When we were living in England, a professor at my university named Paul Collier wrote a book called The Bottom Billion. In it, he argues that during the worldwide economic growth of the 1980s and 90s, about 60 countries, comprising 1 billion people, failed to experience any growth, despite international aid and support. The majority of the developing world, about 5 billion people, experienced improved conditions during that period—sometimes as a rapid rate. Collier suggested there were four traps that kept the poorest billion people on earth so impoverished. The traps are conflict, a lack of natural resources, landlocked with bad neighbors, and bad governance.[i]
It’s easy to take any of these for granted if you don’t experience those poverty traps. As I sat at my desk at home writing this message, I looked out my window at the lush, green woods of the Rivanna Trail System, and with reckless abandon, took for granted how rich the United States is in natural resources. When I thought about our position in the affluent minority, I remembered one of my first trips to Haiti many years ago.
Back then, as I flew into Port-au-Prince, I was struck by the gray and tan sandy hills around the city. They were almost devoid of any vegetation because of deforestation and erosion. Haiti is one of Collier’s examples of the bottom billion and it ticks three of the four poverty trap boxes. The country has gone from one conflict to another, including the unresolved assassination of President Moïse, one year ago last Wednesday. Now, rival gangs control Port-au-Prince and everyone lives in fear of violence.
Haiti lacks natural resources because of over-farming and poor resource management. What could have been a teeming tropical paradise is pretty barren. The Caribbean Sea around the country is over-fished and polluted. There’s no wood to build anything because previous generations cut down the forests.
Haiti is just one example. It’s the tip of the iceberg. According to the most recent data from the World Bank, there are 43 countries with a lower per capita GDP than Haiti.[ii] Even though we complain about inflation and high gas prices here in the U.S., many of us still fill our cars with gas, buy groceries, pay our rent or mortgage, and take vacations.
It’s so easy to overlook the poverty all around us. We just don’t see it. Or, we’ve become numb to it. Do you remember those commercials with the starving children in Ethiopia in the 1980s? They moved many people to heroic generosity, but addressing the causes of the 1983-85 famine in Ethiopia was much more complicated.
British pop stars all came together to record “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in 1984 and soon after American answered with “We Are the World.” We could all donate some money and feel good, while ignoring the trade policies, border disputes, and bad governance that created one of the worst humanitarian crises in the twentieth century.
Whenever images of starving people splashed across the news in the decades since then, we can either make a donation or change the channel. With so much consistent suffering, sometimes we just want to say, “Not now.” Yet, God says, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full” (Proverbs 19.17). Proverbs is full of sayings that connect the way we treat people in need with our relationship with God.
The reason we want to change the channel that shows people suffering is because it is hard to watch people who reflect the fragility of the human condition. We skip the ad with the starving children because it hurts to see our own vulnerability, and we know that we are no different than the people in those ads. Proverbs 14.20-21 juxtaposes our treatment of poor people with how we relate to the rich. “The poor are disliked even by their neighbors, but the rich have many friends. Those who despise their neighbors are sinners, but happy are those who are kind to the poor.”
Raymond Van Leeuwan writes about this verse, “That people curry favor with the rich, the beautiful, and the powerful—those who seem to possess life to the full—is a converse comment on the drive to seek security and life on the horizontal human plane rather than in God.”[iii] To me, it’s amazing how people favor the rich over the poor even though God loves everyone. When we do that, we reflect our own preference for human values instead of God’s values.
Jesus said “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22.39). He didn’t say to only love our rich neighbors. He didn’t say to love those who are worthy, beautiful, powerful, or “seem to possess life to the full.” He said “love your neighbors.” When we turn to the wisdom of Proverbs, we find a “theological explanation for the mystery of profitable generosity.”[iv] When we give to the poor, we loan money to God. This logic connects with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25.31-46. “Whatever you did for the least of these… you did for me (25.40).
In his 1971 book Revolution Through Peace, the Brazilian Archbishop Hélder Câmara wrote:
I used to think when I was a child, that Christ might have been exaggerating when he warned about the dangers of wealth. Today I know better. I know how very hard it is to be rich and still keep the milk of human kindness. Money has a dangerous way of putting scales on one’s eyes, a dangerous way of freezing people’s hands, eyes, lips, and hearts.[v]Revolution Through Peace by Hélder Camara
We all see what is in front of us. When the price I pay for something goes up, that’s all I see. It’s easy let the world in front of me grow into scales over my eyes and forget that God loves everyone, including those who are struggling and suffering. God loves the rich and the poor alike, and if we truly follow God, we do too.
Looking at a billion hungry neighbors is overwhelming. Instead, we focus on what we can do. We can help one person who doesn’t have enough to eat. This reminds me of the person who walked along the beach at low tide throwing starfish back into the sea. When another person saw what he was doing, they asked why he was throwing starfish into the sea. He said, “Soon the sun will come out and dry them up. Then they will die.”
The other person scoffed and pointed at the hundreds (or thousands) of starfish on the beach. “You don’t think you can make a difference with all of them, do you?”
The person picked up a starfish and threw it into the sea. He said, “I made a difference with that one.”
Proverbs 19.17 says, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full.” God calls us to exercise kindness and compassion to those who have less than we do. When we give to the poor, we are giving to the Lord and enter the mystery of profitable generosity. Whether we spend time chopping vegetables for our freeze-drying program, or pack a Venable bag… Whether we write a check to buy food for the Venable bags, or contribute Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry… When we help feed the hungry, we are helping feed the Lord.
And we can make a difference in one person’s life.
[i] Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
[iii] Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “Proverbs,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1997), 142.
[iv] Van Leeuwen, “Proverbs,” 180.
[v] Helder Camara, Revolution Through Peace, trans. Amparo McLean (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 142. Cited in Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1977), 19.