WHO wants being poor? Anyone?
By poverty, for purposes of this piece, I mean “material deprivation or penury” due to lowness of income. Indian economist and Nobel prize laureate Amartya Sen identifies poverty with lowness of income when he defined it as “the inability to lead a decent – minimally acceptable – life, and while low income does make it difficult to lead a life of freedom and well-being.”
O poverty, thou hast been a perennial scourge! Lives are battered, happiness stifled, creativity destroyed, and freedoms are eradicated by the tragedy of poverty.
Admittedly, I myself have been poor – then as now.
As 9th to a brood of 10 (notwithstanding two step-siblings prior to my mom and another one after, whom my father sired out of wedlock), I was born to poor parents – my father, a carpenter with no fixed job until his senior years, and my mother, a seamstress.
When I entered the seminary at age 12, a kind-hearted benefactor answered for my monthly board-and-lodging, but my weekly allowance (for personal necessities and miscellaneous expenses) was yet shouldered by my parents who then could hardly provide such.
Thus, I fancy recalling not a few instances utterly watching my well-to-do peers being able to buy snacks at the canteen store. I would also shun going along with my peers on permitted free-time outings just to save on my scrimpy pocket-money allowance.
In my college seminary days, prompted perhaps by my personal or family destitution, I was easily captivated by the seventies’ (and until early eighties) church milieu of “liberation theology” – finding solace in working for the “poor, oppressed, and deprived” in far-flung barrios during summer apostolate assignments.
I was then fascinated by Karl Marx’s “dialectical materialism”.
According to Marx, at the base of the dialectical conflict, the prime culprit is capitalism, giving rise to the social alienation of haves and have-nots, of rich and poor classes.
Then, this spirals to the political level of alienation, with the state being antithetical to the citizenry and is no longer “of the people, by the people, and for the people”.
And finally, to self-alienation, where which the self is alienated from real happiness (read: material happiness) and that religion is fake or merely an “opium of the masses” as it offers only an “illusory” or out-of-this-world happiness.
And even when I was already in my theologate years and towards finishing my priestly formation, I was yet intrigued with the enigmatic priestly “vow of poverty” – muttering to myself then, “How could I dare take such a vow when I have not tasted yet what is un-poverty or being not poor?”
All the same, notwithstanding such vow, it’s no-brainer to behold priests, secular especially, abounding in luxury or wealth.
But, mind you, these fancy ruminations were not the reason for me in going out of the seminary – that’s another story.
Now, hence, let me zero in on our title query, “Is poverty evil?” Two important points are worth examining in trying to answer this question.
One, to say that poverty or the scourge of deprivation and penury is evil is to presuppose that it is attributed to a source or cause.
If the suffering or impoverishment of one is due to an unjust action by another, then poverty is a moral evil which is caused by another person or institution.
If poverty is indeed an evil, then there must be some wickedness or culpability behind it – some wrong-doing that causes such human tragedy to happen.
In this context, therefore, it is can be assumed that for the manifold manifestations of poverty – starvation, unemployment, human trafficking, spiraling of crimes, etc. – there are wrong-doers or persons causing such scourge.
Ostensibly, George Bernard Shaw’s observation (in his 1907 brilliant play, Major Barbara) that “the greatest of evils and the worst of crimes is poverty” still resonates to our day.
My second point is that if poverty is indeed evil that has perennially plagued humanity, is it – like natural and moral evils – a given or necessary phenomenon?
For which reason, thus, Jesus in Matthew 26:11 aptly quipped,
“The poor you will always have with you.”
If so, what could be the reasons, if there are, why poverty is a seemingly “sine qua non” (literally translated, “cannot be without”) of our human scheme of things?
Perhaps, it is because we’re but, since the time of creation and our expulsion from Eden, journeying in this ever evolving life and universe yet full of imperfections and moral inequities.
Or, perhaps too, God tolerates poverty in view of something good – that it could rather be an avenue for exercising generosity and compassion, or “preferential love” for the poor.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2448) verily states: “(Hence), those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church which, since her origin and inspite of the failings of many of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defense and liberation.”
Ah, in final note, after all the struggles of poverty I have gone through, I’ve come to realize that: having more or being rich doesn’t at all make the difference; that poverty and affluence are rather relative concepts or realities; and that being rich is not measured with material wealth as it is more with finding meaning, purpose, and happiness – or, to say the least, being able to meaningfully live, learn, love, and laugh.