Discussion 4–Poverty, Faith, and Human Rights

By Kai-Hsin Hung

In April we had an amazing discussion on Poverty.  Faith House member Kai wrote this personal reflection following the discussion.

The Landscape of Poverty in Ottawa and in Canada

Poverty, often an emotionally triggering reality and injustice faced by many Canadians with less power in both secular and faith communities, was at the heart of our April discussion. Homelessness in Ottawa and across Canada is on the rise. According to the Ottawa Innercity Ministries, approximately 7,000 individuals access shelters and hundreds more sleep on the street each year. Hunger in Ottawa is also on the rise and on average 45,000 people per month access the Food Bank Ottawa. Also, in the Ottawa based Citizens for Public Justice’s Poverty Trends Scorecard raised alarming concerns on the income and wealth gap trends between the richest and the poorest Canadians in recent years.

The conversation opened, like most talks about poverty, with economics. The cost of poverty in Ontario is staggering; according to Campaign 2000’s 2010 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Canada, about 10 percent of Canadians or 3.45 million Canadians or 4 times the population of Ottawa, including 10 percent of children and 25 percent of First Nations children are living in poverty. Estimations by Canada Without Poverty, establishes that poverty’s monetary loss to Canada ranges from $72 to $86 billion annually. These costs stem from the intergenerational-long term and societal obligations on Canada’s health, judicial, social services, lost productivity, unemployment, opportunities, and social cohesion.

Starting the conversation on poverty with economics was also telling of how too often “poverty” and “the poor” are normally framed and defined. Poverty is only seen as material or financial poverty. To me, this view reflects our current economic prosperity paradigm based on the reigning Capitalist orthodoxy that often disembodies and presents an incomplete treatment of the commanding societal and power imbalances that intentionally and unintentionally attacks and also invisiblizes people living in poverty. Economics is not enough because the monetary costs are just one piece of the monstrous iceberg that perpetuates the causes of the symptoms. Poverty is multi-dimensional and intergenerational, and it seeps deep into all areas life, and its impacts are stubbornly lifelong starting even before birth to old age, affecting all strata of society and a meaningful personal call for action.

The Homeless, Faith Communities, and Spiritual Abundance

The recent controversy over the life-size bronze sculpture of the Jesus The Homeless, rejected by St. Michael’s Cathedral on the grounds of the University of Toronto ignited debates around how faith communities and Canadians truly see, relates and understand poverty in an urban context. The jolting image of a powerless Jesus, an outcast and excluded, challenges the many common depictions of Christ often in full majesty, triumphant, and glorious. Timothy Schmalz, the sculptor, saw Jesus The Homeless as the personification of Matthew 25: 31-46 (links to ESV). Rejection after rejection, Regis College, a Jesuit school of theology welcomed the sculpture as the school recognizes “the intrinsic link between faith and ‘doing justice’…”. Why do images and symbols of people living in poverty challenge us so much?

Another viewpoint that emerged in our discussion was looking at spiritual poverty. Most of us are familiar with material poverty as it is much easier to grasp. In almost all faith traditions, including all Abrahamic faiths, view that as humans, we are both body and spirit. Spiritual poverty simply reorients our concepts of poverty is as it tries to deepen the connections and opens questions on our almost ritualistic neglect of spirituality in our lives. Why do you think this is the case? How can the inequalities between and within material and spiritual wealth become rebalanced in us and our communities? Also, globally, the antagonistic correlation between religiosity and socioeconomic conditions are strong around the world and in Canada, but the United States is the only outlier among richer nations. Although the correlation is strong, how much attribution or causal relationship can be firmly established with this study? Is Malawi or Sierra Leone, nations in Africa, or the many homeless in Ottawa richer than us? Are you in poverty?

Poverty, Human Rights, and Hope

Poverty is the worst form of violence. It is a full spectrum violation of one’s universal human rights, dignity, and our sacred connection to the Earth and the Creator. Poverty is the deprivation of human rights and the desecration of the sacredness and the beauty of humanity.  As reflected in the 2013 United Nation’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on Canada, human rights such as right to food, education, health, adequate housing, safety, political participation, environment, and fair treatment and other fundamental universal human rights are often restricted or are made almost inaccessible to a diverse group of peoples and individuals, such as indigenous peoples, women and children, temporary workers, and the homeless, who have less power and living in conditions of injustice in Canada. The premeditated invisibilization of these individuals and communities living with less power are rooted in colonization, capitalist greed, patriarchy, and the cultural genocide of one group of people by another group. For further information on this, Why Poverty, including Poor Us: An Animated History is a great selection of educational films on the history and roots of poverty.

This was a tough blog to draft as it is very personal but also a way for Faith House Ottawa to share our monthly discussion. There is always hope. In Augusta Dwyer’s Broke but Unbroken, showcase how individuals through grassroots social movements and collective actions, the poor are finding their own radical solutions to poverty. Quoting from Nelson Mandela “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, Poverty is not natural. It is man-made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings…”


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