Tag Archives: poverty

Pope Francis: Who is my Neighbor?

New Jersey is my home. I live here, I farm here, and I pay taxes here. And that – those taxes, that is – can sometimes get on my nerves.

It’s not because of how much we pay. Really. It’s just this: we get so little back for the money we send to Washington. For every dollar in Federal taxes we pay in New Jersey, only 48 cents comes back to us. By contrast, our countrymen in famously tax-averse South Carolina receive a whopping $5.38 from the Feds for every dollar they pay. And they’re joined by fellow tax-haters – Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, and Florida, all of which get back more than double what they pay out.

At first, this really annoys me. But I’ve decided – after much soul-searching – that my reaction calls for more repentance, and less anger. Men and women in South Carolina are fellow citizens with us New Jersians. Why shouldn’t we give more to them, if we have the ability to meet their needs? They’re our fellow Americans, right?

In fact, our friends from Delaware are compelled to be even more generous, with benefits of only 31 cents on the tax dollar. And New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Nebraska aren’t far behind in subsidizing other states. But they shouldn’t complain either. This is what you do for the greater American family, right?

This issue came into focus last month as Greece teetered on the brink of default and expulsion from the European Union. Greece’s debts had run up to $323 billion Euros, and they just couldn’t keep up. Their European neighbors weren’t the slightest bit happy about it. But if the American states accounted for debt the way Europe has been doing it, then South Carolina and many of its neighboring states would be in a world of hurt. They’d never be able to repay what they’ve received, and the poor would become poorer yet.

Who is my neighbor?

Who is my neighbor?

Europe, it seems, is still grappling with the question of what it means to be one people group, where those who can afford it help out those who can’t. But this raises a deeper question, doesn’t it? Who, in fact, is my neighbor? Where does entitlement to neighborly generosity end? With my family? Or my church? Or my town, state or country? Who should be able to count on my help? Of course, this question lurks just below the surface of many of our national policy debates.

And into this debate last month, Pope Francis jumped with both feet. In a 180-page letter addressed “to all people of goodwill,” the Pope stressed the intimate connectedness of all living things all over the world – to each other, and to God. His letter bears the Latin title “Laudato Si’” (“Praise be to You, My Lord”), but its subtitle is more informative: “On Care for Our Common Home.”

That “common home” language in the title tells us a lot about where the world’s largest Christian church is headed: “We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family,” wrote the Pope. “There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalization of indifference.”

A single human family? Even South Carolinians? Even Greeks? Where does it end?

Well, if you’re like me – prone to fret over your tax money benefiting distant strangers – then the Pope’s teaching may feel like a splash of ice-cold water. Each and every human has a right to the bounty of the earth. Christ-followers, particularly, are bound to recognize this in submission to their Lord: “Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone. For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone.”

Who is my neighbor?

Who is my neighbor?

Consider a few of the Pope’s neighbor principles:

The fruits of the earth belong to the entire human family: “The gift of the earth with its fruits belongs to everyone.”

Each person has sacred, holy value: “We were conceived in the heart of God, and for this reason each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”

The poor especially deserve our care and attention: “The poor have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters…. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.”

We need something like conversion to embrace our connection to people all over the earth: “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone.”

We in the developed West will have to bear many costs of harms for which others are suffering: “The countries which have benefited from a high degree of industrialization, at the cost of enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, have a greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problems they have caused.”

We must preserve and improve the earth for future generations, not extract and consume it for ourselves: “Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.”

Simplicity, not infinite growth, is required to make the world livable for its entire human family: “The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes….”

Our vision for family loyalty must go beyond humanity, to all creatures that God creates and loves: “All creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things.”

Who is my neighbor?

Who is my neighbor?

Lofty words? Wishful naïveté? Well, maybe. But people can change. Let’s not forget that there was a time when people from my state would never have paid so dearly to benefit those strangers in South Carolina and Kentucky. But now, we think of them as something like family: one nation, under God – Isn’t that what we say?

Can we imagine a day when travelers on this wonderful, injured planet will begin to think that way of all God’s people and creatures?

J. Elwood

Toxic Air: One More Burden for the Poor

Monday night, Barbara and I had the privilege of listening to Peter Harris, founder of the Christian environmental conservation group A Rocha. Peter was speaking at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, challenging the crowded auditorium of New Yorkers to rediscover the widely-ignored gospel call to care for everything God has made: his earth, its creatures and its people.
Brimming with excitement from an evening of insight and challenge, we headed west to our home at Good Hand Farm.  We crossed the GW Bridge in the fresh spring air, with the city’s skyline gleaming across the Hudson to the south. We flew along I-80 through Fort Lee, Englewood and Teaneck. A great end to a good day!
But suddenly, our perfect evening was rudely interrupted. A sickly-sweet odor assaulted our senses as we sped along the interstate. Something awful in the air! Where are we, anyway? Oh, of course: Paterson and Elmwood Park, industrial towns along New Jersey’s Passaic River. All those stacks billowing fumes night and day. Yuck.
I wonder what it’s like to actually live here! Those poor people!
Well, looking into it, I discovered that nothing could be more true.  Poor people.
It turns out that the privilege of breathing that perfect evening air was reserved largely for people who are rich like us: Fort Lee, Englewood and Teaneck enjoy average per capita incomes in the range of $32,000 to $38,000. But the rancid chemical cloud hanging over Paterson and Elmwood Park burns its way into the lungs of people earning on average about half of that: $13,000 to $23,000. In my little sample, you need money to fill your lungs with clean air.
Paterson chemical plants foul the air for NJ’s poor
I wondered, is this true in other places? Is it the poor who bear the burden of our world’s pollution? Well, in a word, yes.  It turns out that this is the rule everywhere you look.  We think of caring for the creation as a matter of aesthetics, or stewardship. But – true as those impulses may be – creation care is also a matter of justice for the poor, and for racial and ethnic minorities.  Consider:
  • The United Church of Christ has conducted studies over more than 20 years showing that racial minorities comprise the majority of populations living near hazardous waste facilities in the U.S. And these toxic communities have 50% more poor people than clean communities. Whatever the intent, people of color and the poor end up living with our hazardous toxins.
  • The University of Pennsylvania has published research showing that, for communities with nearby toxic waste facilities, those with predominantly African-American populations are nearly twice as likely to suffer accidents involving toxins, compared with similar non-minority communities. The inescapable conclusion: Facility operators adhere to varying safety standards in different communities, and race matters.
  • The Journal of Urban Affairs published a UCLA study which found that low-income and minority children in California are disproportionately exposed to hazardous vehicle exhausts, resulting in much higher rates of respiratory ailments and mortality. Poor kids and children of color – these are the ones who get the asthma and emphysema.
  • The Climate Risk Index, which annually ranks countries around the world based on their vulnerability to climate change, puts impoverished Bangladesh, Burma and Honduras at the very top.  In fact, the ten most vulnerable countries generate almost no greenhouse gases, and in their poverty, they generate average per capita incomes of only $2,500. But the ten highest emitting countries (including the U.S.) enjoy average incomes of more than $43,000, with per capita carbon emissions 25 times as high. We generate the pollution; they suffer the consequences.
  • Researchers at Harvard and Duke universities have published findings that developing nations will be affected far more severely by climate change than developed nations, and that this unequal impact will persist throughout the twenty-first century. This means that the very countries which have largely missed the benefits of the Industrial Revolution will bear the brunt of its hazardous consequences.
  • The Christian Reformed Church, through its Creation Stewardship Task Force, has stated that climate change will impact the poor more negatively than the rich. Limited financial resources provide them  little buffer in adapting; they cannot move to a more benign climate; they are more susceptible to social unrest and resource conflicts; and they have little access to technology for adaptation.
  • The National Association of Evangelicals has reported that the world’s poor are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In a report titled “Loving the Least of These,” the NEA states: “There are millions of suffering people in the world…. Unfortunately, the realities of climate change mean that those suffering millions may become billions. All of us who follow Jesus will need to respond.”
Since most of our readers are sincerely looking for ways to practice environmental justice, these findings may give us a whole new motivation for action.  Many of us hope for the day when the Son of Man welcomes his own with the words: “I was hungry, and you gave me food….” Of course, we will not understand, until he reminds us: “As you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:31-40).
As we repent of our abuse of the creation, and work toward a world which can sustain the world’s poor, perhaps we are beginning to learn what it might mean to care for “the least” of the brothers of God.
This is, after all, his world.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood
More Climate Risk Index Data