inability to provide, often results in reconciliation of families that have been fragmented and separated. It can provide medical care for children whose parents were once denied this right and access to a decent education for children once forced into child labour. Families that have adequate income can provide the essentials of a decent life – shelter, nutrition, immunization, access to clean water and basic health care. These are all examples of the transformation Jesus would have advocated to see families restored to wholeness and abundant life.
I believe that we are called to consider the needs of others as more important than our own and above all else to strive to bring wholeness and abundant life especially to those who are poor and marginalized. Jesus showed particular concern for this segment of society, encouraging his followers to give up their possessions and give to the poor. Part of the responsibility of those of us who have resources is to share with those who have no resources. When we do this all our lives are transformed. South African Missiologist David Bosch expresses it well,
To become a disciple means a decisive and irrevocable turning to both God and neighbour…. In their being converted to God, rich and poor are converted toward each other.”
To be converted towards each other means that we are all transformed. The rich (and all of us who are middle class in Australia, New Zealand, North America and Europe, are rich) are transformed because we claim a new identity based not on the security of wealth and prestige but rather on the right and just relationships that are the standards of the God’s eternal kingdom. God sets the wealthy free to serve rather than control others and so devote their attention and wealth to the concerns of God’s eternal world of wholeness and abundance.
To the poor Jesus also offered a new identity – the opportunity to be free and responsible human beings with dignity and self-worth, able to serve God and others in society as God intended. By his words and actions, Jesus constantly demonstrated that the call of God’s eternal kingdom was to bring this kind of wholeness and abundance to to the lives of those at the margins. The equality Jesus envisioned was not a levelling down in which all became poor but rather a willing abdication of the rights of all so that through the practice of servanthood all might be fulfilled, live in harmony with God and develop fully the gifts with which God has endowed them.
So my question for all of us to consider this week is: How do we work for the wholeness and abundance of all God’s people and especially those at the margins? How do our decisions and actions set those who live in poverty free to be the liberated, fulfilled people God intends them to be?