• Keeping the poor in their place

    Posted by Nils

    5 December, 2011

    India is a land like no other; both ancient and modern, with depths of poverty alongside the most extreme of riches. I recently returned from this fascinating nation where I was fortunate enough to see some of the work that World Vision is doing with street children and injecting drug users.

    Indian beggar woman with babyIndian beggar woman with babyIndian beggar woman with babyMy experience of this land of contrasts had a profound impact on me, particularly on my thoughts about the Gospel and poverty. The place where we were staying was in a satellite city about 20km outside of New Delhi, and driving into New Delhi itself required everyone to go through toll gates. Because of the nature of traffic in India, all the cars approaching the toll gates very quickly formed into a bottle-neck. And while we were sitting there in the car, beggars came up and knocked on the windows asking for anything to improve their meagre daily existence. Most of the beggars seemed to be women who were holding young babies. We were told later that some women “rent” babies in order to gain more sympathy. At the toll gates, many people ignore them and avoid making eye contact, but that was something I found very difficult. The thought of looking straight ahead while the poor knock on the windows of the well off stabbed at my conscience – Shades of the rich man ignoring Lazarus at his front gate.

    Many of India’s wealthier citizens also have drivers, maids and cooks. Domestic servants play a major role in this society, but the relationship between them and those they work for is generally one of keeping your distance. They have their life and we have ours and ne’er the twain shall meet. They are to be kept in their place; otherwise they will take advantage of you. And indeed, servants are known to have stolen from the people they work for. But when thinking of this, I was reminded of what Tim Costello once said about erring on the side of compassion. The fact is that sometimes you are going to get ripped off, but isn’t that the price of love? And besides, how much of a problem is that for us? Can we really complain about being ripped off every now and then when their whole lives consist of being ripped off? The same goes with tipping regular servants. Some people say you should only tip them every now and then because otherwise they will come to expect it. Maybe I’m naïve, but my attitude is ‘so what if they come to expect it?’ We have many times more material resources than they do. Having said this though, we also do not want to set up a false economy around tips, which removes responsibility for income generation from government and simply getting employers to pay appropriate wages. Tipping allows government to direct money to wealthy land investors, to build resorts, increase tourism, and therefore have more tips for employees – when they could just invest in education.

    It is our own material riches along with our Western worldview which can blind us to the reality of life for the majority of people in India. The middle class is booming over there, with economic growth of about 7-8% per year. But while they receive higher incomes, the gap between the rich and poor is growing, producing more of a social divide. Bringing people out of poverty is of course not just about increasing wealth. Poverty is much more than just lack of wealth and resources. It is not measured in purely monetary terms, which is what we are used to and how we are ingrained to think, to the point where we don't know any other way of defining it. No, poverty is equally about lack of access, lack of power, and lack of dignity.

    The attitude of keeping the poor in their place maintains the status quo. Getting rid of poverty is about a reversal of the social order - the first being last and the last being first. It is about justice, not in the sense that there will eventually be a last and first which is just the other way around (that wouldn’t be justice; that would be revenge), but in the eternal sense that the oppressed will be liberated and the oppressor will have had their good life. That is what the Kingdom of God is about. It is good news for the poor. The rich baulk at the real Gospel because it demands a radical reversal of values, something we are loathe to give up. The question we rich need to ask ourselves is, ‘will we be like the rich man who ignored Lazarus at his front gate, or will we be like the Good Samaritan who loved his neighbour and counted the cost?’

    Nils von Kalm works as a resource developer with World Vision Australia (a Micah Challenge Australia Endorsing Agency). Nils is passionate about the importance of biblical theology informing our Christian worldview, and showing how Christian faith is relevant to the whole of life.