I recently saw a post on Facebook that caught my attention in a special way. I don’t recall who posted it and I don’t know anything about anybody who had anything to do with producing it. The post in question appeared to be British, and was a video. In this video a young man was wearing a sandwich board with a very offensive message written on it, and there is no way to sugar coat that message and still convey the power of the overall post. I could report that the sandwich board said “SCREW THE POOR”, or I could write that the message was “F___ THE POOR”. I could say it in Spanish too: “CHINGA LOS POBRES”, or Latin; “PEDICABO EGO AUTEM POIR”, and if I really want to be obtuse in Chinese; “TA MA DE QUONGREN”. In this manner I could tell you what the board said but that would not tell you what the video meant to expose, which is entirely wrapped up in exactly what was written on that board, and that message was “FUCK THE POOR”.
The person wearing the sign was a young white guy. He was walking around at what appeared to be a bus station or some other sort of node of public transportation. People were walking by and some of them were profoundly upset by his message. I couldn’t really hear their comments, but by the expressions on their faces and the few words that I could read on their lips the passersby were telling the young man that, among other things, he could go f___ himself. The clip went on for one or two minutes, which seemed like a very long time if you were watching it. Finally the scene faded to black while a well-dressed young woman was jawing away in the man’s face.
The scene faded back in a few seconds but it was instantly clear that things had dramatically changed. The same young man was now wearing what was very nearly the same sandwich board but with one very big difference. Now the sign shouted out in big capital letters “HELP THE POOR”. Same location, perhaps the same people, but clearly a different response. No anger, no outrage, no getting into the young man’s face. In fact, the young man might as well have not been there. Eye contact was assiduously avoided. People flowed around the young man like the water of a river flowing around the concrete base of a great bridge. The young man couldn’t have found more solitude if he had scaled a Himalayan peak and found a vacant cave up there.
Now comes the hard part. What does all of this mean? Clearly, when the sign just came out and said “F— THE POOR”, people were stung by that harsh message and were moved to seriously reprimand the bearer of that same harsh message, but when the sign called out to help the poor, the obvious message sent by the passing throng was “F— THE POOR”.
Is it that we don’t really care about the real poor people in our midst and around the globe? Maybe we love the poor when they are an abstraction; two urchins under the cloak of the Ghost of Christmas Present, or a family fleeing the Oklahoma dust to find their fortune in the golden fields of the Golden State. “Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there—” says Tom Joad while relatively well-off moviegoers munch popcorn in comfortable theater seats and Henry Fonda, a great and deserving actor, deposits very nice checks for his work on Steinbeck’s classic story,
Somehow, when the reality of poverty confronts us real-time and in the flesh it is less glamorous and less likely to start a crusade. The bum holding a sign at the freeway offramp is smoking, which is an expensive habit, no doubt drinks too much alcohol, and smells bad in the bargain. The couple on the bus, him scrawny and shaggy and her overweight, wearing her pajamas and sporting a poorly done tattoo of a red rose on the top of her right boob, using “colorful” language as they ride to within walking distance of wherever they are going. The old guy sitting on the porch of a house on the “poor side of town” while a profanity-laced argument is heard coming out of the open windows. The poor can be a much more uncomfortable commodity in the flesh than they are in the abstract, and perhaps that’s why our charity for them usually stops just before we actually meet them.
Oh, what a radical step it would be to actually make myself vulnerable and available to the poor! The “needy” is one of the names that we give the poor and a good name for them it is. The poor really do need. They need resources, and if I engage the poor those resources, or at least some of them, must come directly from me. The poor need to be acknowledged as having value, and I may not be able honestly to see any value in them if I only see them through my comfortable, material, middle class eyes. It won’t take them long to know if i am faking it either.
The poor need governments that will help them rather than warehouse them in prisons, control them so that they don’t pester “good folks”, or divert effort, time and money to enrich patrons of government. A person uncomfortable with too close a proximity to the real poor may at least demand that government tailor its delivery of services more towards those who really need them the most and away from those who are doing just fine already. I am not writing about soaking the rich; only about not deferring to them first, and all American governments do that to one degree or another
So how do we move beyond this state of loving and defending the poor in the abstract and ignoring them in the flesh and blood? I do not know the answer to that question, or should I say that I don’t know the millions of answers to that question, as the answer is undeniably complex. When does help lead to dependency? When does helping hurt? How do you know that your help is genuinely needed and when you are being scammed? Is your help being appreciated? Does that matter? The list of questions is a very long one and I can’t answer any one of them for you. Hell, I can’t even answer most of them for myself.
But nobody should be avoiding those questions, and Christians frankly are commanded by God not to avoid them. I will not bother you with the Bible verses that refer to this but if you are a Christian you know them, or you should. If you are not a Christian, something in your heart tells you that it is wrong to ignore the poor. Even if your rational mind says that their poverty is their problem, you still would hesitate before verbalizing what was written all over the signboard in the first scene of the video mentioned above.
Helping the poor will be an endless and oftentimes thankless endeavor. That cannot prevent us from trying however. The solution to the problem of the poor begins with me, and you, and you over there, and there is no hope if I/we check out of the game without ever even getting into it.