Inner City Diary
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The lack of money is not the root of all evil
March 16, 2003
I know when you’re sitting in court, you’re supposed to sit down and shut up. There have been times, however, when I found it tough to restrain myself. I remember one particular time about 15 years ago.

The guy at the front of the courtroom had broken into our house while we were sleeping. It happened so quick, and I got so mad, for a second I forgot I was a preacher. I grabbed a knife and ended up restraining the guy while we waited for the cops. During the time it took for them to arrive, I remembered I was a preacher. With the knife still to the guy’s throat, I started lecturing about responsibility and forgiveness, preaching about Jesus and hope.

Months later, we met again in court. And I was treated to a sermon of a different kind. The defense lawyer was in good form that day. Her strategy seemed to be one of: distract, defend, and deflect.

“Your Honour, this young man was high and mistakenly thought he was breaking into his own house…” “Your Honour, this young man has had a lousy life...” “Your Honour, this gentleman is the product of poor parenting, a materialistic culture, an oppressed minority and unprincipled peers …”

I was ticked off with her mockery of justice and premeditated dismembering of the truth. But it’s not just her.

To some people, every criminal is the inevitable product of problems and poverty. As if some folk have “carte blanche” to loot, hook and party.

“If only the poor gang member had been breastfed and cuddled as a child...” “If only the poor prostitute hadn’t been abused as a child…” “If only the poor biker had finished school…” “If only the poor dealer would have been able to acquire another source of more honourable income...”

I’m not minimizing the horrible impact of these deficits. But there’s a difference between an explanation and an excuse.

Many of the poorest, most abused and uneducated people I know are amongst the best models of integrity and ingenuity I have ever met. And some of the most abusive, perverse and addicted people I’ve met were quite wealthy.

If the lack of money were the root of all evil, every poor person would be a conniving, child-abusing, prostituting, drug dealing, lazy, drunken crook. If social problems could be fixed with an influx of cash, every rich person would be a saint.

It’s a lazy sociologist, economist or political scientist that stops with “poverty” as the root cause of all social problems. As if everyone is poor for the same reason.

In my neighbourhood, people are poor for different reasons.

Some are poor because of oppression. Sometimes a relative, an outsider or a system holds somebody down, keeping them poor. They’re deprived of opportunity to get ahead. In that case, it’s important to identify the oppressor and confront them with the consequence of their action. And simultaneously we comfort the oppressed and challenge them to maintain an integrity which exceeds their income.

Some are poor because of calamity. Stuff happens. Sometimes, it’s plain that something bad happened and help is needed. Delays can be deadly. Delivering assistance is more important than assigning blame.

Some are poor because of selfish and foolish choices. Some would rather steal than earn their way through life. Some choose sleep, soaps or sloth over work. Some are too addicted to desire, debt and drugs to profit from any material assistance. I’ll hand that person a mirror before I hand them a cheque. In this case it’s less about assigning societal blame than accepting personal responsibility to change.

I’m not saying that any of these folk don’t deserve help. It’s not a question of the “deserving poor” versus the “undeserving poor.” Everyone that needs help deserves help. But the help they need is not all the same.

Have you ever gone to the doctor complaining of a stomach ache? How would you feel if he said, “Tums are great for a bad stomach and Tylenol is great for aches. Take two of each. If that doesn't work, keep taking two more until it goes away.”

Such a doc would be a quack. An aching “stomach” could be lots of different things. Indigestion, hunger, cancer, appendicitis, or an ulcer. There's no single cure because there's no single cause. To predetermine that Tums and Tylenol are the magic cure would be unconscionable.

Like stomach aches, poverty can have many different causes and a corresponding range of remedies.

Be careful the next time someone says the root cause of all society’s problems is poverty. Sometimes it’s more another symptom than the cause.
Copyright 2003
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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