Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Trust: A Culture of Affluence

If you've poked around this blog at all you may have gotten the impression that I have a bit of a "thing" for helping the poor. It's true, I'm just a nice person like that. But the real truth is that, though I sponsor a child through Compassion International and, technically, I am an Advocate for the same, my world is very insulated from the poor.

For the past decade or so, the term global village, has been thrown around quite a bit. The term describes a concept of global, international, cross-cultural unity that is made possible through world-wide network of communications technology. The Internet and the world wide web have brought this concept closer to realization than ever before. But still, a global village is far from a reality. The social, linguistic, and cultural separations between the peoples of the world are still overwhelming.

In my culture, we live in, what I like to call, a "culture of affluence." This phrase came to me while I was reading Richard Stearns' The Hole in Our Gospel. I realized that the chasm that separated me from the poor was made up of more than just physical space. I live in a world characterized by wealth. The having of it, the attaining of it, and the spending of it are the chief preoccupations of myself and my world.

For a staggering number of people in my "global village," 40-50 percent of the world, the chief preoccupation is survival. The difference between wealth and survival is fundamental, they are as different as mud cookies and tiramisu. As I tried to understand the difference, I realized that I had built up some kind of fantasy about what life was like for one of the children for whom I claim to be an advocate. My wealth and culture create such a wide buffer that their lives did not even exist in the "real" world: my world.

For some reason, the subject of clean water was what drove this truth home for me. I had heard the statistic that 1 in 6 people do not have access to clean water before, but still, this did not have meaning for me until I understood the implications. Water is central to life on this planet; we can go for weeks without food but we would only last a few days without water. Survival aside, when I think of how much water I use in a single day I am staggered. Have you ever let the tap run for 15 seconds or more simply waiting for it to heat up? That water is literally down the drain, what if you had walked miles to haul that water?

Not having a well or plumbing means that this morning, before the work and school day begin, the mother and children in a family have had to to haul enough water to do the day's washing and cooking or they would not have water that day. This means walking miles in some cases. This is not Little House on the Prairie, this is January 18th 2011. Before I even woke up this morning, children, sometimes as young as 5, have been hauling buckets of water. Have you ever hauled water? Have you ever hauled water in the predawn chill? For hours? Have you ever tried to go to school afterward? Have you ever spent hours hauling dirty, parasite-infested water in the predawn chill?

No. No, of course you haven't, neither have I. This is why there is a chasm separating us from these people, our neighbors in this global village, that will keep their reality a fantasy unless we can find some way to bridge it. The travesty is that the people living this lifestyle are as numerous as we who are not, yet it is quite possible for those of us living in this culture of affluence to never even consider, let alone understand their situation. For many of us, they simply do not even exist.

Part of the problem is that we like our separation from the poor. Drawing near to such a desperate and obviously unacceptable cultural reality, while we labor over whether to buy the ATV or save the money for Disneyland, is very uncomfortable. When we encounter poverty we also have to deal with guilt and responsibility and I will be the first to admit that I don't like it. I prefer telling others to help the poor. Bringing the responsibility for the situation of the desperate poor into our own house pollutes our way of life and makes it impossible for us to live in the same way we always have, the voice of justice in our hearts requires us to do something about it. Again, I'll admit it's easier to keep the injustices toward the poor a fantasy.

Yet this disparity is more than ethically wrong, it is dangerous. Obviously it hurts the poor, but it also hurts those of us who are rich. We cannot be so widely separated from others and expect to remain unharmed by the divide. We cannot truly accept the humanity of people who are so completely different from us. If we are serious about this concept of global unity, we have to address this disparity and find a way, not as a culture, but as individuals, to narrow the gap. We have to find some way to make the reality for the rest of the world to impact our reality. The alternative is that half of the world will continue to not exist.

This is particularly significant for people like me who claim to care for this cause. If I cannot make the reality of the poor, people I claim to want to help, impact my life in a real way, then I am worse than a hypocrite. This is the next step of my journey to trust (and it is very specific to me): God is asking me how willing I am to experience the reality of poverty, if I am willing to separate myself from my culture of affluence in order to better love the rest of the world. This does not mean He is calling me to a life of poverty, but He is calling me to seek a living faith in Him, a life of freedom from money, and a life of true compassion.

Practically this means living "abnormally:" living simply, without the waste and excess that is unique to a culture of affluence. Because I love my lists, I've already started several lists of things to sacrifice on the altar of my works, things like my car, sleep, eating out, and other luxuries that 40 percent of the world does not have access to. While these things may become part of my reality I have to remind myself, and urge you as well, if you are also so inclined, that God is looking for the sacrifice of a changed heart before the outworking of a changed life. Please do not fall into the trap, as I so often do, of assuaging your conscience by heaping up good works. You will be disappointed and skip over the better part God has for you. Pray first, and then do.

However, do not be afraid of letting your faith have a practical outworking. Nothing brings richness and substance to prayer and faith like an outpouring of practical love and compassion. If the subject of clean water is of particular interest to you, you can access more information, including how you can be part of the solution, through Compassion International (via their partnership with Healing Waters International) or World Vision.

I also cannot end without the request to consider sponsoring a child. There is no easier and quicker way to make the reality for half world your reality than by inviting a living, breathing child into your life.

Next Post: A Curveball

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