Friday, June 08, 2007

Who are the poor?

Hello--my name is Gabe Alkon, I'm a new poster here. I'm a student of American literature and philosophy. I was born and raised Jewish, but I have developed a need for Christian thought and belief. The late Gillian Rose, a very great philosopher and a major influence on Rowan Williams and also on Radical Orthodoxy, was a Jewish thinker who wrote trenchantly about the figure of the Jew as "beyond politics" in modern philosophy--the non-religious intellectual who is nonetheless sacralized by the Holocaust piety that is perhaps the default religion of the secular liberal state, and not just in Israel. Rose wrote brilliantly about the concept of "law" in modern and post-modern thought, and insisted that the implication of law in violence be faced without illusion. She used her knowledge of Jewish political history to point out that that there is no city without law, no commandment without coercion, no love without violence. And she insisted that the Christian claim to "go beyond the law" is misunderstood when it is reduced to the negation of the law and its violence. Anyway--Rose called herself both Jewish and Trinitarian Christian, and perhaps I'd say the same about myself. It should also be noted that Rose was received into the Anglican Church before her untimely death in 1995.

Having said all that, I thought I'd share a recent e-mail conversation I had with a friend of mine, about a quotation from Jean Vanier that I found through this blog's excellent Vanier resource page. Having this conversation was helpful to me, so perhaps it will be of more general interest. The exchange began when I shared with my friend the following meditation from Vanier:

My heart is transformed by the smile of trust given by some people who are terribly fragile and weak. They call forth new energies from me. They seem to break down barriers and bring me a new freedom. It is the same with the smile of a child: even the hardest heart can't resist. Contact with people who are weak and who are crying one of the most important nourishments in our lives. When we let ourselves be really touched by the gift of their presence, they leave something precious in our hearts. As long as we remain at the level of "doing things for" people, we tend to stay behind our barriers of superiority. We ought to welcome the gift of the poor with open hands. Jesus says, "What you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me."

My skeptical non-Christian friend posed several questions in response. I think they are fair questions. At least they are representative of very common sentiments in today's world.

What exactly is the "gift of the poor?" Our own relative wealth?I for one find that quote sort of frightful-- total objectification. Poor=childlike? Hogwash!

I then offered this response:

It is objectification to assume that the poor need "our help."By "poor" Vanier means something much more than just economically poor--though that can be included too. He means what Jesus means when he says "blessed are the poor in spirit." The "poor in spirit" are those that are able to accept their own brokenness and need for love. These people are especially blessed and have a lesson to teach the "rich," those who are deluded into thinking they are self-sufficient and thus ready to "help" the weak people who need help. The blessing or gift of the poor is that they teach the "rich" to accept the gift of love. To accept the gift of love is almost impossible in a society like ours, which fetishizes autonomy. The poor are blessed because they have this lesson to teach.

This is risky: it involves the risk of seeming to say that there is something "good" about being poor. Something sweet and nice and sentimental. This is certainly how these ideas have been understood. But that is not what Jean Vanier is saying. He is saying that Jesus is with the poor. When we go to the poor to help them, we find Jesus. To find Jesus with the poor is not to say that the poor are simply sweet and holy. It is to learn from the poor that there is nothing more liberating than accepting a gift. Everyone needs help and love. We learn this when we receive the gift of the poor. The poor teach us to receive the gift of love. They give us a gift in receiving our gift.

To go to the "poor in spirit" in expectancy of receiving a gift is to undo the extremely dangerous attitude of condescension that has turned relief work into a massive industry. It objectifies the poor to assume that they want or need our help. It certainly objectifies them to go their countries with political programs--whether Marxist or liberal-humanitarian--that have been developed in the West and that have little do with their own daily lives and language. To truly help the poor is to go to them in the spirit of brotherhood. But a brother needs to receive a gift from his brother before he can give something in turn. Or, at least, he needs to receive even as he gives. Without reciprocity, unilateral "help" becomes objectification. The recipients of help become objects of "development." They are no longer our companions but the occasion for the self-aggrandizement of policy-makers.

I should add a few further points of clarification. There was some confusion in this exchange about the meaning of "poor." Again, it means more than simple economic poverty. The idea is that everyone is "poor in spirit"--everyone needs help and love. But it is very hard to acknowledge this need. Thus Jesus says that it is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. The "physically" poor--whether they lack money, or health, or visible signs of "success"--are therefore in a privileged position, according to Jesus. They are more likely to be able to open their hearts to love, if it is given to them. This is not to say that being "physically poor" is in any sense "better" than being "rich." The poor and suffering are more than likely to be debased by their suffering. Despair is ever-present. Murderous ideologies become truly justifiable. The pain of physical suffering and social shame is irredeemable. To say that the "physically poor" are somehow "better" than the "rich" is obscene.

But as I said above, Jesus is with these "physically poor" people. He is not the same as them. But he is among them. What this means is that if we go to the poor, there is the possibility of finding Jesus. For Jesus is wherever a gift is given and accepted without shame, in gratitude, and where people thus grow together and transfigure each other. This may be exceptionally rare. But the possibility of openness, reception, growth, and transfiguration is there, with the poor--if we go to them in love and look for their gift.

The equivocal nature of this ethic is inescapable. It risks making poverty "good." In just the same way, Christianity risks making crucifixion "good." But the alternative is even more dangerous and equivocal. The alternative involves two intolerable presumptions: 1) the belief that the poor have nothing to give to those who would help them; and 2) the belief that the poor can't be free and joyful until they have been helped. The second presumption makes the collective life of the poor entirely contingent on the success of this or that political program. Of course such programs are essential. "Liberation theology" was and is such a program. But there must be something more than political programs. It must be possible for the oppressed to find some kind of joy right now, even in their pain. This possibility allows for the incarnation and embodiment of freedom, regardless of the political situation. Doing this says to the oppressors, "There is a part of us that you cannot touch."

This is incredibly subversive. This is what the martyrs did when they triumphed, in death, over the Roman Empire, exposing to the classical world the bankruptcy of merely physical power without moral authority. And this is what Gandhi did when he said the purpose of his movement was not to throw out the British, but to incarnate satyagraha, truth-power, in the immediate present. This involved disobeying the British--not in the name of a new political regime, but in the name of an eternal truth that was available in the very moment of free action. Such transcendent grounds and goals placed the movements of both Gandhi and of the ancient Church above and beyond merely political goals--while at the same time immeasurably strengthening their gestures in the realm of practical politics. For their gestures announced, "We are already free."

The first presumption mentioned above--the belief that the poor have nothing to give to those who would help them--is what the quotation from Vanier is arguing against. To start out, I would insist that no one "helps" someone else out of some sort of pure altruism, some sort of impossibly pure self-sacrifice or self-abnegation. This notion of total self-sacrifice is a fantasy. And it is a dangerous fantasy, because it encourages belief in a kind of "pure ethics" beyond the reciprocal bonds of real social and political life. One must get something out of the work of helping others. What does one get?

There are two possibilities: either one aggrandizes one's sense of power and competence at the expense of the weak (and usually invisible) objects of one's ministrations (usually enacted via the arms of immense bureaucratic organizations); or, one experiences the joy--receives the gift--of having one's own gift received with an open heart, of seeing another grow in and through one's own presence. These are the only two alternatives. In reality both exist together. What Vanier is doing is being frank: he does what he does because it brings him great pleasure, restores his energy, makes him glad to be alive. This frankness is unfortunately often lacking when people refer to abstract ethical imperatives rather than the simple joy of sharing, directly and personally, in the mutual gift of self-restoration.

There are many relevant Gospel passages, of course, especially Matthew 25, the crucial passage for Dorothy Day (whose writing of course has shaped what I am saying here). My friend was disturbed by the connection between childhood and poverty, and so I directed him to the Gospel passages that connects childhood with the "poverty in spirit" that allows one to repent, to turn around, to start again humbly and with an open mind, like Matthew 18: "At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, 'Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?' And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, 'Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me...'"

But the most mysterious and astonishing passage, to me, is from John 3: "Nicodemus said to him, 'How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?' Jesus answered, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, You must be born again. The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.'"
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