Something is Relative

The Census Bureau just came out with its 2010 poverty report. The numbers spiked. Just over 15% of Americans are now considered “poor.” That’s 46.2 million people.

But if you dig a little you soon discover America’s poor aren’t like the world’s poor. The typical household considered “poor” in America has a car, air conditioning, cable (or satellite TV), two televisions, a DVD player, an Xbox (or PlayStation). Half the poor have a computer, a third have a widescreen TV, and a quarter have a digital video recorder (such as TiVo). Ninety-six percent of poor parents stated that their children were never hungry at any time during the year. Only 4% of poor persons ever become temporarily homeless. And the average poor American has more living space (square footage) than the average Swede or German.

The poverty level, by the way, has been determined to be yearly income below $22,300 for a family of four. It is not fun to fall behind on your mortgage; it’s not fun to eat Mac and cheese or beans and rice more than you like. I’m not for a minute making light of situations where families struggle with the question, “How are we going to make it this month?”

But I have a different perspective now. Having recently been to Kenya for two weeks, and two weeks last year, doesn’t make me a third-world expert or a commentator on poverty. But what it has done is changed my understanding of poor. Phrases such as “day to day” and “hand to mouth” are reality for Kenyans. Electricity and indoor plumbing is a luxury that evades all but the most well to do. It is commonplace to see men (or boys) beating a donkey with a stick who pulls an overloaded cart of corn or sugarcane or other vegetable home from the field. Another typical scene is a woman hauling home sticks roped to her back she found in the countryside so she can cook something later that day. Children aren’t playing video games; a lot of times I saw them just sitting in the dirt and watching life go by.

We are told that things are relative (such as truth and values) and because there are no absolutes, we can establish our own right and wrong. Within our cultural rubric, right and wrong vary from person to person as each of our situations, upbringings, and lens to the world is different. As Christians, we reject this notion. God has established truth; His Word has drawn the line between right and wrong. Biblical truth transcends time, culture, and individualism. We don’t have the authority to move God’s line.

What is relative, however, is poverty—there is such a thing as “American poor” and there is such a thing as “Kenyan poor.” And there is a great, great difference. It’s convenient and self-serving to call truth relative—but it is not. It would be good, however, to remind ourselves that America’s poverty is relative; that America’s poor are Kenya’s kings.

Pastor Rich Hamlin
September 15, 2011


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