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.

Stanley Hauerwas (and Bonhoeffer) on the Sermon on the Mount

For those who don’t know, Stanley Hauerwas has written a commentary on Matthew. There are plenty of insights. Here are a few quotes from his comments on the Sermon on the Mount, where he draws on Bonhoeffer’s writings several times.

For the church to be so constituted, according to Bonhoeffer, requires the visibility of the church. To be salt, to be made light for the world, is a call for the church to be visible. For the followers of Jesus, “to flee into invisibility is to deny the call. Any community of Jesus which wants to be invisible is no longer a community that follows him” (2001, 113).

This does not mean that those who would follow Jesus do so that they may be seen. Nor are disciples called to be different in order to be different. Jesus clearly thinks that disciples will be different, but that difference is because of what he is—the Son of God. Bonhoeffer observes that Jesus’s teachings in Matt. 6 help us to see that the righteousness of the disciple is hidden even from the disciple. Visibility and difference is the result of being pulled into the way of life made possible by Jesus. So the Sermon on the Mount is a description of a way of life of a people, a people of a new age that results from following this man. (Emphasis added)

That is what it means to be blessed. Given our everyday assumptions, we normally do not think that the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, those persecuted for righteousness sake, are “blessed.” Yet that Jesus declares such people “blessed” indicates that the transformed world has begun with the proclamation that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Each of the Beatitudes names a gift, but it is not presumed that everyone who is a follower of Jesus will possess each beatitude. Rather, the gifts names in the Beatitudes suggest that the diversity of these gifts will be present in the community of those who have heard Jesus’s call to discipleship. Indeed, to learn to be a disciple is to learn why we are dependent on those who mourn or who are meek, though we may not possess that gift ourselves. (Emphasis added)

[In the following Hauerwas talks about what “poor in spirit” means.]

But the source for any understanding of the Beatitudes must be Jesus. It is from Jesus that we learn what it means to be “poor in spirit.” (Emphasis added)

[Then Hauerwas cites Philippians 2:5–8.]

Paul does not assume that our poverty of spirit is the same as Jesus’s self-emptying, but rather that Jesus’s poverty has made it possible for a people to exist who can live dispossess of possessions. To be poor does not in itself make one a follower of Jesus, but it can put you in the vicinity of what it might mean to discover the kind of poverty that frees those who follow Jesus from enslavement to the world. Not to be missed, moreover, it the political significance of such poverty. Too often we fail to recognize our accommodation to worldly powers because we fear losing our wealth—wealth that can take quite diverse forms. (Emphasis added)

Like Jesus, moreover, the disciples endure injustice with the hard meekness that still hungers and thirsts for righteousness. Yet the righteousness of this new people is blessed by the mercy seen in the forgiveness that Christ showed even to those who would kill him. Such a people are capable of peacemaking because they are sustained by the purity derived from having no other telos but to enact the kingdom embodied in Jesus. Yet such a people may well be persecuted, as Jesus was persecuted, because they are an alternative to the violence of the world that is too often called “peace.” (Emphasis added)

Source: Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 61–65.

Stanley Hauerwas Duke University Photography© Chris Hildreth #0032