Wednesday, 28 February 2018 03:51

The Challenge of the Joyful Poor

Written by Kevin Foy
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Kevin Foy – Maryknoll National Director for Teacher and Catechist Outreach*

A big part of my work is helping people process and relate to encounters with social and economic inequality, and to do so with the intentionality necessary to develop nuanced, respectful responses that engender authentic solidarity. This requires my own continued examination of common reactions by privileged people to encounters with people in more marginalized positions, and to develop intentional language to preempt, challenge, and reframe those reactions.

In that vein, I’ve been thinking a lot about the all too common takeaway, “They’re poor, but they’re joyful.” I’m not unique in feeling that this language is problematic (to paraphrase Paul Farmer in regard to impoverished Haitians: they may have nice smiles and good senses of humor, but they still know they’re living in desperate conditions). But I am finding it necessary to more thoughtfully reflect on what accounts for this reaction, what truths are present within it, and, more importantly, why we need to challenge others (and ourselves) to think and speak differently.

Firstly, I do see value in confronting the surprise that we can feel at the joyful demeanor of people whom we had assumed, due to their economic circumstances, would come across as desperate and inconsolable. There can be profound humility in unexpectedly recognizing the face of Christ in the social outcast (moreso if we do so with critical questioning of our initial presumption of joylessness). We come away feeling evangelized (or “re-evangelized”) through encounter with people whom we are socialized to dismiss or pity.

Still, in our emphasis on the marginalized as evangelizers, we too often neglect to recognize them as prophets. As much as they may open us to the expansiveness of God’s love, so, too, should they confront us with the depths of Christ’s suffering. In overemphasizing the former, we stand before the Cross less as faithful disciples, and more like the Roman soldier, speaking eloquently to what we witness while fulfilling our duty to Rome. We may find ourselves knocked to the ground as the heavens open before us, but we dust ourselves off and continue on our way. Amazed and impressed though we may be, we are not the ones to drop our nets or repay those we have robbed.

This is not entirely through individual fault. We experience the Gospel through the lens of privilege, which emphasizes the personal over the social. We understand Jesus as merely calling individuals, not recognizing that he is disrupting a society. In this light, we struggle to recognize that we encounter those at the margins not so much as disciples, but as Pharisees. As Pharisees, we have an ingrained desire to protect a social order that fulfills our wants at the expense of the needs of others. This limits our ability to be evangelized. We seek to muffle the fullness of their voices because it threatens to destabilize or even delegitimize the power our own.

As such, “They’re poor but joyful” dampens these voices, and does so first within our own hearts. Disturbed by the language of prophecy, we dub it over with our own narrative. Even the more challenging implications of our muddled translation, such as the spiritual and social benefits of genuine reliance on God and one another, are framed as precious observations rather than a call to transformative action. On a broader societal level, by reducing people’s complex and often painful realities to a perceived silver lining, we diminish the effects of poverty and deflect our responsibility to address its causes.

All of this carries with it profound implications on whether and how we respond to Christ today. Authentic encounter with Jesus is an encounter with the Cross. It disturbs us not only through the presence of Christ in the suffering of others, but by challenging us to acknowledge our complicity in that suffering. These things together steer us towards the fullness of charity and justice. We are called not only to wipe the face of Jesus as he carries his cross, but to build a society that no longer condemns him to die. To do this, we must distinguish between the dignity of people at the margins and the indignity with which we marginalize them.

*Adpated from Kevin Foy’s 12/3/17 Facebook entry.


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