"We are in the position of a man asleep who dreams that he is
obliged to do something which even in his dream he knows he ought not
to do. He knows this in the depths of his conscience, and all the same
he seems unable to change his position; he cannot stop and cease doing
what he ought not to do." Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within
I am walking down the street, striving to feel the earth under my feet.
I am the only pedestrian in sight. The streets are spotlessly clean, broad
and smooth and black. The cars fly by, and not a single horn is blown.
Are there living beings in those machines, graced with the capacity for
intelligence and love?
I walk a full minute through a great parking lot and into the store, which
is my destination: a great big box shaped store, without any architectural
features to speak of, just gray slab cement walls. The lights are brilliant,
the plastic floors squeaky clean. Overweight and pasty-faced mothers load
up their shopping carts, and wait patiently at the registers. I shake
my head, somewhat confused. Where did this wealth come from? Is it the
result of the inventions of scientists and engineers? Was it manufactured
in factories, by machines? Did we really earn this bounty, and do we deserve
I rush to the households section, at the far end of the store. It's good
exercise. The aisles are broad, and lined with endless rows of inexplicably
inexpensive products. Who made these products? Under what conditions do
they work and live? I have a vague memory of stories of sweatshops and
forced labor. But it is impossible to know.
I scan ten varieties of 'comforters,' and chose one with a floral design.
I see a small label on the back. 'Made in Nicaragua,' it says. I toss
it into my shopping cart. I zoom off to the coffee section, a whole aisle
stacked with five pound cans. I hesitate for a moment, and then toss a
couple into my shopping cart.
The uncertainty of the facts, and the certainty that things are not what
they seem, work their insidious magic, dulling the mind. The freedom and
pleasure of consumerism is fleeting. There is something sinister about
it, something terribly wrong. Something very unlike freedom is going on.
Under what conditions do the people who produce the products we consume
work and live? To what extent is our prosperity due to their suffering?
And what should we do about it? It was with the hope of gaining some insight
into these questions that I went on a two week Witness for Peace educational
tour to Nicaragua.
Driving from the airport through the city of Managua, Nicaragua's capital,
the polluted air burned my eyes, but I couldn't close them. The life on
the streets was too interesting. Street vendors circulated around the
traffic, cars honked their horns. The aroma of organic matter filled the
air, at times sweet, at times repulsive. It was a such a relief, after
the dullness, the sterility, and uniformity of American affluence.
Aside from its natural vitality, though, Managua is a demoralized and
desperate city. It was ruled for decades by the Somoza dictators; then,
in the early 1980s the Sandanistas came to power, socializing the economy,
bringing free schools and health care, and raising hopes. Those hopes
were crushed when the socialized economy failed. In the first democratic
election in Nicaraguan history a conservative government was elected,
and has been in power now for ten years. It has worked with global trade
organizations like the WTO to sell government assets, privatize the economy,
and reduce restrictions for multinational corporations. Free trade zones
have been created where corporations are not subject to taxes, labor and
Our trip was a 'delegation' to learn about the condition of workers in
Nicaragua. There were ten members of the group, of various ages and professions
and temperaments, and three trip leaders. For two weeks we stuck closely
together, going to meetings, having 'de-briefings' and 'check-ins,' working
and eating and sleeping as a group. It was an intense and continuous and
intimate relationship. In being crushed together, a bond was formed: a
chemical reaction. Like a family bond, it seemed beautiful and lasting.
But was it real or was it pretense? The intimacy of the setting compelled
us to act as if we were a family. But the truth is that we were brought
together on the basis of a single interest. When the circumstances passed,
what would remain?
We spent the first two days in orientation meetings at the Witness for
Peace house. At the first opportunity I took a walk through the neighborhood,
accompanied by Erika. Erika is a young journalist with an insatiable curiosity.
During the trip her endless questions, her thirst for details, and the
constant impact of factual information, kept me from becoming too vague
We walked passed the fancier houses, through the ritzy neighborhood in
which we were based, and stopped still at a desolate field, full of rotting
garbage. From there a dirt road lead up a hill into a far poorer area.
The poverty was intimidating, and the contrast between rich and poor was
stark. In poor countries this contrast is spread before one's eyes, not
hidden away in institutions or far beyond one's gaze.
We walked up, passed the patched-together homes, made of mud bricks and
corrugated iron roofs. On the sides of the road were piles of burning
leaves, which smelled delicious. I stopped in front of a home that was
particularly destitute. It was made of branches, with a thatched straw
roof. There was a garden in front, with great green leaves. Chickens and
children ran back and forth. I froze on the spot. The poverty, the desperate
poverty, had passed beyond the wretched and squalid--results of moral
decay--and reached a natural and primeval beauty. It had none of the artifice
and technique, which overwhelms modern society. It was not defined by
and drowned out by the mass mind. It was spontaneous and powerful. My
lungs expanded, and I breathed deeply. I couldn't help exclaiming, "How
beautiful that is! What a relief that is!"
Erika looked at me strangely, quizzically. She was becoming curious about
me. Maybe she was wondering if I were serious. She looked carefully at
the ramshackle house, the weather-beaten roof, the half-dressed children.
"I wonder whether the people that live there think it is beautiful,"
she said. "It may seem so to you, but do you think anyone would freely
choose to live there? I certainly wouldn't. I can hardly imagine what
it would be like to actually live in a place like that."
A few days later we got the chance to find out. In the meantime, we spent
the mornings working at a community project in a township called Nueva
Vida, 'New Life.' The 14,000 inhabitants were forcibly settled there,
a few years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. They were removed
from their settlement in downtown Managua. Some say that the government
used the disaster as a convenient excuse to evict the 'squatters' so that
they could build a series of five star hotels. Set down on the outskirts
of the city, with no resources whatsoever, these people were desperately
We stopped at the Jubilee House, near the entrance to Nueva Vida. The
Jubilee House is a non-profit American organization that is engaged in
various projects at Nueva Vida. At our meeting we sat on the porch of
their building. Mike, a founder of the organization, gave us an overview
of the situation. He is a down-to-earth, informal and humorous man. His
beard is white, and he was wearing a t-shirt and jeans. According to Mike,
there is ninety percent unemployment at Nueva Vida. Most of the women
who work are employed at prostitution. Seventy percent of the children
I was struck by a remark he made. "There have been significant improvements
in the infrastructure of Nueva Vida," he said. "Electricity
has been installed, roads developed, and houses built. Most families now
have their own homes, simple cement structures with dirt floors. But the
whole population is starving."
He went on to describe the projects of Jubilee House. They are creating
worker-owned cooperatives, including an alternative 'sweatshop,' where
the profits from clothing is shared equitably. His remark, which stuck
in my mind, was passed over. The starving thousands were still starving,
at that very moment, just a few hundred feet away. What unimaginable horror
they were experiencing, it was impossible to say. We sat in the lovely,
screened-in cool veranda, on comfortable chairs, sipping coffee, loaded
with the privileges and rewards of affluence, perfectly willing to pass
on to the next phase of our day.
After the meeting, we helped construct a cement wall around a new medical
clinic, dropping the pre-fabricated 'losettas' into grooves in cement
posts. Working under the hot sun was good exercise, though most of us
were obviously unaccustomed to sustained manual work. It takes years to
learn how to do such work, because the whole body must undergo a transformation.
It slowly becomes capable of endurance, strength, and agility. It develops
an intelligence of its own. Our own bodies were absurdly top-heavy. Afterwards,
we drove back in our van, driving past the tiny steaming cement homes,
their empty window frames already nailed up with boards, to prevent theft.
We returned to the Jubilee House, formerly a vacation retreat of the sister
of the dictator Somoza, and took a swim. I barely hesitated before jumping
into the cold, clean swimming pool, submerging myself in sensuous luxury.
I swam happily in the dictator's swimming pool. Back and forth I swam,
completely refreshed, doing the crawl, the breast stroke. It was so healthy,
'Starving.' That word, uttered so casually, was what made me hesitate
before I jumped into the luxurious pool. It is a word with an intrinsic
moral force. It contains a message that cannot be evaded. The fact that
we normally do not respond to it reveals a sad truth about ourselves:
something inside us is broken, sprung, shot. Something inside us is distorted,
There is a simple test to determine the seriousness of a social problem.
What if it were my child, who was the victim? What if my child had little
or no education, or medical care? What if my child had few clothes, miserable
living conditions, dangerous and debilitating work? What if my child were
malnourished? What if my child were starving?
The truth is that it is my child. The belief that we are separate, that
my child is precisely the one that I know: this is the illusion. And when
I finally discover that I have shut my ears to the cries of my own dying
son or daughter, my heart will crack. Maybe I will never realize this,
but nevertheless there will be a significant impact on my spirit. The
spirit knows. It draws back, it withdraws. Vitality diminishes, simple,
pure joy is lost, trivial and superficial concerns begin to dominate consciousness.
In the evenings our group gathered in a circle on the veranda of the Witness
for Peace house for the evening 'reflection,' in which we read and discussed
spiritual writings. We sat in a circle in our rocking chairs, taking turns
reading passages from selected works. One of the readings was from Abraham
Heschel: "Ours is an assembly of shock, contrition, and dismay. Who
would have believed that we life-loving Americans are capable of bringing
death and destruction to so many innocent people? We are startled to discover
how unmerciful, how beastly we ourselves can be. So we implore you, our
Father in heaven, help us to banish the beast from our hearts, the beast
of cruelty, the beast of callousness."
Our first homestay was with free trade zones workers. Nicaragua has
about 30,000 of them, mostly in the Las Mercedes area near Managua. We
took a bus early in the morning to the zone. We were thrust into the jam-packed
bus, unable to move or turn, bodies pressing into each other. Not a sound
was uttered. At the site, lines of buses disgorged their passengers. The
workers did not look oppressed. Most of them are young woman, clean and
well-dressed, many of them carrying knapsacks. They look like American
college students. But this is not America. They are going to work twelve
hours, crammed together in a warehouse, sitting over a sewing machine,
where even their bathroom breaks are timed.
The minimum wage of free trade zone workers in Nicaragua is about $1.50
a day; average salary is about twice that. The working conditions in other
countries is worse. In China, for example, with more than 100,000 sweatshop
workers, pay is less than $1.00 a day. According to the National Labor
Committee, "every worker in China knows that she can be fired for
even being seen discussing factory conditions, that any worker publicly
raising a grievance is fired and anyone attempting to organize an independent
union will be immediately imprisoned." Because of Nicaragua's socialist
history, workers there are more sophisticated than in most poor countries,
and are more active in unions. That is why the attention of the international
activist movement is now focused there.
A stream of 19,000 workers passes down the Las Mercedes entrance road
in the course of half an hour. At the edges are vendors selling homemade
snacks and beverages. The steadily flowing line is about ten people wide.
I tried to stop to take pictures, but I was pushed forward by the human
current. The workers go through a security checkpoint, and disperse to
the factories. At seven o'clock sharp the gates are closed and locked.
I walked back through the emptying road with Iliana, a former free trade
zone worker who was my host during the homestay. We got back on the bus,
now empty, and she led me to her home in a poor neighborhood of Managua
called Barrio Huaspan. Walking through the wide, rocky streets, I felt
somewhat intimidated. There was something menacing in the atmosphere.
The houses were poor, but they also seemed decrepit. The children, playing
in the streets, were aggressive. Young adults watched us silently from
the houses. They seemed sulking, menacing. The place was squalid and dangerous,
and two days later, when the time came to leave, I was relieved.
I stepped over a rat at the entrance to Iliana's home. The house, which
she had inherited from her father, was a basic cement block structure.
Iliana lived there with her seven children and her elderly mother. Her
husband, an alcoholic, had deserted her several years earlier, a common
situation among sweatshop workers. The men in that macho Latin culture
refuse to endure such a life for long.
There were two small rooms in the house: the entrance area, with a table
and a television; and a room full of beds, on which Iliana, her seven
children, and her mother slept. The kitchen was in a corner of the sleeping
room. The stove consisted of a cement counter with a hole to insert sticks
of wood. There were a couple of electric lights, dangling from a wire.
In the yard was a single faucet and a toilet, and a green garden which
Iliana was proud of. Chickens, dogs, and a couple of pigs wandered freely
through the home.
The house, though austere, was better than that of other free trade zone
workers. Other workers live in tiny homes made of simple wood frames,
with walls that are hung with plastic sheeting, and dirt floors. Some
live in shacks made of cardboard boxes.
Iliana held her family together with sheer will power. Full of energy,
she would return from a twelve hour workday, look after her children,
and then stay up hours answering my questions. She told me that she had
earned the highest possible salary at the sewing factory, about six dollars
a day, because she had developed her skills and was at the head of an
assembly line. She was forced to quit her job, though, when she developed
respiratory problems due to an allergy caused by insufficient ventilation.
She was not bitter; in fact, she proudly showed me photos where she was
embracing her boss.
There is a common argument that manufacturing jobs in poor countries must
actually be advantageous for workers, because otherwise they would not
choose to work there. This argument is accurate, but it avoids the real
point. It does not explain why unjust and oppressive jobs are advantageous.
The poverty which makes this so is not accidental. It is partly the result
of the policies of corporations and of the U.S. government, which destroy
local cultures and economies by forcing poor nations to sell resources
and agricultural products at low prices, driving farmers off of their
land and into cities. Once there, the only viable options are controlled
by ruthless global institutions.
Now that Iliana is unable to work in the factories, she is forced to take
odd jobs cleaning homes. It is quite challenging for her to raise her
seven children, on her own, under such circumstances. "How do you
keep it all together?" I asked.
"It is my spirit," she responded, and I could see that this
was so. She was a quiet, gentle woman, but behind this was strength, not
A religious person, she has photos of her church and her priest tacked
up to the walls. Somehow she manages to keep her family intact. As we
talked, all seven of her children lined up in plastic chairs, as if they
were in school, seriously studying the television set. The sweatshop workers
have one foot in the global economy and culture, and this is what makes
their lives so desperate. Like ours, their children sit in front of the
television, enthralled. But for them, those flickering dreams can only
end up in misery, preying on their hearts by raising expectations that
are absolutely beyond their reach.
[When the group returned to our base in Managua, I spoke with Peg, a trip
leader who has been an activist in Illinois for many years. I wanted to
know her opinion about our responsibility for the products made in sweatshops.
"I've thought about that a lot, and I've come to a two-tiered approach.
My daughter has two children, and she shops at Wal-Mart regularly. So
that gives them the jobs they need, while we're working for change. But
I devote myself to protests, and to working for deeper change."]
In the evening we had our debriefings, check-ins, and reflections. A passage
we read was by Mother Theresa: "If you want to help, share something
of yourself--not from your abundance--but until it hurts. Give what costs
you--make a sacrifice--do without something you like, so you may share
what you have saved thus with those who do not even have what they need.
Then your giving will be true giving--loving until it hurts."
Our second homestay was with workers in an entirely different part of
the global economy: poor peasant farmers. We drove out to a village near
the town of Matagalpa, several hours from Managua, and left our van at
the end of a dirt road. Ten cute piglets slept together in a heap, and
the mother, a massive animal with mangy fur, lay in the mud and fed them.
From there a trail through the green hills led to the community. Ramone
Gomez is a cooperative, formed during the Sandanista era, but each member
now owns their own land and crops. They grow beans and corn and coffee.
Keeping what they need for themselves, they sell the rest to distributors.
They earn about a dollar a day, considerably less than free trade zone
workers. Most have no machinery at all. A few have a cow or two.
Erika and I stayed with a family near the bank of the creek. Their home
was very simple, with dirt floors and bare cement walls. There was no
furniture, except for some plank benches and two cots. Ceferino and Ana
Maria apparently slept on the cots, and their five children slept on the
floor. During our stay Erika and I had use of the cots, just a sheet of
plastic tied onto a wood frame.
Dinner was beans and rice. No condiments, no appetizers, no dessert. No
meat, no drinks. Nothing extraneous. Erika and I sat alone, silently,
on our plank. No big words. No theories. They seemed inappropriate. It
was a fleeting taste of simplicity. It was an interesting adventure for
our pampered and spoiled stomachs, which we would never consent to for
After dinner we all gathered in the kitchen, which was in a wood shack
attached to the sleeping area. The only appliance was a manual grinder,
with a long metal arm for milling corn. There was no television, but the
scratchy sound Latin love songs emanated from a radio. Like Iliana's,
the stove was a simple hole in the counter, but here there was no chimney,
and the wood planks of the wall were covered with dark soot. Still, it
did not seem dirty. The soot was impregnated in the wood, giving it a
beautiful aged appearance. I felt as if I were in a museum.
We all sat on the planks along the walls, peeling beans. The children
and the parents looked at us curiously. Finally, we let loose. We bombarded
them with questions. What is the price of the crops? What do you think
of the conservative government? What are your plans for the future? Erika
leaned forward, taking notes. They endured the assault gracefully. They
were not embarrassed to show us their lives. But they seemed strangely
uninterested in or incapable of questioning us. We represented a world
that was too foreign.
I peeled my beans at a rate far slower than the others, thinking about
how pleasant the scene was. I had read about this. Before the days of
television, people used to sit together and tell stories to each other.
It was called 'storytelling.' I listened to Ceferino speak about his plans
to develop a small coffee plantation. A non-profit organization has been
teaching them about coffee's potential. "That sounds like a good
idea, Ceferino," I said. "You can sell the coffee and build
up some capital."
Ana Maria shook her head. "Yes, it is a good idea. But we've made
many plans before. We've been here ten years, working constantly, and
still we have nothing," she said, laughing.
If the urban workers have a whole foot into the global mind, the peasants
at Matagalpa have their toes in only. But the toes are nailed down. These
poor, third world farmers are locked down. They struggle to build and
save, but there is not much that they can do. After all, what they produce
has little value in the global economy. They can't compete against industrial
agribusiness. They can't compete against technologically sophisticated
businesses. The game is rigged. Maybe we should all buy 'fair trade' coffee.
But even if farmers were paid a dollar a pound, twice what they get now,
how much difference would that make? There is no shortage of do-gooder
international non-profit organizations that come in with one project or
another. They build schools, they bring in clean water and outhouses.
But, though perhaps useful, these are only amenities that do not affect
the structure of poverty.
Although the farmers are poorer than the urban factory workers, their
poverty does not seem nearly as wretched. They are placed in the unsullied
natural world of living things. Poverty stalks them, but beauty nourishes
them. There is no sense of degradation or depravity. Ceferino and Ana
Maria were matured by the hardness of their life. They did not have restless
energy, the frantic, anxious energy of city dwellers and lost souls.
We settled in for sleep early, at about nine o'clock. It was pitch black.
I looked over towards Erika, just a foot away, but could not see a thing.
There was nothing to see, nothing to tempt.
During the days we attended meetings in town; in the evening we returned
to the cooperative. On our final night there was a party for the delegation,
with dancing and singing. I stayed away, sitting on a bench in the dark,
under the trees, listening to the crickets and the birds. I had my flashlight
in my mouth, trying to write. The community building was not far away,
and I heard the rhythmic music begin.
Aydalina, the fourteen year old child of Ceferino and Ana Maria, appeared
in front of me, took a seat on the bench, and began to speak. This surprised
me, as she had been very quiet previously. "Are you going to the
dance?" she asked.
I surprised myself be being honest. "No, I usually don't dance,"
I said. "And anyway I feel a little sad. I'm just going to write."
"I feel sad, too," she said, softly. Her voice was gentle and
sweet. I leaned over to hear her better, and turned off my flashlight.
"I want to study," she said. "But my parents don't have
the money to pay for school. They have to buy notebooks, pencils, and
pay a monthly fee. There is only enough to pay for the little ones. This
is my last month of school."
"What will you do if you can't study?" I asked.
"In the mornings I will cook, getting up at four in the morning to
grind the beans. In the afternoons I will work in the fields."
"For how long will you do this?"
"For my whole life."
"Do you think that this world is unjust?" I asked
"I think that my life is unjust," she replied. "Our life
is very hard. We have to struggle to survive. We cannot study long. During
droughts we do not eat."
I looked at Aydalina, at her young, sorrowful face. I wanted to help her,
to teach her about independent study, about her limitless freedom. But,
I reflected, that was absurd. In America we have limitless freedom. For
the eighty percent of the world's population who live in poor countries,
though, freedom is less tangible. Victims of inequality, of injustice,
of greed, circumstances cut short their potential, destroying their dreams,
drawing a dark circle around their possible sphere of action.
I sat there, confused. My own sadness now seemed trivial. This girl was
having her whole life cut short before my very eyes. Could I do anything
to help her? Yes, maybe I could give her money for school. Maybe I could
rescue one person. But what kind of hopeless act would that be? Charity
simply confirms injustice, making the poor even more dependent on the
rich, and in any case it can only help a minority, thus creating more
injustice, as well as jealousy. Isn't it possible, if we have enough vision,
to address the whole problem, stopping injustice at its source, and ending
Perhaps she was my own child. But I packed my bags and got ready to depart.
I moved on to the next phase of my life. I wish her well.
Later that evening Cefarino invited me to see his fields. The two of us
set out in the darkness. I shined my flashlight as he led me over the
creek, stepping carefully from rock to rock. I watched the silhouette
of his thin body, his ragged clothes. We slid underneath the barbed wires
of an old fence, and walked up the side of the hill. We stepped between
the rows of his corn field. They were stunted, just a couple of feet high,
because of the lack of rain. The bright moon lit up the field. He pointed
out his beans. He led me to his coffee seedlings, and stood proudly in
the middle of them. They were each in its own small plastic bag. He bent
down and caressed one of them, looking at it closely. "This is my
future," he said, sweeping his hand at an undeveloped area in front
of us, where he planned to plant these seedlings when they matured.
We stood silently, looking up at the black sky and the bright, numerous
stars. I breathed deeply, submitting to its power. The heavens, the awe-inspiring
majestic heavens, has the power to bind together two human beings of radically
different backgrounds. One, an idea seeker, pampered and privileged; the
other, a subsistence farmer, surviving alone by the work of his own hands
in the earth. Standing under the night sky, two figures, lifted and inspired,
bound together, see how a single message is revealed: We are one.
I looked over at Cefarino, at his dark skin, his trousers and shirt hanging
loosely, and at his big eyes, searching the sky. "What are you thinking?"
He looked at me and laughed. "I am thinking about the drought,"
he responded. "If it doesn't rain, the harvest will be bad."
He pointed to a cloud, which I could barely see. "That is a rain
cloud. It may rain tomorrow."
I was surprised by his statement. Was he not inspired? Was he thinking
only about material (though important) events? Or was his understanding
more profound, connected in a way that was not accessible to me, to the
real world and the real cycle of life and death?
The next day we left early in the morning. All the children of the community
followed us to our van. Cefarino extended his hand to me, straight and
stiff. "Thank you for sharing our poverty," he said.
Along the trip home to Managua we stopped for several meetings. One was
with the CNT, the pro-government union of free trade zone workers, which
was seeking harmonious solutions to labor problems. Another was with the
CST, an independent union, aggressively pushing for workers' rights. Dirty
and sweaty, we were moved by a passion that arose from our own experiences.
We felt a personal urgency to hold someone or something responsible for
the poverty we had seen. Government policies were at fault. Workers rights,
stronger unions, equitable government policies, could improve the situation.
Something must be done. We were on the edge of our seats. We plied them
with questions. Our pencils flew over our notepads. Finally, having exhausted
our hosts and ourselves, we returned to the Witness for Peace house in
We got home late in the evening. After taking showers, we meet on the
porch for reflections.
Gandhi: "I must refuse to insult the naked by giving them clothes
they do not need, instead of giving them work which they sorely need.
I will not commit the sin of becoming their patron, but on learning that
I had assisted in impoverishing them, I would give them a privileged position
and give them neither crumbs nor cast off clothing, but the best of my
food and clothes and associate myself with them in work."
Dostoyevsky: "At some thoughts one stands perplexed, especially at
the sight of men's sin, and asks oneself whether one should use force,
or love and humility. Always decided to use humble love."
After our evening meetings, Emily, the bright high school student, offered
to accompany me on my walk. After talking about the lyrics of her favorite
album--which did strike me as being meaningful--she said that she wanted
to discuss a problem she was having. It seems that Ernesto, the Nicaraguan
man watching over the dormitory, got some mistaken ideas about their relationship.
He thought that it was more serious than she wanted it to be. How did
he get those ideas? They had personal conversations, and that led to other
things. What other things? Physical involvement.
I was shocked by Emily's admission that she had had casual sex, within
a few days of arriving. Why? Because I believe that sex has spiritual
implications, and that to fail to respond to those implications means
a blow to one's spiritual capacity. Pleasure is a fine thing, it can nourish
and even inspire, and there is a place for it, but that place is secondary.
When self-interest is the principal motivation, a fragile balance is shattered.
That which is highest and best, and which makes us who we really are,
is felled and defeated.
There is a choice, an either/or choice, and it is between sex and spirit,
money and spirit, family and spirit. One comes first, and one goes last.
Success and spirit, pleasure and spirit, matter and spirit. This is the
fundamental choice we make, and there is no evading it. Other matters
are subject to compromise, but not this.
There are many explanations for the poverty of the campesinos: political,
economic, cultural. One could easily spend one's whole life trying to
untangle the twisted logic which has created these intractable problems,
and then to fight for the side which one believes is right. But this is
all in the realm of causes and effects, of matter. There is no way out,
no release, except through entering into a totally different analysis,
one that is based upon primary causes.
What makes poverty, widespread and systemic, possible? What is the source
of injustice, brutal and ruthless, which oppresses the weak? It is not
a policy that is at fault. It is not an elite group, or a conspiracy.
It is not a system. The explanation is simple: spirit-failure.
We can easily ignore the foreign policy of our nation, when it exploits
and oppresses, because we are accustomed to ignoring the foreign policy
of our own self. In our own minds and in our own daily life we invent
the exploitative structure that makes possible exploitation everywhere
else. The vast global system, which seems so complex and unstoppable,
actually depends on innumerable human connections, of which we have full
control. At each connection, at each relation, we give our tacit approval
by taking the required action. At each connection, at each relation, we
have total freedom.
What makes poverty possible? Every step along the way, one person must
close his heart to another. The Spaniard, who refuses to turn on the water
of the completed plumbing system of the cooperative; and the American
philanthropist, who reneged on her promise to turn over the lands that
the peasants were cultivating for her; the Managua officials, who drove
the lake dwellers from their shantytowns, into a marginal existence at
Nueva Vida, so that they could build expensive hotels; and we Americans,
who flock to buy cheap goods, strung out on the high of unbelievable bargains,
turning away from the process of sweat and blood, labor and desperation,
which makes the bargains possible.
Spirit-failure. The withering of one's capacity for understanding, empathy,
and inspiration. The corruption of innocence and the vulgarization of
the sacred. The weighing of pluses and minuses, the heaping up of personal
desires, growing so high and heavy that they crush the opportunity for
pure and spontaneous action, which is a natural solution to all spiritual
problems. The cunning, manipulative, and mechanical mind.
If the problem is spiritual, then what is the spiritual answer? It must
be pure, simple, and effective, but it eludes me. I sense it, but I can't
see it. Why?
The problem of poverty, of injustice, of the existence of the rich and
the poor, lies deep in our minds. If we want to understand it, that is
where we must look. It is the schism of our soul, the basic division,
from which arises all violence and all misery. It is the fundamental failure
of intelligence. It is the reason we treat other human beings as means,
not ends; and it is what makes everyday life severe and cruel, or empty
In order for an expression of the soul--which, after all, is what all
of our actions are--to be pure, simple, and effective, that schism must
be healed. When that happens, the solution will be revealed. The edges
of that blurred, elusive vision will sharpen. The response will be immediate
and profound. Have no doubt of spiritual efficacy. Have faith: precise,
intelligent, and unwavering faith.