How to talk about poverty without being a jerk

Maybe, like me, you grew up watching those World Vision child sponsorship advertisements on TV.

You know the ads: a group of African children with swollen bellies waving away the flies, while a celebrity spokesperson - Bono, or Angelina Jolie, or Peewee Herman (OK maybe not Peewee Herman) - kneels beside them and pleads their cause, "For less than a dollar a day..."

The narrative of poor people as pathetic victims, waiting for the Superhero Donors to come and save them, was a powerful one and it worked wonders in convincing us to open our wallets. People take action when they feel like their actions will bring change.

Superdonor to the rescue!

Superdonor to the rescue!

So, we found ourselves cast as superheroes in the poverty story. We felt empowered and we gave LOTS of money as a result. Win for the non-profit coffers! That's why charities clung to the narrative for so long. But the wrong people were being empowered. As usual.

Now, the tide has shifted. The wiser organizations (including World Vision) have realized that portraying the poor as helpless victims is not especially helpful. Nor is it truthful. 

We're learning that telling the stories of people in poverty and unjust situations is FRAUGHT with pitfalls. That's why we're figuring out how to get out of the way and give them a platform to tell their own stories. To speak with their own words.

Our role? - to amplify their voices.  

But nevertheless, if you are a caring person who gives a flying fig about injustice, there are times when you will need to speak of these situations - to your friends, to your church, and within your sphere of influence. You can and should be an advocate. 

So how do you speak of poverty without being a jerk?

How do you speak of injustice without playing the great white superhero role?

It's a fine line, and I still struggle to get it right but Patrisse Cullors, one of the leaders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement recently articulated it in a way that seems helpful...

"I think it’s important in this current historical moment that we’re naming the tragedy and the resilience. So the tragedy is black people are being killed often and continue to be killed often. The tragedy is that black people are living in poverty. Black folks have the highest rate of homelessness. Those are the tragedies, but there is also this other side, which is this amazing movement that is challenging age-old racism and discrimination. And I always tell audiences what a great time to be alive, to show up for this current historical moment." 
Patrisse Cullors, #Blacklivesmatter

You see what she did there? She named the tragedy AND the resilience. Both are important. Both are true. 

When we name only the tragedy, like in those ads from the 1980's, we cast poor people as pathetic victims who can do nothing but wait for an outside savior. And we end up framing all our responses to poverty and injustice around ourselves and the money we can raise.

Once again Mammon becomes the savior of the world, the very thing Jesus was careful to warn us against (Mt 6:24). Non-Profits become huge fundraising and marketing operations. Nowadays, they might be slicker and less condescending, but the essential narrative hasn't changed much - donors and their money are the change-makers of the world. Yay for rich people - saviors of poor people!

When we name only the tragedy, we deny the work that God is already doing in their lives and communities.

On the flip-side, when we name only the resilience, we gloss over the very real challenges faced by people living on the margins. We romanticize their lives. 

When we name only the resilience, we ignore our own complicity in an unjust system. We deny the invitation God extends to us to repent and come alongside.

When we name only the resilience, we assume they'll be fine and we can get back to our lifestyles of affluence and comfort and Netflix binges. Apathy reigns supreme.

So, we need to bring the two sides together. We need to name both the tragedy and the resilience. It's time to use inspiration rather than guilt.

In Alongsiders. we've been stumbling along trying to do this for a few years. The tragedy faced by vulnerable children around Africa and Asia is very real. I observe it everyday in the Cambodian slum community where we make our home. Abuse, prostitution, addiction, exploitation, trafficking. All those things. And more. 

But there is a growing movement of Asian (and recently East African) youth - in far-flung places like Indonesia and India and Cambodia and Pakistan. Young people calling themselves Alongsiders, from the slums and rural villages who want to be part of the solution. Young Christians who are willing to walk alongside those who walk alone, to take on one child each as their "little brother" or "little sister".

As we say in Khmer - it takes a spider to repair its own web. The spider, the insider, is the key player. Local people are at the heart of what God is doing in any particular place.

Our role is to come alongside them, and strengthen their hand. As outsiders we are called to amplify their voices, lighten their load, equip and support them. For they are the true change-makers.

Not us.

As the ancient words of the prophet Isaiah remind us...

"YOUR people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; YOU will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings." (Isaiah 58:12)

And right there is the resilience.



For more of these thoughts, grab a copy of my new book out this month, Subversive Jesus - it's full of stories of tragedy and resilience and all the lessons we've learned along the way.