Yesterday, on the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, I re-read JFK’s inaugural address, considered one of America’s finest by some historians.
Buried amid the oft-quoted sections, one line jumped out at me which I hadn’t noticed before, at the conclusion of this paragraph:
“To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required–not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
No doubt his line about saving the few who are rich was an ominous warning against the pent-up disaffection of the huddled masses of humanity for whom suffering is a daily reality.
But what struck me is a slightly different, but equally real, truth which permeates my life’s work: that we, the global minority who are rich, can only find redemption in helping the many who are in poverty.
It’s true that we can also save the lives of many in need, improve their opportunities, level their playing field, and create an enabling environment where they can gradually make a better life for themselves and their offspring and communities.
And, in the bargain, we too are saved: power-washed of the toxic influences of wealth, the hoarding and frivolous spending of money, and an intentional blindness to the inequities of the world as the ones who benefit from those inequities. A “least of these” mindset can mercifully redeem us of the radioactivity of wealth accumulating like so much plaque on our souls.
This week, I had coffee with a supporter I hadn’t met previously. Despite the pressures of his job as leader of thousands of subordinates scattered around the country and carrying a high corporate position, he has delved deeply into some emotionally and mentally disturbing issues that otherwise don’t come close to touching his personal world, such as the use of gender-based violence as a strategy of war.
It was a great encouragement to talk to this soft-spoken C-suite executive. He told me, “A decade ago you wouldn’t have found me open to these issues at all. I was focused on my kids’ sports and the stuff of life.” But eventually he began to realize his responsibilities to the wider world as a person “to whom much has been given.” God stirred his heart through an African safari that also exposed him to people who must live not unlike the animals he came to see. A Generous Giving conference and a chance encounter with Rich Stearn’s The Hole in Our Gospel provided some directions for the stirring already in his heart and mind.
We talked at length about issues of grinding poverty and injustice, about his recent and upcoming trips to see needs and to work on solutions. And as we parted I thanked him for our time together, how it had encouraged me to hear how his life had transformed as he had opened his mind, heart, wallet and calendar to these needs. He seemed to laugh a bit at himself as he replied, “Now, the reason I go to work every day… is for this stuff.”
“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
I think my new friend is one of those being saved.
PS: The text and recording of JFK’s inaugural can be found here: http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/BqXIEM9F4024ntFl7SVAjA.aspx?gclid=CNH6toLR-7oCFUlyQgodKnYA7Q