In the cold light of January, after the glut of Christmas magnanimity toward family, friends and strangers, it’s good to reflect on the scope and impact of our generosity.
I have a vision of a child in a developing country opening a holiday shoe box, sent with love from North America. The child pulls out a toy he or she produced in a nearby factory under harsh working conditions. I imagine the toy’s journey – shipped to a global chain, slickly marketed by the store, handled by decently paid employees, then purchased by a well-fed, kind-hearted Canadian. Packed in a box, the toy is sent back to the child who was too poor to purchase it in the first place.
“Way to be a buzz kill, Mom,” my 16-year-old son would say.
Justice for the poor
We don’t want to think about these things because it makes us feel powerless – and it might require deeper change. But “wealthy persons who make Christmas baskets and give them to relief agencies have not satisfied God’s demand,” writes Ronald J. Sider in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.
Throughout Scripture, God’s people are instructed to share food with the hungry, to provide shelter, to help family members in need and to visit those who are sick or in prison. However, we are also called to confront unjust systems that keep people in poverty and to set the oppressed free (Isaiah 58:6). “God wills justice for the poor, not occasional charity,” writes Sider.
Consume less, give more
We can all take action individually and collectively.
To begin with, we can live more simply. In 2005, the World Bank reported that the richest 20 percent of the world’s population – to which we belong – consume 76 percent of the total goods and services used by households, while the poorest 20 percent account for only 1.5 percent of private consumption.
Let’s consume less. What we don’t eat, we won’t have to diet or exercise off. What we don’t buy, we won’t have to store, organize, throw out or give away.
We can also live more frugally by sharing resources within congregations. What if your church created a lending program where people could borrow expensive or seldom-used items like power tools, camping equipment and rototillers? Do we all need to own one of everything?
We could also exchange services. It could be as informal as trading a haircut for help with yard work or an organized bartering system where points are earned and spent. Living together in community is also an option.
Locally, we can support low-cost housing solutions, job skills training and education initiatives, affordable child-care programs, etc. Around the world, micro-lending organizations use donated funds to empower individuals to feed and clothe their families by starting businesses.
Our contributions to development projects build capacity in communities by supplying clean water or other infrastructure. Giving people the personal tools and societal structures to provide for themselves enables them to enjoy better lives every day not just for a moment at Christmas.
Perhaps the most difficult action to take is at a societal level. Yet, “God cares so much about the poor that he works to destroy social systems that tolerate and foster poverty,” writes Sider.
We need to be aware of and speak out against unjust structures like the 2012 federal government cuts to interim health care for refugees. Under the new system, refugees from countries deemed “safe” are denied access to all health care in Canada while they wait for a decision on their refugee claim. With no financial or social resources, these refugees are vulnerable. Lives are improved when just laws and cultural practices are put in place.
As God’s children, we need to be active voices in our communities and nation. An easy first step is to cast your vote in municipal, provincial and national elections. Democracy is a privilege – just ask a refugee who has escaped from an oppressive regime.
You can also effect justice on a broader scale by getting to know your political representatives. Fire off a short email or leave a brief phone message to congratulate them on positive initiatives, or register your opinion when you have a concern. And don’t forget to pray for your leaders to make good decisions on our behalf.
Holy Spirit guidance
Prayer is our birthright as Christians. We can ask God to help us establish healthy, righteous ways of relating to each other economically and socially. He can give us insight into what strategic action to take, and he can change things that we can’t.
Let’s not be afraid to ask hard questions about root causes of poverty. Empowered with knowledge, guided by the Holy Spirit, we can take actions that will bring transformation, not merely a fleeting gift, to the lives of children and adults around the world and in our own backyards.
—Sandra Reimer cares deeply about people who are poor. She attempts to live out her principles in community at Glencairn MB Church in the socially innovative Region of Waterloo in Ontario.
See a list of resources and examples of just living – and add your own suggestions and stories.