"I was just at church, and they were praying for the homeless," Larry said, holding the day's belongings in a bag beside him. As the subway screeched to a halt, I heard him quip, "I decided that I should pray for the housed." Larry was sick of handouts, sick of condescension. To Larry, as a longtime guest at the homeless shelter at which I worked, Christian compassion seemed like little more than a masquerade, a power trip for those fortunate enough to be in the seat of the "giver" rather than the "receiver."
Larry's complaint about Christian compassion resonates with Friedrich Nietzsche's depiction in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Through the voice of Zarathustra, Nietzsche diagnoses Christian compassion as "pity"—a belittling, demeaning approach to the sufferer that shames rather than restores. Sufferers do not want pity, according to Nietzsche; they don't even want solidarity, when it comes from people descending
from on high to be with the sufferer below. Sufferers also want to be givers. To only receive and never to give is to be dehumanized, to be belittled.
How should Christians confront this very real critique of Christian compassion as "pity"? How do we respond to Larry, who feels labeled and demeaned when he becomes one of the "homeless"—an Object of compassion rather than a Subject, a real person?
What may come to mind for many Christians is the insistence, in Matthew 25, that when one helps the hungry, the stranger, and the prisoner—the "least of these"—then "you did it for me," for Christ. But how is this scripture passage to be lived out? How do we minister to Larry, who is tired of being "clothed" and "fed" by Christians who are all too aware of their good deeds?
FOR THIS QUESTION, it is wise to look at how scripture was brought to life in a time of famine, disease, and suffering. In the fourth century, a famine struck the Cappadocian region in Asia Minor, and leaders such as Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa sought a Christian response to the tragedy. Basil boldly challenged the rich, who "would rather burst themselves eating than leave a crumb for the hungry." The rich must empty their storehouses and give to the poor.
"Give, therefore; don't market it or keep the grain in the storehouses. Tell me, what good are heavy purses?" he wrote. "You and all your wealth will share one death." In addition to admonishing the giving of food and wealth, Basil also preached against unjust practices that oppressed the poor and the widows: "Destroy the unjust account books, that sin might be dissolved. Wipe out the oppressive contract of usury that earth might bear appropriately."
Basil also organized a social service system that extended care to the poor and the sick. Hospitals and hospices were established at a time when medical care almost always took place in the home. Basil believed that these medical resources needed to be extended to meet the needs of society at large, and he acted as an administrator of this extension. Basil's response to human suffering is exemplary: He made moral appeals to the rich, and sought to address the systemic sources of Cappadocian poverty.
However, while Basil's approach to poverty was important and necessary, his brother Gregory provides a way of embodying Matthew 25 that comes closer to addressing Larry's concern. For Gregory, a key issue is how Christians respond to the outcast. In Cappadocia at the time, leprosy was a medical and social cause for alienation. "Touch a leper, and you'll be contaminated," the thought went. Touch a leper, and you'll become a leper yourself. So lepers must stay separated. Those who give charitably must give at a distance. They must give handouts of food and clothing, out of pity for the sufferers.
Gregory starts by trying to break down the distance between the healthy and the diseased. Rather than just seeing the sick and deformed limbs of lepers, we should recognize the common humanity we share with the suffering: "Do not consider as strangers those beings who partake of our nature;" for "remember who you are and on whom you contemplate: a human person like yourself, whose basic nature is no different than your own," he wrote. "Don't count too heavily on the future. In condemning the sickness that preys on the body of this man, you fail to consider whether you might be, in the process, condemning yourself and all nature." We all share the same human nature. Thus, to condemn the sick and the starving is to condemn the body, to condemn one's own self.
MOREOVER, THE "HEALTHY" should realize that they are not so healthy after all. Drawing upon Matthew 25, Gregory reverses the idea of leprosy as a disease that will contaminate others. To the contrary, to touch the leper is to take a step toward healing. Encountering a leper is not a threat, but a life-giving opportunity. "If we wish to heal the wounds by which our sins have afflicted us, heal today the ulcers which break down their flesh," he wrote.
Susan Holman, a scholar of Gregory, summarizes his thought this way: "The persons who assist them [the lepers] may receive healing of their own 'diseases' of wealth and greed. In this way the church needs contact with lepers in order to cure spiritual diseases. Yet lepers also need contact with the healthy to relieve their own very physical suffering."
Thus, rather than just giving a handout and treating the poor as a mysterious "other," Gregory shows us how Matthew 25 offers a picture of fellowship and mutual interdependence. Persons like Larry are sick and tired of being treated as "poor," "homeless," objects of pity. Larry wants help in taking care of his needs for shelter and food, but he also wants to be treated as a person, one who can befriend and who can give as he receives.
Gregory shows us how Matthew 25 need not lead to condescending pity. It can do the opposite: It can awaken an apathetic church to realize that it needs to touch the hungry, the stranger, and the prisoner if it is to have its own spiritual diseases healed. This will not lead to our own contamination. Rather, it will lead us to the humility of learning to receive from the poor as we give to the poor, to receive from the outsider as we give to the outsider. The kingdom is not about handouts. The kingdom is about a banquet! Not just the poor, but all of us will be receivers in God's banquet.
Do you want to know Jesus Christ, to touch Jesus Christ? Then go touch the hungry, touch the naked, touch the outsider, touch the leper. The leper will not make us sick, but will bring health. Jesus did not spurn the "unclean" and the "sinners" in his ministry. He sought them out. All of us need to be both givers and receivers, not elevated ones who "pity" the "unfortunate" or low ones who "receive" from the "generous." The way to break down these polarities is to come close to one another—recognizing our common humanity—and then realize that God wants us to sit together at the table of the kingdom. We are all hungry, so let's serve one another at that table. But to do that, we have to have the humility to realize our need and to receive from the hungry, the stranger, and the outcasts among us.
J. Todd Billings is assistant professor of reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He was on staff at First Church Shelter in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for five years while working on his Th.D. at Harvard.