Dangerous Ideas About Them and Us

January 19, 2014

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Christine Binder, Moderator of Judson Began:

For the past two years, I’ve worked at an anti-hunger non-profit called WhyHunger. One of my main tasks is to answer calls on the National Hunger Hotline (866-3-HUNGRY). Our goal is to help people who are hungry find food. The calls I get really run the gamut. Sometimes it’s as simple as “What’s the number for the food stamp office?” or “I’m looking for food pantries in my area.”

But every so often, I get a call that hits me hard, and I can’t forget it. Robert called me late on a Friday afternoon. He started by apologizing. He said he was sorry for calling and told me that he had never asked anyone for help before. I hear this all the time, actually. “I’ve never had to ask for help before. Usually I’m the one giving.” He told me that things had gotten real bad. He was sixty years old – the same age as my parents at the time – and lived with his wife in the middle of nowhere in rural eastern Washington State. They had been surviving on less than a thousand dollars a month. Most of this came from his disability check. When their food ran out, they started eating dog food. It wasn’t until they had finished their last can of dog food that he opened the phonebook and called me. I told him how to apply for food stamps and gave him contact info for food pantries in his area. But what really struck me about his situation is that he had resisted asking for help for so long because he was so deeply ashamed. This was more than just stigma brought about by the right-wing paradigm that people who receive government benefits are worthless, entitled moochers. Robert told me that he always believed that “you reap what you sow,” but that “I didn’t sow this.” He told me that he didn’t drink, that he had always lived a good, moral life, so he was at a complete loss as to why God was punishing him.

It dawned on me that poverty had affected him not only temporally, but also on a much deeper and more painful spiritual level. Prosperity gospel had told him that if he was good, God would reward him financially. And if he wasn’t being rewarded financially, if he and his wife were eating dog food, then in God’s eyes he must have done something wrong—except he hadn’t, so in his eyes, God must have abandoned him, like a modern-day Job. I did my best to comfort him, to remind him that he had “paid it forward,” and that it was ok to ask for and receive help.

But for every call like Robert’s, I receive dozens from people like Cindy, who have already asked everyone for help, yet haven’t received it. Cindy is a divorced, single mom from central Pennsylvania. She can’t work because she has to take care of her severely autistic son, and her ex-husband hadn’t paid child support for months. Eventually his wages were garnished and she got a lump payment, which went to paying off debts and bills, but this put her over the monthly income limit and she lost her food stamps. Without food stamps, she would have to rely on food pantries to feed her and her son. Here’s the complication, though: her son, due to his autism, is an extremely picky eater – to the point where his low weight is a health concern. One of the only foods that she can get him to eat is white cheddar Kraft Macaroni and Cheese because it has a special kind of noodle. He won’t eat any other variety. I gave her as much information and coaching as I could, but Cindy and I both knew that getting her son’s mac and cheese from a food pantry would be nearly impossible. Food pantries don’t take special orders – they just distribute everyone else’s leftovers. Beggars can’t be choosers, remember?

Perhaps some of you read the five-part New York Times piece about Dasani, a homeless girl living under deplorable conditions at a shelter in Fort Greene. Mayor Bloomberg’s response was, "This kid was dealt a bad hand. That's just the way God works. Sometimes some of us are lucky and some of us are not." Mayor DiBlasio also addressed the story at a press conference, saying, “If you ever needed an illustration of what the tale of two cities is all about, there you have it.” The rhetoric about “two New Yorks” has been very effective for DiBlasio, allowing him to self-identify as a bold progressive. Progressive with a capital P.

I met DiBlasio while he was campaigning this summer, and as I shook his hand, I asked him, “So, what are you going to do to make New York more affordable?” And he told me about his plan for affordable housing units. I was not impressed. I realize in retrospect, I should have asked him, “What are you going to do make New York more affordable FOR ME?” You see, just a few weeks earlier, Brian and I had received the lease renewal for our one bedroom, fourth floor walk-up apartment in Prospect Heights, where we had already been living for two years. Our absentee landlord had raised our rent nine percent. First, we did research to see if this was legal. Unfortunately it was. Then we asked if we could sign a two-year lease, to lock in the rate. Nope. For a two-year lease, they wanted a 15% rent increase. We looked to see if there were any less expensive apartments in the neighborhood. There weren’t. So we ponied up and signed the lease. We felt powerless, like we didn’t have any control over our lives. I started to compulsively visit real estate websites, thinking that maybe we could preserve our life here in New York if only we could buy an apartment before we were entirely priced out of all the adjacent neighborhoods. Brian and I agreed to really knuckle down over the next few years to try to advance our careers and increase our income so we’d be able to get married, buy a place, start a family, and provide for our children – not easy for a teacher and someone working at a non-profit. Brian scheduled a meeting with his boss and managed to negotiate a raise. But last week, I learned that despite all my hard work, there would be no raise this year for me or any of my coworkers due to the organization’s financial difficulties. Instead, we lost all of our benefits – health insurance, dental, transit, 401k. So lately it’s felt a bit like one step forward, two steps back. I worry about our long-term ability to stay in New York and to stay at Judson. This is my reality and my struggle and I think it’s important that you know this about me, because if I hide it, like Robert did, it only serves to make me feel more isolated.

The point I’m getting to, by first telling Robert’s story and Cindy’s story, and then my story, is that charity and policy alone are never going to end hunger, poverty, and economic injustice. Charity as a response to hunger is not only inadequate, but robs people of their dignity. Our public social safety net, which includes food stamps and other programs, offers more help to low-income families than charity, but it’s still a broken system that stigmatizes people and fails to create lasting systemic change. This month, Congress will likely pass a Farm Bill that in these hard economic times, cuts food stamp funding by 9 billion dollars over the next decade. So what do we do? We don’t give up on charity or progressive policy change. We keep doing these things in ways that promote dignity, and with the acknowledgement that hunger is a symptom of economic injustice. To address hunger, we address systemic issues: the cost of housing, healthcare, and education, living wages, sexism, racism.

But to be radical, like Michael Ellick told us in last Sunday’s sermon, we need take ourselves a step further. We need to follow in the footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King, who named poverty, along with racism and militarism, as one of the triple evils, and live in Beloved Community with each other. King wrote, “The well off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst…No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for ‘the least of these,” which in my opinion does not fall too far from today’s New Testament excerpt, from Paul’s letter of advice to the Christian community at Corinth. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

To be in community, we have to acknowledge our differences and embrace plurality. I don’t just mean outside these walls. I mean within these walls, too. The Dickensian, either-or nature of describing ourselves as haves or have-nots, rich or poor, the 99% or the 1%, inside Judson or outside Judson, homogenizes us within our particular category and silences our different gifts. There are more than two New Yorks. There are as many New Yorks as there are parts of the body and many, if not all of them are represented within our Congregation.

The last thing I have to say is that before we adopt the phrase, “Judson is for the people who aren’t at Judson,” perhaps we should pause to ask ourselves what that implies. What does that say about who “we” are, who “they” are, and whether it’s ok for us to admit that we’re a community – a church - that’s also here for ourselves. Amen.

Donna Schaper continues

Our new moderator, thank you, Christine, has just said a very dangerous idea. She has suggested that Judson is not just for the people who aren’t here but also for the people who are here. That may need a little unpacking. Permit me to open your suitcase and to show how much otherizing hurts the very others who we like to think we are helping. Unpacking this kind of suitcase is often very uncomfortable. You find that you have been carrying around a lot of stuff that really doesn’t fit. It’s like arriving in Miami and finding you have no short sleeve shirts. You have come to life unprepared for life. Or as theologian Diana Eck says, “You want to live in a world that is diverse instead of a world that is plural. In a plural world there is a tip. There are no longer better people and worse people, better religions and worse religions. There are just people, plurally and contentedly alive.”

I am even concerned about how Christine helped Robert accept help. Paying it forward? That implies we have to pay in the first place. And we do not. People deserve food and respect and apartments at prices they can afford.

I don’t have as big a crush on Pope Frances as Michael does. But I do have a crush on him. He has a sacramental theology of poverty which is different than a progressive theology. In progressive theology, we assume that we are the givers and others are the getters. Needless to say this idea advances the oppression of the poor and ourselves. Poverty feeds on shame. Poverty loves shame. Some progressives actually love poverty because it allows us to feel “useful.” And to thank God we aren’t “them.” Watch that word “Them.” It is an otherizer.

Back to Judson. I can’t believe the number of people who come to visit me and say, “I know you have better things to do with your time than to bother with me. But…..” and then comes the emptied suitcase. There is a deep shaming in our culture about human need. We are not supposed to have it, any kind of it, and if we do, it must be our fault. Or we need to pay somebody to be fixed. Or at least pay it forward.

How many times have you said, “I know I am a lot better off than others.” That is an anti-sacramental point of view. It is like the foot saying to the hand, I don’t need you. Or if I do need you, or have any needs, I must be a part of the human race and who wants that? What the poor need is to be relieved of being responsible for their poverty. What the rich need is to be relieved of being responsible for their wealth. Neither deserves either. Or as my brother just said to my nephew, in an exclamation point response to my nephew spending $25,000 on a diamond engagement ring for his bride, because “she deserves it, “ my brother said in a hoof, “Nobody deserves anything.”

Richard Rohr says that the great division in life is not between the sacred and the profane. Instead the division is between the sacred and the desecrated. We desecrate need, regularly, in progressive theology. We think our job is to “help” or “fix” or otherwise otherize those in shameful need. The poor are not responsible for their poverty. What the poor want – ask any gang member – is respect. The beatitudes tell us that there is blessing in suffering and that you probably can’t be blessed if you can’t suffer. People who try to “do something about poverty” are otherizing their own suffering and thereby refusing a blessing.

The kind of suffering that is available to people who can afford to put gruyere in their mac and cheese is here. It is not guilt about the gruyere. It is knowing the great incompleteness of the one world, that is not fulfilled or complete until everybody gets food and where no one is embarrassed by their wealth or their poverty, whether it be psychological or spiritual or economic in nature. If you want to insist on being ashamed or having shame, go for it. But have the shame for the broken body, the world that does not yet exist. Don’t say you belong to a church that exists for others and not for ourselves. Better put, this church does exist for the whole body, which includes us. Don’t set yourself up here as an insider who loves the outside. Set yourself up as an outsider who loves the whole body, who happens to be a part of a church that is completely made up of outsiders, by people who don’t deserve each other but are blessed by each other anyway. What is the blessing? It is mutual respect, for those who are “weak” and those who are “strong,” even those who are conceited about how strong they are.

It is a great day to caress what Dr. King meant by the beloved community. He meant a wholeness, a completeness, a fullness of being. He meant a place where my sorry behind can coexist with your sorry behind. I know there is a nastier word to use here – although in the very terms of the great text on different gifts – I want to stop the junior high giggling about what Jesus rode into Jerusalem. He rode on a donkey, right? In the name of our sorry behinds – that which we try unsuccessfully to put behind us – let us rename the beloved community as something in which we dwell. It is not something our prophetic social action behavior DOES to the world. We are not here to fix the world for others. We are here to live in the world as selves, as full-bodied selves, in a broken world, which is longing to be whole, not fixed.

Fred Craddock puts it this way, “When Grace really happens, you can’t tell the giver from the receiver. Both are so joyful.” We are never going to force CEO’s to stop making a hundred times what their janitors make. We are going to show them that such behavior desacralizes them and desecrates their own organizations. We are going to show them that they go outside the body when they make too much money. We are going to show the joyful way where the giver and the receiver become one. That will take a little melt down, a little unpacking of our own suitcases, a little shift in how we see ourselves. It will involve a refusal of otherizing, a melting into the self and the plural world.

I know people who are very poor who don’t think they are poor. In that understanding of self, they transcend poverty. I know people who are very rich who don’t define themselves by their wealth or what they can do to help others.

Let me leave you with one thing I know about the beloved community which exists for itself, as itself, for others, as others. The two most popular sites on the Internet are Porno sites, number one and genealogy, number two. In porno sites certain parts of the body are overdone. In genealogy sites, people search for their own behinds.

I watched a man try to fit his car into a parking space that was just too small. He managed to bump the car behind his, which car had a driver sitting in it. The driver not only beeped one of those big New York beeps. He got out of his car and yelled at the other guy. Behind the already parked car, there were about six feet. God forbid the one driver would move, allowing the other person to park his car. In sacramental theology, we enjoy moving our car to allow space for somebody else’s car. We are delighted to be a part of the great parking lot, which is life. As a landlord, we are delighted to rent apartments at fair rates, and as tenants, we are delighted to park in such places.



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