Poverty Pornography (2012)

Poverty pornography….is a term I was introduced to during a community visit at OWCS. My role there is to support the director of OWCS, Ricky da Silva with regards to strategy, planning and staff support.  The more I thought about it, the more I liked this term.

Poverty Porn (PP) has a kind of a ring to it.  It’s also aggressive and in your face and has the dirty feel to it that shops with blue movies and brown bags hold.  It also speaks volumes about what we do in communities and with people when rather than engage with them out of a sense of dignity, we do for, do to, and don’t meet them heart to heart.  Compassion and Justice, Micah 6:8 doesn’t allow for poverty pornography.  PP for me speaks about when we use communities to ease our consciousness’; it’s when we go to make ourselves feel better about something, like poverty by painting a wall, but not bothering to see that actually the light fittings in a school are all broken.    It’s when in lieu of asking someone how their day has been, we rather pretend not to see them.

Poverty is ugly.  It’s not something we can pretty up –however much we want to.  It is a place where in the midst of the suffering joy and peace can be seen, but not when we refuse the intimacy of an experience.  Like a person who chases the celluloid or print porn images, poverty pornography will never allow our hearts to be truly moved, or the people we attempting to reach out to, to be truly seen or heard.

Poverty pornography in some ways allows for injustice and inequality to remain pervasive as it allows the illusion of making a difference without any sacrifice or discomfort to ourselves.  It doesn’t force us to recognise where we can speak up for justice, or practically do something to address injustice from a relational stance, rather than from a distance.  The only way we can truly address the issues of injustice and poverty in our communities is when we willing to have an intimate experience with a story that becomes shared story – so rather than us and them it becomes a “WE” story.  It is not up to policy, economics or social theorists to address this actually.  Jesus stated that the poor will always be with us.  This doesn’t absolve us of caring and challenging the structures that create the poor.

Over the past while I have been considering what Poverty Pornography looks like in my community and have recently been challenged, again, by what I can do in my world that will make a difference in this space.  It means that I need to consider what dignity, respect and humility looks like when strategizing around projects and needs.  It means that personally I can’t stand up and say “it’s Mugabe’s fault” or a the capitalist system or the old refrain of the colonialists left Africa poor without looking around me and seeing where I can stand up and make a difference.

Practically, it means that I need to consider what it means for me when:

  • I know a friend who is being paid a ridiculous wage and can’t afford her children’s school fees, and food and clothing when the cost of this would match what I pay to fly to CT for a weekend.
  • It means I need to consider when I buy my 4th bible because I want to read certain passages in a different translation and the person up the street is questioning a God who seemingly shows favouritism to a few and he isn’t one of them – what is my responsibility to him.
  • It means that I need to look at what it means to live simpler so that others can simply live – AM I willing to empty out space in my wardrobe when I get new stuff, so that someone else can benefit, or am I hoarding clothes for just in case?
  • I am challenged to ask how you are, look you in the eye and say have a great day, not because I want to rescue you, simply so that I see your personhood, and am willing to hear your story, rather than make you a non-person by not acknowledging you. You at the traffic light, walking past me in the street on my run, smelling or looking different to me.

Poverty pornography means I know things intellectually, but as long as it makes me look kind and caring and good – I can post on facebook how much money I gave away or how many needy children I “blessed”, but I don’t need to be challenged or uncomfortable with the injustice of life.  It doesn’t mean I need to give everything away and live in the street, it means I need to be conscious of what I have and the responsibility that comes with that.

I dare say that that more intimate our understanding of Micah 6:8 which reads as follows in the Message, the stronger our communities will be come.  When our understanding of our neighbour shifts from someone who is just like me, to someone who is near me, around me, in my face then maybe we can’t so easily engage in a distant theoretical understanding of poverty.

But He has already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women.  It is quiet simple:  DO what is fair and just to your neighbour, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously – take God seriously.

(Musings over months – 20th September – Alexa Russell)

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