One of the challenges facing any Westerner living in Pakistan is dealing with poverty. The difference in living conditions between us and a large chunk, even a majority, of the people we meet here presents a number of difficulties. Of course, this is not specific to Pakistan – any person travelling from the West to any relatively impoverished country will come across poverty, such is the gulf between “the West” and “the rest” when it comes to wealth.
For me, this gulf was most starkly brought home when, early on, I was driving through our city with the kids in the back of the car. Beggars regularly haunt traffic intersections, tapping on car windows and asking for money. One of them, a young girl, pressed her nose up against the window where our 2 year old son was sitting. It occurred to me that only a thin piece of glass separated them – but the gap between them in terms of wealth, life expectancy, job prospects, overall prosperity, in short every measure of quality of life – that gap was immense. One child can expect little more than a lifetime of poverty and hardship, forced to eke out a living from the scraps of others, while the other child, possessed as he is of a Western passport, can expect a lifetime of relative comfort and entitlement. A few millimetres of glass represented, for a few fleeting seconds, a division of heartbreaking width.
What’s a Christian to do? This is not at all an easy question and it weighs heavily on the conscience. While I cannot offer an easy answer, some pointers might be of use.
1. Doing nothing is not an option. Christians are called to minister to the needs of others and in this regard we have the example of Jesus who constantly ministered to those in need. If we simply turn our back and ignore the plight of the needy then our faith is nothing but tedious hypocrisy. Poor people can’t eat sermons; holy words don’t put a roof over their heads.
2. Handing out money is not the answer. This is an easy way out, enabling the wealthy to assuage their consciences by dishing out a few rupees here and there. In doing so we effectively purchase for ourselves a few minutes of peace of mind, happy that we have done “something” for “someone”. Well, maybe we have, and maybe we haven’t. Those rupees may mean that a beggar eats, or they may mean that their gangmaster makes even more money for himself. Sad, but true in many parts of the world.
3. Love and respect are worth more than money. I try to chat to people begging from me, asking them what their name is and engaging them in conversation. Sometimes they don’t care, eager only for money, but on a few occasions their faces have lit up as they discover that someone sees them as a precious human being rather than just an irritation.
4. Word and deed need to go together. As I said before, mere words do not fill empty stomachs. We try to hand out little packets of biscuits as well; at least the beggar will be able to have a little something to eat.
Ultimately it is the root causes of poverty which need to be tackled. It is not the fact that kids beg at traffic intersections which really angers me, it is the brokenness in human institutions and societies which results in kids having to beg at traffic intersections. Many of the beggars in our city have fled from warfare in the tribal regions; others are destitute because rich landowners throw them out or are so greedy for money that they loan money at prohibitive interest rates, resulting in entire families being forced onto the poverty line so that a rich man can build a bigger house. This problem has to be tackled wholistically, taking the whole situation into consideration.
Martin Luther King once said that the essence of Christian love was to pick people out of ditches and set them back on their feet – and, eventually, to tackle the injustices which result in people being throw in the ditch. We need to do both. It’s a big job, but thankfully we have a big God, too.