Select Page
Between the Sage and the Sufferer

Between the Sage and the Sufferer

We live in a reality there the balance swings between a world of cause and effect and a seemingly random chaotic chance. While those who are successful will trumpet their “10 rules for getting ahead” or Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, there are times and lives that do everything right but still end up without success. Is this all luck or is there something else that is going on in the universe? Firstly, those who are successful often fail to acknowledge the level of advantage they were born into or the serendipitous circumstances they were the beneficiaries of. In a study conducted by a university on the emotional response to advantage, those who were obviously given a massive head start in life were more often likely to attribute their success to hard work and their own genius rather than acknowledge they were lucky. In a simple experiment, participants were asked to play a game of Monopoly with a difference. Some of the players were given twice as much money to start off with than the others and were given two dice to roll, while the rest had to roll with one die. What the experiment demonstrated was that the players with advantage often responded emotionally to the game play as if they were skilled players and deserved their wins. Even in this simple test they failed to see that the game was rigged in their favour.

In a similar fashion, those at the top often look down on others whose life has not matched their success with disdain, emotionally distancing themselves with a belief that their poverty was a result of their own moral failings rather than life circumstances that disadvantaged them from the start. To many who are in the upper income brackets, the poor are to blame for their poverty because, if they worked harder or smarter, they would not be poor. This has been proven to be wrong on so many levels but it is hard for people to see the inherent injustices of life because it seems to diminish their own achievements.

“To many who are in the upper income brackets, the poor are to blame for their poverty because, if they worked harder or smarter, they would not be poor.”

I believe it has to do with two worldviews represented in the Old Testament; that represented in the book of Proverbs and that represented in the book of Job. Both books are scripture and present truths that are essential for the Christian life, but one is easier to understand and digest than the other. The book of Proverbs represents what I would call the law of cause and effect. If you live a life of wisdom you will reap certain benefits. Actions have consequences that can affect life. The maxims, attributed to the wise King Solomon, are often simple dualisms: Do the wise thing and good things will follow. Do the unwise thing and bad things will follow. There is truth to these sayings and many have lived prosperous and happy lives having adopted their principles into their daily habits. So much so that it would be easy to assume that all lives are determined by one’s adherence to their wisdom. This is the stance taken by many Christians who adopt the Proverbs worldview alone.

But there is also the book of Job. Job is almost the opposite of proverbs: a man who has lived his life with godly wisdom is afflicted with the worst series of disasters imaginable, so much so that his friends (Proverbs theologians) are forced to attribute his suffering to his own folly and sin even though they can clearly see that his life has been exemplary. Their proverbs theology has run aground on the rocky shoals of tragedy and, instead of seeking to learn a new way of looking at the world, they instead choose to accuse Job of being a hidden sinner of the worst kind. If sin and folly leads to failure, then Jobs absolute fall to destitution and misery could only mean that Jobs sins were worse than any other. Of course the reader knows that God Himself has acquitted Job of wrongdoing and has in fact boasted about him to those in heaven and that Job’s suffering has been launched to demonstrate that God’s best man would not turn apostate even if everything was taken away from him. It was a kind of wager and only the reader is given a view of this heavenly perspective. When finally God responds to Job’s cry for answers from Heaven, He doesn’t give him what he seeks but instead reminds Job that life is not safe and that he cannot grasp the immensities of God’s understanding and dominion over creation. Job is himself silenced and humbled, and agrees that God is God and he is not.

“If Proverbs urges the reader to not self-sabotage your life, Job warns that life can still sabotage you.”

If Proverbs urges the reader to not self-sabotage your life, Job warns that life can still sabotage you. Our response to poverty and misery around us should never be to uncritically blame to sufferer. If we are prosperous we must acknowledge that there are circumstances beyond our control that have aided our rise. If others are in poorer circumstances we must also understand that they are often the victims of circumstances that are also beyond control. In all life’s manifestations we should be humble and compassionate for we don’t know who is really blessed by God and who is not.

Population Control: Whose Kids Ought to Die?

Population Control: Whose Kids Ought to Die?

“Modern medicine in the rising West may have been a boon, but it could only be darkly ambiguous in Asia as populations expanded without corresponding economic growth, pushing many into destitution.”


I have been reading Niall Ferguson’s panegyric to European economic and social superiority Civilization and I was curious as to how non-western readers responded to such mighty praise of the “white man’s” mission to “civilize” the world. Indian author Pankaj Mishra had much to say in response that I could agree with, however when he came to reject the benefits of Western medicine I had to stop and think for a bit.

In this one-line retort against Niall Ferguson’s assertion that Western medicine improved the lot of the world in general, Mishra states that any such benefits could equally be cancelled out because the people in many (particularly non-Western) countries whose lives are extended are more likely to be poor as their under-developed national economies cannot support increased numbers of people in lifestyles considered to be essential for happiness. What he appears to be saying by corollary is that, if the people cannot be materially provided for, it is better not to medically intervene. Or to put it another (simpler) way, if the poor get sick, let them die.

Mishra’s argument that western medicine had darkly ambiguous results in the non-West also hints at a sense of regret that the populations of poor people have risen in the first place. The idea of elites looking upon the growing masses of underclasses with a sense of horror that people should have to suffer under such conditions is a two-sided coin. On the one side, no one wants to see people suffer under difficult conditions, however, on the other side, these “masses” have lives and families. They laugh and play and in most ways live the life human beings have always lived. The suggestion that, if these Asian poor get sick, they shouldn’t be treated with modern medicine is inhuman. I am sure Mishra would never state his ideas in this way, however these are the implications of his and the others who speak blithely of “overpopulation”. Contraception, promoted and advanced by Western medical science, is not mentioned. Before we in the more affluent societies stroke our chins wisely and speak of the tragedy of growing populations of poor people, lets remember that human life without modern affluence is not, by definition, worse than death.

The biblical character Job declares that, after having once being rich and prosperous he is horrendously afflicted with poverty and disease, he wishes he had never been born. However It is the fall from the heights that make’s Job’s story a tragedy, not the state of poverty itself. It is also a mistake to equate poverty as a single state without the same gradients of economic levels that we equate with those not poor. The world is not binary – the poor and the not poor. Lack of economic security does not necessarily mean a life not worth living.

I am not speaking about the earnest need to alleviate the plight of poor individuals. I am speaking about the way in which the growing numbers of people who are born into poverty are grouped together and assessed as a single negative economic statistic. Such language creates the impression that economists and sociologists look upon the birth of every child to a poor family as an intolerable burden to be born by children in affluent families. If medical improvements to extend the lives of the poor in fact worsen the global situation, is it not then a corollary to say that it is better for everyone if the poor just died young like they used to?

To assume that it was better that the poor not be born, is the height of and elitist worldview. “Poor” people do not regret their birth. Perhaps some affluent people, looking down at the masses whom they know will never achieve the standard of living they themselves have, might regret their growing numbers. While I was in Hout bay, South Africa, dining at the large and beautiful home of a British expat family, my hosts pointed out a dark smudge between two distant hills, an encroaching shantytown spreading out from Capetown to blight their serene landscape. To them it was a cancerous tumor signalling to them that their pretty little affluent seaside town was about to be visited by the post-apartheid reality. It was clear they were saddened, not for the plight of the occupants of the hovels, but for themselves as their increasing proximity to the poor dimmed their own happiness. My hosts looked at the shantytown perhaps like population control experts do, feeling modern medicine’s success has had darkly ambiguous results.

For any individual human being the choice to live longer is usually a no-brainer. Do we want to die early of disease? No. Does anyone want to see their children die in infancy or early childhood? Never! In that respect the poor are just like the rich. They want to live as long as they can, even if that means they are poor. The choice of being poor or dead is also a no-brainer, except perhaps to those who are currently affluent and can’t imagine a life in which survival is a struggle. “I’d rather be dead than poor!” sounds like something Paris Hilton would say. Most “normal” people, If they really had to face that choice, would “choose life”.

The rhetoric of “population control” has been in vogue since the 1960s when Paul Ehrlich, a biologist, argued that the Earth’s biosphere could not sustain any further human expansion due to limited agricultural potential. Ehrlich extrapolated his research on butterfly populations to create his vision of a human apocalypse of hunger and death. But he failed to understand that, with increased economic development, birth rates tend to fall. Ehrlich was essentially regurgitating Thomas Malthus’ 18th century argument that agricultural output was not sufficient to support large population expansions. In 1898 Malthus failed to see the advances in agriculture that could increase land productivity and boost agricultural output. Similarly Ehrlich, nearly two hundred years later, refused to believe that there were any further revolutions in food production to come. Time and human creative ingenuity have demonstrated again and again that he was wrong.

In the eyes of the Biblical God each person is a miraculous creation of great worth. Each child born is a joy to God and each loving parent an imperfect representation of the imago Dei. As Christian thinkers we must resist the rhetoric of “population bombs” and the “population control” as much as we would abortion or radical birth control. We must fight to make the existing human population less poor without demanding that there be less poor people.