I feel a tap on my shoulder and instinctively raise my arm in protest with a shake of my hand. Out of the corner of my eye I can see one of the gypsy children, asking me for money, begging to be seen. Averting my gaze, I continue walking briskly and talking to my friend, shopping bags in my hands, wallet full of cash in my purse.
Minutes later, after scrambling aboard a tro-tro headed for home, I realize my wallet is missing. My heart sinks. I’ve just lost my passport, my credit cards, family photos, and more. My entire identity is gone in an instant. I’m penniless. Just like that.
“If you cling to your life you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.” Matt 11:39
Recently, I’ve been reading through the book of Matthew and talking to the volunteers about the ideals of Christian faith. Enthusiastically, I underline and highlight all of the verses about giving to the poor and forsaking everything for the cause of the cross. I have passionate discussions with my friends about living a life of simplicity. I post and repost famous quotes about love and justice.
And then I turn around and pretend not to see the man on the street with one arm, moving from car to car, asking for small change. I look away from the the boys and girls clinging to my arm with imploring eyes, telling myself they won’t get to keep the money, anyway.
“Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.” -Matt 6:37.
I am full of excuses. Full of doubt. “I want to help the poor without enabling them.” “I don’t want to contribute to the vicious cycle of poverty.” “I don’t have enough.”
I am part of the problem.
I think again about the contents of my wallet, about the material possessions they represent, about the prosperity I so casually enjoy and like to keep to myself. I had just withdrawn a large amount of cash from the ATM before I was pick-pocketed, something I rarely do. I start feeling glad that it’s been taken away from me. I start hoping whoever has it now can meet a need more desperate than mine.
The next day, I make a trip to the police station to file a report. After explaining my situation to the inspector, she mentions nonchalantly that I will have to pay 50 ghana cedis (about $25) as a “report fee” if I want to continue with my complaint. This is a flat out bribe. When I ask for a receipt she demurs, “Please, no.”
I’m furious. I step outside to voice my protest to my friend. Before I can speak, my anger catches in my throat and spills out of my eyes, burning hot against my cheeks.
I start thinking about the injustice of this system that is meant to protect the weak and vulnerable. I consider the women who are raped by their husbands, the children who are beaten by their school teachers, the poor who lose everything they own to thieves. Where is their justice? How can they afford to pay the price the police demand?
My heart feels like it will burst with the weight of helplessness. I want to scream at the officer for being so callous, I want to shake my fist at the darkness that keeps people in power who only oppress. It’s not fucking fair.
Suddenly, I realize how selfish I’ve been. How little faith I’ve had. I have while others have not. I’m part of the problem. When people look at me they see dollar signs, and they’re right. Even right now, my poverty is only temporary. I have travel insurance that will eventually cover the costs of replacing my lost passport and cash. I’m a citizen of one of the richest countries in the world, all I have to do is fill out some paperwork and I’ll have my identity back.
I belong to the privileged. My white skin and education give me away, even when I’m as penniless as the man asking me for money.
I can’t stop crying. Sitting in the back of the cab, legs stretched out, gazing blankly out the window, I can feel the tears evaporating like steam as they run down my chin.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” -Martin Luther King Jr.
I’ve never felt the impact of these words more deeply than today.
I’ve been suffering from a heart problem. I have the ideal in my head of what it looks like to bless the poor, the meek, the broken and sick. I think I love my neighbor (or at least I’m nice to them). But I haven’t given all. I’ve withheld a safety deposit, a backup fund, just in case. I’ve put limits on the amount I’m willing to sacrifice. I’ve told myself quietly that service is a part-time job. I’ve stayed comfortable.
Even while living in Africa, in one of the poorest places on earth, I go home every night to electricity and running water. I have my own laptop and access to wifi. I can afford to shop at the mall in Accra so that my supply of peanut butter and coffee never runs out. And, most importantly, once I get my passport back, I can leave. I can hop on a plane at any time and choose to live a life of luxury again. My race, education, and place of birth all mean prosperity is never out of reach.
I think what I’ve realized in the past few days is that to truly understand the weight of injustice, I had to experience it. I had to become vulnerable and desperate. I had to be the recipient of the abuse of power.
Why is this so important? Why is this so necessary? I think the answer is as simple as the reason why Jesus had to become like us to save us. When I was in high school, I performed in a short drama called, “God with skin on.” The simplicity of this image burns truth into my heart. If Jesus humbled himself enough to become love wrapped in flesh and bones, how much more are we called to do the same?
God sent Jesus to love us in a tangible, relatable way. He didn’t have an exit strategy waiting for Him when things got tough. He didn’t preach at the tabernacle on Sundays and then go home to his cush palace while the sick waited for an appointment to meet with him.
He didn’t hold back. He suffered with the suffering. He touched, healed, broke bread, and breathed new life into everyone around him. He became pals with the outcasts. He gave until he lost his life.
“And that’s when things get messy. When people begin moving beyond charity and toward justice and solidarity with the poor and oppressed, as Jesus did, they get in trouble. Once we are actually friends with the folks in struggle, we start to ask why people are poor, which is never as popular as giving to charity. People are not crucified for helping poor people. People are crucified for joining them.” -Shane Claiborne
I spent all afternoon googling statistics on poverty, looking for clues, trying to understand the depth of inequality. The statistics were neither shocking nor surprising. I thought about sharing them here, but I think we all know there’s a great imbalance in the world, and that most of us weigh in on the positive side. The rich are getting richer while the poor are becoming more poor.
But this isn’t about shame, or guilt. Feeling bad for the poor isn’t going to have a lasting impact on our life or theirs.
Let me say this again: this is a heart problem, not a money problem.
“Let us not be satisfied with just giving money. Money is not enough, money can be got, but they need your hearts to love them. So, spread your love everywhere you go.” –Mother Teresa
Outward actions are not enough. They have to come from a place of deep love and compassion. Loving means solidarity. It means sharing the burden of injustice and oppression. It means being oppressed until we can all live freely. It means relying on a supply of love that never runs out, so we’re not afraid to give everything we have.
I’m not good at this, but I think I’m starting to catch glimpses of what this might look like.
The other day at school a girl named Emilia attached herself to me. Tiny arms outstretched, she reached up to me to hold her. As I wrapped my arms around her, she wrapped her arms around me and pressed her cheek against mine. For moments we stood entangled in silence, content to love and be loved.
The more this kind of love flows through me and around me, the harder it becomes to separate myself from the poverty, injustice, and disparity I see. It affects me because it affects those I love.
“And I think that’s what our world is desperately in need of – lovers, people who are building deep, genuine relationships with fellow strugglers along the way, and who actually know the faces of the people behind the issues they are concerned about.”
― Shane Claiborne
I’m not sure how this all works out, but I know conviction leads to heart transformation. So, I’m praying for more love from the inside out.Google+