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The philosopher and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a go-to source for Sindiso and me of late, observed that justice is on the side of the poor but that doesn’t necessarily mean the poor are just. (Moral Man, Immoral Society)

In Johannesburg a few weeks back, we traveled down bumpy, litter-strewn streets through one of the sprawling townships outside of the city where some of our family lives. To Western eyes, it is a squalid, depressing place. Traffic lights sometimes work and are only sometimes observed. People dart across busy streets or cut into lanes of traffic or pile high on trucks with a seeming half-regard for the value of human life–their own or others’.

There, as in the townships of the Cape Town “flats”, one is accustomed to seeing men relieving themselves along the side of the road in full public view; the shameful lack of basic sanitation in many areas is surely an important factor, but not the only one as women find other ways. On lampposts and graffiti’d walls, the adverts for abortions–“quick, safe, and secret”–are a common sight. The list of such critiques goes on.

Arriving at our destination, I was greeted by the neighbor’s kids who took a friendly interest in this visiting umLungu (white person). For their affability they were rebuked. We soon learned that relations across the narrow fence that separates the two small homes were strained in the extreme since the father of the house next door (unemployed and given to drink) was suspected of lobbing dead rats onto the roof and into the tiny yard of our family’s home, where they would lodge in unseen places until they began to fester and became intolerable. (No man should have to climb onto his roof and pry through gutters for dead vermin.)

We learned of attempted burglaries–an often fatal encounter in these parts–in which the neighbor was also suspected of having a hand. The gate had to be kept securely closed and even the drainage holes beneath the separating wall had had to be filled in.

Yes, there was plenty of happiness and reasons to give thanks in our family’s home, a neat and orderly place. Indeed, on the handful of occasions when I have entered township homes, I have not once found one of them dirty or disordered. Life was more hope and striving than bitterness and complaint, a fact I hope to expound on in a future post. Yet the point was undeniably made: people in these parts are not merely victims of injustice but perpetrators too.

What to make of it all?

Angered, in my better moments, by the injustices visited on ‘the poor’, I have a habit of holding ‘them’ up romantically as merely victims (let me be careful not to treat poor people as an abstract or unitary clump: they are every bit as complex and human as I). That they are partly victims of socio-economic injustice–injustice for which I am partly to blame–seems undeniable to me. I am again and again provoked by the gripping portrait of God showing special compassion on the poor because of their plight. But they commit offenses too, and these cannot be ignored.

The upshot? We’re all human beings, merely human. When we romanticize the poor–as liberals are wont to do out of an understandable (even commendable) mix of empathy and guilt–we deny them their humanity and deny the necessary role that personal responsibility and social morality must play in the mitigation of injustice. Likewise, when we denigrate the poor for their sins–as some conservatives (and doubtless some liberals too) are understandably wont to do–we deny the necessary role that broader social structures of exploitation and discrimination, still stubbornly in place today, play in the persistence of such debasing poverty.

Perhaps the place to start is not so much in judging “the poor” at all but rather in judging ourselves–or, better yet, myself. In what ways do I, a middle class person, (rich by South African standards, I confess) participate both consciously and unconsciously in the entrenchment of unequal patterns of opportunity and advantage? Even if I renounce these structures loudly, do I not profit just the same–from cheap goods unfairly traded, unsustainable carbon emissions to fuel my way of life, better schools and infrastructure in the wealthier parts of town, and all the rest?

Abstract injustice aside, in what ways am I plain old selfish in daily life–toward my family, friends, coworkers, and people in need? How many kind emails I leave unanswered for days or weeks at a time, putting family and friends aside… How easily I revert to my own cares and concerns, especially work, when the workday is done, rather than turning my full attention to my wife… How often I do not give, or do so only grudgingly, to beggars on the street, and how much more of what I earn I could give to fight injustice… How great my pride… The list goes on and on.

No, ‘the poor’ are not just. But neither am I. Before a perfect God, I believe we are all impossibly unclean and so to compare myself to you is of little use. What separates my poor neighbor from me, I am increasingly convinced, is that accumulation of human sin we call injustice–and I just so happened to be born on the right side of the tracks. Whichever side we find ourselves on, we have work to do.

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