Tag Archives: poverty

The Invisible Border

by Heather Zydek

There is a place where an invisible border cuts through the west side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It’s not the actual city border, which, in my part of town, is at 60th Street. At the actual border, the street signs switch from blue to green, indicating to travelers that they have left the suburb of Wauwatosa and entered Milwaukee proper.

You cross the invisible border around 40th Street. Situated near this border is the Miller Brewing Company plant, the Miller Park baseball stadium and a few industrial fields with ancient brick smoke stacks. Crossing over the border, drivers reach 35th Street and Wisconsin. There, tired-looking folks – old and young, black and white – stand idly as they wait in the cold for the bus. Across the street, stores advertise various beers in neon lights alongside signs that shout “WIC APPROVED.” [WIC – Women, Infants, Children – is a federal agency subsidizing food for low-income families.] Ancient cars chug by, spewing exhaust. Jaywalkers cross cracked streets, entering decaying mansions that were long ago converted to low-income housing.

This is only three miles from a world where doctors, lawyers, investors and computer programmers drive luxury cars, jog along beautiful river walks after work, drink organic coffee at hipster cafes and dine at upscale restaurants while listening to live jazz and discussing business and home restoration. This is my world.

I cross the invisible border daily in order to get to work. I am an English tutor at a career college in downtown Milwaukee. When I enter my classroom, I see single moms, ex-convicts, homeless women, recovering addicts. The faces are black, white, Latino, sometimes Hmong and Laotian. The sounds that fill the air include bursts of slang and noisy fights with lovers over cell phones. The odor of French fries lingers in the elevators. Some of my students come to school just to obtain their financial aid check. Others desperately want to improve their lot by educating themselves but find it nearly impossible to make it to school because of deadbeat daddies, babysitters who failed to turn up, or unreliable bus schedules.

Despite the fact that 60 percent of my students fail my class each semester, I love my job. I find it stimulating. I love my students. I love their humanity and the fact many of them have a burning desire to learn. I forget that I am separated from them by years of education, by an easy upper-middle-class childhood, by a relatively sheltered, comfortable life in the suburbs. I forget the borders that divide us until I make that drive back home.

And then I remember. Back home in my white-collar suburb, the world I left behind is but a distant memory. In my world, the “us” world, we take the highway downtown to avoid the “bad neighborhoods.” We hover over our children and hyper-schedule their lives. We go to book clubs. We have obtained master’s degrees, even PhDs. We shop at organic grocery stores. We work out at posh gyms. We are tolerant and politically correct. We dress tastefully. We exchange niceties and save gossip for private conversations. We discreetly cover our sins. We lock ourselves into strict routines and observe cultural practices that will ensure that we and our progeny remain comfortably enclosed within our class for generations.

I don’t know if there is an answer to this problem of division. I long for an answer, though, and as a teacher, I often wonder if it lies in education. Maybe if I could find the magic wand that would open the minds of a greater number of my students, they would then find ways to solve the problem of the invisible border. Or if I could encourage my friends in Wauwatosa to stop ignoring the invisible border, maybe little by little things could change for the better.

The ugly truth is I have much to confront in myself before I can expect anyone or anything to change. I am a willing slave of the suburban mentality. I have chosen to live within the safe and comfortable confines of suburbia. I have chosen this because I am afraid of discomfort and poverty, afraid of the urban cultures that are largely foreign to me as a suburbanite through and through. And until I can get over these fears, I cannot expect the invisible border to go away.

I think about this at night, as I take in the sights along Wisconsin Avenue on my drive home from work, past the haggard faces at 35th street, over the border around 40th, into the neighborhoods that become increasingly charming and well groomed the higher the numbers on the intersecting streets. I think, and I wonder, and I question, and I grow sad, until I am both relieved and tired when I return home.

I am happy where I live and sad for those living on the other side of the border, yet I am disappointed at my own sadness, disappointed at my own sense of judgment and condescension. It makes me ponder such phrases as “the poor you will have with you always” and “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Though I am not without hope, I dwell on these words, try to interpret them and explain them away as I wonder, every day, what life would be like if that invisible border did not exist. ❖

Heather Zydek is a writer, college English instructor and sustainability activist. She is the editor of The Revolution: A Field Manual for Changing Your World and author of the children’s novel, Basil’s Search for Miracles.

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011

Corporatism or Commonweal?

by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo

This is the rule of the most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good, for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors.

St. John Chrysostom

The concept of the “common good” has fallen out of favor in recent years. Over the past two decades, it has become increasingly common to dismiss the notion that we all share an interest in the broader community, that society is more than simply a collection of individuals pursuing their individual material self-interest.

In Socrates’ Apology, he tells a story that illustrates the tension between corporatism and commonweal. Zeus, Socrates relates, decided to help mankind create a human society. He sent Hermes to distribute the necessary technical and managerial skill to certain people. The result was a society based on self-interest and expertise. Such a society was centrifugal and fragmented. As the philosopher John Ralston-Saul observed, Zeus had created a society based on the corporatist model, with economic and social structures based on professional self-interest. People were defined by what they did. In more contemporary terms, this would be the corporatism of consumer capitalism, also based on self-interest and self-centeredness: defining people by what and how much they consume.

Zeus sees his error and decides to remedy it by having Hermes distribute social reverence (aidos) and right-mindedness (diki) to each person. Social reverence signifies a sense of “community,” a shared awareness, a shared knowledge of selfconstraint and belonging. Right-mindedness relates to a sense of social justice, integrity, freedom, and social order: a shared sense of responsibility. This is what we refer to as “commonweal.” It defines people simply as “fellow human beings,” as members of a community that we call “humanity.”

Corporatism, a fundamental aspect of our modern consumerist economic system, is inimical to Christianity and a violation of God’s Law. (See, for example, Deuteronomy 24:19-21)

Corporatism reorganizes society with the reduction of the individual to the status of consumer. To consume is regarded as patriotic while to consume in excess raises’s one’s social status. This new economic world order presents us with intense moral and ethical contradictions, arguing that greed, self-gratification, and excess consumption are simply aspects of human nature. This argument, taken from the doctrines of Social Darwinism, is certainly questionable. As Linda McQuaig observed in her essay, “Lost in the Global Shopping Mall”:

The rapaciousness of certain business leaders has been much in the spotlight…. Even conservative pundits appear shaken by the astounding greed and dishonesty at the heart of … corporate culture. Still, some shrug it off as simple human nature, saying that we are inherently a competitive, acquisitive species, naturally inclined to push our own self-interest as far as we possibly can. But is this the whole picture? Is our society really nothing more than a loose collection of shoppers, graspers and self-absorbed swindlers? Perhaps we are in danger of becoming such a culture, but it is important to remember that culture itself is a learned set of rules.”

At this point we may examine the corporatization of morality and, to some extent, of the Christian Church.

The concept of commonweal the common good is fundamental to authentic Christianity. A clear and profound doctrine of commonweal permeates the Old Testament. It is made law in the book of Deuteronomy and constantly enjoined by the Holy Prophets.

Jesus Christ reaffirms this “law of commonweal” with his two great moral imperatives, (“love your neighbor as yourself” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). Christ makes the love of neighbor  together with unconditional love of God the very foundation and essence of the Law and the Prophets. The fulfillment of such a moral imperative certainly requires a direct encounter and interaction with culture and society.

Unfortunately, this is an encounter that has been either abandoned, corporatized or reduced to outbursts of moralism by many Christian bodies.

Contrary to this trend, the Christian community must address society and interact in the shaping of our culture. However, this interaction must consist of something more than merely scolding politicians and demanding the law enforce on all citizens the sort of behavior we consider to be correct. We must avoid the inner contradictions of moralism and address the whole scope of true morality.

Morality or Moralism? How can Christians consider it to be an authentic expression of morality to oppose the killing of unborn children while ignoring the killing of children who are already born? Is it truly moral to protect the lives of unborn children but ignore or trivialize the fact that they will have to grow up in a world where, because of our own excess, they may not have sufficient food and many of the necessary natural resources will have been squandered and climate change will have made their lives precarious and uncertain? Is it actually moral to demand that governments enforce the sort of correct personal behavior that our own ideologies demand while turning consumer capitalism into a religious doctrine that cannot be subjected to critique and criticism?

One fatal flaw in the preaching of Christianity that has had negative effects in North America is the failure to distinguish between morality and moralism. From an authentic Christian point of view, true morality has to do not only with salvation but with every aspect of our inter-human relations; it is not simply a system of correct behavior.

True morality is not a system of law which, if obeyed, makes one a moral person. It is necessary to have such laws for the sake of society, but that has little to do with the change of a person’s heart and an inner transformation into the image of Christ’s love. Morality is not a form of bondage but a path of liberation. When we speak of “the law of God,” we are not speaking of an ordinary, worldly notion of “law.” God’s law is not given to repress us but to protect us.

If we are driving along a dangerous highway and the signs warn us to slow down because there is a dangerous curve in the road, that is a “law.” The speed limit is set by law. If we disregard that law and crash over a cliff because we are driving too fast, we do not claim that the government punished us by making us crash. On the contrary, the government tried to save us from serious injury or death by making that law.

This is precisely the meaning of the “law of God,” of our system of morality. God has revealed to us a manner of life that can keep us from much pain and suffering and from many disasters. He has called upon us to realize that his law is a law of love, and that we should obey it out of love and trust in him, not from fear of punishment. Moreover, such true morality constrains us to imitate God’s love in our dealings with the world. This is the essence of true morality.

We cannot equate morality with behavior that is acceptable to a given society, because often a society accepts behavior that we know is contrary not only to our salvation but is also inimical with the concept of commonweal. If we preach only a legal morality that does not encompass the moral imperatives of Jesus Christ then we are mere moralists. Moralism is cold, unforgiving, full of hatred, and spiritually destructive. It is self-centered, and it deforms the idea of morality for the advantage of one or another class in society to the detriment of others.

When we speak of true morality, we are not referring to simple obedience to a system of law but a free accord with a system of spiritual healing. The authentic Christian spiritual life really does provide us with the means for moral healing, but even among our own people, we see so many who never experience such healing. This is because they encounter only moralism: “Obey this law or God will do something bad to you.”

Moralism does not take into account what is necessary to actually heal a person and deliver them from the bondage of their inner suffering so they can lead a moral life; it thinks only about condemnation and punishment. But let us indicate how these ideas have a direct bearing on our subject.

Our modern consumerism inclines a society not only to excess but also to self-centeredness and indifference. One can opt to blame such attitudes on Satan, but when one does, let him remember that the power of Satan in our lives can be defeated only by means of unselfish love, by adopting a sincere sense of commonweal to love your neighbor as yourself in place of a desensitized self-interest. There is no such thing as Christian morality without an inner struggle toward unselfish love, self-constraint, and a sincere concern for the welfare not only of those around us but even for future generations.

Moralism condemns, usually with arrogant self-righteousness, while a spirit of true Christian morality seeks one’s own moral healing and the moral healing of those around us so they might be liberated from bondage. This is the concept of morality that can keep us alive spiritually in our consumerist and secular culture; this is the image of morality that will attract others to Christ and to authentic faith, a concept that can help form in us a truly Christian sense of commonweal.

The Corporatization of Morality: The corporatization of morality may be a product of radical individualism. It arises almost automatically when Christianity is transformed from a living faith into an ideology informed by such categories as liberal, conservative, leftist, right wing, and so forth. Morality then becomes corporatized into various categories of correct behavior, defined by an essentially political mindset of one or another religio-political ideology.

This narrows the concepts, so clearly stated in the Old Testament, down to horror at those things condemned with little regard for those things enjoined: social justice, non-condescending care for the poor and all those in need, and a powerful sense of mutual responsibility for the common good of the nation, of all the inhabitants of that nation.

In the Old Testament law, there are clearly ecological provisions for the care and nurturing of the land: a Sabbath for the agricultural land is just as much a part of the Law as a Sabbath for man (Leviticus 25:4-6). This care of the land, which must be cherished and nurtured, is surely as much a moral law as any in the Old Testament. Just as surely, it shows a deep concern for the common good of the whole population which must be fed from that land. This concern so obviously extends to future generations.

Organizing and spending large sums of money to protest and lobby against certain forms of personal behavior may be useful, but there is an inner contradiction that is inexcusable when the same organizers refuse to condemn corporate immorality or organize and finance lobbying about environmental issues that relate to the very survival of whole populations and the health, welfare, and survival of future generations. The destruction of the environment is every bit as immoral and kills just as many children as abortion. Any truly Christian concept of morality will encompass corporate and environmental immorality with the same fervor that it addresses personal morality.

We may have a “fallen human nature,” but it is clear that humankind is essentially good and, as the image and likeness of God, has an innate inclination toward virtue. We will all live in the new world order of consumer capitalism and secularism. We will all partake of the benefits of consumer capitalism and enjoy its positive aspect.

But as Christians, we will also have to face the moral challenges of its negative side. It is urgent for us, as moral human beings, to recognize that future generations will pay a terrible price for the excess and overindulgence of our era. We cannot separate spirituality from moral responsibility and here, consumerism poses yet another challenge.

Since consumerism thrives on over-consumption, not only must products not be durable, as we mentioned before, but they should not be reasonably “upgradable” either. Computers, for example, are discarded and replaced regularly. People are shocked to learn that, in our monastery print shop, we are still using a computer that we purchased in 1988, yet it is perfectly adequate for our typesetting needs. Let us look at the moral tragedy of this problem.

In Canada alone, 140,000 tons of computer equipment, cell phones, and other types of electronic equipment are discarded into waste disposal yards every year. That is the weight of about 28,000 fully-grown adult African elephants. This results in 4,750 tons of lead, 4.5 tons of cadmium, and 1.1 tons of mercury being leached into the water system and food chain every year.

These toxic heavy metals are already creating havoc on people’s health and causing a loss of drinking water reserves. Future generations will pay a devastating price for all this. Whether we care enough to do something about it or to resist this aspect of consumerism is a moral issue. It is also a barometer of our spirituality.

Yet we need not succumb to what Jürgen Habermas calls “personality systems without any aspiration to subjective truth nor secure processes for communal interpretation.” This is why it is so important for us to consider the role authentic Christian morality can play in this unfolding drama of our present era. We cannot have such a role if we opt out of the political dialogue and refuse to engage culture and interact with the society around us in a creative and healing way.

Archbishop Lazar Puhalo is abbot of the Monastery of All Saints of North America in Deroche, British Columbia, Canada, and leads the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in Canada

Winter 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 52

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Consider Today’s Lily

by Cranford Joseph Coulter

Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (Luke 12:27)

Idelight in daylilies. We have about a half dozen varieties in our backyard. They are so amazing! They produce enormous, brilliantly colored blossoms. Each blossom is a work of art superior to any likeness an artist could ever produce. Then it’s gone in a day.

Anyone who walks with me into our backyard while any of these lilies is blooming will hear me say: “Consider today’s lily!” The daylily blossom is a reminder of God’s great care for us. He made them beautiful for us to enjoy. He made them to wither in a day to be replaced by another blossom as uniquely beautiful as the last in order to illustrate his abundant provision for us. They also instruct us as to the urgency of doing what is good today.

The passage goes on:

But if God so clothes the grass which is alive in the field today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O men of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well. Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Luke 12:28-34)

Jesus is telling us that giving alms is a more secure investment than the stock market. It is not an investment for your old age, but for what comes after that, or could come at any time. But, by the same token, God is promising that if we truly obey Him in almsgiving by faith, we will always have what we need in this life as well: “and all these things shall be added unto you.”

The idea that giving to the poor is giving to God is all through the Scripture. In Proverbs it even says that God will repay with interest. Just read Proverbs 19:17. Banks fail. Stock markets crash. The Lord is steadfast forever!

In none of these passages is there a mention of giving only to those poor who are deserving or worthy or poor through no fault of their own. No. Giving alms is a mercy. What is mercy? It is when one is spared the negative consequences of one’s misbehavior. The poor are not presumed to be innocent, nor are we to judge them to be guilty. When we are confronted by them, we are given an opportunity to respond as we would hope God will respond to us in our poverty. It is the tender mercies of God that lead men to repentance. (Romans 2:4) When you give alms to a sinner in Jesus’ Name, you are making an investment for both his and your future in the Kingdom of God.

The problem of homelessness is embarrassing and puzzling. In American cities, it became a widespread phenomenon in the late 1970s and early 1980s. More recently it has spread to Europe. There are varying and conflicting theories as to the causes of homelessness. Some blame homeless people themselves for bad lifestyle or other choices. Others blame the system that has eliminated lower standard, cheaper housing, while not increasing minimum wage or assistance. There is truth and error in both approaches, but I don’t find the usual discussion particularly edifying or fruitful. The research is scant and largely flawed.

We don’t have a good handle on even how many homeless people there are, much less how they got there. Many homeless people will deny that they are homeless, either because of the shame that has been attached to homelessness or because they are in denial of their situation and see it as very temporary. The only real cause of homelessness is sin and there’s plenty of that to go around to all concerned. Sin, according to Jesus Christ, is falling short of perfect love. To fulfill the whole Law, we need to love the Lord with all of our hearts and our neighbor as ourselves. So whether it is the particular sin of a system that is willing to treat labor as a commodity that can be manipulated and controlled so as to make people work at wages that are lower than what they can live on; or the particular sin of laziness; it starts from a failure to love.

I started The King’s Jubilee in 1989, having been sent to assist urban churches to minister to the homeless and poor by the inmates in the Bible studies I led in State Correctional Institution Graterford. It is called The King’s Jubilee, as its mission is to call the Christians who have benefitted by white flight from the city to let some of that wealth flow back to assist those left behind, doing this in Jesus’ Name. At the core of our ministry is serving a hearty meal once each week to 75 to 150 homeless people on the street in Philadelphia’s center city. We have been catalysts to start other ministries to the poor in seven towns and cities from Pennsylvania to South Carolina, that were adopted and continued by local churches.

Every human being starts life with a wonderful potential and hope. Each person is a unique, unrepeatable reflection of the glory of God, made in his image. Each person we meet uniquely reflects the glory of God, whether he is homeless, addicted, in prison or singing next to you in choir. Each person was once a beautiful baby in someone’s arms. God loves each one we meet and sees something in each one of us that is worthy of redemption. It is not God’s will that anyone be thrown away. I suggest to all of our volunteers to use this simple prayer: “Lord let me see what it is that you love about each person I meet.” It is a powerful prayer.

Let me tell you about some of my friends from the street.

I will start with Oscar. I met Oscar years ago. He didn’t fit the stereotypical expectations of a homeless person. He was a white guy of about 45. He enjoyed talking about philosophy, history, art and music. He always made it a point to stay and thank us. He had an easygoing manner, a twinkle in his eye and a wry wit. We would see him regularly for a while, then he would miss a couple of weeks.

One time Oscar returned just as we were handing out clothes that had been intended for hurricane victims in Florida but had arrived too late. The truck had left without these particular bags. It turned out that some of the church people who had donated the clothing had tucked money into the pockets, knowing that the hurricane victims badly needed cash. There was a corduroy sport coat with suede patches on the pockets in one of the bags. When the guys pulled it out of the bag, they made fun of it, but Oscar grabbed it and said, “Hey. I’m not proud. It may not be stylish, but it’s warm for the cool fall evenings.”

Later that night he found $50 cash in one of the pockets and later came back to tell us the story and to thank us. He said he wished he could tell us that he spent it wisely, but he went on a three day drunk. I told him that I was glad he found the money and that he was free to use it as he pleased. If it eased his pain for a few days, well, praise God. God commands me to not condemn Oscar, but to show mercy. And I cannot help but to remember him fondly and hope and pray to see his face again one day, though it won’t be in this world. He didn’t make it to 50. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “We need to relate to people less according to what they do or omit to do, and more according to what they have suffered.”

Tyrone was more your typical young black homeless man. I had seen him in the Philadelphia prison system, before we met on the street. When I saw him on the street I said, “I’m glad to see you in the land of the living, but sorry you are in need of our service.” He wanted to talk about the Lord, so we did. This was during the time when crack and crack violence was very big on the streets. One night a fight broke out between two of the folks we served. Immediately Tyrone and a dozen others formed a human chain barricade between those of us serving and the fight. Others went in to restrain those fighting. One of the brawlers had broken a glass bottle and was trying to cut the other with it. The men around us hollered at them: “Take this away from here. This is not these people’s fight.”

After the fight was broken up, many of them apologized to us. They were amazed when they saw us back there the next week. Tyrone asked us why we came back. I told him that God doesn’t give up on me when I misbehave. He still reaches out in love to save me. God’s love compels me to be here. I thanked him and the others for their bravery to stand in harm’s way to protect us.

Let me tell you about a volunteer, Nanci, who had come a few times to help us in Philadelphia and wanted to do something similar in Pottstown, where she lived. She asked if we could help her start something. I told her that I would be glad to help her find an appropriate way to serve the poor in Pottstown in Jesus’ Name. But I told her that it might not look just like what we do in Philadelphia.

To find out what was needed in Pottstown, I spent two weeks in Pottstown. I interviewed the various social service agencies that were serving the poor, the churches that offered free dinners, etc. At different hours, early and late, I went to see who was hanging out where. I talked to the people I knew in the house churches there. I asked the prison inmates who came from Pottstown what was needed. I also discovered that there was a sizable population of homeless teens, kids who were very secretive out of fear of being incarcerated or returned to abusive homes. In the end I learned that the only day there wasn’t some kind of free food available in Pottstown was Wednesday and that this was a real problem for quite a few people, young and old. We also found that there were two main sites at which to serve food, especially emphasizing children’s needs, along with a drop-off location to give clothes, food and toiletries to the teens.

Nanci and I approached her church and recruited more volunteers. Within a week, we had a full crew, including some sandwich makers, an occasional soup maker, and two drivers with vehicles. The next week, we did a trial run in an empty lot in Pottstown and on the street in the project in Stowe. We served beanie-weanie, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and fruit drink. We served over 100 people, mostly children, and left the leftovers for the teens to pick up. It went well. The people were grateful. There were a lot of kids. Nanci took it on and served every Wednesday night from then on.

There were times she panicked. There were times when Nanci would call me the next day, Thursday, saying, “I am all out of peanut butter. What am I going to do for next week?” I would say: “We don’t need peanut butter for another six days. ‘Be anxious for nothing.’ God will provide.” The next time Nanci ran out of peanut butter, she waited until Friday to call me. We had a similar conversation. God always provided.

I reminded Nanci that it wasn’t her problem – it was God’s. “It is acceptable according to what a man has, not what he has not.” If she didn’t have peanut butter, it was because God was providing something better for the children that week.

Nanci got better with this, until she wouldn’t call me until Tuesday morning if she was out of something. Then one week I got a call on Thursday morning. Nanci said, “I had to call you. Last night as I was on my way to serve the people, I was worried, because I had used the last of the peanut butter. I knew I was wrong to worry, so I asked God to please supply more. Well, when I got home, I couldn’t get into my apartment, because the entire front step was covered with jars and cans of peanut butter! O me of little faith!” She continued to serve every Wednesday until she passed away of a heart attack at age 50. May her memory be eternal!

Her story includes some important lessons as to how to start a ministry. I will try to flesh this out a bit. I have a basic philosophy stated in a personal motto: If I can’t do it in Jesus’ Name, I don’t have time to do it. Our ministry never solicits government funds or accepts money from any other agency that would restrict our freedom to share our faith in Jesus Christ.

A lesson learned: If you want to have staying power, leave the idealism behind. The first sin I confessed to my priest when I became Orthodox was the sin of idealism. At the time I was talking about disputes over the causes of homelessness. Homelessness is embarrassing to an affluent society. It is easy to develop a theory as to the cause and assign blame, then say, “If we only did thus and such, we could solve the problem.” I have come to see idealism as a form of idolatry, because it substitutes something less than the love of God as a solution for a problem. Idealism expects certain, quantifiable results. It sees social ills as problems that need to be solved instead of diseases that need to be healed. It is always saying “if only.” But poverty and homelessness cannot be solved. There is no simple “if only” that will fix this problem. I have seen too many people burn out in ministry among the poor because they were motivated by idealism. Invariably, they were disillusioned. Their “if only’s” either didn’t work or could never be implemented.

I am not hopeless. I believe that it’s possible for homelessness to end or at least become much less common. The high tide of homelessness we’re having is a recent phenomenon and we should not expect it to go on indefinitely. But it is a complex disease caused by sin. The cure is simple to state, but humanly impossible to orchestrate. Let go of idealism, but trust and obey God. Don’t work to end homelessness. Just serve the poor in Jesus’ Name. In so doing you will help end homelessness.

Homelessness is not houselessness. It is a lack of a home. Houselessness is a symptom or result of a lack of a home. We have been hearing about the alienation of the modern age for the last several decades, along with increasing divorce rates, and more single-parent households. We live in an increasingly depersonalized society. The television replaces dinner conversation and supplants personal contact in many homes. We can order everything we need over our computer. We don’t need to talk to a human being to pay for groceries or gas. We have used technology to isolate ourselves, because we increasingly see those around us as people to be feared and avoided. Both capitalism and socialism treat people as a commodity or resource of more or less interchangeable parts, denying the Christian perspective of the unique, intrinsic value of every human being. Add to that the volatility of technological change and globalization and we have a recipe for disaster.

Both capitalism and socialism are idealisms that are variations on materialism and are antithetical to love. (I happen to think socialism is the more redeemable economic system of the two, but that is because I grew up in Minnesota and saw Christian socialism at its best.)

Just look at police dramas on TV. They teach us that there are a lot of evil people out there who need to be thrown away – most of them young, black men. By the nature of our economic systems and technologies that have reduced the need for manual labor, we don’t need so many people to keep the rich in their castles. We also have developed an intolerance for people who are odd. We used to make room for oddballs and the out-of-step, allowing them a place in our world.

Divorce has become common and easy. It is no big thing to throw a spouse out of the picture. Why can’t I just walk away from a brother or sister who is difficult or messy, or from a mom or dad who is needy, or from a son or daughter who has issues? Don’t I deserve to be happy? Life will be so much easier without them.

The most important element of the cure for homelessness is to love God – and let God help you to love your family. Be a home-builder. Be the ounce of prevention. Then love your neighbor. We know an 83-year-old woman living on the streets the last few months. She never had children. Why were there no neighbors to take her in? That’s the way it used to be done. She would be someone’s Aunt Margaret and live in Bobby’s old room. This is not a radical concept.

How to get involved? According to Ephesians 2:10, God has prepared good works for us to do. The best way I know to find what is right for you is to go out and do something. Do anything good. Don’t expect God to lead you into the ministry that is right for you if you aren’t doing anything now. Have you ever tried to steer a parked car? It is next to impossible and fairly pointless. So get out and volunteer doing some good works in Jesus’ Name. Do it as soon as you can, while the dew is still on today’s lily. You will be amazed at how God leads you to what is right for you.

Cranford Joseph Coulter directs The King’s Jubilee, a ministry among the poor and homeless in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He owns “Come and See” Icons, Books & Art. He and his wife, Bethann, live in Souderton, where they attend St. Philip Antiochian Orthodox Church with their four daughters, two sons-in-law and five grandchildren. He is webmaster for comeandseeicons.com, shoutforjoy.net and www.orthodoxdelmar.org.

From the Pascha / Spring 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 49

Confronting Poverty and Stigmatization: An Eastern Orthodox Perspective

John D. Jones [1]

Department of Philosophy, Marquette University

Would you see His altar also?…This altar is composed of the very members of Christ, and the body of the Lord becomes an altar. This altar is more venerable even than the one which we now use. For it is …but a stone by nature; but become holy because it receives Christ’s Body: but that altar is holy because it is itself Christ’s Body….[which] you may see lying everywhere, in the alleys and in the market places, and you may sacrifice upon it anytime…When then you see a poor believer, believe that you are beholding an altar. When you see this one as a beggar, do not only refrain from insulting him, but actually give him honor, and if you witness someone else insulting him, stop him; prevent it.[2]

[Vagrants are the] “vast heap of social refuse – the mere human street sweepings – the great living mixen that is destined, as soon as spring returns, to be strewn far and near over the land, and serve as manure for the future crime crop of the country.”[3]

The ‘problem of poverty’ has been, and is today, defined primarily in terms of the moral values of work. Those who fail to support themselves or their families through work…without a socially approved excuse at a socially approved job…are defined as deviant….Moral degradation of the poor is used as a negative symbol to reinforce the work ethic. [4]

In developing a Christian, and in particular an Orthodox Christian, engagement with or response to poverty, one might expect to begin with poverty in its ordinary sense as an economic category.[5] Naturally, one would try to clarify what is meant by poverty: no small task given conflicting conceptual models of poverty such as inequality, absolute deprivation, relative deprivation, lack of money, etc. Moreover, to complicate matters, some notions of economic poverty can be analogically extended to other forms of deprivation so that we can talk about social or political poverty.[6] One would, of course, consider the teachings of Christ, Holy Scripture, and the Fathers concerning poverty and, hence, one would be lead to the broader issue of our relations to wealth among ourselves and with reference to God. In so doing, we would expand the notion of poverty to characterize both our general ontological dependence upon God and our nature as corrupted by sin. One would also develop a variety of spiritual or religious conceptions of poverty – poverty of spirit, renunciation of possessions, etc. – that bear more or less analogous notions to everyday conceptions of poverty. Moreover, one would at some point have to deal with a fundamental Christian ambivalence toward everyday life: an engagement with everyday life in which poverty is an evil and an ascetic renunciation of this life in which poverty is a good.[7]

In the Orthodox Christian faith, all such concerns are ordered toward our participation in the life of the Trinity, that is, the transfiguration and deification of human life both now and in the next life. To be sure, this transfiguration and deification is utterly dependent on God’s grace; but it also requires our cooperation (synergy) grounded in a recognition of all humans as icons of Christ.[8] Accordingly, we are led to consider the special manner in which Christ is present in the poor. So St. Maria Skobtsova “told her collaborators that all their charitable activities should be guided by the conviction that the human person ‘is God’s image and likeness, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the incorruptible icon of God.'”[9] This insistence on what is often called the ‘dignity’ of the poor is important given the widespread human tendency to denigrate and stigmatize the poor. Joel Handler has shown quite decisively how American public policy toward the poor is driven by the invidious distinction between the ‘reputable’ and ‘disreputable’ poor.[10] A cross-cultural study of poverty by Deepa Narayan showed widespread complaints by the poor concerning the humiliation, shame and denigration to which they are subjected, even by those who ostensibly acted to help them.[11]

It is this matter – the stigmatization of poverty and stigmatization in general – that I want to make a starting point for considering an Orthodox Christian engagement with poverty. The stigmatization of poverty is closely connected with the psycho-social dynamics of stigmatization in general.[12] While stigmatization itself is not necessarily associated with poverty in its social/economic sense, it constitutes its own form of poverty since, as we shall see, those who are stigmatized are imputed to be impoverished, that is, fundamentally defective, as persons. The stigmatization of economically poor people as such exacerbates and intensifies the suffering to which they are subjected. The stigmatization of economically poor people on account of conditions conceptually unrelated to poverty – such as mental illness, AIDS, addiction, or physical disability – likewise intensify and exacerbate their suffering as poor. Conversely, protest against the unjust evil that stigmatization imposes on people who might not be not poor also, and for the same reasons, entails protest against the stigmatization of the poor.

Stigmatization raises a host of existential and spiritual issues not just about the poor but about those who stigmatize them. Although not labeled as such, the discussion of this stigma is central to St. Gregory (Nazianzus) the Theologian’s Oration 14, “On the Love of the Poor.”[13] It also plays a central role in St. Gregory of Nyssa’s sermon, “On the Saying, ‘Whoever Has Done It to One of These Has Done It to Me.'”[14]

The oration “On the Love of the Poor” begins with a review of various Christian virtues and concludes that of all the virtues,

following Paul and Christ himself, we must regard charity (agap) as the first and greatest of the Commandments, since it is the sum of the Law and the prophets; and its most vital (kratiston) part I find is love of the poor (philoptchia), along with compassion and sympathy for our fellow man. (sec. 5)[15]

St. Gregory then delineates various forms of poverty (ptcheia) with leprosy specified as its most extreme form. In delineating the suffering that accompanies these various forms of poverty, he notes the worst is experienced by the lepers, a condition such “that most people cannot stand to be near them, or even to look at them, but avoid them, are nauseated by them, and regard them as abominations so to speak. This is heavier for them to bear than their ailment when they perceive that they are hated because of their misfortune (sec. 9).” The ‘poverty’ to which the lepers are subjected is not simply ‘economic.’ It is constituted by a radical disaffiliation and marginalization from their social world that is grounded in their denigration and stigmatization.[16]

A particularly vivid passage from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath illustrates the underlying logic of stigmatization. What follows is the conversation between two gas station attendants who have just sold fuel to the Joads after their entry into California:

“Jesus, what a hard looking outfit!” “Them Okies? They’re all hard-lookin.” “Jesus, I’d hate to start out in a jalopy like that.” “Well, you and me got sense. Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable. They ain’t a hell of a lot better than gorillas.”[17]

In brief, the ‘Okies’ for these two attendants, like lepers for those who stigmatize them, ‘are more like animals than humans.’ This formulation constitutes the core of stigmatization: to see this, one need only consider the language and visceral reactions of racists, xenophobes, and misogynists among others.

Stigmatization, it should be noted, is not simply a matter of stereotyping. The latter essentially consists of hasty generalizations about the members of a group. Stereotypes need not be negative and typically they are not accompanied by the hostile, visceral rejection that is connected with stigmatization. Nor is stigmatization a matter of ‘marking.'[18] In this latter case, we take note of a condition such as blindness, tuberculoses, or poverty, which we judge may be an obstacle in some determinate situation. We do this when we make special accommodations for a blind person to participate in some activity, to provide appropriate quarantine for someone with tuberculosis, etc. We legitimately engage in ‘marking’ as a part of our daily activities. We may not always be correct in marking individuals – we may mistakenly make unneeded accommodations for a blind person – but we certainly do not denigrate people simply in ‘marking’ them.

Stigmatization is qualitatively different from both stereotyping and ‘marking':

It is the dramatic essence of the stigmatizing process that a label marking the deviant status is applied and this marking process typically has devastating consequences for emotions, thought, and behavior. Many words have been applied to the resulting status of the deviant person. He or she is flawed, blemished, discredited, spoiled or stigmatized. In the classic case, the mark or sign of deviance imitates a drastic inference process that engulfs impressions of the deviant target person and sets up barriers to interaction and intimacy.[19]

Stigmatization arises when people are so ‘overwhelmed’ by encountering certain conditions, that they are repelled by those who are subjected to those conditions.[20] An acquaintance of mine who could not bear to be near people in wheelchairs betrayed his underlying anxiety by remarking, “I’d rather be dead than confined to a wheelchair.” We stigmatize various conditions because they fundamentally imperil us. We take them to be death-dealing.[21] We believe that to be subjected to these conditions would irrevocably ruin our lives and strip them of significance. To be subjected to them would involve being subjected to a ‘living death': for those who stigmatize lepers or the poor, it would be better to be dead than to be a leper or poor. When stigmatized, then, people are defined or reified in terms of imputed death-dealing conditions. As ‘dirty’ – physically, morally, existentially and symbolically – the stigmatized provoke reactions of fear, disgust and loathing from those who stigmatize them.[22] The stigmatized then become experienced as fundamentally dangerous and deviant, and thus to be rejected and marginalized. From the standpoint of those engaged in stigmatization, the stigmatized cease to be fully human but, in the extreme, rather ‘more like animals than people’ and, thus, to be banished, or ‘quarantined’ and controlled. Whether or not stigmatized people are economically poor,[23] they are imputed to be ‘poor’ – that is, fundamentally defective – as persons. When socially legitimated, stigmatization often results in banishment or ‘ghettoization’ of those who are stigmatized. Stigmatization, then, does not consist simply in disliking people, not wanting to be around them, or even in morally censuring them for their actions. Stigmatization amounts to a kind of hatred of others[24] that effectively seeks to dehumanize and marginalize them.

The issue for those who stigmatize others is not other people, it is themselves or more precisely their embodied condition as free human beings. Jean Paul Sartre gives a remarkable analysis of this in his essay on anti-Semitism:

We are now in a position to understand the anti-Semite. He is a man who is afraid. Not of the Jews, to be sure, but of himself, of his own consciousness, of his liberty, of his instincts, of his responsibilities…of everything except the Jews….In espousing anti-Semitism, he does not simply adopt an opinion, he chooses himself as a person….The Jew only serves him as a pretext, elsewhere his counterpart will make use of the Negro, or the man of yellow skin. The existence of the Jew merely permits the anti-Semite to stifle his anxieties at their inception…Anti-Semitism, in short is fear of the human condition. The anti-Semite is a man who wishes to be a pitiless stone, a furious torment, a devastating thunderbolt – anything except a man.[25]

Let me return to St. Gregory’s oration since he, indirectly at least, provides a clue to what is at issue in confronting leprosy. First (sec. 10), there is his graphic description of the plight of lepers and the manner in which people flee from them:

There lies before our eyes a dreadful and pathetic sight; one that no one would believe who has not seen it: human beings alive yet dead, disfigured in almost every part of their bodies, barely recognizable for who they once were or where they came from…mutilated, stripped of their possessions, their families, their friends, their very bodies…even the most kind and considerate person shows no feeling for them. And on this account alone we have lost sight of the fact that we are flesh and compassed in a lowly body, and we are so derelict in our obligation to look after our fellow man that we actually believe that avoiding these people assures the safety of our own bodies.[26]

Prior to this, however, St. Gregory had detoured into an apparent digression about his own ambivalence toward his own body. The entire text in context is quite long, but I want to present the salient parts. In sec. 4, St. Gregory completes his enumeration of various virtues in this way:

beautiful is contemplation (theoria), as likewise beautiful is activity (praxis); the one… conducts our mind upward to what is akin to it, the other because it welcomes Christ and serves (therapeuousa) him, and confirms the power of love through good works.

After noting the primacy of charity and of love for the poor among the virtues and also that “Of all things, nothing so serves (therapeuetai) God as mercy because no other thing is more proper to God” (sec. 5), he then continues (sec. 6):

We must, then, open our hearts to all the poor and to all those who are in distress from whatever cause, for the commandment enjoins us “to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15)…particularly to those wasted with the sacred disease[27] that devours their flesh and bones and marrow clear through – as threatened to some[28] – and betrayed by this wretched, vile, and faithless body.

He immediately follows this with a digression, which continues through sec. 7, about his relation to his body:

How I came to be joined to it, I do not know; nor how I am the image of God and concocted of clay at the same time, this body…that I both cherish as a fellow-servant and evade as my enemy…If I struggle to suppress it, I lose the helper I need to achieve my noble aims, knowing as I do why I was created and that it is through my actions (praxen) that I am to ascend to God…(sec. 7) I show it consideration as a co-worker but I do not know how to suppress its insurgency nor how I can help falling away from God when [it] drags me down.

He then concludes (sec. 8):

But now, though confronted with the suffering of others, I have been dwelling on the infirmity of my own flesh. We must, my brothers, as I started to say, care for (therapeuteon) it as being our kinsman and fellow-servant. For, even if I have denounced it as my enemy for the distress it causes, still, I also embrace it as a friend because of him who joined us together.

Why does St. Gregory exhort himself and others to care for (therapeuteon) the body? If it is ‘suppressed’ or ‘wasted away,’ we each lose the co-worker we need to perform acts of mercy by which we “serve (therapeuousa) God,” “confirm the power of love through good works,” and “ascend to God.” But more generally, if the body ‘wastes away,’ we are cutoff from activity (praxis) in the world. The assaults on the body in leprosy, poverty and other like ‘afflictions’ thereby threatens our very freedom to engage in the world in meaningful ways. So, “we actually believe that avoiding these people assures the safety of our own bodies” – but not just our bodies, rather, our very existence in the world.

Confronted by the suffering, disfigurement, impotence, and rejection suffered by lepers and the poorest of the poor (ptchoi) generally – real threats and assaults on human beings to be sure – and overwhelmed by these conditions, those who stigmatize these people are overwhelmed in anxiety by their own vulnerability to this condition as something death-dealing that will radically strip life of its meaning – a ‘living death.'[29] To deflect their anxiety and to assure their own safety, they interpret those actually subjected to these conditions as deserving their fate through some fundamental defect as humans, that is, they are taken to be accursed and abandoned by God. What drives this sort of stigmatization, theologically expressed, is at bottom an anxiety about one’s own possible abandonment by God.

What lurks unthematized in the hearts of those who are ‘engulfed’ by the conditions, and thus the people, they stigmatize is a truncated version of Ps. 21 (LXX):

subjected to these conditions, one will be abandoned by God – “My God, my God” (v.1) you shall indeed forsake me;

in the face of exhausting suffering – since “I [will be] poured out like water, and scattered [will be] all my bones; my heart [will] become like wax, melting in the midst of my bowels” (v. 16);

denigration and rejection – “As for me, I [will become] a worm, and not a man: a reproach of men, and the outcast of the people” (v. 6);

yet bereft of the possibility of transfiguration and resurrection. For it is promised that “the Lord will not set as naught nor abhor the supplication of the poor …but the poor shall eat and be satisfied” (vv. 24, 26).

Certainly, those who stigmatize the poor fail to see them in the image and likeness, and more concretely, as an icon of Christ. As icons of Christ, we cannot find Christ in others or ourselves apart from or in spite of our embodiment, but only as embodied and, thus, in the midst of suffering, pain and denigration. But since, to follow Sartre, those who stigmatize the poor or anyone else are not fundamentally afraid of them, but anxiety ridden about themselves, such people do not just fail to see others as icons of Christ, they fail to see themselves as icons of Christ. After all, Christ became poor for our sakes: that is, took on all of our weaknesses, infirmities and suffering – actual and possible – in order to sanctify, heal and restore us to life. Yet insofar as stigmatization is grounded in an anxiety over abandonment by God, then in stigmatizing others we effectively repudiate Christ’s promise that he will be with us always (Matt. 28:30) both in respect to ourselves as vulnerable to the conditions we stigmatize and, thus, in respect to those who are actually subjected to those conditions. In stigmatizing others, then, we effectively circumscribe God’s healing power both for ourselves – since we would rather be dead than subjected to these conditions – and for those who are stigmatized, since they are imputed to be more like animals than humans and to be accursed of God.

Note also that individuals can stigmatize themselves particularly in response to stigmatization imposed by others. Howard Bahr offered this poignant description of the effects of denigration on those who lived in and were acculturated to Skid Row:

The defectiveness of the skid row man stems from his occupying several stigmatized statuses at once….To begin with there is a physical, visible basis for antipathy toward the skid row man. He is defective physically: the scarred face, the toothless mouth, the missing limbs, the strange actions of the psychotic or mental incompetent….Then there are the stigmatizing aspects of his character: the past of drunkenness, arrests and prison and the long periods of institutional living. Over everything else is the imputed alcoholism, the addiction which makes him a man out of control, perhaps not a man at all.

His defectiveness and powerlessness combine with his other negative characteristics real or imagined and predefine him to involvement in a vicious cycle of negative encounters which serve to bind him to skid row, lower his self-esteem and make a social fact out of what was at first social definition…that he is hopeless and unsalvageable.[30]

Self-stigmatization is essentially masochistic in character: viewing themselves as worthless and hopeless, people who stigmatize themselves affirm their worthlessness by seeking out punishment – abuse, humiliation and situations of self-defeat – that confirms their worthlessness. The patient suffering of evil for Christ’s sake as well as the recognition of our own wretchedness before God in prayer and confession are, of course, a central part of Orthodox spirituality. But both, grounded in the springtime of Great Lent, must take place in light of our faith and hope in the Resurrection: that is, our capacity to be deified and to participate in a whole and complete manner in the life of the Trinity. Neither patient suffering for Christ nor the recognition of our own wretchedness in repentance serve to legitimate self-stigmatization or its patient endurance but, as grounded in faith and hope, essentially protest against it. Surely, the protests that SS. Gregory and Gregory of Nyssa repeatedly lodge against the denigration of the poor[31] extends to those, who in stigmatizing themselves, view themselves as unsalvageable by God.[32] As Fr. Boris Bobrinskoy wrote about Job:

The merciless friends of Job consoled him with this logic: “You suffer; you are punished because you have sinned against God; repent before God.” With all his being, Job refused to surrender to such exhortations and did not admit his guilt. He appealed to God, in the certainty of seeing the Redeemer with the eyes of his flesh. God sided with him…Job’s refusal of unjust suffering still resonates in all human sufferings.[33]

It must be noted that charitable actions towards the poor do not necessarily counter, and may even mask, stigmatization. For, apart from the lived recognition of the other as an icon of Christ, what is given in aid to the poor is negated if we continue to exclude the poor from our world. As St. Gregory of Nyssa writes:

Let no one say that some place far away from our life is perfectly sufficient and send them off to some frontier, supplying them with food. For a plan of this sort displays neither mercy nor sympathy but is designed, in the guise of goodwill, to banish these people utterly from our life. Are we not willing to shelter pigs and dogs under our roof?… Will we disparage our own kind and race as baser than the animals? Let these things not be – no, my brothers! Resolve that this inhumanity will not triumph.[34]

This inhumanity is not simply a matter of some individuals stigmatizing others. Patterns of stigmatization are often socially sanctioned; stigmas form the ‘ideological’ basis for the oppressive and marginalizing social structures that are instituted to exclude stigmatized groups from full social life. St. Gregory gives a powerful description of this marginalization in sec. 12 of “On the Love of the Poor.”

They are driven away from cities, they are driven away from homes, from the market place, from public gatherings, from the streets, from festivities, from drinking parties, even…from water itself. They wander about night and day, helpless, naked, homeless, exposing their sores for all to see…To them a kind benefactor is not someone who has supplied their need but anyone who has not cruelly sent them away.[35]

The marginalization, here, is obviously not due just to the ‘inhuman’ actions that some individuals perpetrate on others; it indicates the failure of a community to establish structures and policies that provide even minimal recognition, mercy and justice to people. So too, as noted earlier, various scholars have argued that the American welfare system arises out of and often seeks to maintain the invidious distinction between the reputable (or deserving) poor and the disreputable (or undeserving poor). That is not too surprising since the denigration of the poor has been a feature of our economy since the origins of capitalism: when society became construed as “a collection of independent, atomized individuals all pursuing their private interests and ordering their relations with each other by means of formal, explicit contracts,” paupers became viewed as “useless, shameless drones in the context of the new values of individualism and self-reliance.”[36]

An Christian, an Orthodox Christian, response to denigration and stigmatization remains fundamentally incomplete if it fails to identify, to protest against, and to seek to root out the forms of denigration and stigmatization that lurk inside and drive social policies. As Fr. Boris Bobrinksoy wrote,

There is, in the ultimate reality of things, no nonspiritual life that is closed off to the Holy Spirit…The world that is called profane is in reality a profaned world and man is responsible for that. We have expelled God from this world: we do it every day. We chase him from public life by a Machiavellian form of separation between our private lives – pious and good – and the domains of politics, commerce, science, technology, love, culture and work, where everything is allowed. All these domains of human work depend upon the creative work of man, seized, modeled, and inspired by the Spirit of God.”[37]

Susan Holman notes that litourgiai in the ancient pre-Christian world referred to “public service performed by private citizens at their own expense.”[38] The poor, whether intentionally or not, were excluded from these liturgies. St. John Chrysostom, and the Cappadocian fathers, brought the poor and marginalized into these liturgies and ‘extended’ the sacred liturgy into the alleys and market places. In this way, they engaged the Divine Liturgy with the civic liturgies of public life.[39] It is in this context that St. John Chrysostom identifies the poor as an Altar – the Body and Blood of Christ. It is particularly important to note that while he makes this identification for the sake of encouraging charitable action toward the poor, the identification also has a powerful ‘legitimating function.’ “The poor become the liturgical image for these most holy elements in all of Christian worship: the altar and body of Christ.”[40] As Christ’s Altar, the poor are not to be despised but honored; conversely, if implicitly, those who despise the poor, thereby despise Christ.

Because the source of the anxiety that underlies stigmatization often remains unthematized and, thus, likely denied by those who engage in it, it is a particularly difficult ‘hardness of heart’ to expose and challenge. Indeed, some of the responses designed to motivate charity toward the poor are likely to misfire in their practical efficacy. First, one might appeal to the dignity of the poor: that we all share a common humanity.[41] But so far as this appeal is made simply to reason, it misfires since, even though true, what drives stigmatization is not mistaken reasoning but profound anxiety. One need simply consider the many racists in our society who were unmoved by appeals to the “self-evident truth” “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” because they cheerfully subscribed to this truth and yet held tenaciously to their racism.[42]

Second, one can appeal to Christ’s command that we are to give to the “least of our brethren.” Yet as St. Gregory of Nyssa observed, providing assistance to people in a way that banishes them from our presence still allows the inhumanity of the denigration to persist. Third, one can strengthen the appeal to charity through the analysis and condemnation of greed and miserliness. But it is not clear, e.g., that the gas station attendants in the Grapes of Wrath are either greedy or miserly. Certainly, the denigration of the poor and lepers has not been confined to those who are either greedy or misers.

In the end, the most powerful negation of stigmatization is our direct engagement with those who are stigmatized[43] in which we discover and respond to life – Christ in the person of the poor – rather than death. Indeed, St. John Chrysostom’s identification of the poor as the Altar of Christ urges and, for him, requires us to enter into that engagement. For we do not partake of the mysteries of the Eucharist at a distance; we must come forward and make physical contact with them.[44] So, too often in the profaned world in which we live, it is there in the “alleys” – marginalized social worlds – that we find the Altar of Christ in the poor and are bid to render hospitality.

Thus ought we ever to exercise hospitality by our own personal exertions, that we may be sanctified, and our hands be blessed. And if you give to the poor, disdain not yourself to give it, for it is not to the poor that it is given, but to Christ; and who is so wretched, as to disdain to stretch out his own hand to Christ? This is hospitality, this is truly to do it for God’s sake.[45]

Dr. John D. Jones

Professor, Department of Philosophy

Marquette University

P.O Box 1881

Milwaukee, WI 53201-1881

(414) 288-5938

(414) 288-3010 (FAX)

Web page: http://academic.mu.edu/phil/jonesj/


1 A version of this paper was read at the Society for Orthodox Philosophy in America, Holy Archangels Monastery, Kendalia, Texas, February 24-26, 2006. This is the first part of a more comprehensive treatment of an Orthodox response to Poverty. The notes, designed for the conference presentation, are still a bit more sparse than if they were composed for publication.

2 St. John Chrysostom, “Homily 20,3 on 2 Corinthians 10:15.”

3 From Henry Mayhew, London Labor and the London Poor, about vagrants in 19th c. England. Quoted in Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty:, England in the Early Industrial Age (New York: Vintage Books, 1983): 340.

4 Joel F.Handler and Yeheskel Hasenfeld, The Moral Construction of Poverty: Welfare Reform in America (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1991): 17-18.

5 One could suggest that in fact the starting point for Orthodox Christians would be the teachings of the Church. But even if we begin here, we have to have some idea of what is meant by poverty and, in the case, of everyday poverty, that takes us outside the realm of religious discourse per se into other types of discourse.

6 See, St. Gregory the Theologian, “On the Love of the Poor,” sec. 6 (Oratio 14 (=De pauperum amore) PG 35:857-909) for multiples sense of ptchoi. See, Susan Holman, The Hungry are Dying (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001): 5 for the distinction between ptchos and pens. The former connotes more extreme poverty and social disaffiliation; the latter, less extreme poverty with greater social affiliation.

7 While this ambivalence is ultimately central to understanding this matter, dealing with it is well beyond the scope of the present paper. However, Verna Harrison, “Poverty, Social Involvement, and the Life in Christ according to Saint Gregory the Theologian,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 39.2(1994): 162 makes the following observation that should be borne in mind in connection with our reading below of the Oration “On the Love the Poor”: “For the Theologian, there is an inner spiritual connection between asceticism and charity. Philoptchia [love of the poor] can mean compassion for the needy, but it can also mean a love for poverty which leads one to renounce one’s own possessions. In both cases, one is drawn toward the condition of poverty because Christ is present and manifest in it.” (See sec. 19 of this Oration.).

8 And of the Trinity? One finds Orthodox thinkers such as Archbishop Kallistos (Ware), Sr. Nonna (Harrison) and Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) who seek to understanding human community in light of the communion (koinonia) of the Trinity. On the other hand, there are others, who resist this sort of interpretation., e.g., Fr. John Behr and Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos). This matter is exceptionally complex in part because it is very difficult to relate modern concepts of the person to the patristic use of ‘person’ with reference to the hypostases of the Trinity. An inquiry into this matter is well beyond the scope of the paper. For some literature see, John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1985); “The Church as Communion,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 38.1(1994):3-16; John Behr, “The Trinitarian Being of the Church,” SVTQ 48.1(2003):67-88; Nonna Harrison, “Human Community as an Image of the Holy Trinity,” SVTQ 46.4(2002):347-64 (qv. ftns. 17-18 for relevant articles by Archbishop Kallistos), and Hierotheos Vlachos, The Person in the Orthodox Tradition, selections on-line at http://www.pelagia.org/htm/b23.en.the_person_in_the_orthodox_tradition.00.htm (see, Chapter IV.7).

9 Verna Harrison, “Poverty in the Orthodox Tradition,” SVTQ 34.1(1990):15.

10 See ftn. 3 above. For two excellent histories of social welfare policy in America see Michael B. Katz, The Undeserving Poor :From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989) and In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America (New York: Basic Books, 1986).

11 Deepa Naraya, Raj Patel, et. al., Can Anyone Hear Us? Voices from 47 Countries (Poverty Group, PREM, World Bank, 1999): 54-56, 76-78. This volume is part of a three part series, Voices of the Poor. All of the material from these volumes can be viewed on-line at: http://www1.worldbank.org/prem/poverty/voices/reports.htm.

12 There is an immense literature on stigmatization. Perhaps the best and most comprehensive treatment, in my view, is Edward. Jones, Amerigo Farinia, et. al., Social Stigma: The Psychology of Marked Relationships (San Francisco: WW Freeman and Co., 1984). This book has an extensive bibliography.

13 I am using the translation, slightly modified, by Martha Vinson in St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Select Orations (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003): 39-71. I shall refer simply to the sections of the Oration in referencing it. All references to St. Gregory in this paper are to this oration. For the purposes of this paper, I will simply refer to St. Gregory the Theologian as St. Gregory in contrast to St. Gregory of Nyssa.

14 In illud: Quatenus uni ex his fecistis mihi fecistis (or, De pauperibus amandis 2) in Gregorii Nysseni Opera (Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1967-): 9,1:111-27 (PG 46.471-90). I will follow the translation by Holman in The Hungry are Dying (pp. 199-206). I will cite this sermon by column number in PG 46 and page number in Holman, e.g., PG 472(HD p. 199). All references to St. Gregory of Nyssa in this paper are to this sermon.

15 Verna Harrison, “Poverty, Social Involvement, and the Life in Christ according to Saint Gregory the Theologian,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 39.2(1994): 151-164 , esp, 155ff., gives a fine discussion of this Oration in light of the theme of philoptchia as well as its connection with Oration 19.

16 As to the universality of the stigmatization of leprosy see Liora Navon, “Beggars, Metaphors, and Stigma: A Missing Link in the Social History of Leprosy,” Social History of Medicine 11(1998): 89-105. Based upon a study of leprosy in Thailand, she noted that there was an ambivalent reaction toward leprosy among the Thai people. The most hostile reaction was directed towards beggars who had the disease (pp. 96-7), but evidently there were lepers that were cared for by family members, largely out of public view, as well as individuals with milder forms of the disease that were not denigrated or excluded from society (p. 84). She argues that the extremely negative portraits of lepers and the concomitant accounts of hostility towards them were focused on beggars with the disease and, thus, led to exaggerated accounts of leprosy as universally stigmatized in Thailand. She also notes (p. 89) that only about 30% of the untreated cases of leprosy develop the sorts of severe effects like those portrayed, e.g., by SS. Gregory or Gregory of Nyssa. The article raises some interesting questions about the empirical legitimacy of using leprosy per se as a universal metaphor for denigration. Whether her investigations in Thailand have cross-cultural validity is an open question but it does, as she notes, highlight “the need to better understand the sources, severity, and persistency of leprosy stigma” (p. 92). Cf. Holman, p. 158. Of course, the condemnations of the treatment of lepers by both Gregories does not depend whether all lepers in their society were universally denigrated although, it should be noted, they never cite examples of lepers with relatively mild forms of the disease who were viewed less harshly.

17 Grapes of Wrath (New York: Penguin Books, 1977): 301.

18 For the distinction between stigmatization and marking and an excellent general discussion of stigmatization as a response to ‘impression engulfment’ see E. Jones, Social Stigma, pp. :4-8.

19 E. Jones, Social Stigma, p.4-6.

20 It should be clear, I hope, that ‘those who stigmatize others’ represents an social-existential ‘type’ and that I am providing a phenomenological description of that type. No inference is made, or should be drawn, about whether this type applies to specific individuals or groups. Such application is obviously an empirical matter.

21 See especially, E. Jones, pp, 82-89 for this and for the ‘symbolic’ nature of the peril.

22 See, e.g., Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967):109-117 as well as Stig Hornshj-Mller, “On Der Ewige Jude” at http://www.holocaust-history.org/der-ewige-jude/. Der Ewige Jude was an infamous Nazi propaganda file that “depicts the Jews of Poland as corrupt, filthy, lazy, ugly, and perverse: they are an alien people which have taken over the world through their control of banking and commerce, yet which still live like animals.” The film generated “shouts of disgust and loathing” by Hitler and the Nazis who first viewed it.

23 So, the stigmatized historically have included those who are blind, physically disabled, severe stammerers, members of ethic out-groups (Jones, Social Stigma, p. 5). Of course, the bases for stigmatizations vary from culture to culture; so too, people may not be stigmatized by everyone in a particular social group.

24 See St. Gregory’s remark, quoted above, that ‘being hated for their misfortune’ is what is hardest to bear for lepers.

25 Anti-Semite and Jew, Trans. George Becker (New York: Schocken Books, 1948):53-54.

26 See, St. Gregory of Nyssa, PG 477-476(HD pp. 201-202) for even a more horrific portrait of lepers which, it must be acknowledged, comes very close to the kind of language that might be used by those who stigmatize them: e.g., they ‘have none of the appearances of a man, nor those of a beast” and “rather than men, theirs is a lamentable wreckage.” It is only St. Gregory of Nyssa’s constant stress on the full humanity of lepers as images of God that prevents these portraits from legitimating denigration of them. In addition to a ‘natural loathing’ for such conditions, which St. Gregory of Nyssa acknowledges (PG 488(HD p. 205), one might expect the avoidance of lepers to be justified because of fear of contagion. There is scholarly debate about whether leprosy is contagious and, if so, to what degree. But both St. Gregory (sec. 27) and St. Gregory of Nyssa (PG 484-488(HD p. 205) thought the fear of contagion misplaced; neither thought it justified the denigration and avoidance of lepers. See also, Holman, pp. 156-60.

27 “Sacred disease” was usually reserved for epilepsy. Holman, p. 161, notes that St. Gregory applied it to leprosy in order to “evoke the biblical image of the sacred beggar, Lazarus.”

28 See Ps. 38.3 (LXX 37.4) and 102.3-5 (LXX 104.4-6) as well as Numb. 12.10 where God afflicts Miriam with leprosy. St. Gregory, it should be noted, explicitly distances himself from the idea that every affliction is from God as a form of punishment (secs. 30-31).

29 It should be noted, though, that the threat can also take the form of an imputed daemonic presence which an embodied condition is imputed to convey. White racists are not likely threatened by blacks because they fear becoming black. They are threatened by an imputed daemonic, irrational presence that the bodies of blacks is taken to represent and which racists can avoid only by a marginalization of blacks that is justified by dehumanizing them. A similar analysis would apply to misogynists.

30 Howard M. Bahr, Skid Row: An Introduction to Disaffiliation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973): 120-21 and 15 respectively.

31 See St. Gregory, secs. 10, 14, and 15 and St. Gregory of Nyssa, PG 473-476 (HD p. 201), 476(HD p. 203), 480(HD p. 203).

32 Rollo May relates an account of his therapeutic work with a young woman who had been prostituted by her parents, but who was unable to feel any anger toward them. The woman’s response was essentially masochistic in character. Seeing herself as nothing but a servant in which she had no rights against others, she became “indentured a priori.” May was unable to lodge her from this self-degradation until he expressed, in a spontaneous and uncalculated manner, his own anger about what had been done to her (Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence (New York: Norton Publishing Co., 1972): 85-6.

33 Compassion of the Father, Trans. Anthony Gythiel (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003): 53.

34 St. Gregory of Nyssa, PG 480(HD p. 203).

35 To be sure, St. Gregory of Nyssa points to a minimal level of community among the lepers (PG 477(HD 202)) but this hardly constitutes what would be regarded as a ‘social world’ or an ensemble of institutional and other structures that allows for meaningful engagement in the world. Indeed, the “existential death” imputed by stigmatization carries with it a “social death” – a loss of social world – imposed by marginalizing social actions and structures. See the reference to Bahr above.

36 F. Allan Hanson, “How Poverty Lost Its Meaning,” The Cato Journal 17(1997)2 on-line at http://www.cato.org/pubs/journal/cj17n2-5.html. This sort of view persists in the welfare-state in more modern notions of the ‘culture of poverty’ and the ‘underclass.’

37 Bobrinskoy, p. 28.

38 Holman, The Hungry are Dying, p. 21

39 Ibid., pp. 60-62.

40 Ibid., p. 62.

41 See, e.g., “On the Love of the Poor” sec. 14. See also Harrison, “Poverty, Social Involvement…” p, 158 for a discussion of the various senses of the “unity of human nature” in this section. See also, St. Gregory of Nyssa, PG 480(HD p. 203).

42 See, Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks, p. 119-20 for a variation on this theme.

43 As to how efficacious direct contact may be for reducing stigma see, e.g., Gregory M. Herek and John P. Capitanio, “AIDS Stigma and Contact With Persons With AIDS: Effects of Direct and Vicarious Contact,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 27.1(1997): 1-36 for a nuanced discussion of this matter in relation to AIDS patients. The authors also note that “A large body of empirical research has shown that contact can indeed reduce prejudice when it is sustained and intimate between individuals of equal status who share important goals and are supported by the institution within which it occurs” (p. 2).

44 So, Holman, pp. 161-62, notes that for SS. John Chrysostom, Gregory, and Gregory of Nyssa “lepers once set apart for their pollution, become a symbol of all that is ‘set apart’ for God… the ill beggars lying on the ground are holy coins that ‘bear the countenance of our Saviour’…They ought to be touched physically without repulsion.”

45 St. John Chrysostom, “Homily 14 on 1 Timothy 5:9.” The context makes clear that alms are given to Christ as found in the poor, not Christ instead of the poor. (PG 62, 573).

Copyright 2006 by the author; all rights reserved

Placed on the web site of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship March 2006.