What is required of me in the face of the need of another?
I am still trying to evaluate something that happened to me the day before yesterday. It is also a question that came up for me regularly when I worked in downtown Denver.
It was the birthday of Paz’s sister Evelyn, and we had gone into Iba to buy her a few things. After leaving the mall we went across the street to the Puregold grocery store for a few things there. As we finished shopping we each got a Magnum ice cream bar, which cost PHP55 or $1.15, out of the cooler. When we left the Puregold we went to the nearby Jollibee fast food restaurant, which is, you might say, semi-air conditioned, to eat our ice cream. You can do that here in the Philippines: walk into a restaurant, take up a table, and eat what you bought elsewhere.
As we sat there eating our ice cream as quickly as we could, since it was beginning to melt, I looked around me and began to notice the people a few yards away from me, outside the Jollibee. They were, to call it what it is, begging. At the door going into the Jollibee was an old woman, about the age and the diminutive height of Paz’s mother, with a plastic cup she held out to people who all walked past her without looking at her--as we had done. Outside the exit door was a similar woman doing the same, and opening the door for those leaving in the hope that that small courtesy might warm a few hearts and produce for her more income. Just past her was a young woman squatted on the ground with some kind of container made of straw she was hoping to sell. She had such a dark complexion I thought she might be an Aeta, the indigenous people who inhabited these islands before the Malay people arrived long ago. Around her ran two children, a girl maybe four years old and a boy who was two or three. The little boy was naked from the waist down and barefoot.
As I sat there I began to feel very much like one of the characters in Jesus’s story of Lazarus and the rich man (often known as Dives, although that name is not in the Bible). It was definitely not the role of Lazarus that I was playing.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’” Luke 16:19-26 (NRSV)
What to do? As we sat there in the Jollibee and ate our Magnum Gold bars, we discussed it. We knew that anything we gave to those outside would immediately draw to us more people asking for the same help, causing a scene that would overwhelm us. And yet, I felt compelled to do at least something. We decided I could give each of them one of the three PHP 5 coins in my pocket. Yes, each would get about the equivalent of a dime: 1/11 of what I paid for my ice cream.
As we walked out I had the coins in my hand. I gave one to each of the three without talking to them or even looking them in the eye and moved past them as quickly as I could, with Paz and Evelyn close behind me. Although I tried to slip by with as little complication as possible, other people began to surround me with their hands held out. I just avoided meeting their eyes, or even seeing their faces, shook my head “No” over and over, and kept moving forward.
If this was a test of my decency, I pretty much failed it. I could have done less, I suppose, but not by much.
I can’t solve the problems of the Philippines. If I had the combined wealth of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Charles and David Koch, and divided it equally among all 101,701,824 (and counting) Filipinos, each would get about $2,464, which until recently was more than the GDP per capita of their poor county. (It more than doubled in the last fifteen years and in 2013 was about $2,765.) That would be welcome of course, but the structural inequities would remain, and before long things would, for the most part, be right back where they are now. I can’t solve the problems of any one person. One of those billionaires could, easily, but I’m certainly not one of them. I can’t even afford to make sure that one of them eats well for a month.
There are a couple of things, I can do, though. To begin with, I can be a little more generous financially. I figure that PHP 100, $2.10 at today’s exchange rate, would buy in the market roughly one tilapia and a kilo of rice. That might be two meals, with some rice left over. These situations won’t come up every day, anyway, so I can do that. Other supplicants, if they see a C note being passed, will go wild, maybe, but that is just something I would have to handle.
Secondly, and more importantly, I can treat each of these people at least briefly as another human being, like me traversing the face of the earth for a limited and difficult time. In their cases, much more difficult. I can look them in the eyes and smile. “If you smile at me I will understand, ‘cause that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language.” I can even say something. We speak different languages and won’t understand each others’ words, but the sound of our voices, exchanged, will be a token of our common humanity. Google Translate says, and Paz confirms, that the English expression “God be with you” becomes in Tagalog “Ang Diyos ay sumainyo.” I should at least be able to remember that.
The Bible says very little about the day to day life of Jesus. It leaves huge gaps that we try to fill in by inference, as countless people have done with more or less insight. One of those lacunae is whether or not he ever laughed or even smiled. I feel certain, though, that he did. Take healing miracles, for instance. We’re trained to think of them as occasions of great solemnity and awe, as in this clip from The Greatest Story Ever Told (with the tall, narrow skulled, light skinned, blue eyed Max Von Sydow as Jesus showing a frame of mind more apt for playing chess with Death), but I can just as readily think of them as smiling, joyful, practically giggly. This miracle said to have been performed by two of his disciples sounds like a happy occasion:
“One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.” Acts 3:1-8 (NRSV)
I wouldn't expect to heal the lame, but “leaping and praising God” is the Jesus I would like to think of and the kind of follower of Jesus I would like more to be.
Today I happened across a TED talk given in 2007 by Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and the author of the 1995 bestseller Emotional Intelligence, titled, "Why aren't we more compassionate?” In it he speaks of ”a spectrum that goes from complete self-absorption, to noticing, to empathy and to compassion.” He talks about what it took to“shake me out of the urban trance where, when we see, when we're passing someone who's homeless in the periphery of our vision, it stays on the periphery. We don't notice and therefore we don't act.”
Before there was an unbridgeable chasm between Lazarus and Dives there was a simple gap of only a few feet. One stayed, after all, at the other’s gate. They were neighbors. A gate like the one between the street where Lazarus lay and the the house where Dives dined, like the Beautiful Gate between the outer and the inner parts of the temple in Jerusalem, is essentially a kind of bridge from one kind of place to another.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached at least twice about the story of Lazarus and Dives, and both times he talked about bridges. The first time was early in his career, on October 2, 1955, seven months after Claudette Colvin had been arrested for refusing to move out of the white section of a Montgomery bus, but two months before Rosa Parks did the same. The second time was March 31, 1968, four days before he was assassinated.
On the first occasion, at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, his sermon was titled, “The Impassable Gulf (The Parable of Dives and Lazarus).” In it he used the words bridge and bridged sixteen times. He asks, “What, then, were the sins that lead to Dives’ damnation?”
They were three. “First, Dives over absorption in self prevented him from seeing others. He was victimized with the tragic disease of egocentrism. He passed Lazarus every day, but he never really him. He was too much absorbed in himself to be able to see.” It is this egocentrism that Goleman talks about too. “Secondly, Dives was condemned because his selfishness caused him to lose the capacity to sympathize. There is nothing more tragic than to find a person who can look at the anguishing and deplorable circumstances of fellow human beings and not be moved.” This, too, was part of Goleman’s TED talk. One section of it talks about the inability of serial killer Edmund Kemper to feel empathy.
It is in the third of Dives’s sins, though, that King went far ahead of Goleman. “Finally, Dives’ greatest sin was that he accepted the inequalities of circumstance as being the proper conditions of life. There is a gulf that originates in the accident of circumstance. Circumstances make it possible for some people to get an education, while other people are denied the opportunity... There are certain gulfs in life which originate in the accident of circumstance... The sin of Dives was that he felt that the gulf which existed between him and Lazarus was a proper condition of life Dives felt that this was the way things were to be He took the ‘isness’ of circumstantial accidents and transformed them into the ‘oughtness’ of a universal structure. He adjusted himself to the patent inequalities of circumstance.”
King ends this speech by saying, “Whenever we find God, He is seeking to bridge the gulf... God is saying, ‘As I have bridged the gulf between man and God, so bridge you the gulf between man and man.’ Each of us IS a potential Dives... At our gate stands some poor Lazarus... There is a gulf. But the gulf can be bridged by a little love and compassion. Bridge the gulf before it becomes too late It is now passable. But it can become impassable.”
The other sermon King gave about Lazarus and Dives was titled, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” It was given at the National Cathedral. It can be read here and heard here. This was in some ways a much darker sermon. He talks about seeing poverty all around America and throughout the world. This sermon is famous for being one in which he takes a clear stand against the war in Vietnam and directly links the struggle against it to the struggles against racism and poverty.
One of only two mentions of bridges comes when he says, “[T]his is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.” Near the end he says, “Let me close by saying that we have difficult days ahead in the struggle for justice and peace, but I will not yield to a politic of despair... We’re going to win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands. And so, however dark it is, however deep the angry feelings are, and however violent explosions are, I can still sing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This last sentence has been used repeatedly by Barack Obama.
Finally he comes around to the same joy the formerly lame man, and no doubt Peter and John too felt. “God grant that we will be participants in this newness and this magnificent development. If we will but do it, we will bring about a new day of justice and brotherhood and peace. And that day the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.”
God grant that the next time I see someone here pleading for help, as no doubt will happen, I will respond in a way that leaves us both shouting for joy.