Read the article first, here.
There was once a game we played, or maybe I read about in a missons handbook, which I cannot currently google. I’d be greatly indebted to whomever can furnish better descriptions or a site for me, but this is the basic idea.
You set your participants up for a simple foot race. There’s a designated finish line, but all the players are randomly, or not so randomly, assigned different places along the race course. Several people start out behind the starting line, the majority hustling for places a little ahead of them, and two or three people are placed just twenty feet or so from the finish line. Everyone starts on “Go!” The winner, is, of course, the person who crosses the finish line first. Inevitably, it will be one of the people arbitrarily placed near the front. Unless, of course, you have a miracle sprinter in the back, who can then be used as a test case for proving that if one just works hard enough, it’s possible to pull yourself out of poverty by those proverbial bootstraps. Because that’s what the game is about: raising our awareness to the starting inequalities that keep the world’s status quo. Some people have a head start in life, be it due to material wealth, better education, better health care, you name it. Those are the guys at the head of the line. (If you're reading this article, congratulations. You're probably in that lucky group.)
The people in the back, well, they’re lacking those initial resources, which makes it really hard to catch up. But they’ve got something. Their poverty is relative. Which reminds me of a conversation I overheard when living in the favela. I was visiting a friend in a two story house tucked into an area that got a lot of gunfire, but the family had televisions in every room and a computer with a printer. They were commenting on how they were definitely middle class… “not like those people who live by the river.” Of course, by general Brazilian standards, living in a favela already classifies you as poor. But they were richer than someone…
And those poor souls waaaaaaay in the back? They’re just scrambling to find their legs. Absolute poverty. Also known as misery. It’s the sort of poverty where all your energies are spent trying to cover the basic necessities of life: food and shelter.
That’s where this article comes in, and why the premise intrigues me. Having worked with people who live in both absolute poverty (the homeless in Rio de Janeiro) and close-to-but-not-quite absolute poverty (the slums), I can testify to the truth of many of the statements made in the article. One of the things that makes working with the homeless so hard is that they have nearly no future perspective. They do drink or smoke or inhale their money in the form of chemicals. From a distance, it appears that they’re just lazy, shiftless individuals who want to live like parasites off the more productive members of society. But that’s not really true. It’s just that the poverty they’re in is such a deep well, a black hole, that getting out without a helping hand is impossible. And drugs help dull that reality.
Would a unconditional monthly salary change that? Would knowing that every month you could count on a little cash change their perspective? Would it encourage the couples to look for homes, pool their resources and invest in the hare-brained schemes they were always telling us about? Or would it just contribute, long-term, to paint thinner profits?
In missions and theological circles dealing with poverty issues, there's a lot of talk about the Jubilee concept. Read about it in Leviticus 25; it's really interesting. Delving deep into the Jubilee is a topic for another post, but the basic idea seems to be that every 50 years or so, land was returned to the original owners. Debts were annulled. Slaves were released into freedom. So no matter how badly Daddy or Granddaddy screwed up in business matters, or how well they did, the kids weren't going to be able to suffer or profit much. They wouldn't be left homeless or landless.
It's no surprise that the Jewish people didn't do so well following that law...and we still like to forget it today. Or write it off as one of those unimportant Old Testament things. Sometimes God has these socialistic tendencies and gives people something for nothing, like sending rain and sun on the evil and the good, offering salvation by faith instead of merit, and so forth... And it's innate in us to hate the no-strings-attached rule when it applies to anyone but ourselves.
But one thing the non-observance of the Jubilee points out to us is that without it, people are going to suffer the long-term effects of other people's decisions. And over time, that translates into oppression and inequalities. A three-generation slave isn't going to just jump out of slavery and become a successful businessman without capital and education and a place to live. People that have been pushed to the sidelines aren't going to overcome that without a helping hand.
Or are they?