In anticipation of my returning to visit Haiti, I have thought a great deal about inequality of wealth and what it means to be one of the world’s privileged.
For most of my life, I have not thought of myself as rich. My income just barely would qualify me as a member of the American middle class. I have lived simply and frugally, foregone extravagances, fancy cars, expensive jewelry. I don’t own diamonds nor do I have extra money to squander at the casino or to invest in the stock market. “Wealth management” for my family has usually meant saving a few dollars here and there for a rainy day.
Living frugally and simply when that’s your only choice does not really make one morally superior to either those better off nor those who have even less. My friends in Haiti would have a hard time understanding the ideas espoused by “simple living” self-help books.
My life, even my frugal, simple life, compared to the majority of the world’s population is abundant. I do not go hungry except when I cut calories to lose weight. I do not sleep in a tent except when I’m roughing it on a camping trip. I have indoor plumbing, clean water, land to farm, and opportunities for employment. My children and grandchildren are healthy and have good lives, even if there are day to day struggles, frustrations, and disappointments. I have worked hard, but the differences in my life and the lives of most Haitian women, are a matter of where we were born. I am not blessed because I have earned it.
The Bible often talks about the poor. I can’t think of an instance where the Bible or Jesus blamed the poor for their situation. The poor are not asked to sell all they have and give it to someone else. That would be silly. The story of the foolish man who built barn after barn to store his harvest is not about a homeless person or even a middle class farmer. The rich are cautioned repeatedly about the love of money, and are told to sell everything they have and to give the proceeds to the poor. We are told to give God the first fruits of our labor, not what is left after all the bills are paid. The Bible’s many teachings about economics are directed toward the rich.
On the other hand, the examples of generosity are often those of the poor giving out of the very little they have. The widow gives her last coins, another the last of the flour and oil in her cupboard. A small boy gives up his meager lunch of a little bread and a couple fish to help feed a crowd. Would the message be the same if a rich man in the crowd paid for lunch for everyone with no real sacrifice on his part?
When we give away those things we no longer need, is that generosity or is it convenience? We relieve the guilt we feel for buying new things we don’t really need, and we don’t have the inconvenience and cost of disposing of our discarded stuff. If something is “good enough for someone who doesn’t have anything,” why is it not good enough for us who have everything? Why is it wrong for a poor person to waste money or make bad choices, but okay for those of us who can pay for those mistakes?
The poverty of Haiti, around the world and even in this country, is not a simple problem. There is no one cause and no one solution. Haiti has a long history of exploitation, greed and violence beginning when Christopher Columbus first set foot on the island in 1492. Centuries of colonial rule, export agriculture, slavery and war stripped the soil of nutrients, the mountainsides of forests and mined the gold from the ground. The French demanded reparation for the loss of their “property,” (their plantations and their slaves) when Haiti declared independence. The Haitian government made payments on that debt and interest, amounting to billions of dollars, until 1947. The country remains in debt to the rest of the world even after millions of dollars of principle and interest have been paid and forgiven.
While freed from slavery by their revolution, the country remains enslaved by poverty and debt.
Guilt for the actions of those who went before us is not the solution. The solutions to inequality will not be found in asking the poor to lead more frugal lives or to make wiser decisions about how they live, work and spend their money. Solutions will be found in our learning how to be truly generous and to live our own lives more simply in spite of our abundance. We are the ones who need to make wiser decisions about our resources, to waste less, consume less and share more. We don’t need to store up our blessings and hoard more than we need. We need to trust that we have enough and work to see that others also have enough.
Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains