Thursday, August 18, 2011

Who Are the Poor?

Last night, Michael and I watched a movie called Pursuit of Happiness, starring Will Smith. It was a true story about a man who struggles to provide for his son, and even though the movie has a happy (obviously) ending, much of the film depicts the plight of hard working men and women who can't seem to get a break. It sort of flies in the face of the cliche that "people who work hard don't end up in poverty."

I'm not referencing the movie to make a political statement or to announce I've figured out the cause of poverty. (Bummer, right?) I'm bringing it up because I was surprised by my own reaction to the film. Instead of just being happy that the main character found better circumstances, I felt a visceral awareness of my own fear and anxiety regarding the poor.

One scene in the movie shows the main character and his son sleeping in a public bathroom in the subway. Another part of the movie shows them line up day after day at a local homeless shelter in hopes of finding a bed. The film was so well done that I actually felt like I was in the story- and my reaction was not just respect for a dedicated father falling on hard times; it was fear and shame.

I would be overcome with shame if the best I could provide for my son is the floor of a public bathroom. I'd be scared to stand in line at a homeless shelter, to actually sleep next to "dangerous" street people. I 'd be filled with self-pity and resentment if I had to face a season of life like that. What's more, I can't imagine sleeping on the floor of a public bathroom because it is the best option available to me. I can't imagine standing in line at a homeless shelter desperately hoping to get to spend the night there. I can't imagine being truly in need, truly without, and truly stuck in the debilitating cycle of poverty.

I heard once that most people lost in the wilderness don't die of hunger- they die of shame. After watching this movie, I can understand that a little better. But what shame is there in circumstances that are beyond our control? That's when I realized that we Westerners- at least this Westerner- inextricably links human dignity to material possessions. That's what gave me the most shame of all. My cover was blown- a fearless extrovert in most situations, I would be afraid of a homeless person simply because he lacks what I think he needs in order to be considered a "decent" (or at least a "safe") person.

I was talking about this with Michael on the way to work today and asking "why does our society fear the poor?" He said, "Maybe because people who are destitute having nothing to lose, so they're less inhibited." (Side note: watching this movie last night, there were times when I was actually hoping he'd just steal stuff! I'm just as guilty as any "thief" because entitlement and stealing are in my heart. Just take away some of my nice things and it would probably be more visible.)

So what I realized is that I'm only comfortable relating with people when they are "people" by my standards. I've taken what is actually human- a soul created by God- which contains all the worth and dignity required to make someone worthy of love and community- and I've said, "that's not enough. In order for me to feel safe or comfortable talking to that person- much less hug them- they need to be clean and "normal" looking- not a threat to me (and by me, I really mean my stuff.)

When those things that I think make a person approachable are stripped away, that's when I'm really having human-to-human contact. That's really community with others. I realized I'm actually afraid of this. In Africa, I was surprised that I was a little scared to hold a baby that had no diaper. What if I got wet or dirty? I was amazed to find all my qualifications for love. It showed me that my real attitude towards others- whether it's an orphan in Africa or the weird guy at school- is, "I'll love you, only if you're not messy. Only if my relationship with you can be nice and neat and clean. I'll love you as long as you don't threaten this comfort that I've worked to hard to keep."

Good thing Jesus didn't have that attitude. He definitely wouldn't have hung out with the crowds He did if He were worried about getting dirty. He wouldn't have inaugurated His own ministry with "good news for the poor" and He would have been a lot more sensitive about turning away rich people who could have been "big supporters." He was not a respecter of persons! And He was homeless! Yet He felt no shame about it, because He knew that at the heart of being human is not having property or being clean. It's about being made in the image of God- and because of that, He could see all people as the same. We're the ones with the problem of perception.

I'm the one who thinks that poor people are "different" from me because they steal or eat out of dumpsters or any other thing I think I'd never do. All it took was watching a movie for me to realize I would do the exact same things, or worse. Maybe my material status mainly serves to blind me from my spiritual status- just as destitute, messy, and dirty as the homeless guy stealing food. I might have fooled myself, but Jesus isn't fooled. And He still died for me.


Carissa Munro said...

Hannah, thank you for this! In the last few days, I have also been thinking about my perception towards the poor; particularly towards those who beg. I've struggled with the nagging, political voice inside my head that says "giving to them is not helping them because you are just encouraging them to do nothing. If they really wanted a job, they could get one." In addition to this, I have also struggled with embarrassment on my part. I feel uncomfortable taking a moment to help those less fortunate than I. On the one hand, I don't want to make them uncomfortable. And on the other, I don't want them to reject me and my act of kindness. Over the last two days, first in London yesterday and then again in Ottawa today, I have encountered these people and struggled with my little voices. But after an act of disobedience in London yesterday, I realized that it is not about what is considered politically correct, nor is it about being rejected for being kind. What it is about is making the unnoticed, the dirty, the messy, feel like they are noticed, clean and put together. In other words, acknowledging that they are people who are thought about, cared about, and loved. Your blog is so fitting for what I personally have been struggling with the last few days. I think you put it really well when you said that Jesus was homeless. While He did not beg, He did stop to chat with and help those who did. Yes, it is uncomfortable. And yes, you have that little voice saying "what are you doing? You'll just offend them..." and "that's what SOCIAL programs are for!" But when you actually take the moment to stop and help, you'll be surprised by the response. And you'll be encouraged to keep on helping.

Ruth said...

I loved this. The thing that always gets me is this thought: "That man--that hairy, smelly, homeless man that I'm looking down on--was somebody's baby. IS somebody's baby." I know that sounds weird, but for me it helps me stop thinking about people in the abstract. Any baby--even a "gross" one without a diaper :-) -- has invaluable worth and beckons to be held, to be loved. They belong to someone, and somehow we can sense that so much more easily than we can with adults. Ironically it's easier to remember the personhood of persons who can't even talk or think rationally or love yet than to remember the personhood of those who can do all of those things, because once they grow up we pile all of our standards on them and objectify them and forget their intrinsic dignity.

And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street said...

Good thoughts! (Yes, after your link to "Suffering & Joy," I'm climbing in your blogs, snatching your reflections up...) I really, really like that movie, though for different reasons; thanks for exposing some of the same sins in my own heart through your explication of "The Pursuit of Happiness."
On a tangential note, I was thinking the other day that whenever I see somebody begging on the street while I'm in traffic, I really shouldn't judge them: Birds have nests, foxes have dens, but the Son of Man had no place to lay his head. How I think of my Saviour (e.g., "clean, comfortable, and cool" - obviously never dirty, grungy, or unkempt) informs how I think of His creation, and therefore how I treat others.