September 12 2011 09:00 | Residenz, Cuvilliés-Theater
Christian Unity, Love of the Poor by Munib A. Younan
Saint Benedict had a very simple motto: Ora et labora – Latin for “Pray and Work.” Last summer the Lutheran World Federation gathered in assembly in Stuttgart under the theme, “Give us today our daily bread,” highlighting this one petition of the Lord’s Prayer. For those who see the church as a place of spiritual nourishment, I agree completely. Yet prayer and work go together. For me diakonia is an integral part of our spirituality. In the Lord’s Prayer, spirituality and concern for the poor come together as one.
In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther in discussing the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer asked “What does ‘daily bread’ mean?” His answer:
Everything that belongs to the support and wants of the body, such as meat, drink, clothing, shoes, house, homestead, field, cattle, money, goods, a pious spouse, pious children, pious servants, pious and faithful magistrates, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.
God’s vision for the world as expressed in LWF documents is for “People of the world live in just societies in peace and dignity, united in diversity, and empowered to achieve their universal rights, to meet basic needs and quality of life.” We pray “Give us today our daily bread.” Yet people are hungry, people are struggling in poverty.
The world is facing one crisis after another, and we cannot shrink away from them. Characteristic of the fears of globalization are issues that came to light by the 1992 report of the United Nations Development program that found an immense control of the world’s resources by a few:
When one considers that 60 % of the world’s population lived on less than 5 % of the world’s income, and that these figures have only grown worse over that last two decades, one can certainly understand the frustration and the tendency to move to extremism. In 2005, the latest year for which data are available, 1.4 billion people in developing countries lived in extreme poverty—on less than $1.25 a day.
Similarly, we see problems of disease like HIV-AIDS and Malaria, as well as high infant mortality rates affecting the poorer countries of the south. Climate Change now affects growing patterns. The world’s deserts are growing and the horn of Africa is facing extreme draught, leading to one of the worst famines in history.
It is clear that God does not will poverty, hunger, disease, and the like. It’s not a problem with God, but a problem with humankind. The Old Testament prophets were constantly reminding the people of this dereliction of duty. The words of Ezekiel are repeated dozens of times: “This was the guilt, [of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters] they had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49)
And how interesting it is that 500 years ago, Martin Luther not only connected “Bread” with all the physical necessity of life, but also related it to good rulers, good government, good weather, and peace. So what are the obstacles to wholeness in life –or to put it in negative terms, factors contributing to poverty and hunger in our world?
According to Bread for the World, just one of many organizations working to overcome worldwide hunger, “Hunger is a political condition. ... Hunger does not exist because the world does not produce enough food. We have the experience and the technology right now to end the problem. The challenge we face is not production of food and wealth, but more equitable distribution.” 5 As Gandhi said, “There's enough on this planet for everyone's needs but not for everyone's greed.”
From the vantage point of history, we observe that most poor countries today were once vassals of the great colonial powers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Even when they exited these countries, they did so in a way that advantaged the empires, leaving the newly- independent countries disempowered and
dysfunctional, fighting with their neighbors over things like ports and borders. There are sometimes problems with infrastructure and barriers to distribution.
A sort of “invisible” colonialism continues in the form of global trade rules that advantage farmers in wealthy countries, such as massive subsidies available to U.S. and European farmers. Consequently, poor countries are unable to break the shackles of the colonial economic model, which depends largely on the export of natural resources.
Debt: Whether by design or by accident, global finance institutions keep poor countries locked in an inescapable cycle of debt. Organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, ostensibly created to foster global macroeconomic stability, impose conditions that prevent the poorer of the borrower countries from providing education, health, social safety nets and opportunities for work – the very things necessary for these countries to pay back their loans and become self-sufficient.
The unbearable levels of debt, coupled with corruption, weak democracies and clientele politics, hinders delivery of aid and business investment, making the escape from poverty all but impossible.
Militarization: The United Nations Development Program estimates that the basic health and nutrition needs of the world’s poorest people could be met for an additional $13 billion a year. Since 2001, The United States has spent $ 1.242 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is an average of $ 10 billion per month from one nation over a period of ten years.
In a world that cries out for plowshares, global powers build swords. The business of arms trade reaches every country of the globe. It seems there will never be an end to war, and it is the poor who suffer when their country’s resources are diverted from social needs, education and infrastructure. Because of wars, the number of refugees, migrants, and internally displaced persons continues to rise. For me, arms build strife and kills life while education builds life.
Climate change: Poor countries don’t have the luxury of debating the reality of global climate change. They are already suffering the consequences. An Oxfam briefing states that “hundreds of millions of people are already suffering damage from a rapidly changing climate, which is frustrating their efforts to escape poverty.”
Similarly, the poorest countries suffer the greatest impact while being the smallest contributors. Research by the International Institute for Environment and Development shows that the 100 countries most vulnerable to climate change produce just 3.2 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions—many of them in the South. Dr. Per Prestrud, director of the Center for Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, said that the 2003 heat wave in Europe resulted in a drop in food production of 20 to 25 percent and natural vegetation productivity dropped by 30 percent in just one summer.
Climate change is, in a sense, a gender issue as well. The 2007 UN Human
Development Report predicts climate change will “magnify existing patterns of gender inequalities.” Women are disproportionately affected by access to water, firewood, medicine and livelihood. A recent LWF Mission and Development Program publication quoted 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai on this subject. “Climate change is harder on women in poor countries where mothers stay in areas hit by drought, deforestation or crop failures as men move to literally greener pastures. ... Many destructive activities against the environment disproportionally affect women, because most women in the world, and especially in the developing world, are very dependent on primary natural resources: land, forest and water. Women are very immediately affected, and usually women and children can’t run away.”
These factors all play an important role in the continuation of poverty in our world today.
Unity of Christianity
What is the role of Christianity? The title of this talk assigned to me is not just “Love for the poor,” but the Unity of Christianity: Love for the poor.” The church must take responsibility for the continuing presence of poverty and hunger in the world today. True, we have always preached love for the poor, but we have often been ineffective, and have even been at times part of the problem and not the solution. The church needs to repent of sins of omission and commission, and set a strategy that gives highest priority to the alleviation and eradication for poverty in the world. Isn’t that what Jesus meant by instructing us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread”?
First, the church needs to play a prophetic role in speaking to the political issues of the day that impact the poor of the world. The Old Testament prophets were always the defenders of the poor, the widows, and the orphans, giving voice to the voiceless, and challenging the inequities of society. We in the churches today can do no less. Prophetic diakonia “is never just words, but rather, actions looking for ways by which transformation can take place.”
El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero addressed this in a sermon only months before his assassination in March 1980:
The Church is obliged by its evangelical mission to demand structural changes that favor the reign of God and a more just and comradely way of life. Unjust social structures are the roots of all violence and disturbances. How hard and conflicting are the results of evangelical duty! Those who benefit from obsolete structures react selfishly to any kind of change.
For Romero and others, evangelism is not an alternative to working for justice. On May 16 of this year Pope Benedict XVI issued a call to “evangelize society for a globalization for the common good,” speaking before the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Mater et Magistra: Caritas in Veritate, a document that addressed the imbalances and inequalities which fuel injustices in our world.
Second, the church needs to move beyond the practice of almsgiving, which focuses on the idea of pity for the poor and which satisfies a good feeling for the donor. Respecting the fundamental belief of the image of God in all humanity, the church must view the poor with dignity and not create dependencies. The focus is on resource sharing and building networks which show that we are all interdependent. This follows the old Chinese proverb that it is better to teach a person how to fish than simply to give them fish to eat.
Third, the aim of diakonia must be empowerment and justice. The 2009 LWF document Diakonia in Context: Transformation, Reconciliation, and Empowerment states:
It should be remembered that empowerment always implies shifting of power, which means that imbalances of power must be dealt with critically. Diakonia should constantly raise this issue, not only in society and in the relations between helpers and those helped, but also with reference to diaconal praxis and how power is established and lived out in the life of the church. Too often the question of power is silenced in the Church; in some cases it is even disguised in service language.
Empowerment transforms individuals, and through individuals it transforms societies. Individuals are empowers to plant their fields, to advance their local economies, to govern their own institutions, and to gain the skills to build a strong civil society. In turn, they reach out to empower others in a spirit of accompaniment.
Fourth, the church must separate its diaconal work from older ideas about conversion. Part of our respect for the dignity of the other must be our respect for their religious beliefs. One of my first tasks after my election as President of LWF was to make a public statement concerning the country of Pakistan which suffered from terrible floods last summer—after also recently enduring earthquakes and political strife. I wrote, “The flood does not differentiate along ethnic, political, or religious lines; neither should we. This is the time to unite behind our common humanity.”
Following the Indian earthquake of Dec. 26, 2004 that created a massive Tsunami of death and destruction, none of us in the Lutheran church thought twice about what our response would be. Then in places like Indonesia people began asking, “Why are you helping us?” The answer of course is that they are God’s children sharing our common humanity. How could we not help these brothers in sisters in need? And we were not expecting anything in return. This has been our approach throughout the world.
Fifth, the church needs to work more on an accompaniment model in which it is not always the north aiding the south, but the north and south accompanying each other, as also south accompanying south.
Sixth, the church and church-related institutions must move from competition to cooperation. For many years the good intentions of many churches have been less effective because of lack of cooperation among one another. In earlier decades, many churches and their institutions relied completely on their own fund raising programs, their own communications networks, and their own delivery systems and mission personnel when it came to dealing with issues of poverty and hunger. There was no unified strategy and the result was often competition and duplication. I call upon leaders of all churches and church-related agencies to join together in a common strategy and a unified and cooperative effort to deal with issues of poverty. This is the litmus test of our ecumenism: Can we join forces in prophetic dikonia to bring transformation?
I can report positive strides in this area and hold up for you the example of ACTAlliance. ACT Alliance, created on January 1, 2010, is an alliance of 111 churches and church related organizations (member churches of LWF and WCC) that work together in humanitarian assistance, advocacy and development. It is a natural development from the organization ACT International working in these areas since 1995.
The alliance works in 140 countries and mobilizes US$ 1.6 billion annually in its work for a just world. The alliance has over 33,000 people working for it globally with a Secretariat of eighteen working in Geneva. Much work is long term development, but ACT Alliance is also prepared for emergency work. The ACT Alliance web page currently focuses on three areas: The country of Columbia in South America affected by floods and war; Sri Lanka, providing relief from flooding described as worse than a tsunami; and the famine of the horn of Africa. (www.ACTAlliance.org)
ACT Alliance has been able to act quickly and efficiently with a unified strategy that channels the resources from 111 churches into a unified effort. This is a giant step in the direction of a completely unified Christian effort, not to mention interfaith efforts, needed to combat poverty in our world today. How would it be if all churches and related agencies were able to cooperate in this manner for the sake of the poor?
Our responsibility is great. Martin Luther King put it this way: “As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I posses a billion dollars. As long as millions of people are inflicted with debilitating diseases and cannot expect to live more than thirty-five years, I can never be totally healthy even if I receive a perfect bill of health from Mayo Clinic. Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”
We are all bound together in a world of poverty and hunger. When we pray for God to give us today our daily bread, we pray mindful for all in need. When we pray, we are compelled to act. Ora et labora.
May God bless you.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Munib A. Younan
The Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land The President of the Lutheran World Federation(LWF)