William Stringfellow wants to make you uncomfortable

Vicki Black featured this quotation from the late William Stringfellow on the Speaking to the Soul blog yesterday. But it is a question that can’t be examined too often. Are some people poor because others are rich? And if so, what should Christians do abut that?

This interdependence of rich and poor is something Americans are tempted to overlook, since so many Americans are in fact prosperous, but it is true today as it was in earlier times: the vast multitudes of people on the face of the earth are consigned to poverty for their whole lives, without any serious prospect whatever of changing their conditions. Their hardships in great measure make possible the comfort of those who are not poor; their poverty maintains the luxury of others; their deprivation purchases the abundance most Americans take for granted.

That leaves prosperous Americans with frightful questions to ask and confront, even in customs or circumstances that are regarded as trivial or straightforward or settled. Where, for instance, do the profits that enable great corporations to make large contributions to universities and churches and charity come from? Do they come from the servitude of Latin American peasants working plantations on seventy-two-hour weekly shifts for gross annual incomes of less than a hundred dollars? Do they depend upon the availability of black child labor in South Africa and Rhodesia? Are such beneficences in fact the real earnings of some of the poor of the world?

To affirm that we live in this world at each other’s expense is a confession of the truth of the Fall rather than an assertion of economic doctrine or a precise empirical statement. It is not that there is in every transaction a direct one-for-one cause and effect relationship, either individually or institutionally, between the lot of the poor and the circumstances of those who are not poor. It is not that the wealthy are wicked or that the fact of malice is implicit in affluence. It is, rather, theologically speaking, that all human and institutional relationships are profoundly distorted and so entangled that no person or principality in this world is innocent of involvement in the existence of all other persons and all institutions. . . .

From William Stringfellow’s A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow, edited by Bill Wylie Kellermann (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994).

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  1. John B. Chilton

    For me the problem of poverty in the world is a problem of theodicy. Why did God created a world in which in some parts of it it possible for people to thrive, and in others it is not. Because it is based on mutually beneficial exchange international trade makes it possible for those living in poor countries to improve their lot in life — it is not the cause of poverty.

    When we look at a foreign company offering low wages we must remember that those wages are better than the alternatives for those workers who take those job offers. If there is responsibility to pay more it is OUR responsibility to only buy from companies that pay even better wages. That of course is the essence of fair trade products. Ultimately it is the customers in rich countries who are responsible for offering workers in poor countries better terms. Yes, there is interdependence. None of us is innocent.

    But this is small potatoes. The real problem is getting economies of poor countries to take off. Geography will always play a role, but real problem is institutions. Why did God allow some countries to evolve so that they lack the basic institutions that richer countries have? How do institutions evolve and can this evolution be sped up if at all — this is a VERY HARD problem.

    Given that the problem is with institutions in a culture what can those of in richer countries do to help improve those institutions without being not it all busy bodies?

  2. God created a world in which we were supposed to learn to share, to become interdependent, and for each culture to share what it has and does best with the others. The “evolution” (or “devolution”) of countries’ institutions is not God’s problem. It is ours.

  3. John B. Chilton

    I agree, Chris. As Jim will post on later today Ian Markham remarks “And then if you ask how can I believe in a God that allows so much suffering? Part of the answer is that I can only believe in God provided I know God knows what it’s like to suffer — and that is the Christian claim, that God knows human suffering.”

    The suffering of the poor is everyone’s problem. That’s God’s plan for that problem.

    I do circle around to the point that this suffering is rooted in local institutions and we understand very little about how to change them. It is a very hard problem. Witness any country in Africa. See also Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Haiti, etc.

    God has given us a problem that demands our best efforts.

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