By Denis Murphy
Some people who work with poor people claim they have never heard so much nasty criticism of the poor as they have in the last few weeks. One widely respected commentator compared the poor to rats.
Two quotations—from very different people: Pope John Paul II and an elder of the Dumagat living in the Sierra Madre mountains above General Nakar—may help us understand the five million urban poor men, women and children who live among us.
Said John Paul through his Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace: “Every family living in a slum through no fault of their own is a victim of injustice.” In effect he said: The poor are not in the slums because they want and deserve to be there, but because society has put and kept them there.
I first heard the Dumagat saying from Fr. Pete Montallana, a Franciscan, who worked and lived with the Dumagat of General Nakar. The saying is: “This is a small cup of rice. It is not enough for a man, but it is enough for the whole village.” A small cup of rice cannot fill even a single person’s stomach, but the village can see it as a symbol of the solidarity that enables them to struggle on despite hunger and other problems. There are things more valuable to the community than food. High in the Sierra Madre, every child born in the village is welcomed, every death regretted. No one goes hungry if the others have food; no family is left to sleep in the open.
A few years ago a group of us hiked up the Infanta mountains with Bishop Julio Labayen. There, we reached a Dumagat village hidden among the trees. Someone had warned the old chief we were coming because he met us dressed in a scarlet loincloth and carrying his bow and arrows. He was as lean and muscled as a much younger man.
The chief greeted us, and we talked about the people’s problems. Later we asked him about his bow and arrows. “There is one for birds,” he said, showing one with a very thin arrow head. Another arrow was for wild pig and deer. One of us asked: “What do you use on your enemies?” The old man said, “We have no enemies.” He posed for us shooting the arrows. It was a strikingly beautiful sight—the old man in the brilliant red loincloth against the tall hardwood trees.
One day we may be able to rejoice with each new birth and mourn each death in our city as they do in the mountains. We will care for one another. But first, we must stop oppressing the poor.
Pope John Paul II said the urban poor are victims of injustice. The Dumagat teach us that a human community cares for everyone, with no one left hungry or alone, much less evicted or similarly punished.
Americans, especially New Yorkers, are an argumentative people. Sometimes they argue about trivia, but now, in the case of the black youth Trayvon Martin who was shot to death by a white neighborhood guard, they argue about a truly important matter that has many implications for the Philippines.
The watchman George Zimmerman was found innocent on grounds of self defense. It is difficult to summarize the pros and cons of the verdict, but several people have boiled the whole problem down to this: When the police arrived at the scene, they found a black unarmed youth dead on the street, while a white man stood over him with a gun in hand. Something is terribly wrong with the verdict, the critics say. They are not accusing anyone of doing wrong, but they seek a deeper and wider reflection on the context of the death, including the long history of black-white relations.
Maybe we have in Trayvon Martin’s death a good example of social injustice, or what can be called an unjust social system. It is the same system John Paul spoke of. A principal characteristic of this system is that people can follow the law and be legally innocent, but horrible things are done.
A Philippine parallel may be found in the government’s practice of evicting poor families forcefully. Even if the evictions are done with complete legality, including the provision of resettlement, we are left with the basic fact that poor families are thrown out of their homes, their lives turned upside down, the children traumatized, and their futures stunted. We can say the same thing that people said of Trayvon Martin: “Something is terribly wrong.” Yes, it may be legal, but is the pain of the poor really justified? There remains a dramatic imbalance between results and justification. Also, we are not at all certain that it is the poor who pollute the rivers or block the floodwaters or stand in danger of drowning, as officials claim in the course of justifying their actions.
Eviction is like torture: an action that can never be justified. We still do not understand the long-term injury that eviction does to poor people. Modern societies have banned all forms of torture.
We are not likely to rule out all evictions this year or in the lifetime of this administration, but hopefully we will look more closely into the total background and the lasting harm that evictions do, and find alternate solutions to land problems. We don’t torture anymore. We have left it behind us. There are reasons to leave evictions behind. We can find other solutions.
Social injustice and unjust institutions reflect a society’s culture and history. They are hard to criticize because we ourselves are part of them. American rules on self-defense and violence have been constructed in a racially troubled society. Perhaps there are antiblack elements still left in the results. Perhaps there is antipoor bias in our eviction laws. We need more reflection.
Evictions have yet to be thoroughly examined. One study made 10 years ago found that it took evicted families five years on average to get back to the economic level they were in when the eviction occurred. The study indicated that children traumatized in an eviction remained troubled for years.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates [email@example.com].