- ‘Do you hear the cry of the poor?’
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A starving African child is cradled in his helpless mother’s arms. “I wish we were whales,” he says. This was only a cartoon in a Religious Studies textbook but it provoked discussion and pointed to a hard fact in our world: animals sometimes engender more sympathy and concern than human beings.
Have we become, as some commentators say, “desensitised” to the everyday and now commonplace scenes of human suffering beamed continually into our living rooms? The poor, as Jesus reminds us in the Gospel, are always with us. Many of us might be inclined to interpret this as the poor is an insoluble problem and even Jesus himself was at a loss to solve it. Or, we might see it as a challenge, a call to action.
But what can we really do in practical terms? I remember the wide-eyed enthusiasm of the Live Aid extravaganza but did it ever provide more than merely a day’s entertainment and a renaissance for some fading musical careers?
The ebola outbreak is, in my view, a timely reminder and disturbing insight into how we in the so-called developed world still enslave and subjugate our neighbours in the “developing” world. Even the terminology of developing, emerging and developed worlds helps to reinforce and perpetuate the deep divisions between us.
Pharmaceutical companies have been reluctant to plough funds into developing a vaccine for Ebola because it is, primarily, a disease of the poor and, as such, I suppose, it is not profitable for shareholders and pensions funds. Such is the world we live in.
But does it have to always be so? Sadly, yes, not because we lack compassion or suffer from charity fatigue but simply, in my view, because the complexity and enormity of poverty seems too overwhelming and intractable to solve. It reduces us to occasional and arbitrary donors – consciences pricked by Children in Need, Comic Relief or some other “worthy” cause or emotive appeal.
I recall a group of middle-school pupils waiting outside my office during lunchtime. They had come to see me about having a charity cake sale to help the poor. I pointed out the irony of the issue: we eat cake to help them live. How virtuous! “But it’s better than doing nothing” replied one of them. Having supported and participated in many such enterprises during my teaching career I am not so sure. It might assuage our own conscience but does it really affect or transform our lives; does it make a lasting and significant difference to the world around us? I have no intention whatsoever of selling all I possess and giving it to the poor, even though the gospel injunction, “Whatever you did for the least of my bothers and sisters, you did for me” weighs heavily upon me.
Daniel Kearney is head of RS at a Catholic school in Dorset