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The Question of the Poor

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“Why are people in America so rich, and we are so poor?” Luther had leaned his chair into a reclining position against the side of the shed in whose shade we sat. He asked in genuine curiosity, headed cocked to the side and eyes quizzical.

I laughed, not because it was funny, but because the question was so embarrassingly beyond my capacity. Had it been in English, I could have offered some thoughts on industrialization, global economy and colonization; in French, I might have been able to piece together something. But in Bambara—the Malian language I am still learning—I didn’t stand a chance.

Even though I was having a particularly lucid moment and Luther is among the most patient and positive of listeners, all I could manage was to fumble through some phrases in Bambara and use the local cotton processing monopoly here in Mali as an example. I’m certain Luther now thinks that the whole of global economic disparities revolves around America having more cotton fields and a few more cotton factories. I closed in saying, “Luther, that question is too difficult.”

It was out of our league. Having never even been to school, he didn’t have a basis for understanding the forces of global economy. (Those with lots of education seem to only have a foggy idea at best.) I had just learned how to say “I want to buy that” last month, so the higher ideas of economics are not yet in my vocabulary. Frankly, the average citizen would struggle in any language to give clear reasons for this disparity.

And yet these are questions that need to be asked. Why do we, in the West, have an excess while those elsewhere perish from unmet needs? Why do we struggle with obesity and overfilling landfills while others starve?

In previous conversations, Luther had told me that his father couldn’t afford to send all his kids to school, so he chose Luther, seemingly at random, to stay home. After working his family’s fields throughout his teenage years, Luther wanted nothing more than to go to school. He found his chance when a pastor taught him to read, and now he is finishing his fourth and final year at Bible school here in N’torosso. During his summer breaks, he works as a pastor in a small village while also growing grain to feed his family of four and to eat during his time at school. He receives $20 a month from the church.

By any standard, Luther lives in poverty, and yet he is joyful, kind and generous in ways that put our wealthy culture to shame. Many who spend time with the poor come away puzzling over this paradox. Our interactions with the poor seem to produce one of two general reactions—either guilt that results in rejection of symbols of wealth (which usually fades and leads to complete inaction) or a defensive posture of entitlement. Both are unproductive. Neither is how the Lord would have us react.

There is no silver bullet to cure poverty, but the Lord calls each of us to different responses to poverty and to different expressions of love. (Avoidance is not a viable option, however.) As in all areas of discipleship, we will find that the path He leads us down is filled with both immense joy and huge challenges. C. S. Lewis sums this up well:

The Christian way is different: harder, and easier . . . The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes and precautions—to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call “ourselves,” to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be “good.” We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way—centered on money or pleasure or ambition—and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do.

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