The Wisdom Of The Poor

By Francis B. Higdon MM

I met the young dad, about 22 years old, and his son, about four, around Christmas time while working in the Yata-Benecito river system in the Amazon watershed of Bolivia some years ago.  Since the mayor of the closest town had sent toys for the children, I used to occasion to make conversation with the little one.

“Now what did Papa Noel bring you for Christmas,” I asked. The boy looked up at me and then, hugging the multi-patched pant leg of his dad, put his finger in his mouth and glared at the ground. The father, seeing my sadness at having embarrassed his little one, spoke up: “You know what the mayor tried to give my son? A gun! A little old plastic pistol! Can you imagine giving a son a pistol for a toy? I never want my child to think of a gun as a toy. Later it would be all right with him to shoot somebody just for fun. I threw that thing in the river as soon as he came home with it.”

Cowboy priest

I immediately thought of myself as a five-year-old growing up in Kentucky.  I always wanted to be a priest, but a cowboy priest.  At that age I strutted around with my toy pistols, imitating Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.  I loved western movies.  We would think nothing of somebody getting thrown off his horse and rolling over into the rocks or bushes, or being trampled under a herd of horses or cattle – especially if they were “injuns”.  We often played cowboys and Indians in the woods behind the fields of our farm.  Little did I realize how my mind was being conditioned for violence.

Guns for national security

The wisdom of the young, barefoot, illiterate dad – not wanting his son to think of a gun as a toy – gave me pause.  I thought of all the military hardware we in America need just to feel safe.  I thought of all the arms we export in the name of national security to poor countries like Bolivia.  Is it any wonder, I thought, that our young people try to solve their little problems with guns and violence if that is the way we grown-ups solve ours?

The mayor’s gift to the backwoods Bolivian boy is a metaphor for our arms aid to Latin America governments. Instead of ensuring national security, that aid leads to national insecurity or, worse, violence and terror against ordinary citizens. I saw that time and again in my many years as a missioner in Bolivia.

Dreadful consequences

Now back in the United States working as a Maryknoll developer in Philadelphia, I see the same consequences from the proliferation of arms in our society.  The U.S. has a higher rate of homicides, most of them committed with guns, than any other country in the world.  Guns are within easy reach of young people and they are not hesitant to use them.  Some have killed for a pair of sneakers.

Everything that is money

I have seen that the drive for “security” is really the drive for money to satisfy the consumer god we have created.  Little kids are the ones who hawk the drugs in the streets.  They are also the ones who tramp the coca leaves in the Bolivian jungle.  They are after the same thing: money.  Some need the money to buy the food, clothing, shelter and health care necessary to lead a decent human life, but many more need it to acquire those things they do not really need.

In the meantime, America continues to idolize the gun. More than 20 states have passed laws authorizing citizens to carry concealed weapons. The weapon of choice is a handgun. We are a population that is armed and dangerous – and more insecure than ever.