A deeper response to a deeper disaster

Desperation in Haiti is more about poverty than an earthquake

Commentary | Nathan Brown

Desperation in Haiti is more about poverty than an earthquake

In the wake of the Haiti earthquake, much attention has been given to various outspoken commentators who have wanted to lay responsibility for the disaster and devastation on either God or the devil. But the immediate aftermath of such an event is probably not the most useful circumstance in which to discuss alternative theologies of suffering. Rather these days and weeks should be about a theology of compassion and service -- and about putting that theology into practice.

So as we give, as our communities participate in fundraising events and as aid workers do their best to alleviate the suffering on the ground in Haiti, it is worthwhile considering why we should be concerned about this tragedy. Especially when, in some quarters, even this seems to be up for debate.

Prominent ESPN blogger Paul Shirley was removed from the site after urging that the people of Haiti did not "deserve" assistance. "I recoil at the notion that I'm SUPPOSED to do something," Shirley wrote. "I would like to help, but only if I feel that my assistance is deserved and justified."

Sadly, his comments and many of the positive responses to them display an unfortunate ignorance about the nature of poverty. And the scale of the destruction, death and desperation in Haiti is much more about poverty than it is about an earthquake. The earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12 brought extreme stress and a heartbreaking punctuation mark -- as well as hyper-media attention -- to a situation already desperate and tragic.

Which is exactly why the impact of the earthquake has been so severe. Poverty is not just the absence or short supply of money, it is the lack of resources, opportunities and choices. Poverty leads to a focus on merely surviving today rather than building lives in way that can be more resilient to the inevitable disasters of life. Poverty is oppression of mind, body and spirit. It tends to crush hope, energy and endeavor. Poverty means homes and public buildings are often poorly constructed, infrastructure is limited and the value of human life is diminished. All of this before the televised catastrophe.

In a place like Haiti, this poverty is largely taken for granted. It's a complicated set of issues involving economics, politics, history, culture and societies -- topics not so easily reported on the evening news. In general, the media -- and most of our attention -- only turns up for the dramatic pictures and the extra-traumatic stories. And most of the time we don't talk or think about the slow tragedies that are far larger than any earthquake or other headline events.

Yes, we need to give and work to alleviate the immediate suffering in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. And yes, Paul, we are supposed to do something -- but not just this week or this month. We must do something much bigger to address ongoing poverty in Haiti and in so many other places in the world. This can reduce the impact of future disasters as well as alleviate the everyday suffering of so many people around the world.

This is part of being human. As a writer in my faith tradition has put it, "We are all woven together in the web of humanity. The evil that befalls any part of the great human brotherhood brings peril to all" (Ellen White, The Ministry of Healing, page 345).

And the Bible offers us a still-higher motivation: "Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who help the poor honor him" (Proverbs 14:31, NLT).

-- Nathan Brown is editor of Signs Publishing Company in Warburton, Victoria, Australia, and author of the book "7 Reasons Life is Better With God" (Review & Herald Publishing, 2007)