Where is the balance between charity and justice? Between thinking big thoughts and hitting the ground running? Between effort and rest? Between retreat and engagement? Are my gifts best used giving fish or teaching to fish or working to change the whole fishing industry?
Ladies and gentlemen, a small sampling of questions that have been plaguing me lately. In one of my classes, I showed a film that asked the question, “Is aid to Africa doing more harm than good?” Is foreign aid creating dependency and learned helplessness? How is it that we should more compassionately distribute wealth so that everyone lives with dignity? Who should receive micro-loans and scholarships? Should generous donations go to governments, NGOs, middle class employers to create jobs, the poorest of the poor? How can more relationships be built? In my favorite scene, two brothers grapple with these same questions. The question is posed, “Is it more helpful to educate powerful people about poverty or cross boundaries and help people experiencing poverty one at a time?” As I look out into the faces of affluent teenagers I am showing this film to, I admit to them that this is my daily struggle. I leave my lesson on poverty to return to my comfortable apartment. Is it making a difference?
This past weekend, I traveled to North Carolina for a gorgeous wedding. Before the rehearsal, my spouse and I walked to Duke University, saw the chapel and sat down in the sunshine to enjoy an organic, colorful lunch from one of the many cafes. I love universities, and really, all academic institutions. They seem like utopias to me. We sat at lunch listening in to young, vivacious thinkers and old professors in bow ties philosophize about the world. I found myself at peace and enlivened. Many religions agree that the path to knowledge is the path to God. And I believe it. To have the leisure time to pursue knowledge feels liberating to me. And I have seen repeatedly that a key to peace is to educate young people, especially women.
Yet there is also something about academia that grates on me. As I believe that the path to knowledge is the path to God, I also believe that Jesus is the poor. Literally. And academia seems so disengaged and distant from people who are experiencing real poverty. It is a luxury to be able to choose whether to engage in an intellectual conversation about philosophy and theology regarding poverty while other people are living it. Do I dare analyze aid when people actually need food right now while I am thinking about it? Is the pursuit of knowledge also running from reality?
I am finding in me more and more a simultaneous desire to be immersed in education and scholarship while living engaged in the world of people experiencing poverty. Where do I place myself so that the power I have in the world can most effectively be used to transform the hierarchies in our world? How can I have informed, passionate opinions without living among people who are different from me? Can I pursue knowledge without fleeing from the world?
Tomorrow morning I will leave my comfortable apartment to teach affluent teenagers about poverty. I just wonder sometimes who I am tripping over while taking the long view.