Tuesday 18 October 2011

Poverty and Riches - and Priorities

You may have noticed that at the bottom of this blog I've pasted in a link to ONE, a campaign organisation that works to eliminate poverty worldwide not by charitable giving but by political pressure. I'm not by nature an activist (quite apart from hating the word, which it seems to me is jargonistic and means nothing) but I do feel that a lot of the problems human beings face today are to do with a lack of political will to make things better, rather than to do with intractable problems about which no one can do anything at all. So I thought I would support this idea, and see what happens. If anyone wants to join me, you can press the red button below. But no pressure - we all have different ways of doing things.

I worked out last night, as I thought about poverty and deprivation, that the amount it costs us every month to send our daughter to independent school would pay for two children's education for a whole year in many poorer countries. I love my daughter very much, and we sent her to independent school for good educational reasons and not for any considerations of social status, but it made me think. Can one really justify taking so much for oneself, or even for one's child, when others have so little? There are times when it is right, and I don't feel guilty about the time she has spent at that school, because when she left her state primary school she really needed to make the change to somewhere that would give her a learning experience geared to her Giftedness. But as she comes to the end of junior school, I've found myself looking at the local comprehensive to see whether it would meet her needs at senior school. I don't say we would give all the money we saved away to educate poor children, but we might be able to give some.

And the same applies to other things, doesn't it? If we are really to care about the poor - who sadly are "always with us", as Jesus remarked in another context - perhaps we do need to go down to the roots of our own will, as well as pressurising governments. For many people, these more straitened times have shown up where luxuries were taken for granted, where debts were incurred for no good reason, and most of all, where the priorities should be. I am not advocating the blanket abandonment of all worldly goods - I think you have to be specially "called" to do that, as it requires particular grace! - but only that we should share more, and that we should make a reasoned and clear-eyed judgement of what we actually need, not in comparison with others in our town or village, but in absolute terms. Like most mothers, I want my child to be happy and to have what she needs not only to exist but to live and grow and develop interests and aptitudes. If I am able to earn the money for her to have these things, I want to give them to her. But if I am unable to earn them comfortably and spare plenty for children in poorer places, then perhaps it is better to look at my priorities again. Children value family life, secure relationships, friendship and love, just as much or more than they value material goods - and giving them Nintendo games, iPads, and other digital goodies will not replace the security and happiness of time spent with their parents. And if they are encouraged to do so, they will be able to see for themselves that children in deprived areas, whether in the poorer countries of the world or in our own country, should have their share of the important things of life. Extreme poverty destroys the non-material valuables of secure childhood and family life, as well as the more material ones of education, toys, books and games. Famine is an obscenity at which we in the 21st century should be offended, wherever and for whatever reason it occurs. But don't blame drought, degraded soils, or typhoons. We human beings have a lot to answer for, whether it is war (easy to start but very difficult to end without leaving a greater mess than before), greed (which leads us in the West to think that we deserve to have more than we need to live on without extravagance), negligence (through which we turn our backs and don't want to know what is going on elsewhere, in case it disturbs our comfortable existence) or intolerance (which sees people of some ethnicities, or religions or cultures as beneath contempt or not worth bothering with).

It is the feast of St Luke the evangelist today, I learned from my Bible diary this morning. An interesting man, by all accounts. Traditionally thought to be a doctor, and showing, in his writings in the Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles, a great compassion for people and their sufferings. He went to Rome with St Paul when he was taken there as a prisoner, and was one of the few who stuck by the saint through all his journeys and tribulations, including shipwreck and deprivation. Both of them thought that the possession of material things was an irrelevance, and that giving was more important than acquiring. I am minded to follow their example, as far as I can.