I’ve suggested that we need to get in touch with the forces within us that distort our sense of need and we need to be intentional in our financial management. Beyond this I want to suggest that we also need to become disillusioned.
Isn’t it interesting that the word “disillusion” has a negative connotation? After all, if we are living an illusion, wouldn’t coming to the truth be a good thing? Most Americans are trapped in an illusion that our existence is normal. We are cognitively aware that we have it pretty good and that billions of people do not share our abundance, but it does not really penetrate our consciousness. We are easily seduced into the illusion that our experience of the world is the norm. In reality, famine, disease, war, illiteracy, pestilence, and oppression have been the norm for humanity throughout the ages. It is our experience of abundance that is novel. We need to be disillusioned to the idea of that our existence is the norm. We need to lose our sense of entitlement and have our eyes opened to the gracious abundance in which we live.
When our illusions are dispelled, two things happen. First, we become deeply grateful for the abundance we have. The "need" monster is cut to size. Things that once consumed us lose much of their allure. There is often a great sense of freedom. Second, when we become aware of how little others have, we become aware of the ability we have to contribute to the betterment of others. A generosity springs forth from within our abundance. So what is the key instrument in our disillusionment? I think it is connection with people who are poor.
There is an old joke where a guy says, “I’m not a racist. I don’t even know any black people.” The fact is that many of us aren’t indifferent to poor because we don’t even know any poor people. We need to be confronted with the lives of the poor. Ideally, I think every American Christian should be exposed to poverty in developing nations firsthand. There is nothing like seeing the conditions of the people who live off the garbage dump in Kingston, Jamaica, or the squatter villages surrounding Monterrey, Mexico, or the Spartan existence of the poor in China. The sights, the sounds, the smells, and the voices make a permanent imprint on our psyche.
A church I did some work with four years ago had a number of urban poor youth from Kansas City, MO. One of the women at the church, with a heart for Jamaica, organized a Christmas break mission trip for these kids. They spent more than a week working and getting to know the poor in a Jamaican village. Nearly all these kids, several of whom had never been outside the Kansas City metro area, came back transformed. They came back with a new appreciation for the opportunities they had available to them compared to the poverty of the Jamaicans they encountered. They were both more motivated to take advantage of the opportunities they had before them and they developed a sense of the abundance they could share with others.
Years ago, Melissa and I located in an urban neighborhood that is by no means a slum but it is squarely in the mix of urban life where we can’t help but come into contact with people of differing economic status. We are involved with a couple of groups that serve the poor in our area. That brings us into contact with the people who wrestle with poverty issues.
Each of us has a different set of circumstances but there are ways that every one of us can reduce our isolation from the poor and we need to be intentional about doing so. We need to be intentional about introducing our children to the lives of those who are without the material abundance we experience. This discipline, more than most, has the power to break the hold materialism has on us.
With that said, it is important that we do not move from indifference toward the poor into romanticizing the poor. The poor are human beings created in the image of God and intended for stewardship. Where there is injustice impacting their lives we need to be partners in seeking justice. Where economic acumen is missing, we need to be about skills transfer and bringing the poor into a position of being stewards who participate with us reciprocally in the economy. We need to be open to what the poor may have to teach us.
We need to avoid romanticizing poverty itself. More than I decade ago I heard Tom Skinner, a powerful Black minister from Harlem speak at the Christian Community Development Association meetings. He railed against Christians who came into his community and want to live in poverty in solidarity with poor. His message was basically that if you have a problem with words like “profit” and “business” then stay the heck out of his neighborhood! The poor have been excluded from knowing how the economic game works and they need people they can learn the game from, not people who perpetuate ignorance out of some romantic notion of solidarity. The poor do not want us to become like them. They want to share in our abundance.
It is beyond the scope of this series to say all that needs to be said here but intentional identification with the poor is important to living simply in abundance. It both reshapes our distorted notions of reality and it connects the lives of those with great material abundance with those who are without. We are finite beings with limited resources but we can attach ourselves to one finite set of circumstances and start there. Which circumstances we attach ourselves to will be related to our context, our proclivities, and our passions, but we must find practical ways in which a portion of our time and money are invested in others.
Even better is when we live as communities among the poor, or we at least engage the poor as part of a missional community. Needs are always well beyond the response any one individual and the diversity of gifts within a community of Jesus’ disciples makes it more likely that a range of resources will be brought to bear. The example of community where others look out after each other and then invite others into that community should be the norm for the church. We have strayed far from this reality. We need to recover it.