Monday, December 10, 2012

"Am I my brother's keeper?"

I don't have any particular insights to add to this story.  By now the picture is familiar, and you probably know that the man without shoes is not technically "homeless" because he has an apartment in the Bronx, and he's not wearing the shoes because he could be killed for them.  The situation is, as Paul Raushenbush reminds us, complicated.

But how complicated, really?  And do we complicate it ourselves?  We have divided the world into the deserving poor, and the undeserving poor.  Maybe that's even putting it backwards, because the "deserving" may either deserve their poverty, or deserve our charity; and vice versa.  I don't know how old the attitude is.  It's impossible to read the gospels and not think of some as deserving (the blind, the lame, the beggars) and some as not ("Do you see this woman?") unless we re-imagine their stories (foot washing as an act of divine, not carnal, love). But was that the attitude of the original audience?  Or were all the poor undeserving of charity?  And have we really moved that far forward with our careful distinctions of who deserves our generosity, and who doesn't?

I actually wrote a paper on this in seminary, prompted by the selling of useless paper "flowers" as a way to raise money for some charitable purpose.  There are sociological theories as to why that works better than the simple abstraction of requesting cash for, essentially, nothing.  But the real bite is giving something to an individual, and then finding out that individual is not who you imagined him or her to be.  When I was in active parish ministry, people came to the door all the time (we lived on the church grounds) asking for help.  I knew pastors in town who would only give out coupons good for hamburgers at the local fast-food operation, or would drive with people to gas stations rather than give up "gas money."  I always figured it was hard enough asking for money; and even if it wasn't, what did it matter to me?  I wish I'd known then this quote from C.S. Lewis:

"Another things that annoys me is when people say, "Why did you give that man money? He'll probably go and drink it." My reply is, "But if I kept it, I should have probably drunk it."

When our giving still contains a moral judgment, still maintains a moral reproach, is it a moral act to give?  We are back to the problem of the gift:  is it a gift if it is given knowingly, if we give knowing who it goes to and why we gave and when we expect some moral return on our financial investment?  Can we give without expecting some moral benefit to ourselves, some accrual of points for aiding the figment of our imagination, rather than the real individual before us?

If there is gift, the given of the gift (that which one gives, that which is given, the gift as given thing or as act of donation) must not come back to the giving (let us not already say to the subject, to the donor). It must not circulate, it must not be exchanged, it must not in any case be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange, by the movement of circulation, of the circle in the form of return to the point of departure. If the figure of the circle is essential to economics the gift must remain aneconomic. Not that it remains foreign to the circle, but it must keep a relation of foreignness to the circle, a relation without relation of familiar foreignness. It is perhaps in this sense that the gift is the impossible.
--Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, tr. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1994), 7.

The gift stands outside the circle of economy, or exchange which is made in return for an exchange.  If it doesn't, is it a gift?  Or merely a purchase?  Do we give to the poor?  Do we give to be charitable?  Or do we purchase good feelings, a sense of mercy, an emotion of worthiness by our act of kindness?

Why do we give at all, if it is impossible?

My favorite story of giving comes from the gospels; but from John the Baptist, not Jesus:
And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"  In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."  Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."  Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

--Luke 3:10-14

John isn't urging charity here, and the directive is not means tested.  If you have more (who can wear two coats at a time?), share with those who have less.  You give because they need; not because it earns something for you.  It isn't even a gift.  It is simple justice.  It is merely being your brother's keeper.  Or, to put it another way:

The command is clear: the hungry person is dying now, the naked person is freezing now, the person in debt is beaten now-and you want to wait until tomorrow? "I'm not doing any harm," you say. "I justwantto keep what I own, that's all." You own! You are like someone who sits down in a theater and keeps everyone else away, saying that what is there for everyone's use is your own. . . . If everyone took only what they needed and gave the rest to those in need, there would be no such thing as rich and poor. After all, didn't you come into life naked, and won't you return naked to the earth?

The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry person; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the person who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the person with no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help.
--Basil, 4th century

Or perhaps we are bound by the "rule of reciprocation."  Perhaps we cannot give without getting something in return:  a paper flower, a warm feeling, a sense that we did some good, not just that we gave away our cash.  Are we truly bound by an iron rule that "thou shalt not take without giving in return"?  Perhaps we think we are; but Derrida and C.S. Lewis and St. Basil all point out that we don't have to be.  For every culture that teaches this rule, there is another part of the culture that teaches simple charity, charity as risky as that shown to Elijah.  Charity isn't defined as "giving away all you have," but neither is it defined as an economic transaction in which there must be an exchange.  But that, of course, leads us to a very difficult proposition indeed:

On what condition does goodness exist beyond all calculation? On the condition that goodness forget itself, that the movement be a movement of the gift that renounces itself, hence a movement of infinite love. Only infinite love can renounce itself and, in order to become finite, become incarnated in order to love the other, to love the other as a finite other. This gift of infinite love comes from someone and is addressed to someone; responsibility demands irreplaceable singularity.
Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, tr. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 50-51.

It is that irreplaceable singularity which troubles us the most.  We want to keep that for ourselves.  We don't want to grant it to the object of our charitable impulse.  Until we can, though, we can't be charitable at all; and we continue to do wrong to everyone we could help, but fail to help.


  1. Now, that's what I call a hard teaching. Makes you want to go and point it out to people who say religion is all about people believing what they want to believe and comforting self-deception.

    You could take several life times to make any progress. Or you could just give stuff away without thinking too much about your role in it.

  2. You could take several life times to make any progress. Or you could just give stuff away without thinking too much about your role in it.

    Our refusal to let go of "our" property is an interesting quandary. If I give you money, is it still my money? Or is it now yours?

    This is another aspect of Derrida's analysis of the "gift." Do we ever give in order to give? Or is it only in order to receive (praise, thanks, gratitude, etc.)? If we don't give in order to give, do we truly give? If we don't release what we give, if we don't let it go on its way without us, have we truly given it?

    Funny: if we sell something, we let it go. But if we give something, we remain powerfully attached to it. It is money that matters. Or, at least, it's property that is most important; and property that is mine, remains mine until I let go of it.

    If I ever let go of it.....

  3. I actually wrote a paper on this in seminary, prompted by the selling of useless paper "flowers" as a way to raise money for some charitable purpose. There are sociological theories as to why that works better than the simple abstraction of requesting cash for, essentially, nothing.

    But there is a tradition, dating back to the Bible (well probably before), of helping people to help themselves rather than giving money directly, perhaps because justice (unlike charity, which also is voluntary for individuals in a way that justice is not) doesn't merely entail ensuring the hungry have food and the homeless have shelter (although that is certainly a necessary component of justice as too few in modern society realize) but because justice entails that all people can be meaningful participants in society, including in making their own living to the extent that is possible.

    For example, the miracle Elisha worked in 2 Kings 4:1-7 wasn't that the widow's vessels filled with silver but that they filled with oil to sell.

  4. My example is perhaps a bit unclear, as the person selling the "flower" was not a recipient of the charity, merely a volunteer for the collection effort. The "sale" was to encourage donations, not to "employ" the person collecting the money, or even the people making the flowers (they were manufactured products, not, again, the work of recipients of the money collected for charity).

    Which is what made it particularly bothersome to me.

    Your elucidation of the tradition is in keeping with the teaching of John the Baptist: you don't become responsible for the life of the poor, but you are responsible for providing what relief you have at hand. Giving someone a coat when you have two, or food when they have none, puts them back into society. Indeed, current scholarly thinking on the healings by Jesus focus less on miraculous "cures" and more on a recognition that the diseased, or the lame, or the blind, are still human beings. Eyesight may not have really been restored, under this reasoning, but the person was reinstated as a "meaningful participant in society." Which, of course, means that after Jesus passes, it's up to society to carry on with making that person a meaningful participant again; especially because society was very much involved in excluding them to begin with.