By experts in poverty I do not mean sociologists, but poor men.” – G. K. Chesterton, The Illustrated London News, March 25, 1911.
“Cruelty to animals is cruelty and a vile thing; but cruelty to a man is not cruelty; it is treason. Tyranny over a man is not tyranny: it is rebellion, for man is royal. Now, the practical weakness of the vast mass of modern pity for the poor and the oppressed is precisely that it is merely pity; the pity is pitiful, but not respectful. Men feel that the cruelty to the poor is a kind of cruelty to animals. They never feel that it is injustice to equals; nay, it is treachery to comrades. This dark, scientific pity, this brutal pity, has an elemental sincerity of its own, but it is entirely useless for all ends of social reform. Democracy swept Europe with the sabre when it was founded upon the Rights of Man. It has done literally nothing at all since it has been founded only upon the wrongs of man. Or, more strictly speaking, its recent failure has been due to its not admitting the existence of any rights or wrongs, or indeed of any humanity. Evolution (the sinister enemy of revolution) does not especially deny the existence of God: what it does deny is the existence of man. And all the despair about the poor, and the cold and repugnant pity for them, has been largely due to the vague sense that they have literally relapsed into the state of the lower animals.”
-G.K. Chesterton, Chapter 11: On the Alleged Optimism Of Dickens, Charles Dickens, 1906
Read this book online: Charles Dickens, Part Two
Read the lecture: Charles Dickens (Ahlquist )
We all have a mental picture of what we think poverty is. That’s what Chesterton is trying to get us to see and the mental picture is usually wrong. Poverty comes in all kinds of degrees. It may be abject, squalid, pinched, or reduced in circumstances. It may be dirt poor or come as utility debt but appearing to be adequate in outward appearance. Poverty is when you cannot meet the ability to make a sustainable living in the economy to which you find yourself. And that can be for any number of reasons, including lack of effort. But lack of effort – laziness – seems to be the catch all as the most accepted reason behind poverty. That is not only a disservice, but a lie. And it is, especially these days, the least of the reasons for poverty. For we live in one of most greedy and selfish times in all of history. What is an “acceptable standard of living” varies widely throughout the world, but again, Chesterton draws our attention to what the majority of the well-off are doing: to protect their higher living style they are seeing their fellow man as lower than themselves, indeed, today, they have even elevated animals above him. As Chesterton observes: “Men feel that the cruelty to the poor is a kind of cruelty to animals. They never feel that it is injustice to equals; nay, it is treachery to comrades.” So what are we to do since, the Bible speaks out repeatedly against the rich, and cautions all against laziness (not just the poor) to work to provide for themselves? Many claim education is the answer. And it may well be a piece of the modern puzzle, but the education we seem to be lacking most is the education about the poor from the poor themselves, the experts in poverty. So I encourage you to do just that: Go to the Internet and find out for yourselves by asking the poor and reading what they have to say. They are our comrades in God’s eyes. Indeed, they may even be us right now.
Image source: Deprivation, poverty London, The Guardian