Are we sensitive enough to hear the cry of the poor?

The Orang Asli in Kuala Koh are suffering from some mysterious disease that has already taken 14 lives. Orang Asli in other parts of the country have been facing encroachment into their native customary land and conversion of forests to plantations for some time now. They are also worried about the impact of nearby economic activity such as logging and mining.

Jun 21, 2019

ByAnil Netto
We live in difficult times now.

The Orang Asli in Kuala Koh are suffering from some mysterious disease that has already taken 14 lives. Orang Asli in other parts of the country have been facing encroachment into their native customary land and conversion of forests to plantations for some time now. They are also worried about the impact of nearby economic activity such as logging and mining.

For many of us, their problems seem far removed from our everyday lives.

But closer to us, the waters off northern Penang are polluted with nickel contamination. Waste from other countries has been showing up in containers from all over the world. Nearby communities around recycling plants are worried about the health impact of air and water pollution.

Meanwhile, fishermen fear they are going to lose their livelihoods in the face of large-scale reclamation and major construction activity in mega projects.

Hills are being cleared at an alarming rate for illegal farming and property development. This could worsen floods during periods of heavy rain.

Clearly we have a problem here. Our model of development – globally, nationally and locally – is taking its toll.

While wealth and profits are concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, workers and other ordinary people are struggling to make ends meet. An increasing number are also feeling the impact of the ecological damage.

Meanwhile, the top bands of the tax rate are falling, thus reducing government income. This leaves less funds for government spending on essential services such as healthcare and education.

The result is we are living in a society that is increasingly unequal and economically divided. Even the middle class are struggling.

It was not much different in the time of Jesus, where inequality also ran deep. On the one hand, the First Century ruler Herod Antipas launched major construction projects in rebuilding Sepphoris and creating Tiberias, major towns in Galilee where the ruling Roman and local elite lived amidst pagan temples and theatres.

All this construction activity – the mega projects of the day – spurred mainstream economic activity in Galilee. But not everyone benefited from the activity nor did a lot of the wealth trickle down to the rural peasants.

Some of the surrounding land was controlled or owned by a small group of elite urban families, who were also involved in local political or religious governance and benefited from the taxation. Among them could have been wealthy landlords, close to the seats of power.

The elite fed off the local rural people in surrounding rural areas. These two local towns became centres and collection points for taxation to fund this construction in Galilee. Agents collected taxes from the ordinary people imposing a heavy burden on them. Herod Antipas even commercialised fishing and fish processing into an industry – and extracted taxes in the process.

No wonder the peasants who were mainly involved in farming and some fishing, hated tax collectors like Zacchaeus. Many fell into debt after a poor harvest, some even losing their land and becoming destitute. Not only did they have to contend with taxes, they also felt the burden of debt, loan repayments and rents.

Jesus himself grew up in Nazareth in the shadow of Sepphoris. Like the people around his village, he could even have been involved as an artisan worker in the building and construction work nearby.

The people who were most likely drawn to his teachings would have included many who earned barely a subsistence income or those heavily in debt. This would explain why these key themes surfaced in the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus knew the Father had compassion for these suffering people.

The context could be….

[Let] thy kingdom [of distributive justice, compassion and real peace] come [to us long-suffering people],Give us this day our daily bread [at a time when we are struggling even to put food on the table for the family],Forgive us our debt [at a time when we are our heavily in debt] as we forgive those others indebtedness to us…

As followers of his kingdom, we are called to be sensitive to the needs of those who are struggling.

Ever wondered why Jesus told the rich man who wanted to follow him to first give away all he had?

Science may provide a clue. In 2014, three Canadian neuroscientists found in their research (‘Power changes how the brain responds to others’ - Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2014) that a sense of feeling more powerful causes reduced activity in the region of the brain that enables people to feel sensitive to others’ emotions and situations. Power actually reduces the ability to empathise with others.

So the wealthier or more powerful we get, the less likely we will be able to empathise with others.

This might help to explain why those who have won political power seem to change over time, perhaps due to their reduced ability to empathise with the suffering of those at the bottom.

For many people, increased wealth fuels a sense of power felt, perhaps making them less attuned to the needs of people who are further down the social hierarchy.

The Roman prefect Pontius Pilate was fixated on the prevailing Roman ideology of imposing a forced violent peace in a society subjugated through conquest. Wealth and prosperity could be extracted through imperial rule.

The intoxicating brew of power and wealth made it impossible for Pilate to fathom Jesus’ vision of a non-violent kingdom that was sensitive to the needs of the poor and marginalised.

Might this also explain why even some of us, perhaps slightly better off in the middle class, feel less able to be sensitive to the needs of migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers. This despite many of us ourselves being descendants of economic migrants and refugees fleeing suffering and persecution.

The Bishop of Rome alluded to this insensitivity to the cry of the poor in the midst of great affluence. During a visit to South Korea, also in 2014, he spoke of the martyrs there:

“Their example has much to say to us who live in societies where, alongside immense wealth, dire poverty is silently growing; where the cry of the poor is seldom heeded and where Christ continues to call out to us, asking us to love and serve him by tending to our brothers and sisters in need.”

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