Heartbreak and Beauty

Yesterday we experienced an incredible breadth of emotion: we started the day with a two-hour meeting with a bishop who helped us to see the plight of desperately poor women and the depth of the AIDS crisis, then we traveled 4 hours north to a game preserve and spent the late afternoon drinking in the beauty of Creation, giddy like kids at camp. A friend remarked that it was quite a contrast in emotional experiences, and another friend commented that this is just like the Kingdom of God. It is; living aware of the realm of God brings both heartbreak and beauty at the very same time, layered on top of one another. Faithfulness is being attuned to both. Once I’m back home, I’ll share some of the images from the safari. For now, I invite you to join me in the heartbreak.

We met with Roman Catholic Bishop Kevin Dowling. Bishop Dowling serves in Rustenburg and has a deep passion for the poor and vulnerable in his area. We heard stories of the face of poverty he sees every day in the AIDS ministry he started and his reflections on the rise & fall of Apartheid and what will be required to move forward.

It is heartbreaking to hear stories of the desperately poor in our world. Stories of women whose husbands die of a heart attack or a mining accident or AIDS, who are then literally alone in the world with no means to support themselves and their babies. In many places in South Africa (as everywhere, to varying degrees), there is no prospect for work, so they move to the place where there is potential to find another man who might provide them shelter, food, and protection. In places where the men have been dehumanized by racism and near- or actual slavery for generations, there is an especially strong culture of sexual exploitation in which women are obliged to submit to the man’s wishes, and men have learned to use women as sexual objects and often take out their deep anger on the women in their life. This leads to a culture of multiple partners, a real moral shift redefining what faithfulness means to normalize what we would call ‘cheating’. Do you see the recipe for the AIDS pandemic, especially in Africa? The desperate mother with no options other than submitting to sex for shelter and provision is incredibly likely to be infected and become part of the spread of the disease.

At the same time hearing these stories is heartbreaking, it is painful to accept the fact that I am a part of the economic system that creates this poverty. Bishop Dowling serves the region that includes the world’s largest platinum mines–sources of great wealth for their owners and signs of wealth for those who buy jewelry. Yet those who work in the mines live in poverty, and the whole economic system exemplified by the platinum trade perpetuates extraordinary inequity throughout the entire society. The poorest 10% in South Africa live on less than $1 a day, while the richest 10% live on more than 90 times that. Bishop Dowling expressed better than any of the speakers we’ve heard this week how it is that the nation will heal from the deep wounds inflicted by the inequities that Apartheid insisted were God’s way:

Apartheid can only be righted by conceiving and implementing a just global economic system. We need a redistribution of wealth, and for that to happen a spiritual conversion is required in which the rich begin to recognize their responsibility for the poor.

When I hear that, I can’t help but hear the unthinking, knee-jerk horror in American political speech about ‘redistribution’. The fact that the Republicans ran old video of Obama saying he was in favor of redistribution as a negative scare-tactic ad is a demonstration of how this concept of redistribution of wealth is taboo in America. But it is a gospel perspective; this is the message Jesus proclaimed and lived, calling individuals and society toward economic (and therefore opportunity and dignity) equality. The reality is that the divine dream of human equality and dignity requires redistribution of the maldistributed wealth that we enjoy.

This is a hard truth to acknowledge. I cannot simultaneously say I want what God wants (that all will have enough, none be burdened with too much) and jealously guard my ‘right’ to what I ‘earn’. The fact that some earn huge multiples of what others do for an honest day’s work is the result not of some inherent difference in human value, but the result of a system that privileges some at the expense of others. And I am a beneficiary of that system. (All of us who are reading this blog are to some degree.)

The bishop’s words are spot on: a spiritual conversion of the rich is required. Here’s where I begin:

  1. I can accept that this is reality, and that one way or another, massive redistribution of wealth is necessary in our current economic system if one human being’s life is to be valued equally with another’s.
  2. I can refuse to be drawn in by the fear tactics of the apologists for the current system. Those tactics are used by every power structure that wants to keep a grip on their own power (e.g. we heard a number of stories of how the South African regime used threats of the black majority wreaking havoc if the white minority didn’t control them with the iron first of Apartheid).
  3. I can look for those who are thinking creatively about how to increase equality in our current global economic system and use the resources available to me to support them.
  4. I can make the choice daily to adopt the spiritual posture of trusting that God knows better than humanity what is best, and choose to be willing to follow where God leads, as demonstrated in the life of Jesus and the witness of scripture.

Lord give me courage to be faithful.


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