Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Respect, More than Compassion
I recently ran across this quote from Daniel Berrigan of blessed memory – “The poor have it hard. But the hardest thing they have is us.” I don’t know the context for this reflection, but it has unsettled me. I don’t think Berrigan is simply referring to the 1%, today’s easy targets for would be prophets, religious or otherwise. No, Berrigan is casting a wider net, one that includes most of us, the non-poor, whether of modest or extravagant means. What is it about us that makes us hard for the poor?
The first answer, of course, is that our moral judgments are hard on the poor. They are not smart enough. Not clever enough. Not diligent enough. Not frugal enough. Not prudent enough. Not careful enough. They want because they waste. Their lives have rendered them undeserving. The poor live every day with our judgments – a politician’s rhetoric, a prosperity Gospel preacher’s glib assurances, or a thousand facial expressions on the bus or the street. The hardest thing they have is us.
We are hard on the poor because of our greed. Greed that sometimes quite literally steals their wages, but also greed that shapes regressive tax codes, that undermines their unions, that slashes public spending, that outsources their jobs, that undergirds public policies that strip away the institutional and financial supports that make health care and good education and decent housing and things like public libraries and transportation available to all. Yes, the hardest thing they have is us.
We are hard on the poor because of our indifference. To be rendered invisible, not noticed, not acknowledged, not included. A friend taught me that a traditional African greeting is, “I see you.” But increasingly the poor are sequestered, out of our sight. I don’t see you. Separate neighborhoods for the poor. Separate schools for the poor. Separate transportation for the poor. Separate stores for the poor. Separate banks – currency exchanges and pay day loan stores – for the poor. We forget another African truth: “I am because you are.” The hardest thing they have is us.
And we are hard on the poor because of our pity. Different from empathy or compassion, solidarity or companionship, pity drips with condescension, announces our power, boasts of our superiority. Pity is demeaning, devaluing. Pity prompts a hand out, but rarely extends a neighborly hand. Pity leads us to actions designed to make us feel better. Pity coughs up a dollar, but rarely a greeting. Pity distances; it rarely embraces. Pity may be the worst of all.
Jesus said, “You will always have the poor with you.” Which means the poor will always have us with them. Must that always make it hard for them – our judgment, our greed, our indifference, our pity? In an essay on the Reformation, Marilynne Robinson recounts the imagination of a group of Reformers named Lollards who preached to the impoverished masses making use of the best and courageous labors of scholars and translators to communicate the treasure of the Gospel to all. She described this movement as “one of respect for the poor and the oppressed – respect much more than compassion, since the impulse behind it was the desire to share the best treasure of their faith and learning with the masses of unregarded poor whom they knew to be ready, and very worthy, to receive it.”
Respect, much more than compassion. What is missing today, I think, is our respect for the poor. And that must truly be a hard thing. We respect the wealthy. We respect the formerly poor, eagerly making public examples of them, particularly if they seem to have lifted themselves through diligence of one sort or another. We may even respect those we deem “innocently poor.” But we don’t really respect the poor, not all of them. And so we withhold our best, because we deem them unworthy recipients, or unready. The poor have it hard. But the hardest thing they have is us.
John H. Thomas
June 9, 2016