“The poor you will always have with you,” a strange statement for he who came to give “life more abundant.” Is it possible that Jesus was not utopian. It’s an ironic and perhaps paradoxical statement since Jesus was the incarnation of utopia itself. Or was he? “I have come to set the captives free,” or “Give to Cesar what is Cesar’s and to God what is God’s.” How do we square this circle, how do we make sense of the paradox? Maybe we’re not supposed to – maybe it’s in the permanent tension where the delicate balance of salvation is found. Jesus understood that utopianism inspiring the political imaginations of man is dangerous. The 4000 year history of the theocracy, based in Jerusalem, was enough of a lesson to God the Father that man cannot exercise political power responsibly for him to continue to repeat those mistakes ad infinitum. He had to find another way.
A way to be found, it would seem, in making our peace with poverty – even while we fight it.
“The poor you will always have with you.” But you never want it to be new poor. That is too sad, and too scary. We prefer to watch the nightly news about massacres in the Congo; about the killing of Christians in the Sudan and the murder of innocents in Cambodia. Those places have been always a mess; we don’t expect any different. We sympathize, we sorrow: we are a good people after all. Some of us get on airplanes to go serve. Those who cannot, open their checkbooks. Organizations are formed and dissolved – campaigns are waged and abandoned. Money flows. And still the weaponized rape continues. Third world problems for which we have developed third world answers, outsourced to NGOs and the UN; which let us give of our tremendous prosperity but not lose ourselves in the sadness.
But what about in places where we allowed ourselves to replace sympathy for empathy; not believing that act would hurt us – not really. The poor around the fringes of our civilizations? Those overlooked by so great a prosperity? They are comfortable to help – for are there not even poor where we ourselves reside? Alcoholics asking for a beer, seeking shade under the overpass of I-10 on Baseline road in south Phoenix? The single mother from Moody Church working two jobs, whom we help with a food basket, free babysitting, a bake-sale before worship on Wednesday to pay for that new water heater. This kind of poverty is safe; and accepted – it is ours and it is not dramatic, for we all can empathize. “What if my husband too died in a car crash?” You might ask yourselves sometimes. Do you who read this have enough life insurance? How long could your bank account survive an unwelcome calamity – a cancer diagnosis or an act of stupidity and selfishness which destroys a family? These are “first world” questions for which we have developed our own first world answers as we seek to take care of our own knowing that “there but for the grace of God go I.”
But what about an unexpected poverty – on an epic, catastrophic scale? That is what we who know feel about Venezuela. We who have lived there or visited; missionaries who have built churches in villages among the sugarcane fields of Aragua; diplomats and oil executives who have sailed the privileged winds in the Andes of Merida or dived the storied reefs in Morrocoy or Los Roquez. Who wear perfume by Carolina Herrera (when we can afford it); who celebrate the baseball victories given to us by Ozzie Guillen; who watch the movies starred by Edgar Ramirez. Who have loved beautiful Venezuelan girls and built families of children who are not even half-Venezuelan, not these days, not anymore. It was a land of real prosperity. Sure it was unequal and there were social problems; it was Miami without the rule of law, Costa Rica with an army (therein lies part of the problem). A country which knew about the problems raging around it mostly from those arriving to seek refuge and safe haven as it hosted Jewish refugees from WWII; Cuban refugees fleeing Fidel’s “sea of happiness”; Peruvians fleeing Fujimori; Chileans fleeing first Allende and then Pinochet – glaring at each other over polished countertops in the cafes of Altamira.
Political problems mostly. Fights for freedom with which we Americans can identify. But famines and camps? UNHCR building their latrines; UNICEF managing little schools where the children sit on the dirt in front of teachers brought in from Guinea Bissau and Mali; beautiful Venezuelan girls who before won contests now using those plastic sheeting showers thrown open to the squalor with a simple wind? World Food Program distributing bags of corn-soy-blend to be cooked into little patties on top of makeshift open fires beside deforested hills, the wood used for charcoal and the frames of the plastic houses in the makeshift plastic neighborhoods? Those little harnesses in which the starving children of the desperate are weighed to determine their malnutrition on a scale decided in New York for situations such as these.
No, we who had known the prosperity were caught off guard. To imagine the young people I took beach vacations with; girls I flirted with; professors who taught me how to enjoy Cervantes and Garcia Marquez; mentors who introduced me to my faith – now sitting silent and bored in the camps; eating the patties or prostituting themselves for a bowl of rice? That is what makes this tragedy unimaginable.
So what to do? There are no solutions, it would seem. Rebel warlords in the Congo recruiting child soldiers to protect their squalid bases deep in the jungle where their wicked rituals of domination are enacted; soldiers under the command of a onetime laureate of peace cleansing the Rohingya from land which is also theirs. Now a drug cartel supervising the annihilation of a once-prosperous state.
“The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus told us. He told us this to steady our nerves and our hearts for an endless fight against poverty and injustice; to remind us that we who are rich by any standards that matter might ourselves also become poor; and to guard against any utopian pettifog selling cities of gold beyond the next election – that is how Venezuela got into this mess in the first place, isn’t it?
What does this mean for you reading this? It means you should give – of your prayers, of your money, of your volunteer time. Help a Venezuelan refugee who has come to America. Take your summer vacation and go to Colombia to provide some love in the camps. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Jesus also told us, and examples like Venezuela do bring this home, for while we perhaps can’t imagine ourselves living in a squalid camp in the Congo, we certainly can – and have – seen ourselves in Caracas’ middle class apartments. So click the links below, which will take you to Andean Aid’s donation site if you want to help the refugees, and Fundana’s if you want to send money in dollars to help children abandoned in the mayhem. Commit to pray; sponsor a family. Forward on this heart-felt piece; and make common cause with Venezuela’s new poor. It is what Jesus would have you do.