POEM: We Won’t Be Food Again

I would rather
Be Job
Less than
Renounce
A living wager
And know place to lie
My head
My heart
Made homeless
In loo of
A fast fooled nation
For going
The beast
Wee
Can due
Hitched to number one
Number too
As on the line
For given debts
In place of
Solemn assemblies
And last riots
As wreck we him
For the masses
Left too
Starve
As a full groan man
Eschewing
A distended belly
And infantile grimace
Dis gorging
To which I object
A single finger
And vomiting
A sour second
Relative to the toil it evacuates
As vying a bowel inconsonance
And those who are but in
Fringe benefits over doo
Be rated by privilege takers
Of a hollowed hire power
Pro claim
There is no Black day for employment
The unanswered trump it
As if
Falling flat to some honky
Reveres discrimination
As dark daze per severe
The fecund material bound
Now a mushrooming clerical class
Beaten too
A bully pulp it    
Copious crumbs and the blest whines
Offering salivation
Like no me
Biblically
Throwing the book at me
Showing me the works
As if in some fooled court
Taking out
On me
Sum type
Of contract
Know labor
No food
Nor time travel to
’79 sense
For every dollared earn
Or as a payday loan
Cash here
Slipping through my fingers
Each day
For another till
My dreams standing still
Idoling money changers
On short order
Cooking the books
Serving as sum batterer
Or fry guy
Who is just
Greased
At the end of the day
Pain
You less
Than what
You learned
With respect to
Meat grate people
Seriously toying
“Be the happy meal”
As if
I whir
To halve a cow
And go to town
Drug by sum ferry tale
A bout
Worshipping some magic beings
Stalking skyward
As some giant rumble
To expose my hide
Wont to grind my bones
For their bred
My blood smelt
As iron away
From their golden cuffs
Razing my shackles once again
I will only ax once
As you know not jack
Weather the heavens fall
Either I am
Udderly fed up
Or my last words herd
Eat me
As I will only be
Food once
It’s just
Awe in a daze work

I wrote this poem today, all in a days work!  This poem was triggered by my experience last night at a community meeting, “Faith Conversations on Income Inequality.”  I was somewhat disappointed that of the two hours, less than 15 minutes was conversation.  The meeting was mostly didactic, with two detailed presentations, a short film well documenting the existence of actual poor working people in our very state of Ohio, and a short small group exercise (where some conversation occurred).

The kicker for the evening was after the meeting when conversing with a woman who I had never met proclaimed the disproportionately too-often cited and familiar, “If a person doesn’t work, then they don’t deserve to eat” (see 2 Thessalonians 3:10).  Of course, the key word and concept in this passage is an unwillingness to work.  I might add dignified and humane work.  Either way, it certainly doesn’t apply to people who can’t find work.  Further, in the previous verse, the apostles speaking about their own self-support when visiting the Thessalonians, say, “We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate.  This seems to state that they did claim a right to such help (food), but were modeling an additional value of not being a burden on others.  If the apostles accepted help, when they were able to pay their own way, and this caused a burden to another, then they shouldn’t take such a necessary resource from another.  The higher way modeled by the apostles seems more apt as a critique of people unjustly benefiting from paying poverty wages, thus causing a burden to others, than as a critique of food as a human right.  Perhaps a less sophisticated yet more easily understood response to worrying about hungry people getting too much food is Uggghhh!

I had really hoped for an opportunity to share personal experiences and perspectives on faith and poverty, or income inequality.  For better or worse, I’ve thought about such things my whole life.  Still, I am actually eager to learn more, as I continue on my journey.  The story of dealing with poverty seems to me to be full of good news-bad news.  In my case, the bad news is that technically, I have lived in poverty most of the last decade — technically, meaning that my average income has been under the federal poverty guidelines.  The good news is that I am the wealthiest person I know — of course, I don’t get out much!  Such a conundrum has provided much experience and raw material upon which to meditate regarding what is true wealth.

One main point that I believe could help bring a more balanced perspective in our dealing with poverty is this: from a spiritual perspective, we must give equal time to spiritual poverty.  This is perhaps most succinctly captured by Mother Teresa, “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”  I see Jesus as quite clearly spelling out the dividing line: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)  And, of course, serving God is inextricably linked with serving our neighbors: ” ‘The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’  ‘What should we do then?’ the crowd asked.  John answered, ‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’ ” (Luke 3:9-11)

A corollary of this spiritual view of poverty is that we must not stigmatize the poor, or dishonor God’s special relationship with them.  I half-jokingly put this under the moniker of: “You say poverty like it’s a bad thing!”  A couple of generations ago, Latin American theologians developed the concept of God’s “preferential option for the poor.”  In part, this refers to the special relationship that the poor, disenfranchised, and marginalized have with God.  Their vulnerability manifest by oppression in the world creates an openness to God’s way.  This openness fosters a greater intimacy, deeper understanding, and easier access to living in harmony with God’s laws (ultimate reality).  Of course, harmony with God’s laws is counter-cultural to the status quo and the powers that be.  Intriguingly though, the oppressed already stare down the brutal realities of the powers that be every day; so, being counter-cultural is much less of a leap “of faith” than those who benefit from the status quo.  This is perhaps the most simple reason why top down change rarely, if ever, benefits the poor more than the rich.  Thus, the poor are already primed to adopt God’s ways, as the world’s ways sure as hell aren’t working for them.  Jesus is a striking example of acting in accordance with this realityJesus spent the vast majority of his time with the dispossessed, and “regular” folks, the 99% if you will.  In a stroke of spiritual genius, Jesus planted his message among people who were both most open to God’s message and had their material interests aligned to move in a direction parallel to God’s ways, including, of course, justice.  No doubt, Jesus played a prophetic role, in directly confronting the powers that be, whether religious, political, or economic elites.  Such confrontations were likely inevitable.  Even so, Jesus brought an unwavering dignity, intimacy, and authority (street cred) to such encounters.  Jesus did not shy from his fully humanizing ways, even in the face of dehumanizing forces.  This was a palpable measure of how Jesus loved his enemies.  This is God’s ways manifest.  The poor have fewer barriers to accessing such ways. Let’s learn from the poor!

I have lived among affluent people of faith most of my life.  For the affluent, the vast majority of us in the so-called developed world, I am convinced that voluntary poverty and simplicity is the most powerful tool to transform our world, God’s creation, into ways friendly to abundant life.  I have drawn this conclusion from my profound failure to convince rich westerners to truly care about the world’s poorest.  I am a formidable debater, both informed and with heart.  Still, the misery of my failure to convince others with words is exceeded only, and greatly, by the misery of the world’s poorest.  I cannot escape the weight of my experience that the affluence of westerners, including myself, and the material conflicts of interest we are embedded in, is the single most important factor preventing such a conversion.  Better aligning our material interests with the poor, through voluntary poverty and simplicity, can unleash a cascading journey where the soul’s force begins to flow more freely, as water invites gravity to do its work — and the most grave law unbroken, that of love.  This poem of mine alludes to the freedom gained by simple living:

Dining with Kings and Queens
Courtly balls
Knightly duels
And priestly indulgences
You can avoid it all
If only you are happy
Eating beans

Probably the greatest illusion humans face is seeing wealth (and its companions, status and power) as an answer to all of their problems.  Surely, people have material needs, and those needs going unmet is a tragedy.  However, once one’s basic material needs are met, wealth becomes a disability to the individual and a disease to society.  There is a great body of psychological and sociological evidence that increasing wealth makes us less compassionate and less generous.  In short, wealth serves as a wedge between people and God.  Science confirms the truth of not being able to serve two masters.  People can, and do, argue about the role of material scarcity in the problems of poverty — just witness political wranglings about budget-busting social programs in the richest nation the world has ever known.  Nonetheless, there is one pervasive and undeniable fact: there is, and has been for at least centuries, enough physical resources to more than meet the material needs of every human on the planet.  In this light, spiritual poverty is exposed.  We can solve material want; we choose not.  It is not a close call!

Poverty worldwide is endemic.  Billions of people live on $2 per day or less.  Those most likely to be the poorest are women and children — so much for family values.  People of color are also at much greater risk.  Those most likely to go hungry are those who grow food, our farmers.  The only way this can happen is to literally steal food from their hands.  The rich claim a hugely disproportional share of the world’s resources, including the productive labors of billions.  All the wile, pawning sham scarcity as an excuse for their hoarding and ravenous ways.  Gandhi captured it well when asked what he thought of Western civilization.  He responded, “I think it would be a great idea.”  I concur.

With untrammeled globalization, poverty can only be adequately viewed as a global problem.  The causes of poverty cannot be isolated within one country.  We, as a world, are in the same boat — though, undoubtedly, there is an increasing chasm between the accommodations of first and third class.  Debt, just as in biblical times, is used to enslave people.  We are told that the world is in great debt, accepting it as gospel truth.  Yet, to whom exactly are we are in debt?  Pay no attention to the money changers behind the curtain.  Exploitation and robbing of natural resources unjustly enriches the wealthier.  Such profitable cleverness is called business.  Meanwhile, non-prophet organizations stand by impotent to counter this unseemly necessity.  And governments suffer from electile dysfunction. The good news is that the cancerous idol of endless economic “growth” may not destroy creation, with such abundance and ingenuity.  Praise be to God!  If only, God forbid, the dream of a worldwide “middle class” can be averted.  Work.  Buy.  Consume.  Die.

Less poetically put, the “powers that be” work on a global scale.  This juggernaut of globalization reduces humans to economic beings in a consumer culture.  People become means to ends, not being of sacred worth and inherent dignity.  To enforce this state of affairs, wars are waged as “needed.”  These wars, unsurprisingly, do not serve the interests of the dispossessed.  This global reality is rooted in a distinct worldview: poverty is not the problem; poverty is the solution.  While a tsunami of rhetoric speaks of jobs, unemployment serves to lower wages, not just of the unfortunate unskilled, but of skilled labor too.  More unemployment is good for (someone else’s) business.  And if you missed that memo, perhaps the desperation of unemployment and wage slavery has you occupied.  Such desperation can serve as a distraction and thwart a healthy, functioning civil society (see electile dysfunction).

There is an African proverb which says: where there is no wealth there is no poverty.  This ancient wisdom emanates from the experience of humans over many generations and cultures that concentrated wealth creates poverty, that is, depends on poverty. There is a powerful illusion that wealth brings wisdom, that the rich must really know something that we don’t.  Well, if they do, it’s most likely occult or a cult.  I cite the incisive lyrics of “If I were a rich man” from the play, Fiddler on the Roof:

Posing problems that would cross a rabbi’s eyes!
And it won’t make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong.
When you’re rich, they think you really know!

The truth is much simpler, and more stark: the rich need the poor; the poor don’t need the rich.  For those who might cite the droll biblical retort, “the poor will always be with us,” have you pondered this: if you think the poor are hard to get rid of, try the rich!

The diseased worldview of consumerism and capitalism has at least on Achilles’ heel.  This rests on the utter inability to answer a fundamental question in life: how much is enough?  Capitalism thrives on convincing you that you never have enough, you are perpetually lacking something (which we happen to be selling), and by extension: you are lacking.  This turns the Gospel’s worldview upside down.  The good news is that you are enough; God made you that way.  Return to this truth, and capitalism recedes to a perfunctory process describing the nominal exchange of goods — and the goods are actually good!

The meeting on faith conversations about income inequality focused on the United States.  While poverty extends far beyond, and is rooted in, the larger world, the U.S. can serve as an enlightening case study.  The U.S. just recently observed the 50th anniversary of the “war on poverty” as declared in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson.  [For poetic versions of lessons learned from the “war on poverty,” see my poems, Hungering for Answers, and War on Poverty]  The “war on poverty” is about the same age as me.  During my lifetime, the U.S. has grown about three times wealthier in material wealth.  Nevertheless, more Americans work, and they work longer hours.  Some gains were made in reducing poverty in the early years.  However, the overall trend since the late 1970’s has been stagnating or declining wages, especially when compared to skyrocketing worker productivity.  Income inequality is higher now in America than in the last hundred years.

For those with biblical commitments, we are long overdue for a Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25).  The year of Jubilee is a Sabbath of Sabbaths.  It prescribed forgiveness of debt every seven years.  In the fiftieth year — after seven cycles of seven years, not only was all debt forgiven, but all slaves were freed and all land returned to its original owners land.  This is the biblical prescription for preventing large concentrations of wealth and persons from being permanently dispossessed from their land and/or forced into servitude through debt.  Let’s make it so!

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