Blessed are the poor — in a world of vast disparities

More grim news from Oxfam’s annual report released last week: one thousand of the world’s richest people recovered their losses arising from the pandemic within nine months.

Jan 30, 2021

By Anil Netto
More grim news from Oxfam’s annual report released last week: one thousand of the world’s richest people recovered their losses arising from the pandemic within nine months.

The wealth of the world’s 10 richest men also soared by half a trillion US dollars since the pandemic began.

But it will take more than a decade for the poorest people to recover from the economic impact of the pandemic.

We can see that happening here. How many people have had to withdraw their retirement savings or even pawn their valuables? How long will it take for them to return to where they were before the pandemic?

On the flipside, hundreds of millions of people around the world have swelled the ranks of the unemployed. It’s the worst job crisis in almost a century. Malaysia too has not been spared.

Women are hardest hit, noted Oxfam, in a statement. They are “over-represented in the low-paid precarious professions that have been hardest hit by the pandemic”. They also make up “roughly 70 per cent of the global health and social care workforce − essential but often poorly paid jobs that put them at greater risk from Covid”. This is not the way it was meant to be, in the ‘new normal’ or otherwise.

Extreme wealth inequality is not inevitable. It is actually a policy choice. For instance, Oxfam pointed out that a temporary tax on excess profits made by the 32 global companies that profited most during the pandemic could have raised $104bn last year. This could have provided unemployment benefits and financial support to those worst hit.

Governments could create millions of new jobs if they invest in public services and low carbon sectors. This would also ensure that everyone has access to a decent education, health and social care, Oxfam noted.

How to finance these jobs and services? The wealthiest individuals and firms must pay their fair share of taxes to cover for them.

In many countries, the wealthiest are paying low effective rates due to all kinds of tax avoidance schemes, ‘incentives’, transfer pricing, illicit outflows and siphoning of funds to tax havens.

The vast disparities today are not much different from the time of Jesus.

When Jesus preached the Beatitudes, his audience, Gentiles and Jews alike, were experiencing tough times.

These were largely people from the countryside. Some may have been saddled with debt; some may have lost their land others could have fallen into destitution. Many of them would have been illiterate.

The structure of the taxation system then was extractive – from the countryside flowing to little cities or tax centres like Tiberias and Sepphoris and then all the way to Rome via local rulers. On the way, various people – the tax collectors, the tax concession bosses, the local rulers – would all take a cut.

The cities where the elite or those better off lived also offered cultic services that also drained the wealth of the countryside. By the First Century AD, some 20,000 of the priestly class lived in Jerusalem servicing the Temple.

Looking at the peasants’ weather-beaten faces up on the hill, Jesus would have understood their lives. They had to pay a range of Roman taxes, land rentals, lease payments, temple taxes, debt servicing and tithes. If they were farmers, they might have to keep about a fifth of their harvest for sowing. Half or more of what they produced would not be available for them to consume.

So, the average peasant had little left over as savings for a rainy day. This meant that if they experienced a bad harvest, it was a double whammy. They could fall into debt and even lose their land.

Even worse than extreme poverty and loss of land was the loss of honour and respect that came with crippling poverty – a sense of shame.

Is it any wonder that Jesus started off the Beatitudes by saying, “How blessed are you who are poor: the kingdom of God is yours” (Luke 6:20).

In one statement, he turned their world upside down. This was the opposite of the world as they knew it.

Let’s look at the Greek words to see if it gives us more insight into what Jesus was saying. Makarios is translated to blessed. But it could also mean honoured and privileged. If so, this would turn on its head the concept of shame (as opposed to honour) felt by the poor.

The Greek word used for poor is pt?choi. Again, this is more than just poor as we know it or the working poor (the Greek word for that would be penes).

Pt?choi refers to those who are dependent on others for survival, the down-and-outs the destitute even. It means those who crouch and cower. Perhaps even trembling in the shadows?

They are contrasted with those who have an abundance and have plenty to eat. Now we can imagine that Jesus would not begrudge those having a decent meal or living honest lives with dignity.

But where it gets highly problematic is when elite wealth is extracted from the peasantry and exploited labour, leaving many of them destitute and dependent on the generosity of others.

Many have pointed, perhaps with relief, at Matthew 5:3: “How blessed are the poor in spirit: the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” So, Jesus did not mean poor literally as it refers to poverty of spirit. It is an attitude of spiritual poverty that he is holding out.

That is one way of looking at it and certainly there is much spiritual poverty around. The Greek word used for spirit is pneumati, which means wind or spirit or breath. But this could also mean a state of destitution that leaves those afflicted in a spirit of hopelessness, their very breath heaving in despair. The breath of the destitute hanging in the air.

For theirs is the kingdom (basileia) of God. Basileia — the kingdom, the sovereignty, the royal power of God.

Given the socioeconomic context of the time, Jesus’ words must have struck a deep chord among the largely peasant and destitute crowd before him. It stood in direct contrast and made no sense to the prevailing elite wisdom of the day.

This was a direct statement of where God’s concern and compassion lies. As Catholic Social Teaching puts it, this is the preferential option for the poor.

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