By Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis and Colleen Wessel-McCoy
This is the fourth chapter of a forthcoming book from the Kairos Center, on the call for a new Poor People’s Campaign. Each chapter is accompanied by the edited transcript of a discussion about its key themes by leaders in poor people’s struggles from around the country. The chapters will be published here on the Kairos Center blog as they’re finished.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…and say “This is not just.” –Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Time to Break Silence,” Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1967((Martin Luther King Jr., “A Time to Break the Silence” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. ed. James M. Washington; New York: HarperCollins, 1986), 231-244.))
Every January students, employees, and community members are signed up for community service projects—painting schools, cleaning up trash, serving lunches to the hungry—to celebrate the national civic holiday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. With carefully excerpted proof texts, like “everyone can be great, because everyone can serve,” King’s words are used to sanctify this superficial response to what are real crises of school funding, failing public infrastructure, and pervasive hunger and poverty. But reading his fuller insights about the intertwined crises of poverty, racism and militarism–and the need for a human rights movement to resolve them–reveals a harsh critique of charity and how it is used to cover up deep inequality and class relationships. King spoke the words above on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination. The landmark speech, “A Time to Break the Silence,” was given at Riverside Church in New York City and marked the beginning of his public opposition to the war in Vietnam. It is perhaps surprising to hear a religious leader known as a champion of the poor call charity “haphazard and superficial,” but he saw with increasing clarity that when compared to the structural character of poverty, charity and other piece meal solutions to poverty and misery only exacerbated the problem. Truly solving it would require a “revolution of values.”
In a “Time to Break the Silence” and other writings and sermons, King offers a radical critique of the status quo, including the charity systems that uphold it. Rather than simply accepting that the only responses to poverty are band-aid solutions with no critique of economic systems and structures that hurt communities and destroy lives, King reminds us that poverty is demeaning, unnecessary and outright evil. Through naming the injustice of current political and economic systems, King challenges all people of good will and conscience to transform the whole of society. Indeed, as a religious leader King asserts that God requires justice and love for all and judges that which impoverishes and tramples on God’s children. King’s quote suggests that helping individuals is necessary but the only true help for individuals is bettering all of society. This is a consistent theme throughout King’s speeches and writing, particularly in his last years. He insists that poverty should and could be ended with the the poor as an organized social force leading the way. He suggests that the poor and dispossessed must be united and organized rather than the poor need to be fixed.
In his message about “true compassion”, King references Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke 10:29-37. At the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the land of Samaria was situated between the regions of Galilee in the north of Israel and Judea in the South. In many cases, Jews traveling between Galilee and Judea would take the longer, six-day journey along the Jordan River valley rather than the shorter and more direct route through Samaria, in order to avoid having to interact with Samaritans. In this story, both a priest and a Levite, two leaders clearly identified with Jesus’ Judaism, leave a dying man on the road. It is the unlikely, maybe even ungodly, Samaritan who comes to the man’s rescue. The Samaritan cares for him, pays for his recovery costs and makes sure that someone continues to look after him. Expecting that it is a story that his listeners know well, King only alludes to the parable of the Good Samaritan, but the allusion is full of meaning. It is a story of compassion extended across a religious and ethnic division in the time of the Roman Empire, making the generosity of the Samaritan even more remarkable.
This is a favorite text for Christian ethics and morality; the story follows “the great commandment,” given by Jesus in response to a question about how one finds eternal life: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind, [Deuteronomy 6:5]; and your neighbor as yourself [Leviticus 19:18].” When asked by a lawyer who is “the neighbor,” Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.
King rightly identifies that to limit the significance of this story to simply caring for the man injured on the side of the Jericho road without both seeing the moral and political critique of the Good Samaritan story and the larger critique of systemic inequality and dispossession is to misunderstand Jesus’ call for a revolution of values, and his work and sacrifice to bring about that revolution. Helping those who have been beaten and robbed on life’s roadside is only an initial act in the larger effort to transform the entire structure of our lives, morally and materially. This does not mean that the initial act of meeting the needs of the poor is unimportant. Many feeding programs, free health clinics, and emergency housing services make a life and death difference in people’s lives. In fact, in the Kairos Center’s efforts to unite and organize the poor and dispossessed, we term efforts to meet basic needs that build unity and community among the poor as “projects of survival.” These instances of distributing free food, providing free childcare, or arranging for affordable housing or health care are examples of the initial act that King compares to the Good Samaritan’s. The purpose of these projects is to sustain leaders from the ranks of the poor in the struggle for transformation that makes much more than survival possible. These projects are vital for building a movement to challenge the very conditions of poverty and dispossession. But the “projects of survival” are a means, rather than an end.
When King spoke privately to his staff in August of 1967 about moving from helping “discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace” to “restructuring” the “edifice which produces beggars,” he more candidly pointed out that these contradictions are “raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., “‘Where Do We Go From Here?,’ Delivered at the 11th Annual SCLC Convention,” King Encyclopedia at Stanford, August 16, 1967.) King doesn’t take the arrangement of the road to Jericho for granted. It isn’t inevitable that people must be beaten and robbed as they live their lives. Poverty is not ordained by God. We not only intervene after the incidence of violence, but we see that the entire road, the entire structure—what King calls “the edifice that produces poverty”—must be transformed. Moving from the question raised by the parable – “Why have a road that is so unsafe to begin with?” – King asked why there were 40 million poor people in the richest nation of the world. He asked why we must pay for water in a world full of it. He asked who owns the oil and other natural resources. He said “these are the questions that must be asked.” These are the questions raised by the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Charity is an old institution. In the time of Jesus and later the gospel writers, charity took the form of patronage. This Greco-Roman system dates back to before the era of Aristotle. Aristotle observed, “If one is a better man than the other, he thinks he has a right to more, for goodness deserves the larger share. And similarly when one is more useful than the other: if a man is of no use, they say, he ought not to have an equal share, for it becomes a charity and not a friendship at all, if what one gets out of it is not enough to repay one’s trouble. For men think that it ought to be in a friendship as it is in a business partnership, where those who contribute more capital take more of the profits. On the other hand the needy or inferior person takes the opposite view: he maintains that it is the part of a good friend to assist those in need; what is the use (he argues) of being friends with the good and great if one is to get nothing out of it?” (Aristotle, Eth. Nic. 1163a [Rackham, LCL]). For more on the critique of charity in the ministry of Jesus Christ, see Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor by Liz Theoharis.)) and organized allegiance and obedience among the poor majority of the population to the political-religious hierarchy that protects an economic system structured to channel the vast wealth of the Roman Empire into the hands of a small minority of elites. The elites would give to the poor in small ways—meals, public parades, gladiatorial games, public architecture, and sometimes surplus food—and through this the poor became politically, socially, religiously and even economically indebted to the elites as patrons. Patronage systems have evolved over the millennia but have existed in some form across history, shaping the development of Christianity and losing touch with the important critique of patronage found throughout the Bible. Today we find similar patterns in contemporary thinking about poverty and how we address poverty and hardship as a society. Both patronage (in Jesus’ time) and charity (in King’s time and our own) have functioned on four levels: ideological, political, moral, and material.
Ideologically, charity functions to demonstrate how much the rich care about the poor. Inequality and verticality are inherent in the charity system or what many organized poor people call “the poverty industry” or “non-profit industrial complex.” Through this system the rich of the world are able to hide the reality – that the necessary cause and consequence of their wealth is the impoverishment of the poor – behind the ideology that they and their wealth are actually the saviors of the poor and common people. In the time of Jesus and the time of the Gospel writers, patrons would erect monuments and statutes that called attention to their acts of charity, making sure all were reminded of their greatness and distracted from the ways in which the material basis of their greatness was wealth produced by those they exploited as slaves, conquered and taxed. King pointed to a similar hypocrisy in the rhetoric and justification behind the Vietnam War. The U.S. government proclaimed to be protecting universal rights and democracy, but was in reality the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. And in the process of defending the interests of the elites through war, that same government had turned away from addressing the interrelated crises of poverty and racism at home. Through the Poor People’s Campaign, King proposed to demonstrate that the true heroes of the poor, the people capable of transforming public opinion and ending poverty for all, had to be the poor themselves, not the forces of the United States government or other institutions of the wealthy. In this way, the Poor People’s Campaign had the potential to counter the ideological role that charity plays.
The Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, a key ESCR-net member.
On the political level, charity and patronage help the elites gain allegiant political bases and stabilize radically unequal political and economic systems. Under Greco-Roman patronage, clients and subjects of patrons were persuaded (or coerced) to show loyalty to their patrons and support them for political, social or religious offices. The wealthy and powerful used social stratification and their monopoly on social, political, religious and economic positions to make their clients both more dependent and poorer. A similar dynamic exists in our era. In “The Great Foundations,” Frank Walsh explains why the financial generosity of the elites made rich by US industrial expansion—Rockefeller, Ford, Carnege, etc.—was ultimately self-interested. Not only did their contributions create an aura of benevolence around the elite patrons, but they diverted real motions for fundamental transformations of the economic order towards solutions that operated in the interest of the donor and their class, mainly by offering funding and support only within a very limited political scope. Walsh writes, “Mr. Rockefeller could find no better insurance for his hundreds of millions than to invest one of them in subsidizing all agencies that make for social change and progress.” (Frank Walsh, “The Great Foundations” in Foundations for Social Change: Critical Perspectives on Philanthropy and Popular Movements , ed. Daniel Faber and Deborah McCarthy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).) Joan Roelofs observes the impact of those large liberal foundations on the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s: “Radical activism often was transformed by grants and technical assistance from liberal foundations into fragmented and local organizations subject to elite control. Energies were channeled into safe, legalistic, bureaucratic and, occasionally, profit-making activities.” (Joan Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy : The Mask of Pluralism(Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003).) Across the ages, wealth and political power have been used to secure and attain more wealth and political power, to ensure the status quo under the guise of generosity.
On a spiritual level, charity and patronage are inherent in most of the world’s religions and are often directly tied to state religion. In the Roman era, political and religious leadership were indistinguishable; political offices were often religious posts and religious posts had political power. This gave theological justification to the decisions made by those office-holders and sanctified the economic and social order. Today, even in ostensibly secular states, notions of “God” or “Krishna” or “Buddha” justify and apologize for social and economic inequality. Using theological excuses like “God blesses true believers with prosperity,” “Your karma is why you are rich or poor in this life,” and “Suffering is inevitable,” people’s own faithfulness is used against them, diverting and shaming righteous discontent. On the night before he was killed, King denounces just such religious hypocrisy, preaching:
It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee.((Martin Luther King, “Been to the Mountaintop” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1991).))
Where religion can and should be the inspiration for real revolution, it is used to bless the established order and then turn and respond to poverty with charity as a religious act. Sometimes charity figures centrally in religious practice, but even then it does little to resolve the real crisis of poverty and often puts focus on the donor who is blessed by their service. King calls for a public theology that addresses the material reality of the people rather than blessing a response to poverty and inequality that manages the problems instead of resolving them.
On the material level, charity and patronage make more money for the wealthy and do not meet the needs of the poor. Many empirical studies of poverty show that charity does not really address the larger social problem, but instead undergirds the system of debt, taxation, and poverty creation of the existing economic structures. Government workers, social workers, foundation administrators, political advocates, social entrepreneurs, non-profit executives and others are paid to “help the poor” and be a “voice for the voiceless.” While most of these workers don’t make much money (although some certainly do), and can even be poor themselves, they become dependent on, and therefore often allegiant to, systems of charity and thus the status quo.((Welfare rights activist Teresa Funicello writes in Tyranny of Kindness, “Charities come and go, some lasting only long enough to promote the promoters, others enduring a century or more. Sooner or later they involve money, often vast sums of it, and multiple agendas. Some may have been started with truly beneficent intentions, but even these finally give way to pragmatism that shifts focus away from “helping the poor” and toward sustaining the institution. These dual objectives come increasingly to be at odds; the motivations behind them begin to diversify and encompass a host of additional interests.”)) What is less known are the ways that the wealthy are actually able to enrich themselves off the poverty of the poor and through their acts of charity and patronage.
One example from the Roman era shows that during a famine an elite from the Greek island of Amorgos lent other residents of the island money at a 20% annual rate of interest so that they could buy grain from him at ten times the regular price. The outcome was one in which the donor is perceived to help at the same time that he profits from both the purchase of grain and the high rate of interest paid on debts to him. A contemporary example comes from the challenge the HIV/AIDS crisis poses to intellectual property rights. Bill Gates and other billionaire philanthropists have donated a fraction of the money needed to curb the deadly impact of HIV/AIDS on the poor of South Africa and other countries, but they provide donated name-brand medicines in an effort to keep governments from producing significantly cheaper generic versions, which would cut into the profits of the major pharmaceutical companies and their investors. In these ways debt, illness, and other effects of poverty become an important source of wealth and income for the rich, who are able to claim the role of savior and consolidate their positions of power in the process. Philanthropists get public praise, tax breaks, even profits from the sale of their medicines in the name of helping the poor while they work to protect intellectual property rights. At the same time, they’re able to avoid the question of why people are too poor to be able to afford medicine in the first place.
As these examples demonstrate, the four levels on which charity operates to the benefit of elites and against the interests of the poor—ideological, political, spiritual and material—are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. King and the great religious leaders of history are not alone in their critiques of charity. William Sloane Coffin, Pastor Emeritus of The Riverside Church in New York and a leader in the nuclear disarmament and peace and justice movement writes:
Many of us are eager to respond to injustice, as long as we can do so without having to confront the causes of it. There’s the great pitfall of charity. Handouts to needy individuals are genuine, necessary responses to injustice, but they do not necessarily face the reason for injustice. And that is why so many business and governmental leaders today are promoting charity; it is desperately needed in an economy whose prosperity is based on growing inequality. First these leaders proclaim themselves experts on matters economic, and prove it by taking the most out of the economy! Then they promote charity as if it were the work of the church, finally telling us troubled clergy to shut up and bless the economy as once we blessed the battleships.
King’s call for a Poor People’s Campaign is a critique of systems of patronage and charity, positing that instead of the rich saving the poor, the poor are the saviors of the world, the “new freedom church” capable of saving the body and soul of a sick nation. He critiques the economy’s basic structures for exploiting the poor and creating poverty in the first place; he critiques those in society interested in helping the poor for making money off of the poverty of the poor; he critiques the religious and political authorities for their complicity in the impoverishment of the people and for thinking charity is enough. King asks, “‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills”?, “who owns the oil?” and “who owns the iron ore?” (King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here? (Convention Speech)”) when these are plentiful natural resources that should be stewarded by society to meet the needs of all. With these questions, he’s pointing out that having to buy and sell to meet basic needs adheres to the dominant economic system and is a building block in maintaining the very structure that exploits the poor and excludes them from the economy. He is critiquing the idea that the solution to poverty is a few people amassing vast sums of money and then donating some of it to the poor, and that the best thing the rest of us can do is earn a little more than we need and pass than on, too. He is raising questions about a system where people have to buy their very necessities and where people’s care is not a right. These economic and social structures, “the whole Jericho road” of our day, confine the vast majority of inhabitants of this earth to dispossession and misery. King suggests that structural transformation is the true solution to poverty and oppression. Band-aids, charity, and buying into a system that produces poverty are not only inadequate or insufficient, they can be part of the problem.
King’s critique of charity is in line with a longer and broader religious critique of impoverishment and charity. The Hebrew prophets, Jesus and Mohammad all critique those who are too narrowly focused on just particular poor people in their midst and on ameliorating poverty rather than ending it. These and other religious leaders show that, without the leadership of the poor, even well-intentioned people fall back on the hegemonic stance of the empires of their day and propose “solutions” to poverty that will just make it worse. When we think the only way of addressing poverty is through participating in the dominant oppressive economic system and assisting the poor through charity and patronage, we fall short of the call of prophetic, moral leadership across history that has thought bigger and has had faith that real transformation is possible. We have failed to stand up and commit ourselves to ending poverty, and we cannot afford to ignore King’s call to be compassionate, to care for God’s people, to restructure the edifice that produces both beggars and billionaires. This is King’s charge; may we heed his call.
- Why are the actions of the Good Samaritan an “initial act”? What is the significance of the nationality of the Samaritan?
- What examples have you seen of charity playing an ideological, political, spiritual or material role in the maintenance of poverty?
- What examples have you seen where compassion and care are an “initial act”?
Onleilove Alston, Faith in New York
Paul Chapman, Priority Areas, Church of Scotland
Savina Martin, Veteran Women’s Economic Resource Collective
Kathy Maskell, Vineyard Justice Network and Blue Route Vineyard Community Church
Thea Reggio, ESCR-Net, The International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
Savina: I want to say something about the roadside in this parable. The roadside can be the roadside of feeding the poor during the “Thanksgiving” season. Perhaps hearing your neighbor’s son died at war prompts you to join a demonstration to end the war—and that act becomes your roadside. These examples may be some initial acts and the calling of Good Samaritans, however; are the Good Samaritans there to prop themselves up? How accountable is the Good Samaritan today? For years, I have witnessed solutions as set of “Band-Aid” as an alternative to helping the poor. We need real systemic change! These temporary solutions may help alleviate the ailment temporarily, but on the roadside today, we see children sleeping on sidewalks, subway stations, cars and on floors of strangers. We are “flipping the coin” to the beggar. We see mothers arrested for being poor on the roadside today. Where is the charitable accountability? Why did King call it an initial act? There is something deeper here. Every beggar needs a part in rebuilding a new road.
Thea: Indeed the initial act may not, in itself, challenge the root/structural causes of an injustice but may serve as an entry-point for people to become, progressively, exposed to these structural issues and, eventually, prepared to confront them. Entry-points often involve issue-areas that are relatively non-controversial and don’t immediately appear to pose a threat to the status-quo (things like ‘no one should go to bed hungry’ or ‘stop domestic violence’ or ‘fight against cancer’ or ‘child welfare.’) On the surface, few would argue that hunger is regrettable or that children deserve an education and safe homes, etc. And as long as people don’t start asking why hunger exists in a world of plenty, or what connection exists between cancer rates, our food systems and environmental racism, or where we have failed when children are deprived access to the means to realize their potential, they do not directly challenge the status quo.
Onleilove: The Good Samaritan’s work was an initial act because he helped take care of someone who was obviously abused walking down Jericho Road, but he did not investigate the root causes that made Jericho Road unsafe, by examining the root causes for the unsafety of the road he may have been able to help not only the injured person but he would have been able to help all the future victims Jericho Road was going to create. His act though impressive still is not enough to deal with WHY people are being robbed while traveling down Jericho Road. As a social worker, organizer and faith leader I have seen good projects such as urban ministry volunteer projects give people in our Ghettos the gospel—when there are multiple churches on each block in our communities—and what was needed were jobs, violence prevention and affordable housing. Since the economic crash of 2008 I have seen multiple houses of worship increase their capacity for feeding programs without questioning why those utilizing their feeding programs have doubled and sometimes tripled over the years. By responding to the initial needs of hunger or homelessness we make poverty a little more bearable, but too infrequently addressing the fact that no one should live in poverty. Sometimes as a social worker, minister and organizer I wonder if I should continue to serve and make poverty easier or focus my efforts full time on revolutionizing the system.
Kathy: That’s something I have seen in individual and church lives. I think about my friend in Denver the pastor of a church of over 1200, and one thing that’s beautiful about the church is that it’s full of 20 and 30-somethings who are full of energy to serve the world. He’s been able to cultivate a positive relationship with the mayor. And as he was trying to call his church to be a good neighbor, through community engagement, he called the mayor to ask how they can bless the city. The Mayor said we have a city-wide clean-up day, so this pastor got lots of his congregation to sign up. They had a huge turnout. The pastor called the mayor a couple of weeks later to thank the mayor for the opportunity to serve the city, ask the mayor how he thought it went, and to say the church volunteers had a great time. The pastor asked, “What was the impact?” The mayor hesitated but eventually confessed that actually, if the pastor really want to know, the thousands of dollars it took to set up the clean-up day in order for people to participate was a wash in terms of whether or not it provided any true long term benefit to those communities. For my friend, it made him reflect on how the clean-up day benefitted his people the most, in that they walked away feeling good about themselves. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the two-way street experience he was hoping for. But this experience is now compelling this pastor and his church to be more courageous and ask different kinds of questions. They needed to do that cleanup first and get those ambiguous results. I don’t know if you can have one without the other. How can you move forward even if you’re taking steps backwards?
Colleen: A couple of months before he was killed, King gave a sermon on this passage where he wonders if the priests that hurry by are going to a meeting of a “Jericho Road Improvement Association”. In other words, are they thinking that they can solve the problem of Jericho Road systemically without that work including helping people by the roadside already beaten down by it? I think this dualism in our mind of justice versus immediate needs is part of the problem today, and it means that we do neither well. The point is not that care for immediate needs is unimportant but on what terms you undertake that care and towards what purpose. It’s not just that you figure out how to move from charity projects to justice projects, as if justice were a separate, higher-order act. But in many cases charity becomes an outlet for unrest but channeled in proper directions rather than towards really organizing a social movement capable of making the large-scale change necessary.
The question is how do we serve, with what heart and mind, with whom do we serve, and particularly what kinds of political education and organizing to which we connect that service. Part of the plan for the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 was for people to come and receive the services that were their human rights but were not filled. They would eat, see doctors, and live together in a tent city. But then those services would be part of making possible the political education among the residents of the camp and part of a public demonstration that demanded a more systematic meeting of those very rights, starting with guaranteed jobs or income. Another example comes from the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast programs for children and health care clinics. In the course of organizing against police brutality and poverty, they realized they must also meet their own immediate needs together. What they termed “survival projects” made more possible the organizing work they were doing. City governments started implementing their own free breakfast programs because they were afraid that the Panthers were doing such a good job meeting the needs of the poor that they would unite everyone into a real force to be reckoned with. Particularly troublesome in the eyes of the state where the places like Chicago where the Panther Party began organizing with like-minded groups of other races and ethnicities across the city. At that point the potential was so threatening that they blatantly assassinated Fred Hampton, the leader of those cross-racial survival projects. The Poor People’s Campaign was similarly a cross-racial survival project, and I think these are the kinds of “initial acts” that King was talking about and for which he was killed.
Liz: One of my favorite bible passages is Micah 6:8, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God”. It’s a triumvirate of discipleship, justice/righteousness work, and acts of loving kindness. You can’t serve God or neighbor without doing all three. But in exploring this passage in its biblical context and our lives today, it’s important to start to have a critique of the things that get in the way of doing justice, and those terms are also biblically rooted. We must read King’s words about the Good Samaritan in relationship to King’s proposal that the solution is that the poor and dispossessed unite and take action together. What’s different about charity and initial acts is when they’re done from the perspective of those most impacted going into motion because they’re compelled to do something. When people hear about that and have a chance to connect to that, it changes people.
As the poor of Philadelphia began to take action together and form a homeless union word got out that homeless people were organizing ourselves, and people began bringing all sorts of donations. But their actions were connected to something larger than meeting the immediate needs of those 10, 15 or 200 people. They were contributing to something that was starting to congeal into something bigger. That’s what King was talking about with the Poor People’s Campaign.
Paul: I certainly agree with the importance of the second step, not just an initial step, but we must appreciate that charity is a good way to begin instead of something almost unnecessary. There was one point in the chapter that I thought was belittling charity. Charity can be an entry point into recognizing the systemic problems we’re facing. I wouldn’t belittle charity. I would see it as an initial step that’s necessary to take. But I know Liz what you’re saying and totally agree that until we can tackle the reasons that Jericho is so dangerous nothing changes except one guy is cared for. Let’s not make too light of the initial step since that is neglected in our society too.
Colleen: Part of how I understand what King was saying is not just that people then see that their actions are insufficient, but how do people come to see that our neighbor has more in common with ourselves than we initially thought. How do we break past the idea that the people who need service are someone different from us? We have a narrative in the US that we’re not poor and the poor are not in our congregations, when in reality a lot of us are living paycheck to paycheck and are one healthcare crisis away from poverty. We are often not as securely un-poor as we think we are. And the same forces that are making people poor are threaten us and the future of our children. Materially, for all but the richest of the rich, we are not guaranteed the means of life. If we lose our jobs we can lose our housing (even if we own it), our health care, and our food. We are placing a gamble on things not going wrong, but we fail to see how much that is a gamble when we assume that those who need help now are somehow different than that, materially, culturally or spiritually. How else could we put up with a system that allows so many people to be so poor? Are there ways to break down some of that division through initial acts?
Paul: In the church I’m a part of, we run a very effective food kitchen. It’s like going to a supermarket. People have excellent choices. About 100 people come every week and it’s essential to their diet. They get fresh fruits, vegetables and meat. I’ve wondered the extent to which the existence of that food pantry excuses the church from doing more, from going to a more systemic level. I’ve advocated that people get more involved with the food pantry in order to make relationships across the divide, thinking that would lead to something. On the other hand there are many projects at the church that more directly bring people together over the divides. There is a strong relationship between this wealthy New England church and the Lakota Indians in the Dakotas. It means much more than money. It means going and living there in small groups, 20-30 or people for a month at a time and then inviting the Lakota back to Connecticut. There is great potential for the initial act of reaching across the boundaries to develop something more substantial. At least it’s a beginning, and I can’t emphasize how important it is that the initial act be taken.
Onleilove: Soup kitchens are the most common examples where compassion and care is an initial act but the volunteers and staff of these programs very rarely take the opportunity to engage those who utilize this service in organizing or critical thinking around hunger. What would it look like for the hungry to be organized to push this country and the United Nations to see food as a human right? Today many working people need to go to soup kitchens and food pantries; this should be a cause for alarm but sadly we have not moved past fulfilling the initial need of the hungry to getting to the root cause of hunger which is poverty. I believe initial acts of care and compassion are much needed and while my family was homeless we benefited from these acts, but it was only when my siblings and I began to understand the root causes of our poverty that we have been empowered to fight for long-term justice. Being able to fight has restored our dignity. I also understand that the system is set up so that those responding to the needs created by poverty are so overwhelmed with meeting the needs and trying to survive themselves that there isn’t adequate time to think about long term solutions so in our movements how do we create the Beloved Community that would give us the space and time for this strategic thinking and action.
Savina: Going back thirty years, shelters have always been a place of guilt and shame. There are some good ones with open hearted Samaritans who oversee them. Then we have a section of shelter providers who are privatizing shelter systems, making lots of money, and asking for fees from the poor. They label you as chronic, but they don’t want to acknowledge their role in perpetuating the trap that people get in. So when it’s your time to leave the shelter and you haven’t completed the steps they require of you, they throw away all the bags of travel sized toiletries and toys you’ve accumulated, and you’re back on the street to find another shelter that will take you. The shelter system has turned its face away. The one we’re advocating against right now for the veterans, and there is a lot of work to do there. There are a lot of questions. It’s real. It’s happening. We see it all through different lenses. Why are they privatizing what should be a non-profit or charity? With veterans it’s because it’s attached to private funding. There are a lot of politics involved. In the time we’re in, where we’re having a lot of combat veterans coming back with broken souls. Because of their training to kill, they come back with soul injuries. How do we assist them in healing their lost souls as they’re laying the street? They come back and are living in the street. They can’t get a job because they’re spiritually bankrupt. And they’re committing suicide. There’s an urgency we have to tap into. They don’t need another pair of socks. How do we really comfort their souls?
Paul: I like what you say about the poverty industry. I think it is right on target. Coming from Scotland where there’s an excellent benefit system, I wish someone would count out all the money that goes into the poverty industry and divide it up among the people who need it. Too many people have vested interests in charity. There’s a big lobby to maintain the charity industry, so we can’t go further than that in terms of systemic change.
Colleen: Where have you seen compassion and care as initial acts? What are the examples of where this has worked well, where has it not worked well, and how does it all contribute to building this larger movement? What are the struggles and frustrations you find in your work? What are the successes?
Thea: Where I work now, ESCR-Net, our System of Solidarity (SOS) was initially conceived as a flexible rapid-response system that seeks to activate international solidarity via harnessing the collective response of our members to threats affecting human rights defenders. This is, in many ways, similar to humanitarian response and is perhaps the aspect of our work most comfortable for conservative donors and powerful governments, including the US and the EU. However, in recent years, the actions that we have coordinated via this system has gone beyond the ‘humanitarian response’ of saying no to torture, extrajudicial killing and arbitrary detention and has encompassed the broader injustices that human rights defenders are battling, which explain the reasons why they are targeted in the first place. I have seen several cases whereby organizations that have first engaged via a solidarity action in response to a problematic incident, later moved to working proactively to change the very institutions, forces, attitudes and practices from which those incidents derive, helping build an ‘enabling environment’ for the full realization of human rights and dignity.
Kathy: Even if the proportions aren’t how we would want it to be, I am encouraged that that initial acts of compassion and mercy happen all the time. As is life, it’s messy. It happens together. To one person it’s only a first step, but to another it’s possible to talk about the limits of that very act. Until we feel like we’re the one in need or until we encounter some injustice that overwhelms us, we are not compelled. Until I have an encounter with a person that is a contradiction to my own experience, I cannot turn towards a different direction. That’s what makes the difference. When people experience for themselves the ways that charity maintains poverty, as my friend in Denver did, oftentimes that’s the clarifying moment when they come to a greater understanding.
Another pastor friend of mine in Canada ran a small recovery, residential program for 10 men, investing quite intentionally into the lives of the men they serve. But a couple of years ago, the city where they were located brought an order that demanded they close the shelter because it was “disrupting the public peace” by attracting more people to the church sidewalks for meals. This pastor would never consider himself a political activist, but he was confronted with this contradiction, asking “what do you mean we can’t take care of our friends as they figure out their lives?” His little church of 150 people ended up using a pro-bono lawyer to sue the city on the grounds that the city was preventing them from doing the “business” of the church as it has been understood from the past 2,000 years: to love our neighbors as ourselves and to care for the poor in our midst. Not only was the pastor politicized, but he politicized his congregation and community. The case went to the supreme court of the province and the congregation won, ruling that the city can’t legislate the extent to which you care for the poor. It’s not exactly programmatic, but it’s an example of when people find themselves also being persecuted, you’re on the same side of the person you thought you were helping. It gets you into trouble in ways you didn’t think you were interested in. And you realize you have to change things well beyond your local community of insiders. It excites me to think about that example in the context of leadership development. How do those kinds of stories build faith? How do they highlight the ways that people are unaware, not maliciously, that their own city could be antagonistic to serving the poor? Maybe this sounds naive for you, Savina, who has been doing this work for so long. But for most people, there is a faith that the way things are set up are ultimately for our good. We might complain, but we have a sense that things are for our security. It takes a lot to overcome that false sense of security.
Liz: This conversation is making me think about the society we’re trying to build and what’s at stake. Part of the purpose of this one chapter in a larger book is trying to get at not just that we need compassion and not just that it’s not enough, but that actually many of the things that exist right now that we participate in are getting in the way of justice, not contributing to the furthering of justice. We’re talking about how we get at what kind of values we need and what kinds of relationships we need to be building across what kinds of lines. We definitely need people to have a structural understanding and critique of all the things happening in our world. We need to know what we can actually do about it. So how do we get across some sense of analysis and strategy about how we’re going to win? How do we change how things are going and bring about heaven on earth? Like that pastor in Colorado, were trying to do something that matters, that impacts people’s lives for the better and for the long-term. We can’t lose sight of that. And we can’t lose hope that something other than what we’re living with right now is possible and is what God wants for us and from us. So instead of just talking feasibility, we have to talk about deeper morality. What is right and what is wrong? We must call for a deeper understanding of what is wrong.
Savina: In the words of Chris Sprowl, a tremendous organizer, we need to tear down stereotypes. Homeless people can think. That’s where we need to get to organize among the poor and downtrodden. We have skilled out of work workers, we think these poor helpless people. But they’re not. We don’t need another pair of shoes. We need to think in another way and impart a sense of agency and empowerment, so we can contribute to building this movement. We’ve been calling for a resurrection of the National Union of the Homeless because I believe its time. There’s another shift that’s going to happen, with civil disobedience on another level. When you’re lying on the ground you have nowhere else to go but to stand up. It takes that kind of ministry to get them to stand up, we need the leadership that can do that. We have it, across the country. We need strategic planning, coming together, more dialogue, because there’s such an urgency. There’s a hemorrhaging happening all over the place. It’s really bad.
Onleilove: And fifty years from now I don’t want my people to be in the same conditions as today. 2016 is a Biblical Jubilee year, where debts are to be forgiven and the enslaved are to be freed. God made sure that the Hebrews lived under a law that would make generational poverty impossible. God did not mean for us to make poverty more bearable but to end poverty through Jubilee economics.