Monday, January 26, 2004

The Poor Oppress Me

A week and a half ago, Jennifer (I don't recall her last name) came to our door. It was raining out and Jennifer, who was wearing jeans and an old knit sweater, was soaked and shivering from the cold. I'd never met her before. She was short and fat, had tattoos on her forearms; her hands were calloused and her face had heavy lines--she looked to be in her late 40s, but poverty (and abuse) can age you prematurely. She was desperate for $13 so she could afford a bus ticket to Oklahoma to visit her ailing mother, and had--in a wet garment bag--a wedding dress she was willing to sell. She told me that she'd already walked downtown (they had no car), and tried to sell it at a couple of second-hand stores, but no one would buy it. She stood dripping on our doorstep pleading with me, fumbling with the zipper of the bag, explaining to me the quality of the dress, and her lack of any other funds (lots of debt, no job, husband on disability), while our oldest daughter stared at this stranger from behind me. I told her to put the bag aside; I'd give her a ride to an ATM (we had no cash in the house) and get her enough to buy her ticket. We chatted on the way; she learned I was Mormon, I learned what had happened to her husband (back injury). After I gave her $15, I took her back to her apartment, which has about a half-mile from our home.

She could, of course, have been making up the whole thing. Maybe she needed to pay rent. Maybe she wanted to rent some movies. Maybe she wanted to buy drugs. Maybe she'd lost a bet. Maybe she was too embarrassed to say the money was for food. Moreover, maybe she'd already gone around our whole block with the same story. It really doesn't matter to me; I've long since decided that I have neither the wisdom nor the heart to subject the decisions and actions--the strategies and humiliations--of those poorer than I to critical analysis. On the contrary, whenever I'm approached by those in need (and I've been approached a lot), I feel drawn out, weighted down, and pulled towards a response: any response, the more immediate the better. A dollar for the homeless man here, fifteen dollars for the woman on the doorstop there, putting someone up in a hotel room over there. The poor oppress me, or perhaps it's the fact of poverty which does: it burdens me, robs me of judgment and independence, obliges and makes demands of me, turns me into a beggar like them (though of course, to compare the oppression of one's conscience to that of actual financial hardship is insulting in the extreme).

I'm not the only one for whom poverty is an intellectual or spiritual tripwire. Just a day or two after I met Jennifer, I read David K. Shipler's presentation of the story of Caroline Payne in The New York Times Magazine. It is a depressing story, a pathetic and desperate one. Caroline is one face of the working poor in America, a woman who has made a few bad choices in her life and had more than a few bad days, and has found--as many millions have found--that the free market is remarkably unforgiving of either. The result is that, after decades of hard, continuous work at bottom-level jobs--at a Wal-Mart, a clothing factory, homeless shelter, a thrift store, a tampon factory, a bank, and so forth--Caroline can barely put food on the table for herself and her mentally handicapped daughter, Amber. It's not an easy story to read; Caroline lacks a stable home, a supportive family, helpful friends, a secure future, and all of her teeth. Hers is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a happy or fulfilled life. Shipler's article sparked numerous, angry threads in the blogosphere, as conservatives and liberals and socialists and libertarians had at each other with great viciousness, trying to prove that the capitalism was exploitive, that the welfare state corrupts, that the rich are greedy, and that the poor deserve it. Nothing cuts those of us in the middle and upper classes to the quick more quickly than the fact of poverty, and its ugly intractableness. Shipler knows this, which is why he spreads the blame:

"Poverty is a peculiar, insidious thing, not just one problem but a constellation of problems: not just inadequate wages but also inadequate education, not just dead-end jobs but also limited abilities, not just insufficient savings but also unwise spending, not just the lack of health insurance but also the lack of healthy households. The villains are not just exploitative employers but also incapable employees, not just overworked teachers but also defeated and unruly pupils, not just bureaucrats who cheat the poor but also the poor who cheat themselves."

For some, such blanket assessments (the causes of poverty are nearly endless, and all proposed solutions likely fruitless) are justification to wash one's hands of the whole endeavor. Work hard, treat your employees well, hope for the best, encourage economic growth and make some provision for the needy, sure--but that's the extent of it. For others, such a broad assessment of the problem of poverty is a cop-out, a dodge of that one true revolutionary progressive solution that just hasn't been tried yet. (Laura says it brings out her "inner commie.") I wish I could say that I confront poverty with such clarity, whether in terms of ideology or practicality or something in between. But no: hardships like Caroline's make a fool of me. They make me weak, and remind me of an encounter I had while when I was serving a mission for my church, years ago, in South Korea.

I was working with a Korean church member, and had been in the country about five months. We'd visited a contact in a small town on the outskirts of our area, and were waiting for a bus to take us home. It was just your average street in a small, rural Korean town: muddy roads, half-finished construction projects, groups of men talking, working, waiting or drinking. About ten feet away from the bus stop, someone had dumped a pile of garbage in the gutter, just a minute or two before. Suddenly, a woman appeared from out of an alleyway behind me: hair cropped short, face scarred and burned, thin, wearing nothing but a t-shirt, sweats and sandals (though it was winter). She dove into the pile of garbage, and began to eat, desperately. She grabbed rotten and cast-off vegetables and bit into them; she scooped up something soft (rice mush? ice cream?) and gobbled it, smearing it all over her face. I watched her, revolted and amazed. She turned, and caught my eye. A man who had been waiting for a bus along with us walked over to the woman, yelled at her, and proceeded to kick her in the ribs and stomach and face. She rolled over, bleeding, but kept on grabbing at food in the pile. Then our bus pulled up, my companion said, "Let's go," and I got on the bus and lost sight of her. And I thought right then, and have thought ever since: I've just committed a terrible sin. She looked at me, and I did nothing. Much of what I'd been taught about "big sins" and "little sins" seemed to wash away in that instant, and I thought: what greater failure could there possibly be than what I have just done?

I acknowledge that my ignorance was total: I had no idea where that woman was from or what her real needs were or whether that man kicking her was her father or husband or whether she was a criminal or a mental patient or anything else. Moreover, I also know full well that, practically speaking, there was nothing I could have done. I was a twenty-year-old kid who with little knowledge of the local language or culture. I had very little money on me, and besides, someone driven crazy by hunger and heaven knows what else needs more than money. The idea of me trying to drag her onto the bus along with us would have been ludicrous, and where would I have taken her? To our apartment? To the mission office? To a hospital? I was a proselytizing missionary: I wasn't trained to provide welfare to those in need, and didn't have the resources available to do so anyway. There are passages in the Mormon scriptures which remind us that we are all beggars, and caution us against judging those who petition us for aid (these, for example); but those same passages--as if their author had fear of a too-radical application--also make allowances for those without the resources to help, and suggest that such things were to be done with "wisdom and order" in any case (see here). I agree. And yet...I could have helped. I could have given her everything in my wallet, and walked home. I could have stayed with her, stood in the way of her attacker, wandered around to shops begging for food for her, selling my possessions (my briefcase? my suit? my camera?) if need be. It would have broken mission rules. It might have gotten me beat up. It probably would have ended in farce and an embarrassment to the local church, with both of us starving and abused on that street corner. But I could have done it, and at least she wouldn't have been alone. It probably wouldn't have been wise or orderly, but at least I would have responded--and that, whatever the effectual end of my response, I thought then and continue to think now, would have been better than doing nothing.

Certain thinkers, drawing upon Rousseau, would likely suggest that the feeling I had for that woman--and for Jennifer, and all the other desperate folk before whom I have felt singled out and called upon--isn't charity or love, but rather a corrupted kind of compassion or pity. Corrupted because such "compassion," according to this view, isn't outwardly directed at all; rather, it's a twisted self-love, a sense of obligation which rests not so much on fellow-feeling as on self-remorse: their pain causes me pain, reminds me that "there but for the grace of God go I," and otherwise engenders sympathy. Real charity responds to the whole person, in light of an eternal (or natural, or traditional: pick your moral philosophy) scale of virtue that helps us judge what is needed and what is not. Pity, on the other hand, responds instinctually to the hurts of others, as we respond instinctually to remove the causes of our own discomfort. Such an interpretation might link my responses to deprivation and desperation to the failures of modern politics and the welfare state: giving aid without critically assessing those requesting it is a recipe for dependency, they might say; it's a (self-)proclamation of sincerity and feeling, rather than actual (and therefore demanding) love.

I don't disagree with that criticism, at least not entirely. There is a real weakness, in the classical sense, in my genuflection before those who beg. But moral concepts change and evolve, and not all evolutions are negative. If one believes (as I do) that ideas are not abstract, but rather are embedded in a world of material and history, then one might also consider the possibility that the meaning of ideas might change as the times change, and yet still be as truthful as before. One scholar once called Rousseau "the prophet of history who despaired of history," and he was right: Rousseau saw better than any other thinker of his day that the modern world, the world of markets and contracts and the masses, was separated by an enormous gulf from thomogeneous, hierarchical, homogenous, trusting world of the past; as much as we might want that world to return, it is lost, and hence must be recreated rather than recovered. Rousseau's project was a large and in many ways dubious and dangerous one, but in regards to modern forms of attachments perhaps he had moral cause (even if he perhaps didn't acknowledge such) to make the claims he did. Perhaps it is, in fact, an advance to be weak in the face of hunger, sorrow, suffering, and the furtiveness and desperation of those who want. No doubt the social and economic breaking down of old orders (of class, lineage, race, gender, and so forth) has resulted in a great deal of dysfunction and pain in our civilization; but maybe that breaking down has also allowed the call of weakness, of submission, of being a humble and responsive servant to all--in other words, the call of Christ, at least as I understand it--to be heard better than ever before. Perhaps with the extension of sympathetic subjectivity has come some moral good. Or so I told myself, as I tried to salve my conflicted heart after hearing Jennifer's humiliatingly abject thank-yous when I dropped her off.

Poverty, squalor, ignorance, want: all are, I think, offenses before God. It is a sin that any of God's children should suffer such. Jesus warned us that offenses will come--must come, in fact--but still condemned those who are instruments of their coming (Matthew 18:7). Rightly or wrongly, I feel that condemnation. It's a strange thing ("realistically" speaking, it is a nonsensical thing) to feel at fault for, or oppressed by, the stranger. But then, perhaps I'm a stranger here myself.