Poverty is perhaps the major curse of our world. The many millions of poor and even destitute people throughout the world certainly suffer from reduced quality of life in comparison with those of us who are lucky enough to live in better economic conditions. Perhaps even more vivid is the reduction in quantity of life that often accompanies poverty: according to the United Nations World Development Report, people born into the least developed countries in the world in 2002 had a life expectancy of 51.06 years; those born into high income countries, by contrast, had a life expectancy of 78.19 years. Would all those who would happily sacrifice 27.13 years of their lives please raise their hands?
The following graph, showing 2002 life expectancies for 21 randomly selected countries, may better convey the range of life expectancies throughout the world:
Those born in Sweden have the highest life expectancy of any country in the graph; those born in Rwanda the lowest. The lives of Swedish folks are, on average, just over twice as long as those of Rwandans. Even setting aside the differences in how lives are lived in those two places, the gap in life expectancy is staggering. Swedes have twice as many years to spend loving their families, twice as long a window in which to repent and prepare to meet God.
Most readers of this post live in countries with quite high life expectancies. How can we deal with the contrast between our relative prosperity and the poverty throughout much of the world? In effect, every year after our 40th is a result of our good fortune in not living in destitute countries like Rwanda, Namibia, Swaziland, or Cote d’Ivoire. Why do we live when others die due to a simple geographic and socioeconomic accident of birth?
One useful resolution to this question arises from the doctrine of resurrection. If we believe in resurrection, then this life with its brutal inequalities is not the whole picture; the global injustice of the present may be balanced out by loving compensation in the eternities. This is certainly a message of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus essentially teaches that His justice involves producing an inversion of mortal conditions, so that the meek rule, those who mourn are comforted, etc. (See Matthew 5:3-11). The same message of inversion, in a setting more explicitly connected with socioeconomic conditions, can be found in the story of Lazarus the beggar (Luke 16:19-31). Here, a wealthy man fails to relieve the beggar Lazarus from his mortal poverty. After both men die, Lazarus ends up in “Abraham’s bosom” while the wealthy man goes to hell. Abraham explains this result to the wealthy man: “Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.” So, in the next existence, the pain of poverty will be compensated by divine blessing.
Are the relatively prosperous then justified in disregarding the brutality of poverty in this life? Since the pain, suffering, and injustice of earthly poverty will be compensated with eternal reward, can we spare ourselves the care and effort of trying to do away with poverty in the here and now?
The scriptures issue a resounding warning against such an attitude. The wealthy man in the story of Lazarus ends up in hell because he did not act with sufficient vigor to end the plague of mortal poverty. King Benjamin likewise explains that retaining the grace of Christ requires active efforts to eliminate poverty: “for the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God–I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.”
Divine compensation in the next life counterbalances the manifest injustice of mortal inequality, preserving justice as an attribute of God. But it doesn’t automatically create the attribute of justice within us. If we would acquire that Godly trait, we must necessarily take every reasonable opportunity that comes our way to resolve poverty and inequality in this world.