On March 15, I preached this sermon on poverty. I took Mark 10:17-27 as my text.
A few weeks ago, I took a trip to Africa. I was in Cape Town for eight days, visiting family, and in the middle of that time I spent five days in Zambia at a lodge in the town of Livingstone, named after David Livingstone, a town right on the Zambian/Zimbabwean border. Zambia is in southern Africa, right beneath the Democratic Republic of the Congo, not too far from the equator.
The lodge where I stayed was right on the Zambezi River, a few kilometers above Victoria Falls, one of the natural wonders of the world. It was a little collection of buildings that were part thatch hut/part chalet, if you can imagine such a combination, and while I was there chilling with the little silver monkeys, staring into the crocodile and hippo laden waters, I met a Zambian woman my age named Kumoyo. Kumoyo is an accountant who lives 500 kilometers from Livingstone, and was in Livingstone to do an audit on the property. She and I ended up befriending each other and we ate most of our meals together. As we sat eating yogurt and beef stew and nshima and chocolate cake, we spoke of our two countries, our two cultures.
One afternoon I said to her, “You know, Kumoyo, in the United States, a town with the population of Livingstone would take up much more land than this town. It is a town of 150,000 but it is very small in the space it takes up!”
She said, “Yes? Why would it be bigger? What do you have in your towns?”
“Well,” I said, “for one thing, our houses are very big. And many houses have lots of grass around them. Much fewer people live in each house, so there have to be many more houses than in this town where so many family members live together. Also, we have many stores, and around the stores there are big parking lots for cars because every person in America has their own car.”
“What?!” she exclaimed. “A car for each person?”
“Yes,” I said. “Almost every adult has their own car.”
“This is too much,” she said. “It is too much. Each person has their own car? And anyway, why do you have so many stores? What is in the stores?”
“Well,” I said, “We sell many many things in our stores. Clothes and so many kinds of food. There are many different brands of each food. And the stores sell cars and things for building houses and electronics and so many other things. Blackberrys, forty different kinds of toilet paper, salad shooters, leather seat covers, candy. We have big stores filled with so many many things.”
“This is too much,” she said. “Why do you have so many things?”
I suddenly experienced that clarity that comes of speaking to someone who does not speak my language well, or whose culture is radically different from mine, and I have to strip off every explanatory extra and just simply tell the naked truth. I had gotten myself into a very honest conversation about America’s wealth—my wealth—with a member of a country where the average life expectancy is 37 years, and 25% of the population are infected with HIV. Yes, indeed. Why do we have so many things? Why do we have so many things?
We continued talking.
“Many times there are just one or two people living in the big houses,” I said. “Families do not necessarily live together, like here in Africa.”
“Yes?” she asked. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“In Africa this would not be possible,” she said. “In Africa we are poor because we all share our money. If you get some money and you have a cousin who is sick, or an auntie who needs some money, you will give your money to those people. That is why we can never save money.”
I laughed. “Ah,” I said, “so this is the real reason for poverty!” We laughed together.
We began talking about wages and prices. She asked me how much rent I paid. I told her. Her eyes got big as silver dollars and she said, “You must live in a very big house!”
“No,” I said, “I live in a small apartment. Really, I promise!”
“How many rooms are in your apartment?” she asked. I told her that I had two bedrooms in my apartment, one for me, one for my roommate, and also a kitchen, dining area, bathroom, and living room. Even as I said it, I realized how rich and clueless I sounded.
“Ah yes,” she answered, knowingly. Clearly I did live in a big place. Two bedrooms! One for each person! What was this extravagant luxury! And I thought my apartment was small. Clearly, her attitude betrayed, this American woman was not to be taken exactly at her word. Kumoyo told me that she considered herself a member of the upper class in Zambia, a college-educated accountant after all, and she speaks seven languages. She shared a one-bedroom apartment with her brother, cousin, and son.
I am just going to be honest and admit that while I was in Africa, I lived in great luxury, and luxury sure can feel good. My father treated me to business class on all my flights—and business class on British Air means beds and gourmet meals and personalized service. My father also paid for my side trip to Zambia, where I had high tea right on the edge of the Victoria Falls, and in Cape Town I had spa treatments and an absolutely gorgeous, private room in a five-star hotel where the entire staff greeted me by name every day. I sincerely enjoyed it all.
Meanwhile, I was encountering some of the most extreme poverty I have personally ever witnessed.
When I returned from Zambia, one of Africa’s poorest countries, to South Africa, one of Africa’s wealthiest countries, I breathed a deep sigh of relief when I walked into the airport in Johannesburg, because here again were all the familiar trappings of first-world luxury, and I felt existentially safe once more. I say this as someone who prides herself on living a simple and not-very-materialistic life. But oh, after the deprivation of Zambia, with its desperate and dying merchants, its smell-able, palpable, profoundly human reminders that we live in an utterly unfair world and that I am one of the few who benefits from this inequality…oh, what a relief to enter the Johannesburg airport full of stores bursting with things! Brightly colored tourist things, almost all of them superfluous to subsistence, all of them easily purchased with a Visa or Mastercard, those little American-made plastic rectangles that allow us to consume and consume and consume.
How protected from suffering I felt, once again! How relieved to be back in a context where I could buy happiness, or at least distraction, where I could escape my own neediness, live out of sight of others’ neediness. And I did buy stuff. That’s exactly what I did. And this is why it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter into that elusive Kingdom of God that Jesus talks about, that place where we would actually live with our whole lives the truth that every person on earth is equally precious, equally worthwhile, equally human and divine.
Back in Zambia I had said to Kumoyo, feeling like I was giving away the Great Secret of the Global North. “Here’s the thing. Americans aren’t happy. At least, it’s not like just because we are rich it automatically means we are any happier or living more meaningful lives than people here in Zambia. We are rich but not joyful. We are lonely. So many Americans take drugs because they are sad or depressed or they cannot stand their lives. They are lonely in their big houses. They buy more and more things in the stores because they want to feel happy but buying things does not solve what is wrong with their hearts. We are rich, but so what?”
And then I backpedaled, because what right do I have to dismiss with the wave of a hand all my wealth and lifelong privilege? What right do I have to tell someone who has always lived in poverty that money does not matter, that it makes no difference?
Jesus says that the poor will be able to enter the Kingom of Heaven, and the rich will have a very tough time of it. Reflecting on this has got me pondering up a ponderation storm. We middle-class Americans, and especially, I think, we progressive middle-class Americans, seem to assume that poverty is the problem. In Africa I got the sinking feeling that the desire of so many wealthy westerners is to make poor people into middle-class consumers, solve their problems with our solutions. Which leads me to wonder: what exactly have our solutions solved? And at what price? And, if the goal isn’t to make the poor into us, then what exactly is the goal? If the goal is a richly meaningful and loving life, as I might suggest, then where exactly does wealth fit in? Who among us is completely satisfied with what we have? Who among us doesn’t think we’d be happier if we just had a little bit more?
Why do we assume that poverty is a problem to be solved? Is it partly because we need to justify our own wealth? Why did so many of the great spiritual teachers live in abject poverty? Jesus was homeless; Mother Theresa lived in the same poverty as did those poorest of the poor to whom she ministered; Gandhi chose extreme simplicity though he came from a wealthy family. Why are we so quick to assume that they didn’t mean their teachings on wealth and poverty literally? They must have meant them spiritually! We think: Surely they wouldn’t want us to actually sell all that we have and give our money to the poor! Can’t you live a comfortable American life and be a realized spiritual person?
Dudes. I am not so sure.
There have been so many misunderstandings of what Jesus meant when he spoke about salvation and the Kingdom of God. Many of us have been the victims of lame and even destructive interpretations when it comes to Jesus and Christianity. So it is instructive to revisit what Jesus might have meant, when he spoke to the rich young man and to his disciples about the kingdom of heaven and salvation.
Many of us have been taught that the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, is a distant, post-death reality with streets of gold, and that “getting saved” is what you have to do to get the key to the gate to this Kingdom. Frankly, this interpretation of Jesus arose from the need to distort his teachings beyond recognition in order to maintain the status quo that he sought to absolutely undermine and overthrow.
Salvation is not about getting into heaven, and the Kingdom of God is not some afterlife reality, though sometimes I think it is a reality even more elusive than the afterlife. Here is what Jesus taught, as concise as I know how to say it: Everyone is loved equally by God. Live accordingly. Everyone is loved. Everyone is loved equally. We are all God’s children, all holy creatures, none of us more worthwhile or less worthwhile, more or less in need of mercy. Therefore, we are obligated to do away with every hierarchy, every system of violence and oppression and domination. We must do away with war, patriarchy, racism, and yes, we must do away with economic inequalities.
Jesus is not just saying that we must part with our dependence on all our possessions in order to enter this new transforming reality that he calls the Kingdom of God. He is saying that we have to altogether stop participating in the violent system that depends on the domination and oppression of others. He is not glorifying poverty; he is saying: so long as there is a system in which some are poor and some are rich–some are rich because others are poor–as long as there is such a system, none of us will be free and we will not be living fully the Kingdom of God.
In our context, I tremble to admit, this is more complicated than getting rid of everything that you own. I tremble to admit that because most of us just want to hear that we don’t have to part with our possessions, which only proves just how much of an obstacle they are to us spiritually. But actually, getting rid of all your possessions might be the easy way out. The hard thing is having the wisdom and tenacity to figure out how not to participate in the system of oppression and domination in which we are all unwittingly participating, not because we are bad people but because we don’t know what else to do. Theologian Tereza Calvacanti says, “The option for the poor means opting for the causes of the poor. Not that I become materially poor like the poor are, but that I put all my resources at the cause of the poor and assist in the struggle of the poor.”
As long as we think of poor people as unfortunate souls needing to be saved by rich victors; as long as our goal in making money is to make sure that we get to be the ones who reap the benefits of this unjust system; as long as we secretly believe that wealth will protect us, then we are missing the point. And the point, as a young Zambian man told me as we were talking politics while looking around for giraffes, is that the system needs to change. Our hearts need to change. The point is that we can be the ones to say we will no longer tolerate the way things are. And we don’t need money to say that. We can say it with our bodies, with the way we treat each other, with our lives. People in prison can say it, as Nelson Mandela did. Powerless and oppressed people can say it, as the black people did in the south, as the suffragettes did before women had the right to vote. We can say it with our prayers, we can say it by inviting over for dinner people with whom we are uncomfortable, we can say it by volunteering, we can say it by speaking up. We can say it by getting rid not just of what we do not want, but of what we do not need. By getting rid of everything that is holding us back from love.
Two days before I left Africa, I went on a tour of the townships in Cape Town. The townships are gigantic spreads of shacks where most of the black and mixed-race people in Cape Town live. During apartheid, which was the Nazi-inspired system of racial segregation that only ended in 1994, black and mixed-race folks were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in the townships. Over the years, the townships have grown and grown. Millions of people live in these townships now. Passing by them on the highway, all you can see is massive jumbles of sheet metal and scrap wood.
Wanting to understand better what was up with the townships, I decided to take a tour. At first I was uncomfortable with the idea of taking a tour of poverty, but I was encouraged by several seemingly trustworthy locals in Cape Town to do so, so I went. And how thankful I was that I went! My day in the townships was my best day in Africa.
Let me just say this. With the eyes of the wealthy, and from the outside, the townships look like places of deprivation and squalor and violence. And surely they are! But from the outside, the mansions of the wealthy look like places of security and luxury and fun. And surely they are. But we all know neither is the whole truth. There can be deprivation in the mansions, and I assure you that the townships are bursting with life! Sometimes I think we in the west think that the poor, brown people of the world are just lying around hoping we’ll come save them. Nothing could be further from the truth.
There were thousands of little businesses open everywhere in the townships, the vast majority of them not registered and technically illegal. We met a woman named Beauty whose husband had slept around, contracted HIV, and then passed the virus on to her. She became very depressed and angry, but then with the encouragement of her neighbors who recognized her gifts, she opened her own sewing business and was giving sewing lessons to the young women in the community so that they too could sustain themselves. Our guide had befriended Beauty and had helped her access anti-retroviral drugs and encouraged her to eat well and she was now in good health. She had purchased several sewing machines with money donated by tourists who come on these township tours.
We met another woman named Vicky who had opened a bed and breakfast—in a township!—where young adventurous westerners like myself could come and really get a feel for township life. With her profits from the bed and breakfast, she’d opened a childcare so that working parents would have a safe place to leave their children. There is a common myth in Africa that if you are an HIV-positive male, you can get rid of the virus by having sex with a virgin. In order to know for sure that they are actually getting virgins, men are raping young girls. This is a very big problem in the townships. But this woman, Vicky, had opened this childcare so that little girls could be safe.
I bring you this report about Vicky and Beauty and the townships because it does not make the news. Also, I want you to understand that it isn’t all up to you. As we take steps toward loving others, as we try to let go of all that stands between us and the equal treatment of every person on earth, many others are taking steps—toward us! And let me tell you, it is your great good fortune to be stuck in this soup with the poor. It is probably more our good fortune to be stuck in this with them than it is their good fortune to be stuck in this with us.
In the reading today from Gustavo Gutierrez he says, “If there is no friendship with the poor, and no sharing of life of the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to liberation, because love exists only between equals….But how is it possible to tell the poor, who are forced to live in conditions that embody a denial of love, that God loves them? It is not enough that we be liberated from oppressive socioeconomic structures: also needed is a personal transformation by which we live with profound inner freedom in the face of every kind of servitude.”
The title of my sermon is, “Is Poverty a Problem?” and I would say this: being able to let go of money and possessions is not only not a problem, it has been given by many spiritual teachers as an absolutely crucial part of the path to becoming fully human and fully integrated into an ethical and holy life. However, the kind of poverty that is a problem is the kind that arises from the socioeconomic system in which people in the world—so many people in the world—are forced to live in conditions that embody a denial of love. That kind of poverty, the kind that implies exploitation and violence, is the kind of poverty to which we all contribute and from which we all suffer. Who among us does not coexist with conditions, somewhere in his or her life, which embody a denial of love? Because we each participate in it, because we each suffer from it, we also each have the ability to participate less, to pour our wealth—our spiritual wealth, our relational wealth, our artistic wealth, our hope and our joy and our sincerity and our pain and our money and our stories—into creating a world that embodies an affirmation of love.
You are loved. Every one of you. You are loved beyond reason, beyond measure. So is everyone else. Live accordingly.