arrogant middle class white people
I got thinking about this post when a friend of mine went to a Christian gathering of some kind. The people there, all middle class white people, were discussing giving to the poor in their area – a great cause!
My friend however was appalled at the way in which the these people spoke so condescendingly of the poor. They talked about maybe inviting them to dinner or church so they could teach them how to earn and save money, and so that these people could learn from their lifestyles.
Teaching people how to earn or save might not be so bad, though it betrays a naivety about the poor, as if all poor people were poor because they were bad at handling their finances.
But the arrogance of thinking that the poor would do best to learn from middle class lifestyles is striking. After all, middle class people do not have it all together… it has been well documented that the Australian Happiness Index has been dropping over the last few decades, and that depression rates have been rising. In an early January New Scientist magazine, Israeli researcher Yair Amichai-Hamburger diagnoses a large part of the problem; ”In this era of mass consumption, we are surrounded by advertising that urges us to find fulfilment through the acquisition of material goods.”
So according to this middle class crowd we should give to the poor and show them our lifestyles so they can look forward to lower happiness rates and higher depression rates. I know this is a bit of a strawman argument, but this kind of attitude is reflected in a lot of well intentioned “help” offered by people, not least white middle class people (like me).
This attitude, among all the other issues it raises, misses an important truth – the middle have a lot to learn from the poor. Yes, that’s right – we need to be taught by the poor.
Why? Because the poor can teach us about relationships. Such people must often rely on each other to a higher degree than the middle class because of their low economic position. In doing so personal relationships often become crucial, whereas for the more affluent among us relationships are often unnecessary, or worse, they become a nuisance. The middle class striving for happiness in one’s standard of living is a myth (though an extremely low standard of living can obviously detract from happiness) – the truth is that meaningful relationships are necessary for happiness, not material wealth.
It is also worth pointing out that the poor teach us about ourselves. A friend posted this quote on her Facebook today, and it says well what I want to communicate:
“Our problem is not primarily with how we see the poor, but with how we see ourselves. If we still think and convey by our behaviour that in some way we are fundamentally different and better as persons from the man sleeping in cardboard boxes in the alley, we have not been brought with clear eyes to the foot of the cross, seeing our own neediness in the light of it” (Dallas Willard)
The poor also teach us about God, and our connection to him/her. There is a reason the Bible makes the case that we see God in the poor, and that we learn about ourselves by how we treat the poor.
I don’t really know where I am going with this, but I guess this is a challenge for me personally, to see that though helping the poor is important, I should not be importing to them my lifestyle, because it is not perfect, nor necessarily even good. Helping the poor must look different to this naive concept (a topic for another day), and it will no doubt include the poor helping me.
Posted on October 29, 2010, in Culture & Art, Mission and tagged Dallas Willard, Happiness, Happiness Index, Middle Class, Poor, Poverty, White People, Yair Amichai-Hamburger. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.