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. 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. (A holy fool? I wish.) They make me weak, and remind me of an encounter I had while serving my mission in South Korea.

I had a Korean companion; I’d 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. Yes, King Benjamin had explicitly called us all beggars, and cautioned us against judging those who petition us for aid (Mosiah 4:16-19, 22); but hadn’t he also made allowances for those without the resources to help, and anyway suggested that such things were subject to “wisdom and order” (vs. 24-25, 27)? True. 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 the ordered, 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, in whose perfect city there shall be no poor. It is a sin that any of God’s children should suffer such. The Lord 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, I’m a stranger here myself.

15 comments for “The Poor Oppress Me

  1. Nate Oman
    January 26, 2004 at 7:24 pm

    Russell: This is a very rich and deep post. I don’t have any good answers or thoughts now, however, I am curious as to what extent you see their as being a disjunction between personal responsibilities and social responsibilites? Suppose that I have a good solution to the problem at the personal level. Is the proper social policy simply that solution writ large? If I have a social solution, can I simply make it into the proper individual response?

  2. Kaimi
    January 26, 2004 at 7:39 pm


    Thank you for the very thoughtful post. It is hard to reconcile scriptural admonitions, and thoughts that we “know are right,” with the real problem of abject poverty.

    I had similar feelings serving in Guatemala, where on on occassion we met a real-life servant/slave (a 9- or 10-year-old girl) who was ecstatic that her alcoholic, homeless mother had sold her to a family that gave her a roof over her head, a blanket to sleep under, and the leftovers from the family dinner each day to eat. There is some inequality in the first world, but the levels of inequality and real poverty in the third world can be staggering.

    It is good to be reminded of this chasm, and good to think about it, and do what little we can to help, even as we wonder whether it will matter, and how anything we do can be enough.

  3. January 26, 2004 at 7:59 pm

    Russell, besides the difficulty of getting through Shipler’s story, I was powerfully struck by the fact that blame went also to people like the social workers who hadn’t thought to ask simple questions. And I think I had the same experience you had, a kind of guilt that I sometimes have when confronted with real poverty, but that was especially powerfully present when I was a missionary in the 60s. I wonder if there weren’t questions I didn’t ask or don’t ask that would make a difference but that I just don’t think of.

  4. sid
    January 26, 2004 at 8:53 pm

    Russell, thanks for this wonderful, but, sad, but, thought-provoking post. I work in downtown Ann Arbor, which is a reasonably affluent town where the Univ of Michigan is located. And as such, there are a lot of people like jennifer, that Russell mentions in that area. A lot of them, perhaps like Jennifer, have genuine problems, and need our help, but there are a lot of others, who are what my friends, coworkers and locals call the “professional” bums. And I have conflicting emotions when I have to deal with some of these folks – like, today, I had to kick out a person who was acting out in our building. On the one hand, it is easy to see them as being the undeserving losers, but, on the other hand, each one of them is one of God’s children, and I feel like I have committed a major sin when I am forced to deal with one of these street-people. And, being the Manager of the place I work at, i sometimes have no option. And, I am tormented, because, I seem to have to put compassion asidein the “real world’ situation.

  5. January 26, 2004 at 9:06 pm

    One problem is that many “professional bums” are suffering from mental illness. It is very difficult to deal with the problem, especially after the Supreme Court decisions back in the 80’s.

    I’m very conflicted over the issue. I used to do a lot of charity work at a soup kitchen but became very disenchanted while dealing with the people. (People would come by offering jobs that paid more than *I* was earning at the time – jobs these people would time and time again refuse) The saddest situation was the children who, through no fault of their own, were dragged into these situations.

    Since I’m anything but a sociologist, I’m curious as to how the other posters here view the difficulty of the mentally ill and poverty and our duties. I admit that, due to experiences in my past with schitzophrenics, that I’m very uncomfortable dealing with these people.

  6. sid
    January 26, 2004 at 9:29 pm

    In our city, there are those who are obviously mentally ill, but there is a group of people who are neither mentally ill or physically disabled, or even substance abusers. They are just folks who have chosen to not work, and have chosen to bum off society. And there are some, who despite their problems, could work if they chose to. I am conflicted when I have to deal with one of these types, when i know there are others, mysel included who are working while in the process of dealing with life-threatning illnesses.

  7. Adam Greenwood
    January 26, 2004 at 10:06 pm

    I’m afraid the problem runs deeper than poverty. My daughter has been the means for introducing me to a fair number of children born with horrible defects and occasionally with horrible parents. What is one to do when one sees a human, a fellow being, living what is almost a grotesque parody of a life, needing, so desperately, superhuman compassion and devotion to coax out of their darkness some gleam of hope and capability? The problem of evil has never been a metaphysical one. The problem of evil is encounters like these that drive away all our philosophies.

    Unlike Mr. Fox, I have given up in a sense. I grit my teeth and force myself to remove to the problems of my immediate sphere, first to my family, next to my ward, and then to those callings for which my talents and circumstances have fitted me. I do this not because it is right, but because I feel the alternative would drive me mad. Oh, it is dangerous to pull back the curtain on the world.

  8. January 27, 2004 at 12:31 am

    Nate: my instinct as a political scientist and philosopher is to say that the personal and the social are not the same; that different dynamics hold, different stewardships are in play, and different relationships obtain. For those reasons, therefore, any “personal solution” will have only limited applicability at the social level, and vice versa. But my instinct as a Christian (perhaps my own weird kind of Christian) is to ask why any of that matters. Granted that sympathy, charity, guilt, obligation, what have you, all originate as a psychological or spiritual moments in the context of idiosyncratic individual encounters, and hence will mostly fail when broadly institutionalized in the form of general programs and bureaucracies. (Even Rousseau knew this.) Yet are we to excuse ourselves from following through politically (for we are political beings, after all) on what we undeniably feel, simply because it probably won’t work? I’m not sure. What I did for Jennifer won’t “work” either; I may have helped her, but I provided no “solution.” I’m not sure, outside Christ’s millennial reign, there are any “solutions.” There is occasional progress (chattel slavery is mostly gone, as is polio and violent union-busting) conjoined with regress (global capitalism undermining local industries, plus all those divorces), and in the meantime one provides succor as best one can, and see if any of it sticks. As Alma suggested, aside from simply abandoing the social realm entirely and devoting oneself, saintlike, to missionary work, there’s really nothing to be done that truly “works” insofar as ending despair is concerned. We all ought to be saints (St. Paul, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, St. Francis, Lowell Bennion); we all ought to be perfect (indeed, we’re under commandment to be such). Instead, were mostly ordinary, which means political. But I don’t see why that excuses us, collectively, from following through on the call which has been placed upon us. To the extent that pluralistic social realities and political regimes allow, we should, I think, be commonly called out by the poor, just as we are as persons. Questions about practicability are, I suspect, a second-order matter.

    I don’t think this necessarily mandates any particular social arrangement vis-a-vis jobs, taxes, welfare, insurance, etc.; the room for debate is wide. But yes, fundamentally, it’s redistributionist; it’s about us giving what we’ve got to those who don’t. I believe in this not because I’ve got a formula to make redistributive schemes finally “work”; I believe in it because to not so believe strikes me as a sin.

  9. January 27, 2004 at 12:37 am

    Adam: I sympathize. I also suspect–given the sort of deep spirituality which animates your posts, that you actually do “pull back the curtain on the world” more often than you let on, maybe more often than you know. Just as I, to be frank, draw it shut more often than I care to admit. Homeless man begging for money outside the driver-side window while we wait for the light to change; there’s $10 in my wallet, and I’d promised my daughters ice cream. My choice is automatic.

  10. lyle
    January 27, 2004 at 5:12 am

    Nate/Russell: Does the fish/fishing/teaching fishing analogy have some type of hint in it to your questing querry? As Russell noted, giving hte $15 didnt’ ‘solve’ this sisters problem; only an immediate need…and thus is often dismissed as the obviously wrong answer (I told my 14 year old Kevin this today when asking him how he wanted to run our snow shoveling ‘business’). However, i think of the starfish on the beach analogy in combo with Goethe’s ‘conference quote’, wondering if the showing forth of Christ’s love in an unconditional love might not have a regenerative/life bringing power that turns the giving into…teaching, a la pay it forward. Am I off?

  11. Nate Oman
    January 27, 2004 at 5:25 pm

    Russell: My question was not meant to be apologetic but methodological. I am fine if you think it is hypocritical to believe in personal charity but not social redistribution. Rather my question is whether the questions that you pose have any value beyond creating personal angst (and I am not suggesting that such angst is not itself valuable). I suppose that my intuition is different that yours. I DON’T think it is permissible to be indifferent to the social consequence of translating personal responses into public policies. If it is the case that such personal responses DO make good public policy (and I often think that they do), then so much the better. But I do think that we should consider the question.

    BTW, I thought you were a political philosopher, not a political scientist. There is a difference you know ;-)…

  12. January 27, 2004 at 6:10 pm

    Yes, I’m a political philosopher, but I can fake being a political scientist when I need to.

    I’d like to think that “angst” is a cheap and unfair way to describe my (I would hope spiritually grounded) reaction to poverty, but you may be right (as many critics of Rousseau’s emphasis on sympathy have also argued) that it’s just a psychological affectation. And if that’s the case, it really would be immoral to employ such criteria in the development of public policies. However, to the extent one can argue, or at least suspect, that such impulses are, in fact, reflections of an abiding spiritual relationship between persons, I think we have to take them as the ultimate measure of action, whether individual or collective. Does that mean I think we should be TOTALLY indifferent to the social consequences of our actions, so long as the feeling is right? Probably not. As I said above, I really don’t think my impressions provide much good advice insofar as social welfare concerns go. But I would go so far as to say this: if someone could conclusively, rigorously, demonstrate that the most effective way to help the starving nations of Africa in the long run would be to cut off all aid to them, I’d still vote for sending them lots of free grain. To say “no” to someone who asks from a condition of such poverty is to attempt to figure out, with an eye to long-term consequences, how to best make things “work,” and I kind of think that maybe that’s not our role. To quote an early redistributionist, “In the long run we’re all dead.” Translated into a Christian idiom–“In the long run, we’re all in God’s hands”–doesn’t, I think, necessarily change the saliency of his argument.

  13. January 27, 2004 at 8:01 pm

    That’s an interesting point you bring up Russell. It’s actually something I’ve long thought about. It seems our instincts regarding charity are based on an assumption of ignorance. i.e. we have to give to all because we *don’t* know the long term consequences of our action. Yet clearly God doesn’t so act (at least within the period of mortality). He gives based upon some long range goal.

    The question then becomes, at what point of knowledge do we start to switch from the one view to the other? (Or do we ever?)

    There appear to be many circumstances when we *must* abandon traditional instinctive morality and recognize that its assumptions don’t hold. For instance if someone is about to detonate a nuclear device in Los Angelos, we might change our perspective on many ethical stances because of the cost. In war we knowingly create collatoral casualties. Clearly all those stances have ethical decisions going on – but they seem to follow a different logic than what we use in regular life.

    The reason I found your post so intriguing is that you seem to advocate *always* using the ethical rationality of regular life. Even when you are faced with a decision in a realm that is far beyond the kinds of experiences we have in day to day existence, and which I don’t think our instincts are prepared for.

  14. Scott
    January 28, 2004 at 11:42 am

    Excellent points, Clark. Similarly, before anesthesia, surgery often involved considerable pain. If we acted based on our instinctive morality that a patient’s immediate pain should be minimized, we would stay the bone saw and allow infection to ultimately claim lives. Our instinctive morality may lead us to give drugs or alcohol to an addict experiencing the discomfort of withdrawal. We know, from our experience, that in some circumstances, our instinctive morality needs to be overridden.

    That’s not to say we should ignore the beggar on the street–the locus from which we (fallibly) feel a call. But we should try to sensitize ourselves to the many other calls that are emanating more remotely or so feebly that they can barely be heard. That requires a different kind of faculty, I think.


  15. Jim
    May 29, 2004 at 9:21 pm

    Yes, sell your briefcase and your suit – and your tie and your wingtips while you’re at it. Become a beggar for a while, and see if your persepctive changes.

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