In Matthew 13.44-46, Jesus is recorded as describing the kingdom of heaven in this way:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
There are many people who have found their field of treasure or their pearl of great value. Not everybody stumbles into this blessed curse (or cursed blessing) but for some it is a career they love, for others it is a partner or a child, for others it is power. The list could go on and on: sex, a sense of safety or security, drugs, a place to belong, fame, honour, a country to die for, a God to worship–these are all things for which people have given up everything else in their lives.
I often think of one particular young person whom I have had the privilege of knowing when I read these parables. His “pearl of great value” was a mixture of cocaine and heroin. For that, he sacrificed everything else — his health, his family, a place to sleep with a bed and a roof, all of his worldly possessions — until all he had left were the clothes on his back and his guitar. He loved that guitar. He referred to it as his soul. But then, one day, he pawned the guitar. “I put my soul in the pawn shop.”
With only the clothes on his back and the money he received for his guitar, he was able to afford a point of heroin (one tenth of a gram and just enough for him to get high). Having finally sold his “soul,” this was the pearl of greatest value.
Now, that’s where the parable cuts off, but continuing to track with my friend, something incredible happens. Having scored his heroin, he steps into an alley in order to shoot up and runs into another friend who is also a heroin user but who has no money, no drugs, and nothing of value to sell. What, then, does my friend do with his pearl? He shares it. He splits it — this treasure for which he has sacrificed all else — and he gives half away, without any thought of return. There, in an alley in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, my friend engaged in an act of generosity and self-sacrifice far greater in scale than pretty much every other act of generosity or self-sacrifice that I have seen practiced — whether by Christians or by others. Make what you want about drug use, the value of that pearl to my friend, and the extent of his sacrifice comes nowhere close to any act I have ever done.
Yet my friend is not alone in acting this way. In communities of drug users, as in other communities of poor people, a kind of grace-based economy of giving without thought of return is not uncommon (for more on this, cf., Philippe Bourgois and Jeffrey Schonberg’s aptly titled book, Righteous Dopefiend, wherein the authors explore the “moral economy of sharing” that exists in communities of drug users in San Francisco).
2. R. R. Reno’s Preferential Option… for “the poor”?
I thought of these things recently, because I came across R. R. Reno’s reflections about “The Preferential Option for the Poor” in the June/July 2011 issue of “First Things.” In this piece, Reno asserts that the true poverty of “the poor” (whom he admits to not knowing very well, if at all), is not economic but moral. Thus, he writes:
On this point I agree with many friends on the left who argue that America doesn’t have a proper concern for the poor. Our failure, however, is not merely economic. In fact, it’s not even mostly economic. A visit to the poorest neighborhoods of New York City or the most impoverished towns of rural Iowa immediately reveals poverty more profound and more pervasive than simple material want. Drugs, crime, sexual exploitation, the collapse of marriage—the sheer brutality and ugliness of the lives of many of the poor in America is shocking. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, poverty is not only material; it is also moral, cultural, and religious (CCC 2444), and just these sorts of poverty are painfully evident today…
Preferential option for the poor. A Christian who hopes to follow the teachings of Jesus needs to reckon with a singular fact about American poverty: Its deepest and most debilitating deficits are moral, not financial.
As evidence of this, Reno asserts that “[t]he lower you are on the social scale, the more likely you are to be divorced, to cohabit while unmarried, to have more sexual partners, and to commit adultery.” He then goes on to share two stories from people whom he has known who, unlike Reno, actually appear to have made (at least some professional) contact with poor folks:
A friend of mine who works as a nurse’s aide recently observed that his coworkers careen from personal crisis to personal crisis. As he told me, “Only yesterday I had to hear the complaints of one woman who was fighting with both her husband and her boyfriend.” It’s this atmosphere of personal disintegration and not the drudgery of the job—which is by no means negligible for a nurse’s aide—that he finds demoralizing.
Teachers can tell similar tales. The wife of another friend told me that her middle-school students in a small town in Iowa were perplexed by Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter: “What’s the big deal about Hester and Reverend Dimmesdale gettin’ it on?” It was a sentiment that she wearily told me was of a piece with the meth labs, malt liquor, teen pregnancies, and a general atmosphere of social collapse.
Consequently, while Reno wishes to affirm John Paul II’s assertion that “[t]he needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich,” he does so by claiming the what the poor really need is moral guidance and a shift of focus from “income inequality” to “moral inequality.” Of course, Reno does recognize the lack of (his form of) Christian morality amongst many “progressives” or “bohemians,” and so this moral duty falls upon Christians who are “bourgeios in the best sense.” Thus, he asserts that ” [i]n our society a preferential option for the poor must rebuild the social capital squandered by rich baby boomers, and that means social conservatism.” He then concludes with some examples of what it means to live out this preferential option:
Want to help the poor? By all means pay your taxes and give to agencies that provide social services. By all means volunteer in a soup kitchen or help build houses for those who can’t afford them. But you can do much more for the poor by getting married and remaining faithful to your spouse. Have the courage to use old-fashioned words such as chaste and honorable. Put on a tie. Turn off the trashy reality TV shows. Sit down to dinner every night with your family. Stop using expletives as exclamation marks. Go to church or synagogue.
In this and other ways, we can help restore the constraining forms of moral and social discipline that don’t bend to fit the desires of the powerful—forms that offer the poor the best, the most effective and most lasting, way out of poverty. That’s the truest preferential option—and truest form of respect—for the poor.
3. A Response to Reno
There are a lot of things that one could say about Reno’s efforts to reformulate theological reflections about a “preferential option for the poor” in order to transform it into an affirmation of the social conservatism of middle class Christians. I will limit myself to a few points. I will also chose to respond in a manner that tries to be “chaste” and “honourable” even though it would not be inappropriate to take a different tone when replying to an article that many would consider to be offensive and life-negating.
The first point I want to highlight is the ways in which Reno’s “preferential option for the poor” is one that arises outside of any interaction or relationship with poor people. Reno admits this, with some sense of trepidation at the outset of his reflection:
[Matthew 25.31-46 is] a sobering warning, and I fear that I am typical. For the most part I think about myself: my needs, my interests, my desires. And when I break out of my cocoon of self-interest, it’s usually because I’m thinking about my family or my friends, which is still a kind of self-interest. The poor? Sure, I feel a sense of responsibility, but they’re remote and more hypothetical than real: objects of a thin, distant moral concern that tends to be overwhelmed by the immediate demands of my life. As I said, I’m afraid I’m typical.
Now, this is a decent enough starting point (confession is often related to conversion, coming either before or after that event), but what is troubling about Reno’s article is the way in which his conclusion permits him to remain in exactly the same place… only with less trepidation or fear when he approaches the words ascribed to Jesus in Matthew 25. According to Reno, the way to act responsibly towards the moral concern presented by poor people is to focus on being well-behaved members of the middle class, instead of falling into the moral relativity or hedonism adopted by wealthy liberals. This requires no contact with poor people, and frees one up to chum around with the “[g]ood guys” who have careers and families, and who are somehow involved in their middle class communities. Guys (women are noticeably absent here) who put on ties, only have sex with their wives (single folks and gay people are also absent), and don’t swear or watch reality TV (not even on Jersday!). Thus, Reno is freed to think he is caring for poor people, even though he has nothing to do with them.
Of course, this is a complete betrayal of one of the fundamental tenets of liberation theology: the preferential option for the poor must be practiced — from start to finish — in the pursuit of a trajectory into lived solidarity with the poor. One is incapable of loving or caring for or serving those whom one does not know. One cannot love a remote, hypothetical “object” in the same way that one loves people. Indeed, although I realize I have very far yet to go on my own trajectory of solidarity, one of the things I have learned is how many of the things I believed would be good for poor people, where so wrong-headed. So, sure, like Reno I feel a “sense of responsibility” for poor folks but this is not because I believe they need my moral guidance, but because I’ve realized how much of my bourgeois life is premised upon stealing goods, labour, children, and life from those who are poor. My “moral concern” is not for them, but for the ways in which living a middle class life jeopardizes one’s salvation (a point well made by Jon Sobrino in a collection of essays entitled No Salvation Outside the Poor — the first text I will recommend to anybody interested in liberation theology). If Reno journeyed with poor people, he would learn how misplaced is his paternalism.
This ties into my second point, one that I first encountered in the writings of Jürgen Moltmann (I think the relevant passage is in The Way of Jesus Christ, but I’m not sure). While discussing the various ways in which poor people are marginalised and oppressed, Moltmann talks about political, economic, social and moral or religious factors. Essentially, the elites claim a monopoly not only over wealth, power, and social mechanisms and institutions, but also claim a monopoly on morality. The wealthy horde both goods and goodness. Thus, from the perspective affirmed by the elite members of society (the perspective affirmed by Reno) the poor are considered to be morally inferior. This, then, helps justify treating them as the sort of “objects” described by Reno. In this way, regardless of whether one is operating from charitable or honourable intentions, one is already locked into an ideological perspective that makes it difficult to encounter poor people as they actually exist. This also helps perpetuate the divide between the deserving wealthy and the undeserving poor (i.e. wealthy people who merit the benefits they experience in life due to their strong moral character versus poor people who are clearly suffering because of their inability to live morally — hence the litany of boyfriends, meth labs, malt liquor, and teen pregnancies Reno mentions over against his friends the good guys). In this way, a moral gloss is put upon what are essentially death-dealing and predatory socio-economic and theopolitical arrangements.
Once again, as one gets to know poor people, much about this perspective gets turned around one hundred and eighty degrees. That is why I began with the story of my friend who purchased “the pearl of great value” and then chose to share it with another. What an unheard of act of generosity for those of us who come from other backgrounds. I could multiply stories like that almost endlessly — people who have chosen to abandon a safe place to sleep, so that they were able to care for vulnerable friends, people who have jumped into violent situations and borne the brunt of the blows given in order to protect another, people who genuinely do follow the advice of Isaiah and provide food to the hungry (even when it means them going without), who bring the homeless poor into their homes (even when it means jeopardizing their own housing), and who clothe the naked (even when it means going naked themselves). I have literally seen all of these actions take place amongst poor people. Some on a very regular basis. Unfortunately, one does not see this kind of activity mentioned in Reno’s article. One is tempted to play a little with Isaiah’s text: The pious acts you observe today, the “fast” you choose — the wearing of ties, the chaste speech, the selective viewing of television shows — will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is this the “fast” the Lord chooses? Is this breaking the yoke of oppression? Is this satisfying the needs of the afflicted?
(Short answer: It is not. Which may also be why we fast but the Lord takes no notice…)
Now, I mention these counter examples not to romanticise poor folks and treat them as objects of another kind. I’ve spent enough years journeying in various kinds of relationships with marginalised and abandoned people to know that anybody — from any background — is capable of doing great harm to others. I have seen equally terrible things done by poor people and by rich people. I have known girls who were raped in alleyways when they tried to score some crack and I have also known girls who were raped by well-to-do Christian parents. I have known poor people addicted to blow and I have known wealthy people addicted to the same substance. I have known gang kids who have inflicted terrible beatings onto others, and I’ve seen wealthy suburban kids who have come to “the ghetto” to beat the life out of a sleeping homeless person. People from every background are capable of engaging in acts of death-dealing violence. Still, it seems to me that the greatest acts of generosity, grace, and affection arise more often from amongst poor people. Reno would probably discover this as well, if he chose to spend any time journeying into relationships with folks outside of his circle of good guys.
However, talking about the degrees of morality I’ve witnessed amongst different classes still misses the point of what liberation theologians mean when they talk about God’s preferential option for the poor. The point of the liberation theologians — a point strongly backed by Scripture, although we lack the space for that here (you can click here from some examples of more detailed commentary on that) — is that God exhibits a preferential option for the poor, moves into cruciform solidarity with them, and calls those who worship God to do the same, not because poor people are more or less moral than others but because poor people are more vulnerable than others. The determining factor here is need, the threat of death, and the very limited access some people have to the sort of abundant life that God desires for us all.
Abundant life, it should be noted, that actually could be available to us all but is not because those with power and wealth (those bourgeois people of the best sort whom Reno mentioned earlier) horde and steal it from others. Whether or not they do so knowingly or maliciously is not the point. The point is that it is happening. And a focus upon the personal piety and bourgeois morality Reno terms a “preferential option for the poor” will only further entrench this theft of life. Social conservatism will only perpetuate and sustain structures and practices that are death-dealing. This is obvious to those who have seen the other side of society — who have witnessed the triumph of death as it works itself out in the life of family, friends, roommates or coworkers — but is harder to see from the side of those who are benefiting from the structures. Folks like Reno and his friends, who want to save America by wearing ties.
Thus, I will mention one final example of the moral superiority which poor people often practice. In middle class discourse there is a bit of a fascination with defensive violence. Employing violence to protect a loved one — to stop a daughter being assaulted, to protect a brother, and so on. Yet, structured into the daily lives of the middle class are many grievous acts of violence — our electronics, clothing, kids’ toys, and food are stained with the blood of children in the two-thirds world, our reliance upon fuel, oil and plastics is destroying many forms of life around the earth, our hording of property and wealth is continually assaulting neighbourhoods of poor people (gentrification and the legal criminalization of poverty are both exploding throughout North America), not to mention the fact that the Church Fathers teach us that the extra pair of shoes that we have does not belong to us but belongs to the person who has no shoes and should be rightfully restored to that person.
From the poor we have stolen their goods. We have stolen their communities and their land. We have stolen their labour and the fruits of their labour. We have stolen their youth and their health. We have stolen their children. We have stolen many of their lives. Yet how have poor people treated us? With what I can only term amazing grace. Poor people are not treating us with the same violence with which we have treated them. What we deserve from them is what Reno should find truly scary. Should they follow the laws of rights or of “an eye for an eye” we would be unable to survive. But this is not what is being practiced and it is not the response I have seen. In my own life, I have been welcomed and embraced, loved and celebrated by the poor people whom I have known. This is not because I’m an outstanding person — it is simply because grace is abundant here.
At the end of the day, I find myself wondering if it was worth writing a response to Reno. Folks and all sides of this discussion are so ideologically entrenched — and so determined by their own socio-economic and theopolitical contexts — that I expect nothing to change after I make these remarks. Lord knows, I’ve tried before. I’ve spent many hours trying every rhetorical angle in order to encourage chaste, honourable, decent Christians to care about those for whom God claims a preferential option. I have tried scholarly treatises, I’ve have tried appealing to emotions with sad stories, I’ve tried to gently encourage with “feel good” presentations, I’ve tried to upset people with the hope that their anger might spark them to reflection and change. After all that, no words, arguments, or rhetorical tricks seem more effective than any others. Mostly, people will cling on to privilege in whatever way they can and find a way to put a moral overcoding on top of that privilege in order to appease their consciences and feel like justifiably good people. Consequently, what I wrote here is likely going to be as effective as flipping Reno the bird and telling him to go fuck himself (seriously, the only difference is that Reno might consider the former rhetoric as deserving some thoughtful rejection, whereas the latter rhetoric wouldn’t probably even merit a hearing — either way, no new life-giving change is produced — aside: objecting to swearing is also a good way to bracket out the voices that arise from the margins).
The only thing that seems to produce conversions on any sort of regular basis is when people actually test the claims of the liberation theologians and move towards relationships with those who are poor. This, more than anything else, produces conversions and, in my opinion, gives a lot of credibility to claims that Christ is found in and amongst those who suffer marginalization and abandonment. The irony is that most are not convinced that this move is necessary, and the only thing that will convince them of its necessity is making the move! Still it does make sense in its own way: one can talk to others about God until one is blue in the face, but unless others are encountered by God, that talk isn’t going to make a lot of sense.
Still, we press on and hope that others will come and taste and see that the Lord is good and that goodness is abundant in the company of those who are poor.