I ended the last post noting that God call us to other centered community. But there is an important question that at first not some obvious: Which others? The world is filled with more than six billion people. Which ones do I start with? Isn’t choosing one over another being judgmental?
There are ethicists who argue that as long as there is one person in the world in need, our use of anything beyond our most basic of necessities is tantamount to murder. Some simple living folks like to emphasize that the US is 5% of the world’s population but consumes more than 20% of the world’s resources (and usually left out of this is that the US also produces more than 20% of worldwide goods and services.) We should be living with less and giving more. But more to whom?
Many activists try to shame us into giving to their championed cause by making the above comparisons. However, if I give money to refugees in Darfur, am I not neglecting the poor in Peru? And if I give to Darfur and Peru, am I not neglecting the starving folks in India. And if I give to Darfur, Peru, and India, am I not neglecting the poor in my own town? The list can expand endlessly. Many people make this connection and an overpowering sense of futility sets in. They see their restraint on consumption and their meager contributions relative to the world’s need as meaningless. This drives some to seek ever more radical changes while a great many others sink into despair, and ultimately apathy, where they no longer even try to address such issues.
But despair and denial don’t satisfy either. After awhile, those who have grown up with adults in this futility funk (or in self-absorbed denial) are inspired by a new generation of idealists. They use the same shame tactics and the whole process repeats. There is no way to prioritize help given to others and the ability to enjoy material abundance is precluded. The dramatically shrinking world via global media and the internet makes us both better informed and more overwhelmed, exacerbating our sense of futility.
We need a different lens through which to view the problem. I believe that much of our problem comes from the polarizing consequences of modernism. Modernism has polarized our view of rights. First there is state sovereignty, where rights emanate from the state and people exist to serve the greater good of the state. Second, there is individual sovereignty, where rights emanate from free individuals who join together to form governmental entities that are meant to protect the sovereignty of individuals. Our views of how to assist others tends to be heavily shaded by this polarized thinking. We either try to solve problems on an individual-to-individual basis or we believe the state should solve problems. While these two options may be legitimate responses for any particular problem they are far from being our only two options.
Imagine different ways you might conceptualize the human body. One way would be to see the body as a solitary object, with little regard to its differentiated composition. Another way would be to see the body is as a collection of billions of cells. Either way is legitimate but far from complete because the body is also a complex organic web of organs and systems that interact with each other. To try to address an illness in the body either on a cell-by-cell basis or as an undifferentiated unit is not likely to be productive.
Similarly, we can’t eliminate poverty purely on a “cell-by-cell” or “individual-to-individual” basis. But solutions that treat society as one undifferentiated mass, instead of as a complex organic web of organs and systems that interact with each other, is doomed to failure too. I believe the escape from debilitating polarities is found in the concept of subsidiarity and at the core of subsidiarity is family. Contrary to what some Christians teach, family is the most important (but far from only) “other” when it comes to sharing our abundance. We will see why in the next post.