Poverty and Thanksgiving: A Call to Righteous Love

The growing gap between rich and poor harms us all. We can choose a better way. Let us share the bounty of the earth. There is enough for everyone at the Thanksgiving table.
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Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. It calls forth the essential spiritual value of gratitude. I have precious memories of feasts shared with family and with good friends at congregational dinners. I eagerly anticipate this year's gathering.

Imagine inviting family and friends over for Thanksgiving dinner and feeding some of them a lavish feast and some of them scraps and leftovers. While some are served an overabundance of delicious food, others receive tiny portions of unappetizing leavings. Horrible thought!

Two apparently unrelated headlines caught my eye a few weeks ago as I surfed my usual news sites. I can't get them out of my mind. The first is a truly major development: The percentage of people living in poverty in the United States is the highest in half a century. One out of seven Americans lives in poverty.

The second headline was a mere tidbit in the business news. It said something to the effect that companies that make things no one really needs have done very well in this recession. Though apparently unrelated, the two items are, of course, intimately connected. The poor are getting poorer and their numbers are increasing while the rich are doing very well. They continue to buy high tech gadgets and luxury items.

These news items should have been a major religious story. At one level, the growing gap between rich and poor is an economic and political issue. But it is also a moral and, ultimately, a religious issue. There is a temptation to see economic relationships as the result of uncontrollable forces. As a matter of fact, allowing this widening gap between rich and poor is a choice -- a moral choice. And it is a moral choice with enormous spiritual consequences.

All of the great religious traditions teach us that we are connected to one another. Every human being is my brother or sister. Every faith teaches compassion, that those who love God express that by loving others. Every faith also teaches us that we become fully human in community.

Economic inequality pollutes human relationships the way smog pollutes our lungs. Just look at life where the gaps between rich and poor are greatest -- Latin America and Africa. And look back to when the gap was greatest in American history. These were times of slavery and robber barons.

I know from my years in parish ministry the financial strains that beset families. I have seen a member lose her home because of predatory lending practices and witnessed the devastation of a sudden illness. The Centers for Disease Control reports that in 2009 59.1 million Americans had no health insurance, and we know that catastrophic health expenses can plunge families into poverty. Why is it that the United States is the only country in the developed world without universal health insurance for its citizens? And why here, in the richest country in the world, did more than 1 million children go hungry in 2008, according to the Dept. of Agriculture? These are more than political issues; these are spiritual issues as well.

Inequality breeds fear, bitterness, suspicion, crime and violence. It eats away at the dignity and self esteem of the poor while it hardens the hearts of the rich. Inequality numbs our spirits. Ultimately it dehumanizes us. Ironically, social psychology shows us that our grandmothers were right: The rich are not happier.

The answer is not some romantic neo-Marxist notion of a perfect equality. But neither is it the uncontrolled and rapacious avarice that sacrifices people to profit margins and outrageous consumption.

The growing gap between rich and poor harms us all. We can choose a better way. Let us share the bounty of the earth. There is enough for everyone at the Thanksgiving table.

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