Monday, May 26, 2008

Poverty: Enemy of Stability

Photo from a march against xenophobia in South Africa, courtesy of Reuters

Like the outbreaks of violence following the disputed elections in Kenya, I've been watching the news of attacks on foreigners by roving mobs in South Africa recently with alarm and sadness. While the context is different in the United States it made me wonder when the frustrations related to immigration in my own country (illegal and otherwise) might boil over into acts of violence. It reminded me of a statement made in The Promise of World Peace, a document commissioned by the Universal House of Justice in the mid-80's and distributed to world leaders around the globe:

"The inordinate disparity between rich and poor, a source of acute suffering, keeps the world in a state of instability, virtually on the brink of war. Few societies have dealt effectively with this situation. The solution calls for the combined application of spiritual, moral and practical approaches. A fresh look at the problem is required, entailing consultation with experts from a wide spectrum of disciplines, devoid of economic and ideological polemics, and involving the people directly affected in the decisions that must urgently be made. It is an issue that is bound up not only with the necessity for eliminating extremes of wealth and poverty but also with those spiritual verities the understanding of which can produce a new universal attitude. Fostering such an attitude is itself a major part of the solution."
(The Universal House of Justice, 1985 Oct, The Promise of World Peace, p. 3)

When human beings see themselves as competing for scarce resources, it can bring out the worst in them. I think that it was Bob Marley who said in one of his songs that "A hungry man is an angry man." Poverty is the enemy of stability in any society and the recent crisis in South Africa at the very least is a dramatization of that fact. Eliminating extremes of wealth and poverty is a central part of the social mission of the Baha'i Faith. A recent statement from the Baha'i International Community had this to say about poverty:

"It is now increasingly acknowledged that such conditions as the marginalization of girls and women, poor governance, ethnic and religious antipathy, environmental degradation and unemployment constitute formidable obstacles to the progress and development of communities. These evidence a deeper crisis—one rooted in the values and attitudes that shape relationships at all levels of society. Viewed from this perspective, poverty can be described as the absence of those ethical, social and material resources needed to develop the moral, intellectual and social capacities of individuals, communities and institutions. Moral reasoning, group decision-making and freedom from racism, for example, are all essential tools for poverty alleviation. Such capacities must shape individual thinking as well as institutional arrangements and policy-making. To be clear, the goal at hand is not only to remove the ills of poverty but to engage the masses of humanity in the construction of a just global order." Read the entire statement here.

I'll close with these words of Baha'u'llah, Founder of the Baha'i Faith:

Tell the rich of the midnight sighing of the poor, lest heedlessness lead them into the path of destruction, and deprive them of the Tree of Wealth. To give and to be generous are attributes of Mine; well is it with him that adorneth himself with My virtues."
(Baha'u'llah, The Persian Hidden Words)