Remember the poor at Christmas


“Make us worthy, Lord, to serve those people throughout the world who live and die in poverty and hunger. Give them through our hands, this day, their daily bread, and by our understanding love, give them peace and joy.” — Mother Teresa
Money and greed dominate the Christmas season. This is especially true in the U.S., where the amount spent on Christmas gifts continues to rise. In 1994, $55 billion was spent on Christmas. Just 11 years later, it is estimated that $160 to $200 billion will be spent on presents this Christmas season. That’s more than two-thirds of the U.S. defense budget.

In the process, the real emphasis of Christmas — striving for peace and helping the less fortunate — has been lost in the vulgar haze and crass glitz of commercialism. And with the continual distractions thrown at us by the entertainment and media industries, it is little wonder that we fail to ponder the realities of a tragic world, one in which our fellow human beings are engulfed in chaos, pain, fear and death.

Indeed, 2005 began with a natural disaster of immense proportions. An Indian Ocean earthquake caused a great tsunami to engulf Southeast Asia, killing between 170,000 to 275,000 people. The actual death toll may never be known due to the amount of bodies swept out to sea.

Then there was the massive earthquake that occurred in Pakistan this past October. The official death toll is now over 88,000 and rising. Nearly 3.3 million have been left homeless, and approximately 4 million may die as temperatures drop in the snowy, mountainous terrain where it occurred. Already, 2,000 to 3,000 people have had limbs amputated because their injuries could not be treated in time. And in many affected areas, the stench is overwhelming because so many dead bodies have yet to be removed.

The famine in Niger, West Africa, due to a shortage of rain at the end of the 2004 season, locust damage, high food prices and chronic poverty, is so severe that anywhere between 2.4 million and 3.6 million people are at risk. Around 3.3 million people will be affected by this food shortage, including 800,000 children in Niger, where starvation and poverty are rampant. According to the United Methodist Committee on Relief, every 30 seconds a child in Africa dies of hunger.

AIDS is a disease that affects 34.3 million people around the world, with 24.5 million living in Africa. Nearly 19 million people have already died from AIDS. In 1999 alone, 2.8 million people died from AIDS, with 85 percent of the deaths in Africa. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that AIDS deaths and the loss of future population from the deaths of women of child-bearing age means that by 2010, sub-Saharan Africa will have 71 million fewer people than it would otherwise. And by 2010, an estimated 40 million AIDS orphans will be living in Africa.

AIDS victims, which include children, die an agonizing death. In fact, their weakened immune system makes them susceptible to many different symptoms, including coughing, shortness of breath, seizures and lack of coordination, difficult or painful swallowing, mental symptoms like confusion or forgetfulness, severe and persistent diarrhea, fever, vision loss, nausea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, weight loss and extreme fatigue, severe headaches and coma.

Inhumane regimes still dot the globe. There are human rights violators such as China, which are in part propped up by American corporations. Then there are the evil empires like North Korea, which have an overarching policy of atrocious human rights abuses.

For example, the prison camps in North Korea hold between 150,000 to 200,000 inmates for political reasons. Pregnant women inside these camps reputedly either have forced abortions or the newborn child is killed. In some camps, former inmates say the annual mortality rate approaches 25 percent.

The ongoing conflict in Darfur, Sudan has caused an unbelievable loss of life, with the risk of genocide becoming frighteningly real. Though mostly ignored, the UN has called it one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

Since the war began in 2003, approximately 400,000 people have died from starvation, disease and the conflict surrounding them. Another 2.5 million have been forced to flee their homes, and there is a constant threat of famine. Rape has become an established way of crime against humanity. Although hundreds have been reported, it is said that the actual number of rapes is grossly underestimated, as many are too ashamed to admit it in a society where rape is a heavy social disgrace. And as many as 10,000 are dying each month from malnutrition, disease and violence.

War always exacts a heavy price. Consider Iraq, where over one-quarter of children aged 6 months to 5 years are malnourished, with many starving. And a large percentage of the 30,000-plus civilians who have been killed since the U.S. invaded the country were children, who are forced to play in streets filled with puddles of sewage and garbage.

Americans live in a country where even disasters such as hurricane Katrina, as devastating as they are, are miniscule compared to the pain and suffering of other countries. And contrary to much of the world, we still have the freedom to attend religious services and disagree and protest against injustice.

But our priorities often become muddled. This is no more so than with those who profess to practice Christianity. Televangelists, plush churches and pastors who live in mansions, preaching the prosperity doctrine of accumulating wealth, betray the message of Christ, that is, eschewing storing up wealth and helping the poor and oppressed.

As Christ told the rich young man who sought to be his disciple: “Go sell what you have and give to the poor and you’ll have treasure in heaven. And come follow me.”

As we gather together this Christmas, some of us will read the Christmas story, which epitomizes the spirit of giving and of offering hope for humanity, to our children. If we take it seriously, it should divert focus from the greed that rules over us during the holidays.

In fact, instead of walking comatose through the malls for presents, we should be searching for ways to share our wealth and ourselves with the less fortunate of the world.

As Mother Teresa once said: “When a person dies of hunger, it has not happened because God did not take care of him or her. It has happened because neither you nor I wanted to give that person what he or she needed.”

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at

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