Recently I was asked to reflect on some questions about my experiences of an international development education and exposure course I completed in India at the beginning of last year.
Are there any deep truths that you learnt while in India that have stayed with you?
I don’t want to add to the noise about India being someplace you go to find inner truth and so forth, so let me premise this by saying that I learn deep truths in the everyday of life in Melbourne as well.
To my surprise, some of the things that confronted me most in India are things that confront me in Melbourne, such as how to respond to someone on the street asking for money, or how to communicate with people who don’t share my language and culture.
Privilege was one thing that I was confronted with in India. I remember being taken to meet a group of girls at a school in the middle of a slum who were learning tailoring skills in order to earn money for themselves and their families. There was a poster on the wall of the classroom with a list of goals/dreams that the girls had. One was to read a book. Another was to wear Western clothing. Another was to have the freedom to leave the house alone. There were gold stars next to the goals rating them from “easy” to “very difficult”. The last two goals were rated “very difficult”.
While on a train in Delhi I met an American woman who was living in a slum. She came up to us and started chatting because she didn’t see a lot of Westerners in this part of Delhi. We had a lot of interesting conversations but a few times she returned to asking us about where the Indian poverty line was according to the Government. She had been trying to live very simply, pushing herself to her limits, and wanted to know if she was under the line. “It’s like a game to me”, she said, half jokingly. She wanted to live in a way that her poor Indian neighbours could relate to.
While the choice to live simply and identify with people living in poverty is admirable, no matter how hard this woman pushes herself, the reality is she will never be poor. People can’t choose poverty. This woman was white, Western, and educated. She has a network of friends and family that could whisk her back home anytime. These are the privileges that her neighbours in the slum do not have.
What was the biggest challenge coming back?
During our time in India we were hosted by EFICOR, one of TEAR’s longest-standing partner organisations. One of the many things we learnt from EFICOR was how the deeply ingrained values of Hinduism in India affect the way people think of poverty. The three major components of Hinduism — reincarnation, karma, and the caste system — together form a worldview which holds that if you are poor, sick, hungry or homeless it’s because you’ve done something bad in a past life, and so probably deserve it. It follows, therefore, that to help someone out of poverty is to interfere with the divine order. This may not always be an explicit doctrine, but a belief which is prevalent through attitudes and behaviour.
However, I’m not convinced Christianity always does much better.
When I got back home, I was invited to share with my church some of what I’d learned. I talked about privilege and shared the story above about the girls learning tailoring and their personal dreams. Afterwards, we prayed. The leader thanked God for my experiences in India and thanked God for the privilege we have here in Australia.
Yes. Thank you God for the global structures that perpetuate wealth inequality and for the history of colonialism that has made Australia the great nation it is today. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
I became pretty upset and angry about this incident, but it wasn’t the particular leader or even the particular church that I was angry at, it was the culture we have in the mainstream Australian Church of separating spirituality from economics and politics, except when it is convenient for us.
If you consider your job, house and car to be blessings from God, does that mean people who struggle to acquire those things are not blessed by God? Or, to use the language of Instagram and Twitter, if your life is so #blessed, does that mean that someone living in poverty is #cursed?
A person living on centrelink payments alone (at full rates) in Australia still receives more in a year than 83% of the world’s population, according to globalrichlist.com. Melbourne has for five years running held the title of “world’s most liveable city”. Given Melbourne’s population of 4 million, that means each person on earth has a 0.0006 chance of living here.
Using the language of probability, it sounds like many of us have “won the global lottery”. People in the aid and development sector also talk about the “luck of birth”. But looking from a historical perspective, it’s no accident that we as descendants of Western Europe are in the position we are.
While I was writing this, I very nearly wrote “lucky” or “fortunate” instead of “privileged” a number of times. I think perhaps this habit of thought isn’t just my own, but a manifestation of a culturally ingrained denial — or at least ignorance — about our heritage in colonialism and the dependence of our wealth on the global capitalist and political systems that perpetuate poverty. At their worst, our religious beliefs, be they Hindu or Christian, enable this cognitive dissonance.
But at their best, followers of religion provide us with some of the most beautiful examples of peace and justice, which was my overall impression of the people and work of EFICOR.
How is life different now? What changes have you made in your life?
I have made a habit of knowing my privilege. This has not been a cut and dry process, but a growing illumination that has occurred as a result of listening to people who walk in very different shoes to mine. Just like the American woman I met on the train, there is nothing I can do to shed myself of privilege; I can only adopt a stance of awareness toward it.
I try to do this in a number of ways –
I think about where my food and clothes have come from and what the lives of the people who produce or create them might be like.
Whenever I am studying I try to remember the privilege of access to education, and whenever I share my opinions publicly (like here) I remember that not everyone has this freedom.
Despite my political predispositions often being in opposition to our Government, I remember just how much an Indian school teacher I met on a train to Varanasi praised the Australian Government for its stability and provision for Australians.
When I think of travelling somewhere, I remember that while this is easy for me, for most it is beyond reach; there are millions of people who would not dream of crossing international borders due to cost, political constraints, or lack of paperwork. Money and goods cross borders with more freedom than many people.
Most recently, I’ve been trying to remain aware of the privilege of my white skin and to remember that so many things that come easily to me do not for people of colour. I keep in mind the history of colonialism that has meant that I, along with most white Australians, have come out very near the top of the global system.
Privilege, as I have spoken about here, can only exist where there is inequality. It is not a blessing from God, nor is it something we can discard or deny. The challenge is to live in continuous awakening to the global power structures of which we are often at the top. The good news of the Kingdom of God is that these power structures are not eternal. Despite this being liberating for rich and poor alike, it doesn’t often sound like good news to the rich! That is why we call it ‘good news for the poor’.