When poverty overwhelms large sections of a population, despair is inevitable and pervasive.
The results are never positive.
Ironically, despair often feeds faith of one kind or another, as impoverished persons typically retreat into faith to deal with their pain and hopelessness. Often such faith is pietistic, neutralizing much of the pain of poverty's oppression in hopeful resignation to one's situation in this life and in eager and focused anticipation of a better experience in the next life.
If faith becomes radicalized, as it sometimes does, the results can be devastating to the larger community. Or, such faith can turn out to be positive and revolutionary depending on the circumstances surrounding the social and political context at any given time.
This was the case in the late 1970s and through much of the 1980s in Central America among peasants who drew strength and inspiration from their faith, a faith that led them to demand land reform. Frequently, these demands turned violent and in almost every case the peasant revolts were crushed. Usually, these outbursts of popular will were spawned in an environment of faith in the midst of a faith community.
Recently, National Geographic magazine (pages 33ff, September 2006) published Karen M. Kostyal's unusual (and somewhat unlikely for this journal) interview with Egyptian dentist and popular novelist, Alaa Al Aswany. Aswany's novel, The Yacoubian Building, has been a best seller for over two years and is currently being made into the most costly movie in Egypt's film history. The interview is fascinating and very instructive in light of current events around the world.
One question and Aswany's reply relates to the role of radicalized faith in the lives of very poor people.
Kostyal asks, "Where do you think the current fanaticism [in religion] is coming from?"
Aswany answers, "Poor areas because the poor are desperate. The current regime here [in Egypt] is dealing with them in an inhuman way, arresting and torturing them. Religion is being used as a cover for social unrest, a way to empower these people who are not empowered. In Egypt, there is an Islam for the rich and an Islam for the poor. And these two Islams have their own mosques, their own sheikhs. The rich use religion to ensure the status quo. They don't want any change. But poor people do want change, because they are now deprived of so much."
Last Sunday's Dallas Morning News carried an essay by James Kurth ("World Class War," P1, 4-5, October 15, 2006), professor of political science at Swarthmore College, adapted from an article that appeared in a recent issue of The American Conservative (http://www.amconmag.com/). Kurth's provocative and disturbing essay discusses the widening gap between rich and poor in the U. S. and the consequences of this very obvious social and economic reality
Kurth's observations about "political Islam" in view of this growing gap in the U. S. and around the world seem important:
"Americans do not think of Islamism as an egalitarian social movement. However, the ideology of political Islam is permeated with egalitarian norms and sentiments, and Islamists are often animated by egalitarian resentments and anger as well. Islamists speak frequently about the injustices and exploitation inflicted by the rich West upon the poor Muslim world.
"There is little evidence that Islamism has any appeal. . .among any peoples who are not already Muslim. But with the wretched of the Muslim world--and with many of the educated, the middle classes, and the simply aggrieved and frustrated as well--it is a very different story. At least for now, some version of Islamism is more appealing to them than any of the other alternatives, including the secular liberal democracy of the West.
"Islamist terrorists may soon acquire weapons of mass destruction. With Islamist transnational networks, there is no obvious reason why they would not be willing, even eager, to use WMDs to bring the rich and the powerful--and the rich and powerful states--crashing down. Brimming over with egalitarian envy and self-righteous wrath, they will delight in doing so.
"In the course of the 20th century, there were several eras of growing economic inequality. On a few occasions, they came to an end in a relatively gentle way, with democratic elections and more egalitarian legislation.
"More often, however, they were ended by a catastrophe, such as the Great Depression, a violent social revolution or a world war. When the rich went out, it seems, they normally did so with a bang, and not with a whimper. The way things are now going, it is likely to be so in the future."
Troubling words with a connection to America's urban centers. Much of the despair and destructive chaos we observe in our inner city neighborhoods can be linked to the increasing concentration of poverty in these urban areas.
A kind of numbing hopelessness co-exists with aging church communities in the same neighborhoods.
Angry young people have abandoned the churches. Gang activity, drug addiction and dealing, other organized criminal activity, violence and a general hedonism persists.
Older church members hang on to faith while their church communities grow increasingly irrelevant in response to a culture's deepening despair.
As the gap between rich and poor continues to widen nationally, the poverty stricken areas of urban America will only grow more volatile.
Radical Islam organizes for jihad, but beneath the suicidal strategy is the reality of oppression and persistent, oppressive poverty and political disempowerment. The radicalization of urban, American Christianity, founded on a more substantive theology of human liberation, justice, hope and community, could become a positive, if at times a challenging and intimidating, force for change and political action.
The alternatives for our urban areas appear to hold out rather bleak options for the poor--a choice between continuing dependence on a basically ineffective, other-worldly vision for liberation and the chaotic, divisive responses of an increasingly individualistic, materialistic culture surrendered to its own destruction and isolation in the ghetto.
There is a lot more going on in the desperately poor communities of our nation than most people realize or want to admit. The dynamics of a worldwide struggle have much to teach us as we live and work in the urban centers of the U. S.