On this day millions of people will flock to cathedrals and churches the world over to have a sign of the cross drawn in ash on their foreheads. This action is done in commemoration of the first day of Lent, the forty-day journey through death and brokenness that passes at the dawning of Easter. For a majority of the people who will observe Ash Wednesday this year, hunger, drought, debt, and economic poverty are a painful reality. In this season when we take a brave look at death, the hope of the impoverished lies in the prospect that the reality of that death will sink deeply into the consciousness of the church. Truth be told, the hope of the affluent lies there as well. And somewhere in the midst of all this, there’s the United Nations.
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is the branch of the UN that focuses on poverty alleviation. The organization has poured over $8 billion into developing nations over the past decade in an effort to aid the world’s most impoverished places. It does not deal with crisis relief (earthquakes, typhoons, genocide, etc.). Its goal is development: poverty alleviation over the long haul. With that in mind, the UNDP is ultimately involved in wealth transfers from prosperous nations to developing nations.
On the first of this month the UNDP released a self-assessment report, seeking to put some objective data to how its fight against poverty has paid off. As it turns out, it has not paid off. The report could be summed up in the following ideas:
- Alleviation of poverty is difficult to measure, especially on the scales at which the UNDP is dealing with it.
- There is no objective data to indicate any real progress in the fight against poverty.
I do not wish to paint the UNDP in an entirely negative light, but its assessment of its own effectiveness should cause all of us to consider the true nature of poverty and the solutions that emerge from that understanding. Perhaps Lent could be of help in that endeavor.
When Christians receive the ashes today, they will hear something akin to these words taken from the Book of Common Prayer: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” If I were to truly believe these words and let them sink in, a few things would become clear to me. I would understand that death is real and threatening, that the earth is accursed more deeply and thoroughly than I can articulate, that I was born into a system that without divine intervention can only leave me insecure and ashamed, that I have contributed to the world’s brokenness because of my own idolatries; and that, in the end, we are, all of us, impoverished.
The beauty of Lent is that, while we grieve over our accursed existence, we celebrate the fact that Jesus stepped down into brokenness with us, an act of condescension that climaxes at the cross and Good Friday. It is at this point we recognize how Jesus has experienced the curse of death in full force—with us and in our place. But what does this mean for those who, despite the greatest occasion for feasting, will go hungry on Easter? What does it mean for the UNDP?
First, the reality of the world’s brokenness helps us understand that poverty goes much deeper than a lack of material resources. If all of us are heirs to a host of broken relationships (spiritually, sexually, ideologically, ecologically, zoologically, psychologically, etc.) then true alleviation of poverty must be taken into account on a broad spectrum. Relying too heavily on monetary aid does little to heal poverty and often much to compound it.
Second, the fact that Jesus chose to join us in our brokenness prepares a way for those who would seek to alleviate poverty. The problem with “throwing money” at brokenness is not so much that it is unimaginative, but that it can be an excuse to remain at throwing distance. Jesus wove his story into ours and inaugurated resurrection for the tapestry of our existence. With this hope now weaved into the fabric of the earth, we have every reason to join our brothers and sisters in their brokenness, while at the same time inviting them into ours. This is precisely what will resurrect beauty and wholeness from the brokenness and the terribly holistic alienation that defines us.
In the hopes of living in the reality of the death that surrounds us, and in the hopes of rejoicing in the glory of resurrection all the more, I say to the United Nations, I say to the poverty-stricken and to the affluent, I say to those who would be poor in spirit: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
For a valuable resource on how Christians should interact with poverty, check out When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.