As a nation, our society’s relationship to the poor and our desire to alleviate poverty often seem to be informed by two opposing emotional responses: compassion and contempt.
I will address our contempt first. Our disregard for our poor citizens is commonly informed by racism and classism as well as a lack of understanding about mental illness and addictions as health issues.
Underlying all of that, our disregard is also informed by an ancient and often unconsciously held belief that wealth is a sign of virtue and that, conversely, poverty reveals the cursed state of those whose lives lack virtue.
Tied closely to that belief is the understanding that those who hold the right values and work hard will ultimately be rewarded. It is a belief so ingrained even the poor believe it. Of course, hard work and good values often play a large role in contributing to one’s well-being, but they are seldom the whole explanation.
Too few of us are willing to acknowledge our good fortune, such as being born white in a culture that favors being white, or being born into a middle- or upper-class family, or having access to a good education, or any of the factors that contributed to our success and over which we had no control.
I am sure, if we look around long enough, we could identify people we know or about whom we have heard who seemingly had no lucky breaks yet who overcame obstacles and achieved success. Nonetheless, for most people success usually results from a combination of factors with hard work and intelligence or cleverness being just part of the equation.
When we imagine that whatever success we have achieved, we owe solely to our own grit and abilities, it becomes easier to perceive those who live in poverty with contempt.
Fortunately, that is not the whole story, for in contrast to our society’s too frequent demonstration of contempt for our citizens who live in poverty, we are also capable of responding from a perspective informed by compassion. Our compassion arises from our recognition of both our shared humanity and the interrelatedness of our well-being.
To the extent more of us are able to thrive, then, the healthier our society will be, and each of our lives benefit. This is an ancient understanding shared by the early Hebrew prophets. It bears a truth we have yet to fully absorb and appreciate.
One of those prophets was Isaiah. He acknowledged that his fellow citizens often maintained the form of an appropriate spiritual life in that they fasted and humbled themselves, but they ignored the substance of a healthy spiritual life in that they disregarded their relatedness to those who were in need.
This is what I believe to be such a profound insight on Isaiah’s part and, indeed, on the part of most of the ancient Hebrew prophets.
They proposed that those of us whose lives are well sustained are called to seek justice for our contemporaries who are experiencing poverty, oppression or disenfranchisement. Such a call does not arise from a sense of guilt, but from the compassion that arises when our hearts break open in the presence of others’ suffering and, again, from the insight of our interrelatedness.
With such insight we understand those others are not others at all, but rather they are us.
How can we know wholeness when a part of ourselves is oppressed, disenfranchised or living in the misery of poverty? That is what Isaiah was telling us: When we seek to bring an end to the injustices that perpetuate poverty, “then,” he declared, “shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you.”
In this way we uncover the truest sense of spirituality when we make our “oneness with all” our lived experience.
For our own, for one another’s, for our society’s welfare, may we learn to respond to the poverty in our midst with compassion rather than contempt, and may we act to make that the basis for our nation’s social policies.
Rev. Arthur Vaeni is interim minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor.
This piece is part of a contributor series about the difference between charity and justice. Through Faith Linking in Action, an initiative of Brewer-based Food AND Medicine, leaders and lay people alike are sharing their insights. How do various beliefs and backgrounds relate to the needs of people in poverty? What do charity and justice mean in today’s world?
If you’re interested in joining the conversation, submit a piece that’s no longer than 700 words to BDN editor Erin Rhoda at firstname.lastname@example.org.