Stanley Hauerwas on “remembering the poor”

ABC online has published an article by Stanley Hauerwas (which can be found here). Hauerwas makes many good points, and one really has to read the entire article. For example, Hauerwas talks about the interconnection between worship and walking with the poor—which is something that Christians often do not see. He also discusses Bruce Longenecker’s book Remember the Poor, which is a great study on Paul’s letters.

At the risk of a long post that no-one will read, I will cite quite a few things from the article. I will begin with Hauerwas’ call for friendship with the poor, and then list some quotes on other topics (such as Adam Smith, capitalism, etc).

Here Hauerwas’s call for friendship with the poor.

I suspect most rich Christians, filled as we are with the anxiety about our wealth, try to do something for the poor before we have listened to their story. Of course, listening, being with and working with the poor are not mutually exclusive activities, but I fear we often want to help the poor without getting to know who the poor may be. I suspect we do so, not from some ideology against the poor, but rather I suspect we prefer to do for the poor rather than be with the poor because the poor scare the hell out of us.

As an alternative, I think as Christians we need to know how to be with the poor in a manner that the gifts that the poor receive do not make impossible friendship between the giver and the recipient. For friendship is the heart of the matter if we remember that charity first and foremost names God’s befriending of us. If the poor are not befriended, there is no way to avoid the problems I sketched at the beginning of this essay. I do not mean to suggest that friendship is some kind of magical relation that will make the dependencies associated with aid less likely. Friendships, at least superficial friendships, are just as likely to produce dependency as direct aid.

Hauerwas cites Pope Francis, who says,

A Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering of Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.


Hauerwas’s understanding of Adam Smith and capitalism is interesting.

Sympathy, for Smith, is the key to our moral lives. It is so because sympathy makes possible the imaginative possibility that I can imagine, even against my own will, other peoples situations and lives. We are people affected by other people, making possible our ability to understand lives quite different than our own. Smith saw no tension between sympathy and self-interest, given the fact I am only able to know myself by seeing myself reflected through the eyes of others.

Yet it was Smith’s hope that capitalism as a system for the production of wealth would provide an alternative that would eliminate poverty. Indeed, one way to think of Smith’s vision is to see capitalism itself as a system of charity. No longer will individual acts of charity be required because the system itself will raise all the boats as the water rises. Capitalism so understood is an extraordinary utopian project.

Of course, the difficulty with such projects is they invite the illusion that, though things may not be working out – namely, we still have the poor among us – all we need is more time and the system will take care of itself. The other alternative is to blame those who have not become self-sufficient by suggesting they lack some essential virtues to make the system work. As a result, the poor get blamed for being poor. I hardly need to mention that the poor are often subject to such judgments in advanced capitalist societies.

Hauerwas, however, has the following to say about Reinhold Niebuhr.

I think it fair to say that Niebuhr changed the world in terms of how Christians particularly in America understood how the poor were to be served. Rather than focusing of individual acts of charity, now Christians tried to imagine social policies that would make the poor no longer poor.

Hauerwas cites Peter Maurin, who says the following about how Christianity has changed in the past 2,000 years.

At the beginning of Christianity the hungry were fed, the naked were clothed, the homeless were sheltered, ignorant were instructed at a personal sacrifice. And the pagans used to say about the Christians, “See how they love one another.”

The pagans do no longer say About the Christians, “See how they love one another,” but say, “See how they pass the buck to social agencies.”

Here is one more quote from Hauwerwas’ article.

For, in truth, the deepest problem is most of us want to be agents of charity without having to receive charity.

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