Beyond rich-poor stereotypes

By Paul Mukerji
21 Feb 2008

One morning, a couple of days after arriving as part of a recent Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) delegation to Colombia, we gathered in the park opposite our hotel for our morning reflection in which we touched upon a number of themes including poverty. The expression “rich and poor” came up and we pondered the utility of using such a description.

Does it accurately describe what we perceive? “The rich” sounds positive, while “the poor” sounds negative; the former seems to refer to the “haves”, the latter to the “have nots”. In our material world it seems as if we like to see everything as “black and white”.

For most of us, the comparatively wealthy, “the poor” are a bunch of people who inhabit a world that we rarely venture into. They lack what we have and use illegal means to try and obtain some of our wealth. We are warned that if we wander into their world we may become a target for assault or robbery. So as much as possible we stay away. The other image that comes to mind is of a people in a distant land, starving with hunger, who need our help to survive. Whichever way we look at them we tend to see their poverty before we see their humanity.

During our time in Colombia we encountered both rural and urban “poor” on a daily basis, and interacting with them probably had the biggest impact on us of anything we experienced on the trip. The people we met helped us much more than we helped them and we were touched by their generosity, hospitality, friendliness, and community spirit. They enabled us to think more deeply about the way we perceive other people and about what might be missing from our own lives. They have definitely known hardship and yet in spite of, or perhaps because of this, they still seemed happy – happy with what we might consider to be simple things: plentiful food, a house to live in, healthy children.

Of course it is important not to idealize “the poor” too much since there is “good” and “bad”, “happiness” and “unhappiness” everywhere. However, too often our materialistic upbringing conditions our eyes to only see what people do not have instead of what they do have. While real poverty does of course exist (and like all injustice, requires combating rigorously), there are many occasions when wealthy people confuse simplicity with poverty, and in so doing fail to appreciate how the former allows much more space and potential for spiritual growth.

In a world where we are used to generalizing, it is inevitable that we will continue to use expressions like “the rich” and “the poor”. However, while accepting that no terminology can be completely accurate, I nonetheless think it is time to redress the balance, to change the negative to the positive, to prioritize the spiritual over the material. After my experiences in Colombia meeting people untainted by materialism, I will from now on think in terms of “the rich” and “the pure”.

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(c) Paul Mukerji lives in Birmingham. He has served with a Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT - www.cpt.org/) delegation in Colombia. See also: http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/6602

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