In 1978 I worked in a refugee camp in northeast Thailand. Its residents were victims who suffered from the largest aerial bombardment in history, amounting to the use of two million tons of ordinance during 580,000 bombing missions, or an average of a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years. This is documented public information. Shrapnel, napalm, amputations, lacerations, contusions, bruises, blindness, deafness, and psychological disorders were all visible wounds that I witnessed from this onslaught. These people had lost everything. These people were poor…impoverished. When I think of the poorest of the poor I still think of them. Worst of all, these people had not been at war with anyone; these people had been injured as a result of the ideology of the United State’s government to militarily destabilize the region. Their impoverishment served someone else’s purpose. Having been raised in the United States it was clear to me that my tax dollars had caused this suffering; I had caused this suffering. As a twenty-one year old it seemed to me that the only work that was worthy was to compassionately care for the poor and to not make enough money to ever support the war programs of governments.
The world is full of the poor. Most people living on the earth are poor: outcasts, refugees, homeless, slum dwellers, hungry, rejected, forgotten, taken advantage of. Each local manifestation is simply a reminder and witness of all of the world’s poor. The thing that unites them all is the fact that the poor are always representatives of those who victimize them. The poor everywhere are people who are victims. They are victims of landlords, employers, bureaucrats, merchants, loan sharks, shoddy contractors, bribable officials, corrupted cops, provincial politicians, and the rest of those who leech off of society and are mentally unable to form healthy human relationships. But most importantly, they are the victims of everyone in each society whose power and profits and status and livelihoods depend on continuing to keep the poor poor. In other words, they are victims of average people who believe that it is their right in light of simply having been born to simply go about their lives without making any effort to resolve the poverty upon which their own comfort depends. You see, upon closer examination poverty is not simply a condition we inflict as a result of blatant hostile actions – such as bombing and destabilization campaigns – although it is that too. Poverty is also substitutionary. More specifically, it is the travail of the poor that is intercessory for the rich because it is the poor who suffer as a substitute for the suffering that the rich would suffer if it were not for the suffering of the poor. The rich, the middle-class, the bourgeois, principalities would all suffer greatly if the poor did not purchase for them some immunity from suffering. In the end all people suffer from our bondage to death. And there are other ways of suffering than that of poverty. Poverty is not some new species of suffering. Nor is every reason for poverty innocent. But there is an overwhelming insidiousness that justifies and intensifies the service that the poor render to those who are not poor.
People are loathe to admit all of this. In fact it is considered socially taboo to do so among virtually anyone who is not poor. A couple of days ago a member of the Canadian parliament dared to admit this on the floor of the Parliament. He was immediately made to apologize for his un-parliamentary language, which is of course part and parcel of the constrains that are placed upon the poor by their victimizers as a way to disallow any significant interaction that might actually change the victim-victimizer relationship. The truth is that the whole system is a racket. It is no surprise that the Prime Minister of Canada only pays lip service to the poor which includes First Nations, along with all of the rest of society who benefits from not doing so.
Poverty is not changed by conventional acts of charity any more than governments will stop going to war when its citizens continue to pay their taxes even if they speak out against the government doing so. In order to work effectively to bring about the end of poverty it is necessary to become poor, to be poor, to sacrifice in the direction of personal poverty. It is at least necessary to start in this direction by giving something up. Impoverished people do not get out of poverty by joining the ponzi schemes of the rich. In fact by dong so they only become victimizers themselves. It is only by denying our own unbridled access to our own self-promotion that others will find freedom. Otherwise it is simply a fact that we truly don’t care about the poor whose condition we create and maintain by our own insolence and cowardliness.
Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day decided to do something from this perspective about poverty.