Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The "haves" and the "have nots"

I recently spent a weekend in the wealthiest neighborhood of São Paulo. From my hotel window I could see some of the city's finest neighborhoods where some of Brazil's wealthiest citizens live in mansions and huge apartments.

I could also see from my window one of São Paulo's largest slums. The slum is home to 80,000 people crammed onto a hillside right in the middle of the luxury apartment complexes. Anyone who has been to Brazil has seen this shocking contrast of the "haves" and the "have nots".

The pastor who was my host for the weekend described the slum as an unsolvable social problem. Begun by people immigrating from grinding poverty in northern Brazil, this slum was first built by people just looking for a chance to work. That is no longer the case.

As we looked out on this unbelievable scene I suddenly saw something else. I saw the last 500 years of Brazilian history and a vision of the direction our world seems to be heading. For the last 500 years Brazil has been a land of the "haves" and the "have nots".

It seems that our world is now heading into a time where socialism is seen as the great hope for the world. For me in particular this is not a happy thought. I remember how proud my father was of not needing the government to take care of him. All he wanted was a chance for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. His example burned deeply into my heart and soul and so did my USA 1950s childhood, I have never wanted the government to take care of me. I just wanted a fair chance. I got that fair chance in my 1950s America even though millions of black Americans around me did not.

In my view, socialism is a a willingness of people to see and accept government as their solution. In a very real sense socialism is the greater mass of humanity believing that the government should take care of them because the government has what they do not have. Since they, the governing class, have so much they should take care of those who don't have. My father would have choked on the idea that the government has what he needs. He did not want the government to take care of him. He wanted the government to guarantee his safety and opportunity not take care of him.

The slums in Brazil are a scream for help and also a terrible form of dependence. Rich neighborhoods and the slums that surround them live in a very strained and uneasy relationship. There is a very real sense that the two worlds could explode at any second. They often do.

In the Brazilian slums most things are free. Water, electricity, internet, cable, etc. are free in most slums. In reality they are stolen and everyone has to go along with this or the 80,000 people on the hill might get out of control. There is a very real sense of guilt that is felt by the "haves." The "have nots" know this and have become a powerful political force which now threatens to take control of all the wealth by force if there is not a transfer of the wealth to a new governing class called a socialist government.

If socialism wins the day, I predict the slums will not disappear. The slums will surround the neighborhoods where the government leaders live instead of surrounding the capitalist leaders neighborhoods. Nothing will really change except who composes the rich class and lives in the best neighborhoods.

As bad as the slums are, most people who live in them resist being relocated unless all the "Free" benefits are guaranteed in the new place. It is complicated! If you ever visit the city of Rio, the best views of the beaches are from the slums. It is almost too strange to describe. One has to see it to believe it. Who would want to give up such a view for a tiny apartment away from the beach and an two hour bus ride to work?

Here is my point. I reject the socialist theory simply because I don't believe any human beings were meant to live with a "please someone take care of me!" mentality. This mentality kills the human soul in every way. I believe the right mentality is "please guarantee my opportunity to find my space to live and love."

What does this have to do with Christians? I believe that much of what passes for Christianity today is also becoming a form of "slum" Christianity.
The spiritual "haves" let the spiritual "have nots" live close to them in church because they are so permanently needy. The "haves" tolerate the "have nots" because they realize they will always be needy. They also need the cheap help to keep the spiritual gated communities running. That may sound harsh, but I have seen firsthand the deadening effects of the rich Christians and the poor Christians in what I call "pyramid" churches.

This uneasy "haves" and "have nots" relationship is not good for anyone-especially the leaders. I believe we need communities of equals in Jesus. We need vineyards not luxury apartment buildings overlooking the pitiful poor. We need communities where we are one with God and one with each other. By abiding I believe we have hope for this in our churches. I believe this problem does have a solution. That solution is called "oneness".

I don't know if there can ever be "oneness" in Brazil. There wasn't "oneness" for everyone in South Florida when I grew up but there was a spirit of healthy independence from the "haves". That was a start!

There can and must be oneness in the church. I believe we must resist every kind of spiritual environment that exalts some and makes others the permanently dependent ones. We are all branches and there is only one Vine.

Brazil may need to head for socialism in order to avoid a bloodbath, but the church needs to head to oneness because the blood of One was already shed. I have hope for the church. The world? That is another question.

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