Mary MacKillop will be canonised on the first day of Anti-Poverty Week (October 17-23). She was a saint who worked with the poor and promoted education as means to fight poverty.
Christians vary in their response to poverty. Many are involved at the coalface, inspired by their personal experiences, with its dehumanising conditions. Others however, while still taking action are haunted by Jesus’ remark ‘The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.’ (Mk 14:7)
Campaigns like Make Poverty History seem doomed before they start. In the above passage Christ echoes the words of Deuteronomy, ‘There will always be poor people in the land.’ (Deut 15:11) However the passage importantly continues with the injunction, ‘Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.’ (Deut 15:11) Here the scope of the problem is not a cause for inaction but requires a proportionate response; generosity that is as great and long serving as the problem.
This is also echoed in Christ’s invitation to ‘help them anytime you want’. And He is serious. Less serious, I suspect, were the people He was addressing. Judas himself, who was amongst them, liked helping himself to the disciple’s purse rather than helping the poor. (Jn 12:6)
Christ then is neither glib about the problem by offering an easy fix; nor does he let his interlocutors cynically use the poor to score points. He calls for action, or as Pope Benedict writes, for His followers ‘to expand their hearts to meet the needs of the poor and to take whatever practical steps are possible in order to help them.’ (World Day of Peace, 2009)
As Christians we believe that injustice, like the weeds in Jesus’ parable that hide amongst the wheat, will continue until the end. As such we’re rightly sceptical about utopian visions and ‘new worlds’.
Even when these social experiments open up new opportunities, say a loosening of British social norms in the colonisation and invasion of Australia, they do so in the context of our continuing humanity; the old world comes with us wherever we go.
However the eradication of global poverty is anything but utopian. Global poverty is an institution. It has occurred and worsened because of complex and interrelated factors including, but not limited to, unjust trading patterns, poor governance and policy decisions and mismanaged aid programs.
The solution is similarly concrete. Caritas Australia notes: ‘Poverty can be eradicated by providing low income earners with good health care and education; reducing military spending and promoting peace; creating employment for the poor; working towards a sustainable environment; reducing the gender gap; cancelling debt; increasing overseas aid; and promoting fair trade.’
None of this is to say that it is easy. Rather the point is that campaigns like Make Poverty History and Micah Challenge are not utopian because their aim is not to eliminate all inequality, nor to surgically remove whatever dark recess of the human heart leads to selfishness and greed. Their aim (and hopefully ours) is to change what we as a global community have created and have the power to change.
200 years ago the world was improved by level headed and hardworking Christians who helped abolish the transatlantic slave trade, even while other forms of exploitation continued and flourished. Similarly, the world today could also be improved if all Christians set themselves the task of eradicating global poverty, even if other forms of inequality and expressions of greed will continue and even flourish. A world without global poverty will not be perfect but it is both possible and almost infinitely better than what we currently have.
My grandfather, a veteran of WWII, was not given too many words. He had made the ominous decision of joining the Royal Australian Navy not long before Hitler made the even more ominous decision of invading Poland. He came back from the war a broken man. His favourite gentle reminder to any complaint was ‘there’s no utopia’.
He was right. But Mary of the Cross is a powerful reminder that a better world is possible. Eradicating global poverty is a good (and realistic) way to go about it.
Evan Ellis is Social Justice Coordinator for the Diocese of Parramatta.
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