When the Toilet Floods

I always have trouble picking the “next” book to read. It’s especially difficult after reading something like A Hope In the Unseen, where I feel as though I’ve fully invested in the people in the book. It usually takes me a couple days to figure out what to read next.

Luckily, at our house, we have a giant bookcase with books that range from prayer to politics and from cooking to the classics. As I was searching, I noticed that we had two copies of Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. Intrigued, I picked one of them up, sat down, and read the back cover. Stacey, reading herself, looked up and noticed, asking if I was planning on reading it. She said that she had read it and that some people loved it and others hated it and she was somewhere in between. I decided to give it a shot.

I’m about halfway through the book now, and it’s definitely made me think. A lot.

Mr. Claiborne challenges us “to live out an authentic Christian faith,” and invites us to rethink our way of living. He’s done just that for me.

Below is an excerpt that, in particular, forced me think about how and why poverty exists. Check it out (you can read the rest of the chapter here: Chapter 5: Another Way of Doing Life [PDF])

As we practice hospitality, there comes a point where the suffering around us drives us to ask what it would take to reimagine the world. We’ve all heard the saying, “Give someone a fish and they’ll eat for a day, but teach them to fish and they’ll eat for the rest of their life.” But our friend John Perkins challenges us to go farther. He says, “The problem is that nobody is asking who owns the pond.” As we consider economics, some of us will give  people fish. Others will teach people to fish. But still others must be looking at who owns the pond and who polluted it, for these are also essential questions for our survival. We must storm the fence that has been built around the pond and make sure everyone can get to it, for there are enough fish for all of us.

A homeless mother once told us that there is a big difference between managing poverty and ending poverty. “Managing poverty is big business. Ending poverty is revolutionary.” Too often, the church has chaplained the corporate global economy, caring for the victims of the systems. As long as we uncritically manage the collateral damage of the market economy, the world can continue to produce victims. But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said during his age of injustice, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, but we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” It’s like in community when the toilet floods, which happens when you have a dozen  people sharing one toilet. When it starts to pour out water, you don’t just start cleaning up the mess. You also have to shut off the water that is causing the flood…

…Dr. Martin Luther King put it like this: “We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside . . . but one day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that a system that produces beggars needs to be repaved. We are called to be the Good Samaritan, but after you lift so many  people out of the ditch you start to ask, maybe the whole road to Jericho needs to be repaved.”

What do you think? Should we be repaving roads and stopping the floods? And, more importantly, how do we do it?


4 Responses to When the Toilet Floods

  1. Jon says:

    I would estimate 9 out of 10 beggars/indigents/homeless that hit me up for money in southern California are not victims of the system, per se. They choose to live off the grid, off society’s radar. They may be impoverished, but it is by choice. Now it could be argued they are mentally ill, extremely susceptible to alcohol and drug use which has permanently affected their ability to make such choices. But victims? Not by my definition.

    It is important for me to live in a society where social and economic mobility are possible for all. The poor are both given fish and taught to fish; they have the opportunity to pull themselves out of poverty. Likewise, the wealthy and middle class have the opportunity to lose their wealth, to drop into lower economic levels however you define them.

    By this excerpt that you posted, Tom, I was curious to see where exactly Claiborne was headed with the statement “As long as we uncritically manage the collateral damage of the market economy, the world can continue to produce victims.” Is he condemning the structure of our government, or our current policies, or maybe just the global (free trade agreement) type policies? What does he propose as a better solution? It is impossible to tell from this snippet.

    I followed your link to Amazon and read some of the reviews to find out. It seems these reviewers couldn’t quite divine Claiborne’s proposal for a better system either, even after reading the entire book. I am curious to read your review, Tom, once you’ve read the whole book. Specifically, how and why poverty exists, if all the impoverished are indeed victims, and what you, Tom, think should be done.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book. I look forward to see where it takes you.

    • Tom O'Keefe says:


      Thanks for commenting. I’m really glad that you asked these questions.

      I knew when I posted that this would be controversial and I don’t pretend to know whether this is wrong or right and what the answer is.

      Claiborne questions a lot in the book. He lives in a community with the poor and follows the new testament and the words of Jesus as closely as possible. This means that he, like Jesus, lives among those considered lowest in society. He hears their stories, prays with them, eats with them, and advocates for them.

      In terms of the poor you speak of. Did they really CHOOSE to live on the streets? Hungry? Do they really have a chance to pull themselves out of poverty? I think there’s more to the story there.

      Currently, I’m working with kids from low income families. If these kids weren’t here, they would likely be at a public school where mayhem and chaos reign. Many in lower class public high schools don’t graduate, let alone go on to college. Some of that may be the students’ fault, but many public schools lack the resources that more suburban, middle and upper class schools have. Are these kids getting the same chance at economic mobility as others? People like Cedric Jennings are few and far between. And even he was ill prepared for college once he got there.

      One thing that I really dislike about our society is that the poor stay poor over generations. This is why I went into education for this year of service. My students are getting a REAL chance to break this cycle.

      I don’t believe that all impoverished people are victims. I also don’t think that anyone completely chooses to be poor and some of that has to do with the system we have in place.

      Again, thanks for the comment, Jon. It’s a very tough issue and one that I will continue to explore.

  2. Jon says:

    “In terms of the poor you speak of. Did they really CHOOSE to live on the streets? Hungry? Do they really have a chance to pull themselves out of poverty?”

    Incredibly, many do. They reject the shelters available and some even the food kitchens. An overwhelming number are mentally ill, but not so severe as to qualify for involuntary institutionalization. It is incredibly easy to beg for money on the freeway off-ramp, outside of McDonalds, at the gas station, etc. For those that want the help from government and NGO’s (such as yours), it is important that it is available.

    So if it is the fault of the system as you suggest, what would be the remedy? Eliminate the privileges of the affluent such as private schools? Although I am a product of public education and never enjoyed private schooling, I wouldn’t say that was fair.

    “Are these kids getting the same chance at economic mobility as others?”

    Not the same chance, but at least they have a chance. ChancES. The poor are not condemned to stay poor over generations, though the playing field certainly is not level.

    You mentioned that “many public schools lack the resources that more suburban, middle and upper class schools have.” California saw this inequity decades ago and changed the funding model to where the money comes from the state, not local governments. Despite near parity in spending per pupil, there still is not parity in school performance or graduation rates. That would suggest the systemic failure isn’t based on money but on other sociological causes. And if that is true, what remedy would you or the author suggest?

    I applaud your year of service to help your students break the cycle. It is more than most people give, and far more effective than just throwing money at the problem. My own experiences with volunteering with foster children were frustrating. (Side note: “Foster Children” is the PC term that includes “orphans, wards of the state” with whom I worked). The people that can devote all or part of their lives to social work without becoming hard and calloused amaze me.

    Keep up the good work, and when you think you’ve found the answer that has confounded sociologists for generations, I look forward to reading about it.

    • Tom O'Keefe says:


      There may be some who refuse service, but I doubt that number is near 9 out of 10. I spoke to my roommate who does casework for the homeless and helps them to gain housing and coach employment. She said that only a small percentage truly choose to be poor and homeless. Many cannot get a job because they lack an address. Many landlords will not rent to someone without a job. The ones on the street that you speak of may have given up and now adhere to a “I’ll do it my way” mentality to rationalize their situation.

      I don’t think you need to take away any schools, Jon. I think you need to give the same chance to the poor kids as you do to the wealthy kids. Plus, many private schools are specifically for low-income families. Why are these schools necessary? You’re right, the poor are not condemned to stay poor over generations and the playing field is not level. Is that fair? This country is about equal opportunity. Many are not afforded that opportunity.

      Without knowing the situation in California, the problem goes farther than just funding. It includes level of instruction, extracurriculars, a safe learning environment, and a place that demands excellence from its students.

      Like I said, I don’t pretend to know all the answers. Reading Claiborne’s book encourages us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, sharing with others instead of giving or taking and being WITH the lowest of the low in society. That’s his solution.

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