When I was 7 years old, I had stereotypes about Africa. They were primarily based on two things: the poor, starving children on TV and my colouring books with pictures of safari animals. As a result, in my little world Africa was hungry and dangerous. One day my parents announced that we were moving to Ethiopia. They assured me that we were going to be fine and see lots of exciting things, but I remained skeptical.
We landed in Addis Ababa at night, and were driven to the house we would stay in while we looked for our own. We passed a fruit stand that was closing for the day, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t like fruit, but at least I could find my way back to this spot if something happened to my parents and I was left without food. I memorized the route as a precaution. “Good thing I’m on top of this” I thought with a renewed determination to survive.
Turns out Ethiopia was not what my childlike stereotypes had predicted. Yes, there was poverty. Plenty of it. But there was also much life. It was full of bright colours and delicious food and cool people and interesting animals and adventure. All seen through the eyes of a child.
At the end of grade 6, our family left Ethiopia and got settled in Canada. Oddly enough, during my junior high and high school years I developed a new set of stereotypes for Africa. I romanticized it. People around me who had gone on short term trips claimed that Africans were not like North Americans. They were generous and forgiving and selfless and hospitable and kind. They were content with little. I fondly remembered many people I had met in Ethiopia and agreed. I couldn’t wait to return.
And once again my stereotypes were challenged. In high school and university I returned to the great continent, to volunteer in South Africa and Namibia. I had my clothes stolen from my backyard, I learned about the Rwandan genocide, I had the outside walls of my house plastered with pages of porn in the middle of the night, I was gawked at and disrespected by men, and my housemate was threatened with a gun. And I noticed something else; something that made me more uncomfortable than anything else:
Many Africans, just the rest of us, were not content with making a living, they wanted to make a killing.
Individuals, companies, and even some churches wanted to learn about get-rich-quick schemes. For the first time I saw Africa and the world through the eyes on an adult. It made me sad to realize that my romantic view was just as inaccurate as my childhood stereotypes had been.
In my travels around the world since then, I have realized that there is a common language of greed that is spoken with fluency by our families, communities, institutions, governments, and businesses. It cunningly masquerades under nomers like “The American Dream” and we market it, sell it, celebrate it, worship it, honour it, export it, and pledge allegiance to it. Success is measured by climbing the ladder, making good money, and being comfortable. Greed, in effect, has become an idol.
Recently at church, my pastor Jeff Strong shared a powerful truth he had come across while watching a presentation by author Andy Crouch. He explained that at the beginning, idols promise everything and demand nothing in return. For example, money initially delivers fun and adventure and comfort and security and happiness, but soon the pursuit of money demands more and more, while offering less and less. Eventually we reach a point in which we are giving everything to its pursuit and receiving nothing in return. We have money in the bank and a hot car in the driveway, but it has come at a high cost. We are stressed and discontent, and often it is our families and relationships that are ultimately sacrificed.
A friend recently sent me this clip, which has gone viral in recent weeks:
This is where greed leads us, as a society. The spin-off effect is that people at the bottom are put in desperate circumstances. Many of us secretly don’t want the system to change, just in case we are the ones who end up at the top some day. But a system that thrives on such extreme inequality is what creates a perfect storm for all kinds of social issues like increased gang violence, teen pregnancies, prostitution, and homelessness.
Before you write this off as a rant against corporate greed, I would encourage you to look at your own life. As Andy Stanley once said, “direction, not intention, determines our destination.” Your intent to empower others means nothing if you don’t have a direction or a plan to reach your destination. So here are some ideas that my husband and I have been mulling over in order to fight against the idol of greed:
1. Set an income ceiling for yourself. Our lifestyle always inflates when our income increases. Determine the amount you need, and whatever you make above and beyond that, give away. This could even make a pay raise more exciting because it creates a bigger giving slush fund!
2. Inch up your giving by percentage points. Start giving, and increase the percentage each year.
3. Support local businesses. Multinational corporations siphon money out of local communities, leaving less opportunities for people to start their own businesses or have meaningful employment. The lack of corporate accountability and regulation leads to the inequality we see in this video. If you support local entrepreneurs, you are offering someone a chance to make a living doing something they are passionate about while keeping the money in your community.
4. Pay your workers a living wage and source your products ethically. This will require research and sacrifice on the part of the employer, and make sure to visit the factories where your products are made and listen to the stories of those making them.
5. Get to know people who are on the margins. The homeless. The prostituted. The poor. The vulnerable. Personal relationships can motivate unlike anything else.
We should all learn to promote equality. After all, what does it mean for us to actually love our neighbour as ourselves?
This will take some sacrifice, some discomfort, some risk, but I believe that the process will build our faith and change the world. So, let’s stop exporting and celebrating an American Dream that is built on the backs of the poor, and cast off the idol of greed that entangles us.