Repost of a 2011 Adventist Review (magazine) article:
BY JOSEPH BON SESAY
Meanwhile, the day comes to its end. By then the stadium’s 22,000 children are all dead. Local and national evening news seem not to know that any such thing has happened.
You feel horrible. Until you find out that things are even worse. There were 22,000 children in the stadium the day before, and the day before that. And they all, well, you know . . . It’s just that every day, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 22,000 children, under the age of 5, die because of poverty-related diseases,1 but not in Yankee Stadium. They die quietly in some of the poorest corners of Planet Earth on the laps of their helpless parents.
You know that this is not how it is supposed to be. For God’s creation of this earth and its fullness was meant to provide sufficiently for all its inhabitants. There has never been a time in history that Planet Earth did not have enough to support everyone.
Even in the midst of recent global economic challenges, 2010 world gross domestic product (GDP) was more than US$63 trillion.2 GDP is a measure of economic output within a year. And $63 trillion is enough to give each of the 6.9 billion people on earth $9,000 worth of food, shelter, health care, clean water, and everything that makes life relatively comfortable.3 Not an overwhelming amount, you may think, given that the U.S. Census Bureau’s poverty threshold for 2010 was more than $11,000.4 However, that $9,000 level of living remains beyond the dreams of billions.
So while we ask where God is in the midst of earth’s suffering, maybe we should be asking where are the good stewards who will connect humanity to the resources God has provided. For ever since Adam and Eve were created, there has been enough, and still is, for everyone to enjoy good living.How Do We Define Poverty?
The most comprehensive study about world poverty was done in 2005 by the World Bank. In 2005, according to their study, about 1.4 billion people were living in extreme poverty, and almost half of humanity was poor.5 By contrast with the U.S. Census Bureau definition of the poverty threshold, poverty, according to the World Bank, is living on less than US$2 a day, while extreme poverty is living on less than $1.25 a day ($456.25 a year).6
Added to that, the global economic crisis has had its greatest negative effect on those at greatest risk for survival. Amazingly, the World Bank estimate of how much it takes to lift someone above the international poverty line is just $2 a day. At that rate it should take just an additional $511 billion a year to wipe out extreme poverty among the millions living on $1 a day.
Sadly, that elimination of extreme poverty has not yet happened. Meanwhile global spending in military-related activities in 2010 three times outdoes what was needed to take care of extreme poverty (US$1.62 trillion).7
Seeking a Solution
The question persists: If Planet Earth has enough for everyone, why is there suffering, poverty, starvation, and homelessness? Why are there such extremes of poverty and wealth across the hemisphere? Why, we wonder, do so many people go to bed hungry, while others have more than enough?
To be fair, since biblical times, through the Middle Ages and modern times, good people with good intentions have tried to come up with social and economic structures to help defeat poverty and suffering. Adam Smith, for example, considered the father of our modern-day economic system, set out to transform humanity’s self-interest into sympathy and benevolence through social institutions.Smith made his case for a social and economic system in his two books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, first published in 1759,8 and The Wealth of Nations, first published in 1776.9 To him, the institution for that transformation is the free market. Instead of just serving the interest of the feudal lords in the feudal system, the capitalist system allows the poor and rich to engage society through the market rather than through individuals. Here labor, capital, goods, and services are traded freely.
There is no denying the fact that the free-market system, having undergone a lot of refinement in the past 200 years, at its best has indeed generated wealth for the world and lifted many out of poverty.
At its worst, critics say, capitalism is morally bankrupt and unjust to the poor. History can testify to the fact that over the years the hunt for profit and wealth has had no bounds, even to the detriment of our planet and family structure. Sadly enough, the more materially wealthy we grow, the less connected and the more morally compromised we apparently are toward the needs of our whole society.
Often enough, growing wealth means burning social and ethical capital: we spend less time with family and community, and have less time for ourselves.
Evidently capitalism itself has not been able to balance the creation of wealth with maintaining the social and ethical capital we need to strengthen families and society, while also having enough time to care for those of our number who are in need. In fact, economically, many have been left behind. To address their plight, various governments around the world introduced the welfare system. Social welfare programs such as food stamps, unemployment benefits, social security, Medicare, etc., were introduced to help the poor and others to get by. Globally, institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and various other nonprofit agencies around the world have also tried to help us get by. But extreme poverty is still among us, though in the midst of it all, the world has never been wealthier.
The temptation to which many succumb is to find a scapegoat, including God. But it does not seem, with our astronomical trillions of dollars in goods and services, that God has been miserly. God has surely provided abundantly for the needs of Planet Earth. We have discovered more natural resources and more ways to convert them into wealth than ever before. So that whereas it cannot be blamed on God’s short supply, earth’s social and economic distress seems more like a human creation than God’s.
Of course, not everyone is willing to accept and live with this uncomfortable reality. At the same time that many resist it, our spending habits grow more questionable than ever. For example, our annual tobacco and candy spending is more than what is needed to wipe out extreme poverty around the world. According to Bloomberg Financial LP and Euromonitor International, global annual sales for tobacco products amount to about $665 billion, and that of candy and confections is about $282 billion, for a total of $941 billion,10 far beyond the estimated $511 billion that would lift everyone at least above the poverty line.
What Planet Earth may lack are stewards to connect us to the resources God has provided. Earth needs good stewards who will reconnect and strengthen society’s social bonds that are among the ingredients needed to make us care for each other. The family, the church, and the local association need to be strengthened and reconnected. The barriers to making Planet Earth a caring place for everyone are not a lack of resources and talents, but a scarcity of good stewards to build bridges that connect everyone possible to as much of God’s resource provisions as necessary and possible. In the words of Paul, each of us should look not only “to [our] own interests but each of [us] to the interests of the others” (Phil. 2:4).
Maybe the real root cause of our problems today is less a lack of resources and more a lack of “other interest.” We have enough materials and too much self-interest. The social and economic systems we have chosen over the years have not allowed many to care for the interests of others. But Seventh-day Adventist Christians “are not to copy the world’s practices, and yet we are not to stand aloof from the people of the world.”11
In other words, good stewards care, and do not stand aloof while their fellow humans are suffering. Instead, good stewards build bridges that connect people to the resources they need. As Jesus might say, “For I was hungry and you connected Me to the source of food, I was thirsty and you connected Me to spring water, I was a stranger and you connected Me to a place to live, I needed clothes and you connected Me to affordable clothing, I was sick and you connected Me to health care, I was in prison and you connected Me to the hope of all ages!” (see Matt. 25:35, 36).
These good stewards believe that “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1). Their motivation to connect people to these resources comes not from market share, but from the smiles of those they have touched. No one needs to be a Mother Teresa or super-rich to connect another to the resources they need. You could save a child today.
Just an additional $1 would have saved some child in that stadium for one more day. Just an additional $365 may have kept one of them alive all year. But the $1 never arrived, though Planet Earth had $63 trillion last year. You and I can do something with just $1 a day; we just might save a life.
Gratitude is good and godly. Thank God and count yourself blessed if you can read this article in relative comfort, with a full stomach and a place to live. Many are not so privileged. Yet God created this earth fully sufficient to provide for everyone. I have not seen the evidence for blaming Him for the suffering that we see here on Planet Earth.
What is evident to me is that He has left me the duty of being one of His good stewards, who will connect my fellow humanity to the resources He has provided. The job needs as many people as possible. We all need to join. Next time you think of blaming Him for our problems down here, maybe you want to ask yourself first what you have done to make Planet Earth a better place. Maybe it isn’t His fault—it’s just our stewardship.
1 United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF), “The State of the World’s Children” (November 2009).
2 World Bank, World Development Indicators Database, July l, 2011; see http://data.worldbank.org.
3 United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “World Population Prospects, the 2010 Revision,” available online at http://esa.un.org/wpp/Other-Information/faq.htm.
4 U.S. Census Bureau, “Poverty Thresholds by Size of Family and Number of Children: 2010,” available online at www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/threshld/index.html.
5 World Bank, “World Bank Updates Poverty Estimates for the Developing World,” available online at http://go.worldbank.org/C9GR27WRJ0; Anup Shah, Global Issues; Social, Political, Economic, and Environmental Issues That Affect Us All, “Poverty Facts and Stats,” www.globalissues.org/article/26 /poverty-facts-and-stats, last updated Sept. 20, 2010.
7 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), “Recent Trends in Military Expenditure,” accessed Sept. 22, 2011, at www.sipri.org/research/armaments/milex/resultoutput/trends/recent_trends.
8 Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (London: A. Millar, 1759).
9 Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (London: Methuen and Co., Ltd., 1776).
10 See author for further documentation on Bloomberg Financial Lp and Euromonitor International data: Joseph Sesay@US.initiative.com.
11 Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, p. 164.
Joseph Bon Sesay is assistant controller for Initiative, a multinational communications agency. This article was published November 24, 2011.