Thanksgiving unsettling meditation: What would it be like to be poor?

As a way of reflecting further on thanksgiving, I want to bring you an exercise taken from a book by Ron Sider, Rich Christians in the Age of Hunger.

The following exercise helps us imagine what it would be like to live in a poor nation. Our houses are about to be raided . . .

  • We begin by invading the house of our imaginary American family to strip it of its furniture. Everything goes: beds, chairs, tables, television set, lamps. We will leave the family with a few old blankets, a kitchen table, a wooden chair. Along with the drawers go the clothes. Each member of the family may keep in his “wardrobe” his oldest suit or dress, a shirt or blouse. We will permit a pair of shoes for the head of the family, but none for the wife or children.
  • We move to the kitchen. The appliances have already been taken out, so we turn to the cupboards…the box of matches may stay, a small bag of flour, some sugar, and salt. A few moldy potatoes, already in the garbage can, must be hastily rescued, for they will provide much of tonight’s meal. We will leave a handful of onions, and a dish of dried beans. All the rest we take away: the meat, the fresh vegetables, the canned goods, the crackers, the candy.
  • Now we have stripped the house: the bathroom has been dismantled, the running water shut off, the electric wires taken out. Next we take away the house. The family can move to the toolshed.
  • Communications must go next. No more newspapers, magazines, books, (computers, television, internet)–not that they are missed, since we must take away our family’s literacy as well.
  • Now government services must go. No more postman, no more firemen. There is a school, but it is three miles away and consists of two classrooms (and no books). There are, of course, no hospitals or doctors nearby. The nearest clinic is ten miles away and is tended by a midwife. It can be reached by bicycle, provided that the family has a bicycle.
  • Finally, money. We will allow your family a cash hoard of $5.00.

John and Sara Barton introduced Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in the Age of Hunger to me while we worked in Uganda, among painfully poor people. Even so, the book further hit me like a 2×4 in the knees and turned me again to the poor to defend their cause, act justly, and to love mercy (Micah 6:8). Sider also made me aware of structural justice, the act of working toward systematic changes that help a whole society’s poor.

I highly recommend the 20th Anniversary edition of Sider’s book (the first one was much more controversial, and he has been accused of everything from communism to liberalism . . . he is criticized for his lack of economic understanding even in his new book). Read this book, but be aware it has been controversial over the last two decades. When a book on giving away more and more of your money and seeking justice for our neighbors and fighting against “structural evil” sells 250,000 copies and stirs controversy like Sider’s and calls us to radical discipleship with the taboo wallet, we ought to take notice.

After all, Jesus had much to say about money. And many of us who are fat, rich Christians are squeezing through eyes of needles to condemn all manner of things that Jesus rarely spoke about as much as he did money and discipleship.

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