There is a passage in Proverbs that I have loved for many, many years. I have seen it tattooed on backs and arms, painted as graffiti, and written on inspirational posters. However, when I stop and think about this proverb, it is an extraordinary ask: to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, to defend the rights of those who are destitute.
For some, this proverb might call to mind people living in poverty, others might think of those whose human rights are being violated, and others still might think of women – or other marginalised people groups – who experience relentless persecution simply because they are the ‘other’.
All these tragic circumstances are symptoms of an increasing level of global instability. Whether it be corruption, war, the exploitative behaviours of global corporations, changing climates, the economic exploitation of emerging nations by their more powerful counterparts, or racial and religious intolerance, these challenges create a complex web of powerlessness that leads to incomprehensible statistics.
According to The World Bank, 735 million people are living in poverty… and that figure only accounts for those who live in extreme poverty. At the same time nearly 66 million people, from all walks of life, have been forcibly displaced. Many of these people have crossed borders not knowing if they would survive another day, let alone whether they would ever see their homes again. They are at constant risk of starvation, illness, human-trafficking, violence, and rape, and face ever-heightening intolerance.
It is overwhelming to think how we might speak up for such a volume of suffering souls. It can render you feeling hopeless.
Margot Waddell once wrote about the experience of being a bystander. Often the bystander, of say a car accident, will feel overwhelmed and fearful. This, in turn, leads to helplessness and the bystander freezes and ends up doing nothing (save watching on). Conversely, there are others who ‘stand-by’ – emergency workers and good Samaritans. People who dare to be touched by the situation and act with whatever resources they have. People who choose to ‘stand-by’ those who suffer.
For me, this difference between the ‘bystander’ and those who ‘stand-by’ serves to highlight the principle of compassion. Compassion is a feeling and a decision, unlike pity (which is just an emotion). Compassion involves a conscious choice to get involved, be touched, empathise, and share in the suffering of others.
If we are going to make our best response to the ask in Proverbs 31 – to speak up, to defend – then we must allow ourselves to participate with compassion and to be courageous in our disposition. We can turn this tide of suffering around. We can contribute to a shift in our world where the same people who currently seem powerless, are enabled to contribute in significant ways… and it’s not about money. No. This is about a change of heart, a step of courage, and a willingness to be touched.
God calls us to a whole-of-life response to poverty. He calls us to act. He calls us to be love.
It’s at times like this (the beginning of another new year) that we often feel most courageous about what lies ahead. For many, the new year represents the sense of a fresh start on those things we have felt helpless about… it represents hope.
And, so, from the outset of 2019, I urge you: if you have ever felt helpless about the desperation of our broken world, let this be the year that you dare to hope instead. Dare to feel. Dare to engage. Dare to let compassion move you to be love and end poverty.