Reading the Huffington Post on January 21st, I learned that Oxfam’s “Working For The Few” report looked at Credit Suisse’s “Global Wealth Report 2013” and Forbes’ list of the world’s billionaires from 2013 to conclude that 1 percent of the global population controls half of the world’s wealth. The report also found that the world’s 85 richest people own the same amount as the bottom half of the entire global population.
I went to look at religion, to see where poverty fit into the doctrines of faith. Each of the four religions I read about, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam, had clear instructions and statements about the responsibility of their followers to tend to the needs of the poor, to shun the lure of materialism and to identify with those who had little.
And reading the Huffington Post article, combined with the precepts of major religions left me wondering how powerful religion is as a world force for good. I see the power in religion, to provide hope, comfort, joy, faith, and charity and in the kindest interpretations of scripture, it can provide an abiding love of the world, of all our brothers and sisters around the globe. I also know that religion can be a force that divides or causes conflicts.
What worries me is that the forces for good, — the impulse to give and to sacrifice and to empathize with others who are not like us in culture, skin color, religion, or politics—these forces are not winning. What worries me is that not only are the instructions to provide for those in need, to refrain from judging another because of the clothes they wear, say, or the house they live in or the part of the city they are from, but instead to consider the humanity of all of those with whom we live and work, –these instructions are falling on deaf ears. And this deafness to ones own religious precepts, the avoidance of what is taught in one’s own text of worship, allows for a free range of greed and cruelty.
I know about the doctrine of wealth that some mega churches espouse. I know that many politicians claiming to be Christian lead the fight against taxes or minimum wage increases or health care mandates that would give those who work the hardest in this country a chance for food, shelter, and even hope for their children. We have all seen such individuals use their proclaimed religion as an asset for election victories while ignoring the true tenets of their own faith. What I don’t know is, given the remarkable ministers and social justice priests and peace loving imams and kind practitioners of Buddhism, why the bad guys are winning. Why are the voices of those in the neighborhoods where I work, who are providing food for children in schools, or food shelves in their churches, or practicing medicine in free clinics or delivering clothing to those who cannot go out of their homes, silenced? Not silenced in an individual way, perhaps, but silenced in the broader political landscape.
We have articles in the paper all the time about these courageous community activists, teachers, faith leaders. Yet in the halls of power they are patted on the head, in a metaphorical sense I guess, and told to go back to their streets and deserted lots and homes without heat, and highway underpasses and to keep on keepin’ on.
Even the speeches and concerns of the Democratic party in this state and nationally, rarely mention those in poverty. It has become a dirty word, this word. It somehow implies “undeserving”, or the “takers” as Mitt Romney put it, at the same time so many of the poor are working at jobs just like you and me, paying taxes, bringing up children while doing double shifts. My own party is afraid to make loud and strong pronouncements about changing a system that allows 64.4 million children to live in poverty in this country. Even my own party, one I am becoming more and more disillusioned with, does not want to be tainted by being thought of as “soft”, on crime, on welfare, on guns.
I am not a person who practices an established religion myself. And maybe it is because I cannot connect to the ritual and the single mindedness, after being raised in a strict Episcopal boarding school. Maybe it is because I believe in one overarching connection among all humankind, that I find religion restricting in its reach. It could be that some of my experience of religion contained a condescending and missionary approach among those with whom I worked, a martyrish, savior mentality that worried me and that kept me from being a part of any orthodoxy. At the same time I have recently worked with those who practice all four faiths I quoted from above. I enjoy the beauty of ritual, the lights and songs and visual images generated by faiths of all kinds.
I am concerned that forces in the world are propelling the power of religion toward division, and away from love. I know that religion has become a battlefield in some countries, and a great justification for greed in others. The “voice in the wilderness” is drowned out by the fewer and fewer more and more powerful and rich. It seems that there is no present day resolution to what I see as a continuing devaluing of the human spirit.
In order not to live a bitter and hopeless life that paralyzes us in its fruitless endeavor toward some basic human justice, we become local. We work in the small radius of city streets we can manage. We deliver meals or tutor children or mentor young people or write poems or play music or have a party too. The main caution, however, is not to believe this will halt the rapid spin of our planet, the increasing poverty of the poorest country, the accumulating wealth of the few who are not taxed and who are given a kind if “dispensation” if you will, to continue to accumulate. We may speak truth to power, we may pray about it all, yet we cannot hide behind the illusion that we as individuals can stop what is happening. And we cannot continue to be convinced that our god, our spirit, our deity, can stop it either. It is a comfort and a healing thing to believe in something beyond ourselves; I agree. Yet resting there, or turning it over, is not enough. What will do it? I don’t know. I used to think God might come along eventually, but she seems just as perplexed as many of us.