A line in the beloved Christmas movie, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ has always stayed with me. Explaining the role which the main character George played during World War II, the narrator explains “Marty fought in France. Bert helped take the Remagen Bridge. But George? George was 4-F, so he stayed home and fought the ‘Battle of Bedford Falls.’”
It strikes me that this is a good description of what you and I do in the fight against extreme poverty. Those on the frontlines might do heroic things, even putting their very lives at risk. You and I, by some miracle of grace, get to be “partners in the gospel” with these amazing people while here in our own Bedford Falls. Somehow, what they do there and what we do here all gets blended into some kind of holy admixture that fuels change in the lives of the marginalized around the world.
People who we might assume would have no hope at all instead have tangible hope because of what these frontline servants do. But it’s not only because of them; it also happens also because we play our critical part. There is no question we have the easy role. I often don’t feel fit to wash the feet of my World Vision colleagues working around the globe. And yet our part is completely indispensable to their part.
I sometimes feel like George Bailey, underwhelmed that I’m stuck here fighting my ‘Battle of Bedford Falls.’ Yet this truly is a battle, and we must fight it. There are myriad demands and seductions which beg to siphon away our time, money and attention. Fending off those temptations in order to more faithfully say ‘yes’ to pressing human needs which will never confront us personally, children we’ll never meet, places we may never go… this is our battle, one which takes significant faith, vision and discipline.
George and his wife Mary were clearly tethered to their war’s cause. They organized rubber drives, paper drives, Mary volunteered at the USO and George was an air-raid warden. They did not consider their time, possessions, and attention as merely their own but freely and frequently shared those for the good of this critical cause.
Now, there hasn’t been a galvanizing threat in America in my entire lifetime equivalent to what World War II represented during that period. How grateful I am that this is so! People caught in places like Darfur, Somalia, Yemen, Bosnia and many others definitely have experienced such existential threats and even graver and more immediate ones. But it would be wrong to equate those wartime threats to what our daily lives should look like during peacetime.
Still, Advent prepares us for recalling the moment when God clandestinely dropped behind enemy lines and appeared in the flesh on this earth. He came proclaiming good news for the poor, that the Kingdom of God is “at hand,” is within our reach.
This good news for the poor has perhaps never been as true in the history of the world as it is in our lifetimes! In the past 50 years, the portion of the global population trapped in extreme poverty has fallen magnificently, from over half the entire world to now under 10 percent… just in our lifetimes! *
This is stunning progress, almost beyond comprehension. Never before in human history have we come anywhere close to eradicating “extreme poverty”… meaning famine, high infant- and child-mortality, permanent brain damage, and the myriad tragic choices desperate people make when their very lives are at risk. Sure, Jesus assures us there will always be wealthier and poorer people around us, but that’s no excuse for tolerating life-threatening and life-ending poverty.
Though we have never before come anywhere close to its eradication, yet today this good news for the poor is literally “at hand.” Just before the recent worldwide re-emergence of nativism** and protectionism, the world’s nations audaciously set a goal of continuing this steep downward trend and eliminating extreme poverty globally by the year 2030… now only a decade away. I doubt we’ll get to zero, due to conflicts, disasters and climate change. Yet with sustained attention and effort, it could look much like the US unemployment rate by then, perhaps just 2-3 percent.
This is the greatest story and cause of my lifetime, and this amazing success is perhaps the greatest contribution our generation will bequeath to the world. This is the war worth fighting in our time; fighting in the name of the One who proclaimed the good news and then left us the task of bringing it forth from vision to reality. It’s the war worth giving my time, possessions and attention to. I may only be able to fight in the ‘Battle of Bedford Falls,’ but this is where my gifts and skills operate best and can best contribute to the cause, to winning this fight.
George Bailey might have come to the end of his life and regretted he had not fought on the front lines, but no one finishes the movie and thinks this. We know that George did his duty, he played the cards he was dealt, he did what he could in support of a cause far greater than himself.
Going through colon cancer, I’ve thought lately about coming to the end of my own life. I’m back in the fight now, finished with chemotherapy and hopefully with more long years stretched ahead of me. But short or long, I know of no cause which aligns so closely to the heart of God and the good news that Jesus brought. And as Isaiah 58:10 promises us, “If you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”
What a vision, and what a privilege it is to spend myself on behalf of this great cause… even from Bedford Falls.
* Extreme poverty dropped from 50 percent of global population in 1966 to just 8.6 percent in 2018 [World Bank]
** PS: Here’s a very thoughtful related reflection I hope you’ll also read this Advent season