Preferential Option for the Poor—Part III

19 Jul

My blog posting on poverty engendered two responses that reframed the issue, particularly redefining the term “poverty.” I conclude the discussion with excerpts from these responses. Each response was much longer than what appears here—I have edited their material substantially, I hope, without distorting their intention.

From Stewart Herman—theological ethicist, college professor, retired. herman@cord.edu

I’ve never been smitten by the idea of a ‘preferential option for the poor’, no doubt mostly out of moral insensitivity, but partly out of confusion.  How to define poverty? I think of poverty dynamically in terms of inaccessibility—the inaccessibility of resources.   That is, I am poor when I am unable to acquire and use what makes for a healthy, materially comfortable life.   This line of thinking gets me to two terms that struck me from Kurt Hendel’s prophetic reflection: oppression and hoarding.  These are actions that make resources inaccessible.   So poverty is not only relative but relational.  It is relative in that what counts as being poor in one setting may not in another.  I have seen many contexts where people without much in the way of material possessions still seemed to have fulfilling lives.  But poverty is also relational in that it exists where people are prevented from, or simply not enabled, to secure the resources needed for a decent human life.   Call this a dynamic definition of poverty—pointing to the dynamics involved.

From Mark Hoelter—retired Unitarian-Universalist minister and therapist. mhoelter528@gmail.com

We do better to speak of “people who are experiencing poverty” or “people who are poor” rather than categorically of “the poor.” In the USA the largest number of people who are experiencing poverty are people of color. So I submit that we do well to use “Black Lives Matter” as a current translation to “preferential option for the poor.” It is what that movement has been about.

Engaging people around the issues of fairness using John Rawls’s thought experiment is another avenue, noting that Rawls at one time contemplated becoming an Episcopal priest, so there is some Christian moral thinking in the background. To simplify his exercise: Imagine you are not yet born; you are about to be born into a world with societies and disparities much like our own. You do not know into which country you will be born, with what color of skin, with what degree of family wealth or poverty and social support, as what gender or sexual orientation. Assume that you will not be born as you find yourself now; you could be born into wealth and privilege, but by statistical reckoning you well might be born into poverty; you could be born to white parents and a white family, but you might well be born as a child of color. You do not know into what religious milieu you will be born either; maybe it will be Christian or Jewish, but maybe it will be Muslim or “None” or Buddhist or Hindu. Given all this, what laws and structures would you want to be guiding the society (and world), to give yourself and everyone fair opportunities and protections?

We know all too, that awareness and enlightenment do not lead automatically or easily to actual change. There is in fact the phenomenon the social scientists, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, call “immunity to change.” It happens at the family level, as family therapists well know (see the works of Murray Bowen and Edward Friedman); it happens at the corporate and society level (see the works, of Peter Senge and his group). Both the divine and the demonic, god and the devil, are in the details. To go back to Christian texts, Jesus’s use of what was probably a popular aphorism in his day still fits: “Be innocent as doves and wise as serpents,” where “wise as serpents” means equipping ourselves with as much social-scientific knowledge and community organizing savvy as we can for effective social transformation.

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