In a couple of weeks I will be giving a short presentation on poverty and human rights for End Poverty Now’s STOP Conference. As I try to figure out what I’ll be talking about, one thing I do want to address is my own perspective in relation to poverty and the poor.
Christopher Hitchens argued that Mother Teresa “was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.”
The criticisms Hitchens lays out against Mother Teresa are further supported by Michael Parenti in his book God and His Demons which I just read, and they’ve left me rethinking my own perspectives on poverty and the poor. The distinction between poverty and poor is necessary. Poverty is a reality, one that is often removed from the lives of people like myself. The distance I had from poverty in my youth made it easy to be indifferent towards it and to feel sympathy for those living in poverty but distant enough to remain unaffected. For the most part, I remained uncompelled to make a change. So I didn’t, and during my university years, when I commuted downtown and walked by poor people begging for money, I did what most people did: I ignored them. I gave money only a handful of times.
The poor – actual people – well, they’re harder to ignore than poverty. My strategy to ignore poor people begging for money hit a major snafu when I went to live in Malawi. Everything was poverty, everywhere was poverty, and almost everyone was poor. I lived in the small town of Zomba and walked to the grocery stores at least once a week. The eyes of the crippled beggars sitting by the stores bore into me every time I passed them. They were not angry, not demanding…they were almost nothing. They whispered zikomo – thank you – and I walked on by. I ignored them most of the time, I infrequently gave small amounts of money, and I felt horrible.
Writing nearly twenty years later, it’s difficult to relate how uncomfortable my own behaviour made me feel, how I loathed my inaction, and how miserably I failed to show the slighted recognition that these people – the poor – were deserving of a human dignity I uncaringly trampled over. My shame was private and did not fade even after I left Malawi two years later. If anything, the faces of the beggars began to crystalize in my dreams, and there was no averting their eyes. I retreated in my art, hopeful that a more tangible expression of my anguish would push their faces out of my head. It worked – for a while, at least. Poverty still remained a thing, a reality, a painful and debilitating fate affecting the other, but the poor had a face – no, each person had a face, and ignoring those faces was no longer possible.