I’ve always known I’ve had a problem with The Rich. I had a bias against The Rich for a long time. It also took me a while to notice I was one of them. I had expected to have inner conflicts by traveling to “third-world” countries (low life expectancy, low standard of living, low literacy rates, high poverty) and being faced with extreme poverty — not only an opposite lifestyle than I was used to, but also a lifestyle that was in direct relationship with my lifestyle : my demands had caused their poverty.
I’ve also known that Mennonites have appeared to favor missions and outreach to places with high levels of poverty and have had few resources to spend for missions and outreach to the upper echelons of society. I knew for this reason that living in one of the highest affluent areas in London could prove interesting as a missionary. I hadn’t, however, expected inner conflicts and deep moments of pain and sorrow as a result.
Have you tried living in the world’s most expensive city while having a deep theological and personal foundation of identity in walking with and learning from the Poor of the earth? It’s trying and tiring.
I look out my window on this unseasonably sunny day with a clear view across the way to a Palace. Literally. It’s named Alexandra Palace. I pass by multi-million dollar homes with painted white facades, pillars, and marble steps on my way back from my choir practice. I do not have some of the luxuries many people in the U.S. deem necessary (car, air conditioning, own bathroom). Yet I am still living in a wealthy neighborhood, in a wonderful house, in the most expensive city in the world. In some ways, it is good to face up to what society I am really a part of — no matter the details (living on stipend, volunteering work), I am a part of one of the highest echelons of London society. From what I know, ‘normal’ working people cannot afford to live in the city of London, let alone in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods.
There are times, however, where I notice that there is an even greater gap between me and the highest echelons of society here in London; times in which I almost feel “poor” in comparison. I was walking along Brompton Rd, south of Oxford Circus, having extra time before my choir rehearsal in South Kensington. Due to various events of the day, I was eating my packed supper as I walked — carrots, celery, crispbread and an orange with peanut butter. I noticed the people walking around me — all in at minimum professional business wear, and at maximum “to the nines”. I felt like a dirty mutt who straggled into a world premier event such as the Oscars — I was clearly in a place where I did not belong. I wasn’t in ragged clothing, nor had I forgotten to perform my daily hygiene rituals. Yet the feeling within me was clear: I did not belong here. At the same time, the entire experience was surreal. Where in the world was I? And why was I here? And how and where does Christ work in this part of the world? I was chomping on my crisp orange carrot, occasionally adding some protein with the peanut butter, as I walked along a street whose shops would charge their customers easily £300 for their on-sale shirts. Eventually it was time to turn around for the choir rehearsal, but the feeling was quite palpable, and has not left me since.
However, that time on Brompton Rd was not the only time I felt as if I was in a different world where I did not belong. I had the feeling many times: in Highgate village, on the tube, riding the bus through nice neighborhoods. I was shocked, amazed, and deeply saddened that this wealth was present in the world. I was even used to considering myself among the top 2% in the world … I hadn’t realized how many people likely made up that 2% in the world — and what gaps of wealth could be present even among that 2%. And seriously, if all that wealth is held in the top two percent of the entire world, something is fundamentally and irreparably wrong with this world — something inhumane has happened over time. I should take that back — I shouldn’t say irreparable, because even within a cynic like me, I operate my life on optimism and faith that one day Good will transform Evil and that Love will finally emerge as the dominant world power. I must say, though, struck with this wealth — I wonder which direction it will turn me — to apathy or to action for change. I sincerely hope for the latter — but I must admit that even after years of activism I am still asking myself what can I do and what can one person do and how will it ever make a difference?
It strikes me as well that my wealth is the source of my liberty of time to consider how best I shall live my life. Is it not often the middle-classes and higher economic levels of societies that take time to wonder into philosophy and reflect on how we should live? Or who are able to go through higher education to gain slight distance and a critical eye for the world in which we live? We are not constrained by the everyday choices of food or shelter. My wealth therefore gives me the burden (or privilege) of change on which to act or dismiss.
I wonder, I cry, and I hope that I will be moved to some sort of effective and compassionate action for change – towards acknowledging wealth disparities and mourning — through actions — the wealthy’s sins.
A few points to recap and encourage discussion (I know it was long!):
How and where does Christ-of-the-people work? “The healthy do not need a doctor” (Matt 9:12) often leads us to think Christ came preferentially for the poor, but are not the wealthy also sick?
If all that wealth is held in the top two percent of the entire world, something is fundamentally wrong with this world — something inhumane has happened over time.
My wealth gives me the burden (or privilege) of change.
How do other YAR readers and writers feel about wealth disparities in the world and your “place” in society? In particular perhaps, how Mennonite (and Anabaptist?) emphases on simple living and attending to people’s basic needs have affected your thoughts and feelings on the subject of wealth.
Photo by Tim Nafziger, April 2014. From series: London Bridge Portraits