This summer, as we have related our experiences in South Africa to North Americans, I sometimes sense a confusion about the people with whom we work in South Africa. For if the people with whom we work in South Africa are among the poorer members of society, why then do they appear in our pictures and reports as they do: wearing suits and ties, using cell phones? The logic, of course, is that these amenities are not within the domain of the poor; thus anyone who has them must not be poor. This may lead to a further line of thinking—if someone is not “really” poor, that someone is not worthy of another’s help.
Last night I watched a television show in which the anchorman expertly exposed a similar logic in the expressed views of popular media pundits. In ruminating on the United States’ budget crisis, these pundits disparaged proposed taxes up to $750 billion as “a drop in the bucket”—of no real consequence—even as they touted, in the name of justice, taxing the poorest Americans whose combined wealth totals only double that same $750 billion. Then, as though he needed a moral argument to support his economic proposals, one pundit insinuated that America’s poor were frauds—since 99% of poor households have refrigerators!
Behind the sentiments in the above examples is an image of the poor person who can neither look like nor have anything in common with the one who himself/herself holds that image of the poor. It’s a sentiment rooted in the lie of our own self-sufficiency, the belief that whatever good we have today is only the result of our own efforts, owing nothing to factors that preceded us in this life. It’s also a lie, I believe, which is usually sustained apart from actual relationships with those whom one perceives as different. For, when one begins to know the other, learning the story of another’s life, compassion—the recognition of the self’s struggle in the other—cannot but arise.