My friends and I were discussing the book of Micah in a recent Bible study. Micah was a Judean prophet of the 8th century BC. Micah warned of the destruction of Jerusalem and accused the leaders of deceit, thievery, and neglect of the poor. The well know verse, Micah 6:8 says, “He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Our lesson included a discussion of how we advocate for the poor by seeking justice in our present time.
In 2013 a group of us went to Haiti. Haiti is on the west end of the island of Hispaniola, the landing-place of Christopher Columbus in 1492, Often the first statistic cited about the country is that it is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. That is true.
That trip and the two I have taken since, have changed how I understand the prophet Micah and the Bible’s teachings about wealth and our responsibility to the rest of God’s creation. Those trips also changed my first response when asked about Haiti and it’s people.
Coming home from a mission trip is complex. On one hand it is wonderful to be back with my family, to be able to sleep in my own bed, to cook in my own kitchen and to turn on the faucet and know it is safe to drink the water that comes out. It is easy to say, “I am so blessed. I have seen what poverty is and I am grateful for the many blessings I have.” Those are sincere and real feelings. It’s not long, however, until the daily struggles to pay bills, to get on top of my to-do list, and my consumer lifestyle take over and my gratitude disappears.
The other emotion which overwhelms many short-term mission participants is one of guilt that we have so much and our friends in “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere” have so little. A sense of ineffectiveness and despair often overwhelms us as we can’t see how our meager efforts can make a difference.
Our recent Bible study challenged us and asked what we are doing to seek justice for the poor in our community, our nation and our world.
Often the proverb (origin unknown) “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime,” is used to advocate against simply giving the poor a handout and instead giving the “least of these” the skills they need to help themselves. While on the surface this seems like common sense, helping the poor is not this simple.
Feeding someone who is starving is sometimes the right thing to do. As the pastor of the church we work with in Haiti has said, “An empty stomach has no ears.” Sometimes our neighbors just need food, a blanket, and clean water to drink.
The second part of the proverb is simplistic and unintentionally condescending. It assumes the poor do not know how to fish. My experience is that the poor often know how to do many things. They know how to fish, to grow things on plots of ground we wouldn’t think of planting and to survive in places I could not, even with all my “superior” knowledge. The poor are not poor because they know nothing.
The proverb’s assumption that the poor don’t fish because they don’t know how ignores the reality that they may not have access to the tools needed to fish. Do they have a boat or a fishing pole, or a net? Are there actually fish to catch or has the sea’s bounty been over-fished by huge trawlers belonging to foreign corporations exploiting the sea’s resources to supply northerners’ grocery stores? Are there regulations which require licenses and fees for fishing? Is the shore accessible to small boats? Do the poor have fuel to cook the fish once caught? Eating fish alone will not sustain anyone. Do people have access to foods containing adequate vitamins and fats? Do they have clean water?
In order to help the poor we need to learn to be humble and to listen. What do our friends need? What do they want? What tools do they have and what are they missing? How are we standing in their way? Which of our country’s trade policies are like the unfair transactions Micah accused the powerful of Jerusalem of making with the poor and needy? How does our consumerism impact the lives of others in the world? Does the manufacture of the goods we buy provide fair living wages for those who make them? Are the foods we eat grown and harvested by people who themselves have enough to eat?
Do we need that new gadget, expensive pair of shoes, latest fashion? Are our discarded goods dumped on the shores of another country, overwhelming their ability to recycle and reuse them? Is giving away what we don’t need charity or a guilt-free method of disposal?
These are hard questions. I don’t believe that there are easy or painless ways to help the world’s poor. According to the prophet Micah and to the gospel that is the basis of Christian teaching, even if it is difficult, failing to advocate for those without enough is not an option.