We live in a society that is very comfortable talking in terms of human rights and social justice, but we are troubled when the vocabulary shifts to a more combative linguistic register, says Kevin Hargaden.
Sunday, November 18th is the second year that the Roman Catholic Church will be marking the World day of the Poor. Pope Francis, who instituted the celebration, has called on Christians to “see how far our way of life must be from that of the world, which praises, pursues and imitates the rich and powerful, while neglecting the poor and deeming them useless and shameful.” Regardless of our faith convictions, few of us can read those words and not recognise ourselves; it will be a long time before there is a self-help book counted among the bestsellers at airport bookstores written by a single mother struggling to make ends meet while living in a “Family Hub”.
Acknowledging a Problem
In his address, Francis continues his well-established pattern of provoking Christians to go beyond trite words to really examine how their thoughts, actions, and even prayers correspond (or fail to correspond!) to the things they say they believe. While even the most ruthless of plutocrats can talk about the injustice of poverty, few of us live lives ordered so as to relieve it.
Yet for all its praiseworthy aspects, there is something a little off-putting about the Pope’s remarks, and perhaps even the whole idea of the issue being marked on Sunday. Talk of “the poor” can leave us cold. When “the poor” are addressed, it always seems to be from a position of superiority. It is not hard to imagine the term being deployed in a paternalistic, patronising, or perhaps even derogatory fashion. Like all generalisations, we are generally disinclined to trust them. “The poor” may be a meaningful demographic grouping, but when the all the individual stories and the rich details of personhood are coalesced together into a single category, something important is lost. We might even protest that one of the most theologically significant aspects of Francis’ papacy has been how often he has looked members of “the poor” in the eyes, dignified them with his attention, and in so doing, bore witness to the truth of things. There are people who are poor; “the poor” however, is always an abstraction.
The Pragmatic Response
It is important to recognise the risk in the language of “the poor”. Christians are invested in truthful speech, and abstractions of this nature can often tempt us into falsehood. When the specificity of individual lives are lost in a grand aggregate, something more significant than sociological precision has been forfeited. The use of “the poor” in a way that is patronising should always be called out and opposed.
But there is a pragmatic reason why so able a communicator as Pope Francis keeps using the term. We can recognise that it is a phrase that can carry paternalistic or even derogatory cadences. This echo is one of the reasons why we sometimes have a strong aversion to the term. But when we step back and consider that reaction, we come to see that language alone is not capable of being paternalistic or derogatory. “The poor” can smack of such stances because we live in a society that is paternalistic and is derogatory towards individuals who are poor.
Being able to talk about those persons, with all their individual, concrete specificity, in terms of a group as “the poor” is politically important. After all, “the poor” are not an accident of nature, just a sad thing that happens, to be lamented for sure, but otherwise beyond our alleviation. Speaking in shorthand (and granting that the full story is bound to be much longer!), “the poor” are a class of people made by “the rich”.
If we are honest with ourselves, we have to wrestle with the possibility that the emotional reaction we have to the phrase might just as much be because of the latent potential for social conflict hidden in the term, as with the risk of paternalism or other inappropriate attitudes. We live in a society that is very comfortable talking in terms of human rights and social justice, but we are troubled when the vocabulary shifts to a more combative linguistic register. Francis has demonstrated that he is not afraid of stating things plainly. If we recognise that the rapidly expanding inequality in our societies is a problem, then the rhetorical ability to group the oppressed class together for the sake of solidarity is critical and must be preserved.
The Theological Response
The Bible is a remarkable collection of texts written by the poor and for the poor. It contains over 2,000 references to the need to provide for those who are impoverished. The recurring call to care for the “widows, orphans, and strangers in the land” is no bland invitation to engage in a little charity. The economic arrangement of Israel was established so that debt-forgiveness was built in, that harvests acknowledged the very poorest, and times of rest were guaranteed to every creature, including a family’s livestock. Still, the Hebrew Scriptures anticipate that “the rich” will use their relative strength to further immiserate “the poor”. In the words of the great Irish biblical scholar, Christopher Wright, “oppression is by the far the major recognized cause of poverty” in the Old Testament. Proverbs 13:23 warns us that:
A poor man’s field may produce abundant food,
but injustice sweeps it away.
In the imagination of the Scriptures, “the poor” include those who lack material resources, social status, or the right ethnic identity. Without being blind to the role played by natural disasters or personal irresponsibility, “the poor” are created by the abuse of State power, the corruption of the judiciary, and rampant greed.
The word that most commonly deployed for “the poor” is anawim, which literally means those who are “bowed down”, or heavy burdened. That there are individuals who are in desperate need is not news to anyone. But the Bible is clear that there is a meaningful social category of people who share this lowly and oppressed status. It is not a theme confined to the Hebrew Scriptures. It is taken up by Mary in her revolutionary prayer, the Magnificat, where she praises God as the one who pulls down the might and exalts the humble, filling the hungry with good things while sending the rich away empty. The Sermon on the Mount rotates around the ideas of the righteous poor, those who are disregarded and discarded in the way that Francis identifies, but who have the attention of God. Rather than being paternalistic or derogatory, the use of the phrase “the poor” is essential to the Bible’s subversive social agenda.
The Historical Response
If for no other reason, Pope Francis would have warrant to use this phrase that can feel so awkward to our ears, on the basis of this Scriptural testimony. But there is another reason why Christians might want to preserve the phrase in our public speech.
Even though we live in an increasingly post-Christian society, a lot of the assumptions we make about justice remain fundamentally shaped by the Gospel. We should be grateful that most everyone thinks (even if only partially) that charity is a good thing and that those who cannot provide for themselves should be helped. But that consensus can disguise the extent to which Christian conceptions of social justice are not common-sense. Humans are not natively born with this sense that the stronger are obliged to help the weaker. That is a perspective crafted and shaped and embedded over centuries – even millennia – by countless practices, initiatives, and teachings that sought to embody Christian faithfulness.
And the oft-neglected historical fact is that the conception of politics that imagines the rich must help the poor is a Christian creation. As the historian Denise Buell puts it, “‘the poor’ did not constitute a social class in Greek or Roman society.” People who were poor existed – proliferated – in Greek and Roman society. But they had no social purchase because there was no language to describe what bound them in common. As Susan Holman puts it, “while poverty was certainly a reality in the ancient world, the poor did not comprise a discrete social or political category, and poverty was not a criteria for assistance.”
The early church grew largely through the conversion of slaves and women, two strands of the oppressed class that Christianity came to call “the poor”. The Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas famously asserts that “You can only act in the world you can see, and the only way you learn to see is by learning to say.” When Christians taught the world to say “the poor”, they gave them eyes to see. From its earliest records, the community that came to be called church was remarkable for its unflagging commitment to provide continuously for persons in need, male and female, young and old, free and slave. David Bentley Hart notes that by the year 251AD, “the church in Rome alone had more than fifteen hundred dependents on its rolls, and even small local churches kept storerooms of provisions for the poor, such as oil, wine, and clothing (especially, tellingly enough, women’s clothing).” Institutions we take for granted like hospitals, orphanages, and care homes all begin to take shape in the lives of these communities, which were still experiencing sporadic bouts of persecution. Care for “the poor” was utterly central to Christian practice and witness. Within a few generations of Jesus dying in ignominy outside the walls of a provincial city in Palestine, the crusadingly pagan Emperor Julian had unknowingly capitulated when he wrote, “It is a disgrace that these impious Galilaeans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well.” He not only recognised the seriousness of the early church, but had fully absorbed the vocabulary of their social revolution.
Francis explicitly grants in his address ahead of Sunday that “the poor” is a generic label. His commitment to living with and working for those who are impoverished is more than an example to us. It is a prophetic gesture about the form Christian leadership must take in this post-Christian age. If and when the language of “the poor” is used without this familiarity and solidarity with the suffering that is brought about by lack, it will surely soon become patronising, paternalistic, or even insulting.
But a final word must be reserved for those who seek to achieve social justice through the regulation of language. I have often heard the opposition to the use of the generic phrase “the poor”, but I have never heard it from a person who was poor. In my admittedly anecdotal experience, I have encountered scepticism to the phrase from those who are concerned on behalf of others. The poor people I know don’t want society to redistribute vocabulary; they want society to redistribute resources.
The utter removal of the concept is a politically suicidal move, that would render the poor as they were for the Romans; invisible and irrelevant. The replacement phrases – which often take the form of something like “people experiencing poverty” – suffer from being stylistically clumsy. More substantively, they also fail to account for reality. After all, just as “the poor” is a generalisation, “poverty” is an abstraction. It is a higher level phrase that points to a multitude of lower level needs. Poverty names a relative lack of resources. It cannot really be experienced. A poor person may experience hunger, or thirst, homelessness, or marginalisation. But poverty is the amalgamation of these experiences.
Such philosophical musings may be too obscure for many readers and too speculative for those who have the time to follow such an argument. Ahead of the Second World Day of the Poor it may be more appropriate to focus our attention on the beggar that we call king. In one of those invitations that everyone has heard, but few people have understood, Jesus says, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.” When we remember that the Biblical conception of “the poor” is those who are bent over carrying weights too great for their shoulders, this invitation takes on a new dimension. If the Gospel is true, then it must be a refuge to the poor/to those experiencing poverty. The ability to strive for that goal demands plain speech. For that reason alone, the phrase “the poor” might yet have relevance.