Q Los Angeles 2013
Arts + Entertainment
Science + Tech
The End Of Suffering
Thus, oppression results in powerlessness: the inability to change one’s circumstances. One tragic example of this is the sex-trafficking industry. We have a Word Made Flesh community fighting for the freedom of women and children trafficked into the commercial sex industry in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India. My wife and I recently visited there and a couple of our staff members brought us into the red-light districts where they go to visit their friends working in brothels.
After stopping several times to introduce us to dozens of their friends, one of the women who prostitutes in the area invited us to her home for a cup of tea. We followed her down a tiny side alley and into one of the brothels. The building appeared to be falling in on itself, foreboding and dark, seemingly hundreds of years old. At the top of a dark and uneven staircase were a number of little rooms where the women of this neighborhood “work.” We entered one of the small rooms, barely more than seven or eight feet wide.
In this room were two beds set against each other in an L-shape. I sat at the foot of the bed closest to the door and noticed that the adjoining bed was pretty high off the ground, maybe four feet or so, and on the floor underneath was a mattress. Our friends told us that this room was often used by a 14-year-old girl who was pimped out by the woman who invited us in for tea. The child would bring her “client” in (actually, 10-15 clients a day), climb under the elevated bed with him, and then pull a sheet down to conceal them while having sex — sometimes even while our WMF staff members were making visits.
I could hardly take my eyes off that dark little prison that served as a place of torment and enslavement. Not only had that 14-year-old girl, as a sex-slave, lost her freedom, but her identity and sexuality was commodified, her childhood plundered, and in an already horrific reality, she experienced continued humiliation by having to engage in sex in a room sometimes full of people. This is poverty as the imposition of oppression at its worst: utter powerlessness;
as Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen describes it.
If powerlessness is the inability to change one’s circumstances, then power in the face of oppression is
the ability to change one’s circumstances. As a result, the holistic response of the non-poor toward oppression must be
providing freedoms for those who are poor to choose the kind of life that they desire. Empowerment reawakens abilities and provides opportunities that the poor have had stolen from them through oppression.
At this point, I should note that poverty understood as the imposition of oppression does not include people who are poor because they suffer the consequences of their own bad decisions. Rather, this analysis of poverty acknowledges that the large majority of the world’s most vulnerable poor have not chosen and, given the choice, would not choose to live the way they are forced to live. This understanding of poverty also recognizes the role of institutional, systemic, political, economic, and social factors that aggravate poverty situations. Moreover, poverty that is the result of oppression is almost always related to our previous discussion of dignity. Powerful people who do not embrace their own God-given kingdom dignities and identities inevitably impose a system of false identities on the vulnerable, which creates oppression and poverty.
Finally, poverty can be seen as a value voluntarily accepted and celebrated in the kingdom of God. Intentional acceptance of this expression of poverty always leads to redemptive works and the possibility of an end to forms of unjust suffering.
Non-poor Christians have a tremendous opportunity here. Unfortunately, the Western church has often mistaken God’s material and financial provision as individual blessing rather than as resources with potential for kingdom development. Renouncing these things we assume to be ours allows them to become available to the oppressed poor who may not have access to them.
Consider the example of Christ, “that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9, TNIV). Poverty in the life of Christ was not something imposed on him, rather something he took upon himself. Philippians 2:6 (TNIV) tells us that “he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.” This self-emptying process redefines and reverses the paradigms of power and poverty in the kingdom of humanity (or the empires of this world).
Consider another biblical example. Reflecting on Revelation 5, we see a slain Lamb at the center of the future hope of God’s kingdom. But this vision of Christ also represents a present reality and a window into his timeless kingdom values. In other words, this future portrayal of powerlessness — a slain Lamb — validates the naked and bloodied Savior on the cross who, in what is perceived as humiliation and defeat, forgives his executioners. From a place of powerlessness, Christ’s true power is extended through his mercy. This is the heart of his kingdom message for us. Christ even called a child into his presence as an example of humility for all, not of weakness as the kingdom of humanity perceives it, but as weakness that leads to strength through voluntary kingdom poverty.
As Jayakumar Christian often suggests, accepting the slain Lamb as the model of power in the kindgom of God explains the unlikely substitution of a manger for a palace, a group of shepherds in the place of angels, ministry in Galilee rather than ministry in Rome, and why Christ rode into Jerusalem on a donkey instead of a stallion. In this kingdom, the powerful, proud, and prestigious seem to be of lesser consequence than the poorest person. Even the King humbles himself in this kingdom.
And this example of Christ really is the key to understanding and responding to poverty. If poverty in our world often begins with a marred dignity and identity, poverty embraced in the kingdom of God releases and enables our dignity and identity to be found in the slain Lamb who identifies with us and died for us. If poverty in the kingdom of humanity is offensive, oppressive, imposed, and enslaving, poverty embraced in the kingdom of God is redemptive, voluntarily chosen, and freedomgiving. And following the example of Christ, the end of suffering of those who are poor (like we once were) will begin with the voluntary suffering of the non-poor (like Christ did for us).
It’s now the 21st century and the church’s urgent task is to make sense of what we understand about poverty and what the subsequent demands on this new understanding must become. Let me be a bit blunt. It doesn’t mean we need to take more short-term missions trips. Most of us have already been exposed to enough oppression and poverty around the world, if not in our own communities. The questions are: Have we done anything about oppression and poverty? Have we taken responsibility for what we have already seen and heard? Is our exposure without action any different than those whom the apostle James chastises: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is [that kind of faith]?” (James 2:15-16, TNIV) Too many of us want extreme exposure without having to face the extreme responsibilities of our responses and the hard questions of accountability that need to accompany these endeavors. And not just for the sake of our own faith, but for the sake of Elicia’s children and the 14-year-old girl forced to have sex under a bed.
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