Rabbi Debora Gordon of Berith Sholom in Troy, NY gave the following remarks at the Poor People's Campaign action on May 14th in Albany, NY.
I’m a mom in a 2-mom household. I’m the mother of 4 kids, 3 black and one white. I’m the parent of a teen with a developmental disability.
But I’m white and I could afford to go to college. Not everybody has it as good as my family. That’s not right.
My daughter asked me a couple of days ago, “But how can you fix poverty?”
There’s this idea that since poverty is systemic, it's unavoidable and unchangeable. If “the poor will always be with you,” what’s the point of trying to change something that’s a force of nature?
But of course poverty is not inevitable. As some pretty famous Jewish guys pointed out more than 2,500 years ago, poverty is widespread when the system is rigged in favor of the wealthy and powerful. It is systemic precisely because it's been built into our economic system. To paraphrase a fellow named Jeremiah:
… There are people who bide their time like a hunter in a duckblind, in order to set traps for human beings. Their houses are as full of lies as a birdcage is full of birds; that’s how they've become rich and powerful. They're oily and sleek, they surpass themselves in evil deeds. They even pervert the courts: Refusing to give the fatherless a fair chance, and denying equal access to people living with poverty. (Jer. 5:26-31)
In other words, Jeremiah says, if the poor will always be with us, it’s because we haven’t been able to rein in corruption and greed, nor to make open hands and open hearts the norm throughout our society. And the prophet Isaiah warns:
O my people! Your leaders are mis-leaders; they send you down the wrong road. (Isa. 3:12) [They] make unjust laws and write unfair decisions, depriving people who have less privilege of their legal rights, and denying justice to people in need; [they] target women who have no one to rely on, and take advantage of children in single parent families. (Isa. 10:1-2) But it's time to stop respecting fools as if they were noble-hearted, or scoundrels as if they were gentlemen. For fools babble foolishness while planning evil; they butter you up while spreading lies about things that really matter. They empty the bellies of hungry people and withhold water from those who are thirsty. They talk plausible evil, plotting to destroy poor people with lying words, [while] denying folks with fewer resources access to justice. (Isa. 32:5-7)
“Withholding water from the thirsty” — that really got me, because I just read that nearly 14 million US households — that’s households, not individuals — cannot afford water. That’s at least 10% of us, and the number could triple in the next few years! And how many who do have water are only now discovering that it’s contaminated?
You don’t have to be religious to believe in the inherent dignity and worth of every person. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” that all of us are created equal. But in my lifetime, religion in the public square has been hijacked by a small group of people with a narrow, self-serving agenda. It’s time to lift up religious voices which tell us, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “Do not oppress an outsider/an immigrant/a stranger” — or someone whose language, or family configuration, or gender identity, or hair and skin is different from yours. “No opriman al extranjero, pues ya lo han experimentado en carne propia: ustedes mismos fueron extranjeros en Egipto.” “Do not oppress a stranger; for you know the heart of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 23:9) This is the religious voice that calls us, as a society, to recalibrate our moral compass. This is the voice that demands, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor is bleeding.” (Lev. 19:16) We will not stand idly by!