Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Where are the Dorothy Days of yesteryear?

This is part of an argument between Dan Schultz and Nicholas Laccetti.   Dan is formerly "Pastor Dan" of "Street Prophets," and Mr. Laccetti is the Communications Coordinator for Union Theological Seminary.  Strong credentials on either side, then.  I've written about and to Pastor Dan more than once (though I doubt he's ever noticed; and I don't think that link is exhaustive), and I just found the Laccetti article Schultz was most recently responding to (one step at a time, ya know).  Here is the heart of Laccetti's argument:

Instead, it needs to be clear that there is no potential for a moral revival in this nation without centering the leadership and unity of the poor and dispossessed. It is the ethics of the poor that need to be made normative if we are ever going to see the “radical revolution of values” that Dr. King called for in his famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church in 1967.

It is the poor and dispossessed as a class whose ethics and struggle must be centered if we are going to have a real moral revival — not the ethics of the “religious left” or of progressive Democrats. Luckily, doing just that — centering the leadership and unity of the poor in all our attempts to create change in this country — is not at all contrary to the values of those of us who identify as Christian.
Ah, yes, the "leadership and unity of the poor and dispossessed."  And are the "poor and dispossessed" more unified than, say, the Democratic party, or the Republican party?  Or do we privilege one set of voices we identify as "p & d", over another set, especially if that set is too conservative in their politics?  The "ethics of the poor" must become "normative;" but what ethics are those?  And do we identify those ethics for them?

You know, the thing about Augustine is that he only addressed people who could understand what he was saying.  Aquinas was far more technical in his works, but again he addressed his peers.  He didn't address "the poor" or the "dispossessed," and the primary teachings of the Church for centuries was to give away one's possessions to the poor, in order to better serve God.  Kings even washed the feet of the poor on Maundy Thursday, to lower themselves to the level of servants to the least of these among us.  Nothing about "the ethics of the poor" and "centering the leadership and unity of the poor and dispossessed" addresses actual individuals living in poverty now.  If there was a failing in liberation theology, that was the failing (if you'll pardon a discursive point).  Many of the theological writings, meant to be read by serious theologians in the Church, are almost impenetrable to anyone but theologians.  And the theologians didn't want their theology penetrated, so the seed fell mostly on rocky ground.  In the world, it fell among wolves, among governments (including, so the stories go, the CIA) who actively worked to destroy it (and who can doubt it?  In the Reagan era it was immediately labeled "Marxist," the stamp of death which allowed any manner of response to it, as long as the "stain" was bleached out.)  Yet here we are again, addressing the poor as if they were a class of people as immutable as national origin or skin color or, in some cases still, gender.

And real people living in real poverty disappear again behind a screen of words.

Pastor Dan's solution is to turn to political parties:  there is no other solution, he declares:

If you want to make a real difference in the lives of the poor, you have to be involved in government. And to be effective in your involvement in government, you have to be involved in politics, in the partisan sense that most people understand that term.
Except we did that, too; and where are even the bones of that effort?  What's left of The Great Society except Medicare, and that only because it serves so many white people and we have such a soft spot for Grandma and Grandpa who, after all, "earned" their medical care (even though, living so long after retirement on increasingly expensive medical care they didn't; at all.  But it's a comforting lie we tell ourselves because it's still money that matters in the U.S.A., and not even Grandma and Grandpa are immune to that.)  The War on Poverty ended like the war in Vietnam, except we've more successfully convinced ourselves we never fought it, and it was never worth fighting.

So here we are:  when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.  How many poor people do you imagine either Laccetti or Schultz actually know?  People who don't have access to the internet because they can't afford the computer, the cell phone, the internet access fees?  Such people are invisible to them.

I am reading (Simone Weil's) essays as a part of my Lenten reading...She says that we "...must experience every day, both in the spirit and the flesh, the pains and humiliations of poverty...and further we must do something which is harder than enduring in poverty, we must renounce all compensations: in our contacts with the people around us we must sincerely practice the humility of a naturalized citizen in the country which has received us."

I keep reminding the young people who come to work with us that they are not naturalized citizens...They are not really poor. We are always foreigners to the poor. So we have to make up for it by "renouncing all compensations..."
That kind of humility has to be our guide; there can be no other.  We have to start there.  We have to start with persons, with "irreplaceable singularity."

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.

And we have to start with our own singularity:

These conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your own cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it, so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you now know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, "God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us"? But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."
James 4:1-6


  1. I have kept this link (did I get it here?) as a reminder that I have never been poor. On being poor and that no matter what I may think, I cannot understand truly what that means to those that are. To say that we are foreigners is very good, I tend to remind myself to not be a tourist when volunteering. At our annual synod meeting we had several presenters on the idea of accompaniment for social ministry. It is not our role to lead or direct, but to work with and let those in need provide the direction. We are not the band leader, we accompany. I think this is closer to where we need to go.

  2. "I don't know what tomorrow will bring. I am at peace here and searching-trying to learn what the Lord is asking. Ita is a beautiful, faith-filled young woman. I am learning much from her. At this point, I would hope to be able to go on, God willing. . . . This seems what he is asking of me at this moment. The work is really what Archbishop Romero called 'acompanamiento' [accompanying the people], as well as searching for ways to bring help."

    --Maura Clarke

    Yes. Much closer to where we need to go.

  3. Hi Rmj. This is the author of that RD piece here. Sorry, but your reflection on my piece is quite misleading, though I appreciate your sensitivity to academic theologians writing /about/ the poor and dispossessed. In fact, I am not the comms coordinator of Union Seminary, but of the Kairos Center, which emerged out of the history of poor people's organizations and movements stretching back to the original Poor People's Campaign, to the welfare rights movement, to the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and to the National Union of the Homeless (much of this is actually in the article, which is really written from the perspective of my organization's work, not my personal views). We are part of a long nationwide and worldwide network of organizations and movements of the poor -- we are not academics speaking solely about or for the poor. I'm sorry you got that impression from the article. But the poor and dispossessed are in fact organizing and struggling in a far more radical and structured way than you suggest with your slightly sentimental response to my debate with Dan Schultz. If anything, I think real organizations of the poor (see, for example, Chaplains on the Harbor in the Grays Harbor County, WA, Put People First! PA near Philly, the Vermont Workers' Center, the homeless union movement in Salinas, CA, and many many more organizations we are privileged to have worked and organized with) are much more radical than the "Dorothy Days of yesteryear," as much as I, as a Catholic, think Day was an inspiring figure. This is because, unlike the Catholic Worker movement, which could often spiritualize and sentimentalize poverty, the poor and dispossessed of today are using their insights and organizing to build actual political power. This is the heart of the idea of the revived Poor People's Campaign. When we talk about the leadership of the poor -- this is not a theoretical or academic concept.