October 13 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


A gaping wound in the body of Christ

Christians radically changed society’s view of the poor in the Middle Ages, but the poverty gap is now increasingly widening, and prejudiced attitudes are returning. ELIZABETH BREUNIG argues that we have a duty to fight for charity and justice.

Our saviour was poor. “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ,” St Paul wrote, “that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

It is hard now to realise just how radical that is. The din of time has mellowed the force of the fact. A different challenge presented itself to Christianity’s early preachers and practitioners: convincing others, and themselves, that such a thing was really possible, and that it mattered.

It is worth noting that the ancient Roman social imagination was not organised around poles of poverty and wealth, but rather citizenship versus barbarianism. This is not to say that there were no poor people in ancient Rome; there were, of course. But their poverty itself was not a major source of social concern. “Poverty, in itself, gave no entitlement,” according to historian Peter Brown. “Those who received benefits from the wealthy received them not because they were poor but because they were citizens.”

Which is not to say the ancients held the poor in high esteem—a failure to focus on poverty did not imply an absence of stigma. On the contrary, an ancient Roman legal text off-handedly identified poor people among those unworthy of presenting complaints in courts of law or giving testimony.

Christian authors would modify this rule in the Middle Ages, on the grounds that poverty itself wasn’t a moral failure, and wasn’t ‘a kind of crime.’ But to get to that point, the preachers of late antiquity were tasked with reshaping the imaginations of their hearers

For them, the poor had to be, in some sense, invented, and their poverty presented as a moral issue. Fledgling ancient Christians were now asked to see in a new and peculiar light those who were living in poverty. The story of this reinvention is told in the sermons of late antiquity, a period roughly between the third and eighth centuries, right around the time that Christianity was gaining serious ground in terms of adherence, authority and civic attention.

“The poor man seeks money and has it not; a man asks for bread, and your horse champs a gold bit under his teeth,” St Ambrose of Milan wrote. “And precious ornaments delight you, although others do not have grain.”

To the pre-Christian imagination this scenario might’ve landed as gauche or petty; it’s in poor taste, after all, to notice the humiliation of a fellow citizen and carry on without mercy.

But Ambrose insisted that it was worse than impolite; it was morally wrong: “Mercy is indeed a part of justice, so that if you wish to give to the poor, this mercy is justice… since the Lord our God has willed this earth to be the common possession of all and its fruit to support all.” The poor, in other words, have a claim and a right to the fruits of the earth, because God gave the comfort of nature to all to hold in common.

The preachers of late antiquity set themselves to work upending the ­reactive, negative notions that developed about the poor among a newly accountable upper class.

“You are often idling at the theatres all day, or in the council-chambers, or in useless conversation,” St John Chrysostom said. “You blame many—but you fail to consider yourself as ever doing anything evil or idle. And do you condemn this poor and miserable person who lives the whole day in entreaties, teas, and a thousand difficulties?”

St Chrysostom elsewhere argued that there’s no more virtue in the acquisition of wealth, often via great inheritances, than the collapse into poverty: at least a poor man living in poverty doesn’t deny others use of the land.

Christ, having been Himself poor, was believed to hold the earthly poor especially close—a strange thought to a culture more accustomed to thinking of gods favouring heroes, great beauties and bold conquerors.

The preachers of late antiquity transformed their era’s view of poverty and the poor. The Christian imagination, as distinct from the pagan Roman imagination, became accustomed to marking gaps—between the rich and the poor, the living and the dead, the human and the divine—and setting about closing them, in part because the Christian imagination envisioned an original perfection of humankind which confirmed the promise of this kind of unity. We were once neither rich nor poor, but held all things in common.

Our journey as Christians consists in part of getting ourselves back to this original unity, through the unity of all things in Christ, who was rich, and yet poor; who conquered death, leaving only life; who was fully God and fully man.

Medieval Christians, following in the tradition of their forebearers, developed a rich theory of poverty and its spiritual significance, what being poor meant to God and thus to a just society, and what the duties were of the rich to poor. At the centre of it was the image of a Christ who was Himself poor.

“Be comforted, be comforted, all you who are nurtured in filth and want, for God is with you in your poverty,” St Anselm of Canterbury wrote some time around the late 11th century.

We can be critical of the practice from which all this resulted, but at the very least, the Christian world had succeeded in lending a dignity and even sanctity to the condition of poverty, and to according rights and recognition to the poor.

As the medieval monk Gratian wrote in his splendid canonical law text The Decretum, ‘the bishop ought to be solicitous and vigilant concerning the defence of the poor and the relief of the oppressed.’

None of this is to say that medieval or late antique perspectives on poverty and the poor were without error; no era can claim such clarity of vision. It is only to say that they, in working to overcome the inherited wisdom that threatened to obscure the truth Christ had revealed, grasped something very firmly that has, I think, gotten away from us again.

Consider how we now reflect on the poor. They are accused, more often than not, of being lazy. Their alleged indolence is supposed to be evidence of moral failure on their part, which places the burden of action on them, not anyone else. They are construed as indiscriminately criminal, sexually promiscuous, self-indulgent and unscrupulous.

Metaphors of hygiene and disease—poverty as infectious, poor people as dirty—often creep into our conversations about those of little means. They are more often than their wealthy counterparts victims of crime, sometimes of the cruellest sort.

The American National Coalition for the Homeless tracks hate crimes against the poor, including beatings and other abuse of people living with no fixed shelter. When a recent study found that people seem generally disgusted by the homeless, one liberal pundit wrote: “About half the homeless suffer from a mental illness and a third abuse either alcohol or drugs. You’d be crazy not to have a reflexive disgust of a population like that.”

It was once understood that poverty is not a kind of crime. Now that simple fact seems less certain. And when we deign, either privately or politically, to address poverty, we often misidentify the source of the injustice.

We presume that the poor deserve their circumstances: that they have failed to earn the requisite education or credentials to work jobs that would afford them better circumstances, or that they have not yet elected, out of good habit or good sense, to live well and work hard.

Our policies and practices are often aimed at ‘fixing’ these errors. We would rather teach the poor to compete with us for their share of the world than consider how we might simply share it with them.

Put more simply, the gap Christians once marked between themselves and the poor—the yawning chasm of dread and silence and disgust—is now open wide again, a gaping wound in the body of Christ.

So it seems to me that we again have an ‘imagination’ problem before us. And it is up to us as Christians to challenge ourselves, and our fellow Christians, and the social imagination at large. It is up to us—in fact, it is required of us—to reshape how our culture reflects on poverty and the poor.

This is a great undertaking, just as it was for the preachers of late antiquity. There is no single story we have to tell, but rather a variety of different correctives to current conventional wisdom. First, we must recall that the Earth and all of material creation was made by God with intention.

“God gives the world to the poor as well as to the rich,” St Augustine of Hippo wrote. It was indeed common knowledge among the earliest Christians that God intended the world to be held in common by all, to the mutual satisfaction of all. Through sin, though, we come to require the restraint of law, and the institution of private property may be introduced to maintain order.

But, second, we must campaign in our own times and places for a just order, and that means a just distribution of property, which is merely a matter of civil law.

“Whence does anyone possess what he or she has?” asked St Augustine. “Is it not from human law? For by divine law, the Earth and its fullness are the Lord’s.”

St Augustine was correct. The great structural determinants of what goes where, who owns what, who may use this or that, are all encoded in law, and are changeable. Insofar as we, as citizens, can influence and shape our laws, we ought to demand those which favour equitable distribution of the world’s bounty and those that would reduce the misery of the most vulnerable people.

Third, we must not confuse that duty, which is a duty to justice, with the duty to charity. If all things really were held in common by all and no poverty endured, we would still be required to act charitably to one another, that is, to act with generous love.

Sometimes charity takes the shape of almsgiving; indeed, to be virtuous, all almsgiving must be done in the spirit of charity. But we shouldn’t accept the error that charity and justice are mutually exclusive: that Christ commanded one and not the other, or that Christians may pursue either but not both. Every family, every community has its members of lesser means in need of charity—not just their own share of the world, but love, generosity, care, fellowship, friendship. We must insist on both.

Fourth and last, we must again see Christ in the poor. Jesus Christ could’ve come as a king or an emperor, but instead he came as a person of little status, of lowly means. Again and again, he commends care for the poor, and damns injustice toward them.

None of this is a coincidence. It was, in fact, revolutionary: it overturned an ancient mode of organising society and introduced as meaningful and urgent the station of the poorest members of our society.

It extended dignity and value to ­people otherwise invisible. It charged generations of Christians, present company not excluded, with the holy task of finding the face of Christ in the pain and suffering of those with nothing.

Christ is with the lonely and hungry people who wander city streets in need of money and medical care. Christ is with the families fleeing ruined, flooded homes in Puerto Rico, who have no recourse, no food, no medicine for their injuries. Christ is with the refugees who find themselves in foreign lands, leaving their lives and families and communities behind in blood-soaked, war-torn places.

In our modern world we struggle with Faith: we want tangible proof, evidence we can see and touch for ourselves.

Here is your chance: Christ comes to us as the poorest of the poor, and in touching them, you touch his wounds like Thomas, and drive away the shadow of doubt.


– Elizabeth Stoker Breunig is an editor at The Washington Post, an essayist on religion and politics, and a mum.

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