Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Midnight Sighing

"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)

The Center for American Progress has some must read information about the current budget debate. It includes a draw-dropping "infographic" comparing the cost of 10 safety net programs anticipating steep cuts and the cost of a variety of tax cuts that benefit corporations and the wealthy.

As a social worker, I witness daily the human cost of cuts like these. I'd like to invite those contemplating making such cuts to spend some time with these people, look them in the eye and tell them they are not worth the money. I'd like them to tell these folks that and then explain why those who have the least are paying for tax breaks for those who need them the least. I hear politicians telling us that "we're broke" and so have to "make sacrifices". As Michael Moore recently pointed out, that is a highly debatable assertion. Even if that were accurate, we need to have an honest debate about how we got broke. Is it really because we are spending too much money on low-income housing or early childhood programs?

I keep wondering lately when Americans will have their Tahrir Square moment regarding the extremes of wealth and poverty in this country. When will we say enough is enough? When will we say loudly and without equivocation that we will not allow budgets to be balanced on the backs of the poor in the richest nation on the planet. We must do better. 'Abdu'l-Baha put it this way:

"A financier with colossal wealth should not exist whilst near him is a poor man in dire necessity...Men must bestir themselves in this matter, and no longer delay in altering conditions which bring the misery of grinding poverty to a very large number of the people. The rich must give of their abundance, they must soften their hearts and cultivate a compassionate intelligence, taking thought for those sad ones who are suffering from lack of the very necessities of life." (Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 153)

My point is not to engage in vilification of the wealthy, which is counterproductive and, I believe, counter to Baha'i teaching. It is not the possession of wealth, but policies and practices that concentrate it in the hands of the few at the expense of the many that is problematic both socially and spiritually:

"It should not be imagined that the writer's earlier remarks constitute a denunciation of wealth or a commendation of poverty. Wealth is praiseworthy in the highest degree, if it is acquired by an individual's own efforts and the grace of God, in commerce, agriculture, art and industry, and if it be expended for philanthropic purposes. Above all, if a judicious and resourceful individual should initiate measures which would universally enrich the masses of the people, there could be no undertaking greater than this, and it would rank in the sight of God as the supreme achievement, for such a benefactor would supply the needs and insure the comfort and well-being of a great multitude. Wealth is most commendable, provided the entire population is wealthy. If, however, a few have inordinate riches while the rest are impoverished, and no fruit or benefit accrues from that wealth, then it is only a liability to its possessor." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 24)