The Wisdom of Enough

Joy Cowley
Issue 25, August 2008

In Old Testament Hebrew there is no word for charity. The word used instead was Tzedekah – or Tsedaqah – meaning Justice. Now there's a concept that is not always comfortable to live with. If we were to see our personal or corporate giving as justice, rather than charity, then perhaps we can let go of our notions of generosity and come to the same conclusion as St Augustine who said, "He who possesses a surplus possesses the goods of another."

We know the figures. Fourteen per cent of the world's population is tired of hearing about poverty, and the rest is tired of living it. According to Trade Aid, eight hundred million people around the world are chronically malnourished and every day, thirty thousand children die as a direct result of poverty. While trade justice is seen as the key to alleviating poverty, there is a barrier to it happening. The world's richest countries control the ways that trade works and have imposed rules that protect their interests. Over ninety-nine per cent of world trade is conducted by the West, costing the developing world about US$700 billion a year.

This means that as part of Western society, we have to take on facts that are too heavy to bear. Compassion is an important part of the Christian journey, but our feeling of helplessness begets inertia. Prayer becomes a substitute for action. Articles like this attempt to salve a troubled conscience.

But really, what can individuals do?

The starting point always, is Jesus who had much wider definitions of poverty. Certainly he addressed issues of physical poverty but equally important were emotional and spiritual malnourishment. If we define poverty as that which limits our choices in life, then we can say that the affluent are also poor. Materialism becomes an addiction that restricts personal growth in some way. While people in the West argue that it is possible to be Christian and rich, this is not what Jesus taught, and his teachings, far from being pious platitudes, were an unwrapping of universal truth. This is how life works. The poverty of not having sufficient material benefits can result in physical hunger, suffering, disease, death. The poverty of having too much can result in spiritual hunger, suffering, dis-ease, death. We have only to look at the malaise affecting consumer driven societies to be aware of the deeper issues of Western poverty.

Understanding poverty as that, which limits our human potential, helps us to name and own our own addictions. We all have them. What are our compulsions? Material gain? Status? Ambition? Sex? Drugs? An insistence on perfection? A need to be self-protective? We may not be able to change an addiction but simply owning and naming it reduces its power. It also makes us more understanding of the nature of poverty in ourselves and others.

I had a clear understanding of Western poverty after several weeks in Bolivia and Peru. On the windswept altiplano, the average life expectancy is forty-five for men and forty seven for women, yet everywhere I went, I found people vibrantly alive, sparkling with laughter, conversation, music, and a generosity that shared meagre resources with a stranger. There were no locks on doors. Sorrow and celebration alike, were shared by community. Communication was highly prized. No one would go into a shop and ask for goods unless he or she first had a long conversation with the vendor, asking after his wife, his family, his animals, maybe sharing a joke or two. Likewise, the people waiting in line in the shop would have animated conversations. Although my Spanish was poor, it was encouraged with gentle enthusiasm, and while waiting in shops, I learned among other things, local histories, stories of patron saints and their miracles, and recipes for dishes like empanadas del horno and anticucho – meat pasties and marinated barbecued ox heart. In those small towns and villages there was a real sense of humankind being one close family and people found it easy to adopt a gringa from Nueva Zelande.

It was something of a culture shock then, to fly into a big North American city where everything was sanitized, plasticized, where the young looked old and the old tried to look young, and where great shopping malls were filled with things no one needed. The inner city appeared to me, as a shrine to money, and all the advertising posters and billboards demanded worship.

I realized that my friends in Bolivia and Peru had forty-five years or so of rich living whereas many of us in the West spend eighty-five years in spiritual poverty, never quite understanding the wisdom of having no more than enough.

Until we can understand the great freedom and pleasure there is in living without excess, we will fail ourselves and our neighbours who live in developing countries. It is not enough to pray for them or write articles like this. In recycling our surplus we balance the scales of justice both ways. We do something about our neighbours' material poverty and we clear a space in our lives so that we find in ourselves the treasure that Jesus called The Kingdom of Heaven.


Joy Cowley is a notable New Zealand writer based in Wellington