Saturday, January 8, 2011

Are we too comfortable in our concerns?

"Whatever you have that you do not need does not belong to you".

These words cut me like a knife. Yesterday, Byron (E.D. at William Penn House) handed me a pamphlet printed by FWCC called "Standing in Uncomfortable Places". It's written by a woman, Alexie Torres-Fleming, about leaving a successful midtown Manhattan career to return to her Bronx NY community with a calling of love. Towards the end of her essay, she moves on to her lessons of life. The sentence above is lesson one. No explanation needed. Just a whole lot of hurting. It's something that has also been very much on my mind for quite a few years, but with greater clarity in the past few months.

I am becoming rapidly and increasingly convinced that so many of the issues that we Friends spend lots of time and money on are missing the most fundamental things that are more in-line with all that we espouse. Specifically, we as the larger body are completely missing economic equality, and I think we do so at the risk of our own integrity. I am not saying we be held responsible for the world of poverty, but as we raise our voices and live our lives in modern society, I do think we have to be more active in recognizing the role of poverty in the perpetuation of all that we lament. The challenge is that economic equality is not something we can simply look at as a problem of the poor: it is as much a problem of those of us who have more than we need. "Poor people" are not a culture, they are a part of society.

In all the years that I have been doing HIV-work, I have long-felt that the real issue is not HIV, but economic inequality. Bono was the first to raise this to a new level of awareness but his message has always been muted by his own image and lifestyle. It is hard to be critical of him, and I suspect he fully understands the dilemmas, but many of the people who have heard his message do not stop to think that poverty has a flip side - greed. He also painted the face of poverty as non-European. As a result, what we have is a fragmented approach to HIV - poor Africans and Asians, or in this country it is gay men, blacks, or drug users and sex-workers. We don't acknowledge the role of economics in how we break it down in our backyard and, in doing so, we don't recognize that it is American consumerism that feeds global poverty, and that "global" includes our country and those within it, not just beyond our borders.

Outside of HIV, among Friends we talk often about diversity but, when you look at our gatherings we are not a very diverse group. When you scratch beneath diversity, however, there is very little mention of economic equality. We have many Friends schools that are very liberal and progressive in thought, and can be vocal about the need to care for the poor. In most of these schools, you will see service trips, fundraisers and assemblies that talk about the poor and the afflicted, but how many of these challenge the kids to consider the wealth of their families in the equation. Many of the students come from families of great wealth. At what point do we introduce the idea that, as they enter adulthood, if they want to be serious about economic justice, what they do with their resource will matter. (For a more in-depth reading of diversity and equality, I strongly recommend "The Trouble with Diversity: How we learned to love diversity and ignore inequality" by Walter Benn Michaels).

But we don't need to go to the wealthy to be challenged by this concept of need vs. want. In my work at William Penn House, by standards of my peers, I (and all of us) are underpaid. But we have also talked about that being not just ok, but important to our work. I still can meet my needs and have some perks (or at least catch up on past wants). This keeps me still better off than much of the world, although far-below the level of many of my peers. I know that, among Friends, many of us make our career decisions with a heavy dose of ethics and integrity in the equation, but how deeply do we take the challenge that pursuing economic equality presents?

If you look at the FCNL list of issues, we really don't consider this at all. No doubt there are some issues that touch on economic equality, but there is nothing on the list that specifically calls for this in the form of what we need to call it: redistribution of wealth. FCNL takes its marching orders from the community of yearly and monthly Meetings, so it is really up to us to bring this forward. Are we willing? When was the last time we had a true national champion speaking up for the poor? Robert Kennedy? There have been others - Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, to name a few - but in terms of a national campaign that really spoke truth to economic inequality, it's been a long time. Mention it now, and it can easily be called "un-American". But I also think it is too easy for us to sit smugly and "tsk-tsk" the uber-wealthy and the corporate elite. Don't many of us have more than we need as well?

"Whatever you have that you do not need does not belong to you". As I said, this cuts like a knife. I suspect this may become a guiding principle that I will need to somehow consider as life continues to unfold.

1 comment:

Richard said...

Brad - I think you are right on the mark. The Baltimore Quaker (Stony Run / Homewood / Old Town) Peace and Justice Committee spent Saturday in retreat and reached similar conclusions. We are now stuck with how we (mostly) white, (not really) wealthy, Quakers from (mostly) safe neighborhoods get involved and help. The first thing we discarded was any confidence we knew what to do. We're now reaching out and inquiring. Stay tuned.