Our congregation’s theme for the month of February is The Gift of JUSTICE & EQUITY. Even though these two “gifts” are named in our 2nd Principle, I found myself wondering what they mean, and if there is a difference between them, however nuanced that difference might be. Perhaps you’re wondering too.
So here is what I learned when I visited the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:
Justice is the maintenance or administration of what is just.
Just means what is morally right and good
To be right/righteous is to act in accord with divine or moral law.
Morality means to conform to the ideals of right human conduct.
Equity means something that is equitable.
Equitable means dealing fairly and equally with all concerned.
But then I started asking myself: what do those “gifts” mean in my life?
Like many (perhaps most) of the people in our congregation, I enjoy a substantial amount of privilege, at least in relation to so many others in our larger community. My lifestyle may not be luxurious, but it is certainly well “above average,” and it is at least good enough for me to enjoy living circumstances that are pleasant, safe, and secure. That’s just not true for the larger community.
I own a nice house in a pleasant San Mateo neighborhood.
Many in our community have so much trouble affording rent that they must live in overcrowded conditions and perhaps substandard housing. And far too many are homeless.
I have plenty of food to eat, clothing to wear, and toys to play with.
The food insecurity many in our community experience often results in the consumption of cheap calories – diets that are high in carbs and fats – that can cause health problems and even limit longevity. Purchasing clothing is a rare and expensive option, but a necessity, especially for a growing family. Toys are an exception granted only occasionally, and usually limited to children.
I have enough money to be able to purchase anything I really need, and also most of what I want.
Discretionary income is something that many in our community have never experienced and cannot understand.
After so many years of having the privilege to buy whatever I want (but often don’t need), I’ve discovered I really have too much “stuff”! My attempts at downsizing have proven very challenging. I was raised by parents who lived through the Depression, so when I consider taking a no-longer-worn piece of clothing to my local Goodwill, I hear my mother’s voice: “But it’s still good!” Back that item goes into my closet, where it will continue to gather dust. (I am recalling the late Randy Silver’s simple but articulate response to this matter: “If I haven’t worn something in a long while, it’s time to pass it along to someone else who can use it.”)
We live in a culture where some of us experience great abundance, while too many others suffer from immense scarcity. As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm and promote our 2nd Principle – “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations” – and we try to live that principle into the world. For example, we bring food donations to UUSM on the last Sunday of each month to be placed in our Little Pantry, to be taken home by those experiencing food scarcity. We also donate money and time to many nonprofit organizations – Samaritan House, Second Harvest Food Bank, Home & Hope, Homework Central, to name just a few – that have as their missions helping underprivileged people with food, clothing, rent and utilities, education, and medical care.
But nothing we do ever seems to be enough, especially in our own San Mateo County, where the cost of living continues to skyrocket. So I find myself wondering: what more can we do – what should we do – to end the dichotomy between abundance and scarcity in our county and our country, to bring about more justice and equity into our world?
“To understand the causes of poverty, we must look beyond the poor,” says sociologist Matthew Desmond, the author of Poverty, by America, a book he wrote to answer two questions: why so much poverty? and how can we finally end it?
“Those of us living lives of privilege and plenty must examine ourselves,” Desmond maintains. “Most government aid goes to families that need it the least,” in the form of tax breaks, such as mortgage interest deduction, retirement accounts, and health insurance. “We are doing so much more to subsidize affluence than to alleviate poverty…and this is the way we designed it.”
(Our friends at Soul Matters Sharing Circle add an interesting point to this discussion: “We privileged liberals are much more comfortable naming the problems than being named as the problem.” [emphases added])
It is “a misery and a national disgrace” that one in nine Americans is currently living below the poverty line, says Desmond. “The citizens of the richest nation in the world can and should finally put an end to it. We don’t need to outsmart the problem. We need to outhate it.
“We concentrate affluence, and that results in the concentration of poverty,” he continues. “To understand the causes of poverty, many of us do have to search inside our own choices in our own neighborhoods.”
But Desmond thinks the tide is finally turning. “There are so many of us that are over the old story…the boring tendency to blame the poor for their miseries,” he maintains. “We as a nation are ready for a different way of living and a different way of talking about this.” He wants all of us to become “poverty abolitionists,” abandoning behaviors based on a philosophy of “more for me, less for we.”
“Poverty isn’t an inevitable part of our nation but an abomination,” Desmond insists. “A poverty abolitionist evaluates their own life: how they spend and invest, where they live. A poverty abolitionist supports rebalancing the safety net, with less rich aid and more poor aid. And a poverty abolitionist strives for inclusive communities and turns away from segregation.”
So now, the question is: What will each of us do to become a poverty abolitionist, and change the things we can no longer accept? Are we willing to trade some of our privilege in return for reducing the oppression of others?
When we identify where our privilege intersects with somebody else’s oppression, we’ll find our opportunities to make real change.
– Ijeoma Oluo