Saving Others, Saving Ourselves

What W. Said on an Island off Senegal

July 10 — President Bush is off barnstorming Africa, and there’s been no shortage of drama from the very beginning.

On the Tuesday after the Fourth of July, the President of Senegal, Adboulaye Wade, literally took him by the hand as they toured Gor?e Island , the westernmost point in Africa.

Over a million slaves were sent to the Americas from the port at Gor?e Island.

The photographs and video show a disturbed George W. Bush, along with Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security advisor Condoleeza Rice, their faces grave with the horror of historical memory. In the president’s speech, he went right to religious terms to get to the enormity of “one of the greatest crimes of history.”

Dulling of the conscience
In words aimed at folks back home , President Bush talked mostly about the impact of the disaster of slavery not on the enslaved, for, he said, “the spirits of Africans in America did not break,” but on the oppressor.

“The spirit of their captors was corrupted,” the leader of the world’s remaining superpower voiced. “Years of unpunished brutality and bullying and rape produced a dullness and hardness of conscience. Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith.”

While no one should underplay the horrific damage done to Africa (and to African Americans) by the slave trade, it is not inappropriate to ask the question about the “corrupting of the spirit” and the “dulling of the conscience” involved in a great crime and moral disaster such as slavery.

Could similar effects be seen in groups that perpetrate genocide, the brutal oppression of women, abortion on demand, near-slavery in sweatshops around the world?

Is poverty a crime?
In the New York Times recently, Jeffrey D. Sachs noted a stunning statistic: according to IRS figures, the combined incomes of the richest 400 Americans add up to more than that of all of the 166 million inhabitants of four of the five countries President Bush visited on his African tour?Senegal, Uganda, Botswana, and Nigeria.

Okay, this is just a factoid. But it illustrates in its own way the gargantuan gap between “what we have” in the U.S. and “what they have” in sub-Saharan Africa. The difference between what it means to be well-off in this world and what it means to be poor. And remember, those four countries are supposed to be the African “success stories.”

I guess most of us in the “rich countries” are aware of this enormous gap; some of us have even seen it up close.

But I wonder?does it “dull our consciences” or “corrupt our spirits” to have easy access to Wal-Mart where “they have everything,” while somewhere else a child is dying simply because he has no food or because there was no doctor or medicine available to prevent her from dying of malaria.

Don’t get guilty, get busy
Of course, it does little good to then lie down in our guilt or hopelessness. Neither is helpful or appropriate. Sister Wendy , the PBS art guru and Carmelite nun, directs people’s attention to contrition?the resolve to do differently.

Many people think, “There isn’t anything I can do to alleviate the suffering of those who are poor.” But that’s where they’re wrong.

Right now the United States Congress is considering funding for the Millennium Challenge Account , a poverty-based type of assistance for poor countries that the president has proposed, but one for which there is no guarantee of appropriate funding. Any U.S. citizen or resident can write or call senators and representative asking them to see that the MCA gets full funding.

Then there are those number of international relief organizations and charities that have low overhead and focus on long-term help for the hungry and poor in the developing world. Catholic Relief Services, Oxfam International, and Bread for the World are a few.

Believe it or not, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria accepts private donations. The U.S. government currently uses this fund to help people with AIDS, especially in Africa, where some countries suffer an HIV infection rate approaching 25-35%.

If you don’t like supporting charities or governments, you can put your money behind Mother Teresa’s nuns and brothers, the Missionaries of Charity , who work with the poorest of the poor in slums all over the world.

Saving ourselves
In a world racked by inequalities of wealth and poverty, it’s really the responsibility of everyone who has to contribute to evening off the scales. Jesus said, “To one whom much is given, much will be required.” (Lk 12:48)

President Bush said in Senegal that “with the power and resources given to us, the United States seeks to bring peace where there is conflict, hope where there is suffering, and liberty where there is tyranny.”

But in offering hope to the world, a person might be saving himself or herself as well?staving off the dulling of the conscience, the corrupting of the spirit. All that comes with looking away while the world suffers and we are satisfied at home.