Grenz Ricoeur Shelf

Grenz Ricoeur Shelf

Monday, February 17, 2014

Stanley Hauerwas on ‘Remembering the Poor’

Stanley Hauerwas
There is a recent article from ABC Religion and Ethics by Stanley Hauerwas entitled, TheEnd of Charity: How Christians are (not) to ‘Remember the Poor’ that is especially well written and piercing. Given how 'the poor' so often wind up a political football that gets kicked around when someone is campaigning for a government office, blamed and/or shamed for simply being poor, and the struggle churches face in trying to find fitting cruciform postures toward poverty and those who are poor; I think that Hauerwas’ essay may offer us some needed wisdom for the reshaping of our moral and ecclesial imaginations. Below I have lifted some extracts to give you a feel for what he has to say.

In the essay, Hauerwas expresses concern over the objectification of ‘the poor’…
One of the reasons I have tried to spell out what it means to "remember the poor" is I am not sure how best to do that without turning the poor into objects. I am quite suspicious of the phrase "the poor" - or, to put it more accurately, I am highly suspicious of that phrase as produced by capitalist economies. "The poor" cannot help but become abstractions because capitalist need "the poor" to secure their own identity. In other words, the production of "the poor" as a general category reproduces and legitimates those that have benefited from capitalism. Concern for the poor becomes an ideology but, like any ideology, cannot be acknowledged as such.
He talks about ‘toxic charity…
One of the most interesting questions raised by Lupton - a question, as I noted, also explored by Longenecker - is how the poor are identified as well as what makes them poor. Failure to address those questions is often the reason so many attempts to address poverty fail. For example, Samuel Wells remarks that what he learned from being a vicar at an estate in Norwich, England that poverty is not primarily about money. Money doubtless plays a role but, according to Wells, he discovered as part of a government funded regeneration process that poverty is "about having no idea what to do and/or having no one with whom to do it." 
Wells's observation is the heart of Lupton's concern about Christian charity. Lupton fears - fears schooled by extensive engagement with programs designed to "help" the poor - that too often, with the very best intentions, Christians have robbed those they wished to help of the imagination necessary to sustain the community processes that offer a new way of life. Lupton is particularly critical of mission trips which may make those who have made the trip happy but effect no lasting change for those who have been the subject of the kindness of strangers. Such trips almost become a parody of themselves, when those returning look more like tourist who have been on holiday than people worn out by hard work.
He goes on to discuss charity as obligatory for Christians…
[Gary] Anderson stresses the importance of this way of understanding charity because it makes clear that, to give to the poor is not "just another act of charity," but rather an encounter with God. Loans can be joyfully given to the poor because who could imagine a better guarantor of a loan than God. Anderson draws on a contemporary example, Mother Teresa, to exemplify this mode of charity. Mother Teresa's refusal to establish any endowment for her order to survive, Anderson suggests, exemplifies her presumption that the order she founded must always be ready to give one's whole self to the poor. She sought to establish an order in which the sisters were committed to live in total reliance on God because to learn reliant on God is necessary if you are, not only to help the poor, but to be with the poor. 
Anderson draws on Ben Sirach and the Book of Tobit to show how almsgiving in Judaism was often compared to the sacrificial offering enacted in the temple. Ben Sirach is particularly important because, according to Anderson, he taught that acts of charity toward the poor were equivalent to temple sacrifice, even when the temple was no longer standing. The reason this is so significant is it makes explicit that the relation between charity to the poor and sacrifice. Charity is more than a horizontal action involving a donor and recipient; it is the sacrificial character of charity makes clear that charity also has a vertical dimension. To give alms was and is to perform an act of worship of God. Anderson even goes so far as to describe acts of charity to be sacramental.
And then turns his attention toward charity under the conditions of capitalism…
Smith distinguished, however, between the poor and beggars. The poor could be subject to our sympathy as long as they sought to be like those who were not poor. Yet it was Smith's hope that capitalism as a system for the production of wealth would provide an alternative that would eliminate poverty. Indeed, one way to think of Smith's vision is to see capitalism itself as a system of charity. No longer will individual acts of charity be required because the system itself will raise all the boats as the water rises. Capitalism so understood is an extraordinary utopian project. 
Of course, the difficulty with such projects is they invite the illusion that, though things may not be working out - namely, we still have the poor among us - all we need is more time and the system will take care of itself. The other alternative is to blame those who have not become self-sufficient by suggesting they lack some essential virtues to make the system work. As a result, the poor get blamed for being poor. I hardly need to mention that the poor are often subject to such judgements in advanced capitalist societies. 
I am not in any way trying to belittle or leave behind the commitment to justice for the poor the social gospel and Niebuhr represented. I worry, however, when that way of understanding the Christian obligation to be with the poor overwhelms concrete acts of charity. Interestingly enough, I suspect the social gospel and Niebuhr's way of trying to create more just societies was a quite appropriate response to capitalism. But I fear too often the attempt to defeat an enemy may make us a mirror image of that we oppose.
What does 'being with' look like?
In the last section, Hauerwas’ plea for ecclesial charity is issued with his standard forthrightness…
I am often criticized for my claim that the first task of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world the world. Given the account of charity I have tried to develop, I hope that claim may not appear so self-satisfied. For it is only when the church is a community of charity that the world has some means of recognizing itself. Though the world may often appear to be more charitable than the church, it is crucial to remember that, for the church, the care of the poor cannot be separated from the worship of God. Worship makes possible, I hope to suggest, that Christians have the time to be with the poor. Put even more strongly, Christians can imagine being poor.
"World" names the impatience with the poor for their inability to imagine not being poor. The world does not have time to be with the poor, to learn with the poor, to listen to the poor. To listen to the poor is an exercise of great discipline, but such listening surely is what is required if charity is not to become a hatred of the poor for being poor. We must listen to the stories the poor have to tell because only by listening to such stories do we have the means to know how to go on. 
If we do not learn, as Samuel Wells argues, to be with the poor we will continue to be caught on the unhappy ecclesial choices of being a church whose identity is primarily constituted by worship of God and a church which is fundamentally about "social action." By calling attention to Anderson and Longenecker, I have tried to provide an account that is an alternative to that unhappy choice. Worship and charity are inseparable. The challenge is to know what that might look like. What does learning to be "with" look like. 
I suspect most rich Christians, filled as we are with the anxiety about our wealth, try to do something for the poor before we have listened to their story. Of course, listening, being with and working with the poor are not mutually exclusive activities, but I fear we often want to help the poor without getting to know who the poor may be. I suspect we do so, not from some ideology against the poor, but rather I suspect we prefer to do for the poor rather than be with the poor because the poor scare the hell out of us. 
Like Paul we are asked to do one thing - remember the poor. Such a remembrance turns out to be a challenge for no other reason than it will force us to identify, not "the poor," but this person's suffering. As I suggested at the beginning, locating the poor is no easy matter, but it has to start somewhere because there is no anywhere. But there is this elderly couple who have run out of money who sits in the pew in front of me every Sunday. That is where I think we must begin if we are "to remember the poor."
I commend the whole essay to you. Read more of Hauerwas on ‘Remembering the Poor’ here.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments, as always, welcome.