Why the poor deserve more than just a Facebook post

(Photo source: Dollar photo club)
(Photo source: Dollar photo club)

When I first saw a picture of the water people were drinking in Flint, Michigan, my heart sank. How could this happen in 21st century America? I got angry. I got mad at politicians. I wanted to post something on Facebook. Then something happened inside me that changed my outlook.

If you haven’t totally familiarized yourself with the Flint water crisis, here’s a quick summary: A little over two years ago, Flint was purchasing most of its municipal water from Detroit. For a city undergoing a financial crisis, that was deemed to be too pricey, so the city resorted to its backup supply: the Flint River.

The Flint River’s water ended up being highly corrosive. So corrosive, in fact, that it ate through the pipes that were transporting it, leading to spikes in the water’s lead levels. E. Coli was found in the water in August 2015, and in October 2015 the state of Michigan admitted that the lead levels in the water were highly elevated. Currently, the tap water in many people’s homes is unsafe to drink.

That’s especially hard to stomach for a city that is, in very simple terms, poor. The median household income in Flint is about $25,000. Forty-two percent of its population lives below the poverty line. But as is common in America and the world, the various plights of poor cities often go neglected.

That clearly happened in Flint, where officials routinely brushed off the complaints of the city’s residents and even ignored some of the evidence that the water was corrupted.

If you can feel yourself getting angry and ready to direct some of that furor at the partisan politician of your choosing — the Democrats who control the city of Flint or the Republican governor who runs the state — that’s exactly what welled up inside me.

But then I started thinking more. I moved beyond my political reflexes and started thinking about the people. That’s when I realized how wrong I was. I was making the water crisis about me, politics, and my “righteous anger,” and not the people it was affecting.

See, the people of the nation’s poorest cities deserve more than a Facebook complaint about conservative or liberal policies. The problem in Flint is a lot bigger than our need to chew out an elected official. It’s about embracing justice — but not the kind that probably just popped into your head.

Today, our society basically thinks that “justice” means equal treatment for all people under the law. While this is true (and Jon touched on why justice and injustice matter not too long ago), the purest concept of justice is intrinsically linked to the plight of the poor.

Practicing true justice isn’t trying to figure out which official to blame or simply opening another tab on your browser: It is real prayer and support for the people of Flint.

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, explains it in his book, “Generous Justice.”

The actual action of “doing justice,” he says, is an unmistakable concern for the poor and needy: “God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to ‘do justice.’” Note that defending the poor, in this instance, doesn’t include using a public crisis to make an argument against a political party you disagree with.

Maybe I’m only speaking for myself, but it felt all too easy to immediately focus on the politics of the water crisis in Flint, instead of first thinking about this inescapable fact: The people of the city — left with no other option — are being forced to drink dirty and contaminated water that is making them sick.

Practicing true justice isn’t trying to figure out which official to blame or simply opening another tab on your browser: It is real prayer and support for the people of Flint.

(United Way and Catholic Charities of Genesee County both have charities that are accepting donations for the people of Flint.)

David Podhaskie is a legal writer who lives in New York City with his wife, Elisabeth.

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