Poverty is not just about injustice and oppression but about the “marred identity’” of the poor, according to Jayakumar Christian, the national director of World Vision India.

During an interview with Sight while in Australia recently, Dr Christian said “powerlessness” remains a key player in the creation of poverty with those in power “playing the role of God” in the lives. This includes reinforcing the “marred identity” of the powerless poor to such an extent that they themselves come to believe it.

Dr Jayakumar Christian

 

"In Christian theology we have probably one of the most radical solutions to a marred identity understanding of poverty – namely the fact that all humans are made in the image of God. That is the most empowering response you can give to the poor who are struggling with issues of self-worth and marred identity.”

- Dr Jayakumar Christian, World Vision India

But, he said, the good news is that inviting the poor into the Kingdom of God offers a solution.

“In Christian theology we have probably one of the most radical solutions to a marred identity understanding of poverty – namely the fact that all humans are made in the image of God. That is the most empowering response you can give to the poor who are struggling with issues of self-worth and marred identity.”

Dr Christian, who recently launched a revised edition of his book God of the Empty-Handed, said that understanding this means a radical rethink of existing theories of development.

“It...exposes the poverty of our development theories...It’s critical for us to dig deeper into issues like the God complex of the poor, broken relationship, marred identity, the web of lies and we do not have the answer to that.”

Dr Christian has been working with the poor for more than 30 years, joining World Vision in 1978, and took over as the national director of World Vision India in January 2003. The role sees him leading a staff of about 1,700 who are reaching close to 5,000 communities across India.

One of the key issues has had been vocal in fighting against has been that of child labour in India. With conservative estimates showing that there are some 12 million child labourers in India (although others put the figure as high as 41 million), Dr Christian said it remained “a big issue for us”. 

“The other big issue we’ve just moved into is the issue of malnutrition of our children…and we are telling our government that they cannot be global leaders when one million coffins are being made every year for children who have died below five years.

One of the greatest challenges facing India at the moment is how to deal with corruption, according to Dr Christian.

“We see corruption as an instrument that the powerful use to deprive the poor of their legitimate rights,” he says. “We think that is a big issue – we need to address issues of corruption. And kind of closely related with that is the whole inadequate policy implementation. India has some great policies, I think…but there are challenges in the implementation of those policies. And somewhere in all the debates and the discussion, the poor get left out.”

Among other challenges is the importance of getting the media to look at what he calls the “real India” and not to simply focus on the 200 million wealthier inhabitants, the “shiny India”, according to Dr Christian.

“This is another big challenge because the poor tend to get left behind and the media tends to focus on the 200 million...rather than the 836 million who are struggling to live,” he said.

“So how can we, not simply leverage the media, but how can we influence the media? The window to India is really our media so how can we get them to look at the darkside of India not in a way to say, ‘OK there is great poverty in India’ but really as a way for us to say there is another side to India...I think the real challenge is to influence the mind of the media to focus on the 836 million.”

Dr Christian said it's important to address not simply simply the number of poor in the country but the growing gap between the rich and the poor.

He believes churches have a critical role in addressing these issues and says their response should be that of Psalm 39 which talks about a fire burning within. 

“I think it’s critical for our churches to look at these reality issues...and their bones should burn,” he says.

This means really grappling with issues such as why a mother shouldn’t be able to feed her children or why a child should be forced into labour at a young age. 

“We should allow our spirituality to be shaped by this...” he says, adding that we shouldn’t shy away from such issues because they seem overwhelming. 

“I think it’s OK to be overwhelmed by poverty and oppression but never paralysed.”

www.worldvision.com.au