The Worst Form of Violence

Gandhi once called poverty “the worst form of violence.” For a person so well acquainted with violence, that is saying something.

Why did he say that?

Let’s take a look at a video that might help us begin to understand. Our narrator is scientist Frans de Waal, and he’s going to walk us through a recent study on fairness….

Economic unfairness—the unjust distribution of goods—is offensive at the core level. That’s what the video suggests about capuchin monkeys; and similar experiments, with similar results, have been done with dogs, birds, and chimpanzees. Deep in our animal core, there is a demand for fairness. And if it is not met, something breaks. Something within us. Something between us.

That’s where the violence comes in.

What happens to the capuchin monkey is that he flings the piece of cucumber back at the experimenter. He wants what the other monkey’s getting, which is better, sweeter: a grape. He wants it. It’s unfair he’s not getting it. He reaches out through a hole in his plexiglass cage and begs with an open hand. He grabs hold of the cage with his two hands and wants to shake it to kingdom come.

And then what happens? What happens to the poor monkey’s fight when, time after time, it’s clear that no matter how hard he begs, his lot’s not going to improve? That, no matter how hard he shakes his cage, it’s not going to shatter? The video doesn’t show this part. It doesn’t show how he learns that, despite his animal rage, the hunger in his belly does not subside and he must eat, he must accept the cucumber which is now humiliating to him. He learns that, unless he gets back to work, doing that thing he does with the rocks, he won’t get any food. He’s got to get with the system, even as the system crushes his self-esteem. This is the long-term picture of things, and the three-minute video shows none of this.

Now I might be ascribing way too much humanity to our poor capuchin monkey. But I hope you see that the distance between monkey and human is not far at all. The poem by Langston Hughes, entitled, “What happens to a dream deferred?” comes to mind:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

The dream is a dream of fairness, which goes down so deep that even our animal relatives carry it. It’s deep in the heart of life, this dream.

And when it is deferred. When it is denied…

For almost 30% of children living in Georgia, it’s been denied from birth. The choices their parents have made might have been every bit as bad as those blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly love to go on and on about, but they—almost 30% of Georgia’s children—are innocent. From the first, what they know is deprivation. They don’t know anything else. And it’s not their fault.

UUCA congregant Ron Davis tells a story about one of these children, whom he and his wife Beth met through our partnership with Hope-Hill Elementary School in the Old Fourth Ward. “Ethan was a second grader when we met him several years ago,” says Ron. “That year’s fashion was computerized instruction. In our first session it quickly became apparent that Ethan didn’t know the words the computer assumed he knew, and that he might as well have been asked to do an exercise in Old Church Slavonic. Ethan’s teacher was as frustrated as I was, and readily agreed to deep six the computer program and let me work with my own materials. In succeeding weeks I discovered that if we used a much easier vocabulary, Ethan was as capable of learning and reasoning as anyone else, maybe better than many. I also discovered that he was a troubled soul, and that his method of dealing with difficult tasks was to withdraw into a shell and refuse to come out–not a strategy likely to lead to success in life. Over the four years Beth and I knew Ethan we never learned what his story was, or why he was so troubled. We did learn that he lived with an aunt, a young, well dressed woman. We never knew what happened to father, mother, and grandparents.” Ron goes on to say, “During Ethan’s third grade year Beth and I worked with him and his cousin; she did math and I did language arts. On good days Ethan could handle educational games, provided the vocabulary was at the late first grade level. On bad days he would go into a sulk, and would have to be sent back to class early, because nothing was being accomplished. One day I tried to work with a globe to talk about some basic geographic concepts, but he forcefully rejected the idea, claiming that ‘I’m never going to go anywhere.’”

“I’m never going to go anywhere.” The dream deferred, and something within breaks. This is violence internalized, turned against oneself.

In 1967 Dr. King said, “There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system…. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised.”

Here’s a good question: How do we stand it, to allow almost 30% of Georgia’s children to live as they do?

Or how about the questions that Barbara Ehrenreich provokes in a recent article in The Atlantic, entitled “It is Expensive to Be Poor.” She writes, “When I worked on my book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, I took jobs as a waitress, nursing-home aide, hotel housekeeper, Wal-Mart associate, and a maid with a house-cleaning service. I did not choose these jobs because they were low-paying. I chose them because these are the entry-level jobs most readily available to women. What I discovered is that in many ways, these jobs are a trap: They pay so little that you cannot accumulate even a couple of hundred dollars to help you make the transition to a better-paying job. They often give you no control over your work schedule, making it impossible to arrange for child care or take a second job. And in many of these jobs, even young women soon begin to experience the physical deterioration—especially knee and back problems—that can bring a painful end to their work life. I was also dismayed to find that in some ways, it is actually more expensive to be poor than not poor. If you can’t afford the first month’s rent and security deposit you need in order to rent an apartment, you may get stuck in an overpriced residential motel. If you don’t have a kitchen or even a refrigerator and microwave, you will find yourself falling back on convenience store food, which—in addition to its nutritional deficits—is also alarmingly overpriced. If you need a loan, as most poor people eventually do, you will end up paying an interest rate many times more than what a more affluent borrower would be charged. To be poor—especially with children to support and care for—is a perpetual high-wire act.”

Listen to this! Questions must be raised.

And the violence of our unjust economic system in which the rich just get richer and the poor just get poorer grinds on….

“I smoke,” says an adult mired in poverty, honestly acknowledging a choice that is, on the surface, highly irrational given how the habit is outrageously expensive. But then she says, “It’s also the best option. You see, I am always, always exhausted. It’s a stimulant. When I am too tired to walk one more step, I can smoke and go for another hour. When I am enraged and beaten down and incapable of accomplishing one more thing, I can smoke and I feel a little better, just for a minute. It is the only relaxation I am allowed. It is not a good decision, but it is the only one that I have access to. It is the only thing I have found that keeps me from collapsing or exploding. I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor….” (Linda Tirado).


Poverty is the worst form of violence. It’s done to you, and you do it to yourself. Something gets broken, within.

Let us bring compassion to this dream deferred….

But now I want us to go back to the video again. We’ve spent quite a bit of time exploring what that enraged capuchin monkey who only got the cucumber represents. But what about the other monkey who got the grape? Let’s not forget about him.

What I noticed—and you might have as well—was that he paid not one iota of attention to his brother monkey trying to rattle his cage. His brother could have been in a completely different world. He was in HIS world. He got his grape, ate it, then got back to his job picking up a rock and giving it to the experimenter, and then he got paid a grape again, and then he went back to work, and then he got his paycheck, then back to work, then his paycheck, ad infinitum. The tight loop of his little world.

And within that little world: smugness. Which, in his human cousins, translates to the full-blown conviction that people create their own good fortune. That if they study hard, work long hours, obey the lay, then a grape is coming their way. Simple as that. Conversely, if bad things happen—if it’s a cucumber and not a grape—well, the reason must lie strictly with them as well. It’s their fault. People need to take responsibility.”

Philosophically, the view that best supports this conviction is called laissez-faire capitalism. People should be free to get ahead or fall behind with no governmental assistance or interference. Yes, this may lead to rampant inequality; yes, some individuals get the grapes and others get the stupid pieces of cucumber, but hey, that’s the way the world works. People have a right to whatever they’ve legitimately earned through their hard work. If I have been working hard all day picking up stones and handing them to the experimenter and I get paid a grape, then that grape is mine and it is unjust that any piece of it, no matter how small, should be taken away from me to be redistributed. Therefore, says the philosopher of people-who-get-grapes John Hospers, “Government is the most dangerous institution known to man.”

Now I want no misunderstandings here. I am not saying that people who work hard for their grapes shouldn’t feel attached to them—I know I feel attached. Nor am I saying that there’s something flawed with the ethic of working hard and taking personal responsibility and we shouldn’t do it. I am not saying that. But what I am saying is that to use any of this as a justification for taking no responsibility for the public good is wrong. To focus on just your grape and yourself is wrong. Not to bat an eye as you pass by a scene of misery is wrong.

It means that something is broken inside you as well.

Have you heard of the work of Princeton University psychology professor, Susan Fiske? She has found that when research subjects hooked up to neuro-imaging machines look at photos of the poor and homeless, their brains often react as if they are seeing things, not people. No wonder the response to poverty is so often not sympathy but revulsion, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly style. And no wonder the response to government programs that fall short of effectiveness is so ruthless, because, after all, our hard-earned money has just been wasted on a bunch of things, not people.

The monkey with the grape loves to criticize and second guess. Violence of judgmentalism. Writer Tressie McMillan Cottom nails it on the head. “At the heart of [all] the incredulous statements about the poor decisions poor people make is a belief that we would never be like them. We would know better. We would know to save our money, eschew status symbols, cut coupons, practice puritanical sacrifice to amass a million dollars. There is a regular news story of a lunch lady who, unbeknownst to all who knew her, died rich and leaves it all to a cat or a charity or some such. Books about the modest lives of the rich like to tell us how they drive Buicks instead of BMWs. What we forget, if we ever know, is that what we know now about status and wealth creation and sacrifice are predicated on who we are, i.e. not poor. If you change the conditions of your not-poor status, you change everything you know as a result of being a not-poor. You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor. And not intermittently poor or formerly not-poor, but born poor, expected to be poor and treated by bureaucracies, gatekeepers and well-meaning respectability authorities as inherently poor. Then, and only then, will you understand…”

That’s what we are doing today. Trying to understand. Trying to bring a deeper compassion to the issue than ever before. Trying to heal what is broken inside….

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson stood in the Capitol on Jan. 8, 1964, and, in his first State of the Union address, committed the nation to a war on poverty. “We shall not rest until that war is won,” he said. “The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.” And I am struck by what one of the fighters in this war says. He’s been a part of it for 40 years. Bill Bolling, founder and executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. He says, “It never really felt like a war to me. There was never a feeling that our county or local communities would use any means possible to win this war. I served four years in the armed forces, some of them in Vietnam. That war felt different. There was tenacity—a sense of duty that soldiers still experience when they go to war. The War on Poverty has felt more conflicted. Instead of putting all our energy into fighting poverty, we’ve spent it arguing over facts, struggling with dysfunctional systems and fighting cynicism.” That’s Bill Bolling, and he is dead-on. President Johnson called for all-out war, but it’s not really ever been fought on the scale and with the focus of a World War II, for example. The sense of tenacity and sense of duty in all citizens has not been there. Yes, some welfare programs have been ill-conceived. Absolutely. But in the history of warfare, you see all sorts of crazy weapons and stupid equipment. It does not mean you just give up and let the enemy win. You double down and get smarter, try harder.

Meanwhile the reality still stands. The monkey who gets the cucumber. The monkey who gets the grape. The experimental set-up is intrinsically violent.

And those monkeys are us. We are just like them.

• Atlanta has the worst economic inequality of the 50 largest cities in these United States
• 20% of the people living in Georgia are food insecure, meaning that they don’t always know where they will find their next meal.
• 28.8% of Georgia children live in food insecure households.
• If you are poor, you have to figure out how to make just $133 last all month long for your food–$133 is how much the average food stamp recipient gets. That’s $4.38 per person, per day.

Where do we go from here?

sermon_poverty in atl

Bill Bolling says, “But I still hold hope. Fighting poverty has been a journey, rewarding for those who gave themselves to service, insightful for those who cared to learn about the systemic issues, transformational for those who were willing to overcome prejudices.” He’s such a great example of this, and we are so glad to support his Atlanta Community Food Bank today through our Give Away the Plate.

And then there’s all the Bill Bollings in this place, all the groups and activities devoted to the fight against poverty. Remember Ron and Beth Davis, and their work with a young man names Ethan who once said, “I’m never going to go anywhere”? Remember him? Well, Beth kept on working with Ethan through the fourth and fifth grades. Gradually, he came out of his shell, and his behavior became more normal. “I last encountered him at Operation PEACE during the summer after the fifth grade,” says Ron. “One day a staff member gave the students a vocabulary exercise and, not surprisingly, Ethan didn’t know some of the words. He politely beckoned me over and asked me what the words meant. That’s progress.”

Progress, one person at a time.

And, I will add, as a final word, that there must be progress systemically. Progress—or, rather, whole-scale transformation in what’s going on.

The problem is that the people creating the laws know exactly who they are in the system. They get grapes. But what if we were to forget about all that? What if—for the purpose of setting up truly fair laws—we imagined that we completely forgot who we are? We pretended we didn’t know who got grapes and who got cucumbers? If I believed that at any moment I—as a rich monkey—might find myself in the place of the worst off, what kind of laws might that lead me to create? I wouldn’t want to get rid of inequality completely, because that means that I wouldn’t get rewarded for initiative and hard work, and I want to keep that. That feels good. But on the other hand, given all the downward spirals a person can find themselves caught in, I don’t want a society that ignores me and doesn’t try to help….

People, here’s where transformation begins. Through a transformation of imagination…

Somehow, we find ourselves in some kind of experiment in which some of us get cucumbers, and some of us get grapes. This is where we are. Some of us feel violated at the core, and some of us are lost in our smug self-centeredness which we reinforce through philosophy. But we are all broken. The violence inherent in poverty hurts us all.

Let us not sleepwalk through life.

Let us not slumber.

Let us be dissatisfied.

Let us imagine something better, saner.

Let us imagine our world renewed.


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