Monday, June 8, 2009

objective base

The first great human right to most of the people of the world is the right to eat.

-- Eleanor Roosevelt, “My Day” (May 30, 1960)

I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.

-- Matthew 25:35 (Annotated Scholars' Version)

Liberals don’t know much about hunger – the literal kind of hunger, that is. If we say that we hunger for justice, or for truth and meaning, we speak in abstractions from a seminar table. We learn about the objective base of such tropes vicariously, through the testimony of others, or as data in a sociological table. That’s why we think the Bill of Rights is the answer to everybody’s problem.

Yeshua’s standard is simple and concrete. Because our Unitarian Universalist “purposes and principles” include “justice, equity and compassion,” we may think we’ve got it covered. Surely, we say, somewhere in the owners’ manual of our triple virtue there is a protocol for feeding people, should we encounter the necessity. Just go to Help. Or Tech Support. But soaring over moral terrain in lofty abstraction is no substitute for having, as the military say, our boots on the ground. Does your church have a functioning kitchen? When did you last use it? Who did you invite? Are you ready for the hungry to show up at your door? When that happens it’s meat and potatoes, not catered sushi. It’s cooking and serving, not ordering out. Yeshua is pretty clear about this. You have to be there, and you have to do the work.

Later of course you can go to the planning meeting. After doing your honest best for a few minutes to enact the Divine Domain, you can talk with others about how to do it again and do it better. And then it’s back to the kitchen; there won’t be another discussion group about heaven until you’ve done the things you planned to do, and seen the results. Praxis, reflection, and then more praxis. No dessert until you eat your spinach.

Then you might ask why so much of this work needs to be done. You could agitate for justice; write letters to your public officials; bring out the vote for a favored candidate; give some of your money to a righteous cause. But these behaviors are the rainbows of your fountain – the epiphenomena as Marx might say of your concrete mercy. They are real, and they are good; but they are secondary, fed or starved by deeper sources. To speak of justice without putting food in the hands of the hungry is like singing of love for God while hating one’s neighbors. Our epiphenomenal behavior won’t work. Not if we expect it to relieve us of responsibility.

Here and now we can take better care of the homeless in our city. We can reduce the violence in our neighborhoods. We can lower the percentages of hunger and malnutrition. These are all good things to do, and we should do them. But when it’s done, we’ll still be human beings on the ruthless trek of history, each of us capable of glory but each power bloc about as rotten, sooner or later, as can be gotten away with. We’ve always had the poor with us, and the hungry. To ask that their part be written out of history is to ask for a grand lie, or for the end of history. We’re not at the end of history yet, and every plan to bring it on has so far proved a murderous abstraction. The Divine Domain inhales us in medias res, and not ad terminem. It’s here, right now, if only I can squirm into the right dimension to see it.

Like an immature counselor determined to save all his clients, we forget our power’s provenance. We cannot cancel history, but we can hear historias of those whose history is denied to them. Hear their stories, name their fears, and bless their hopes. Done faithfully, it might add up to traveling part of the way with them, and giving them the power. Such work is done more often in the kitchen than in the sanctuary.

Bless our hearts. We do our best, located where we’re thrown at birth; we’re hard at work with our besetting sins and our besetting virtues, our brilliant ignorance and brilliant knowledge, our callousness and our compassion. We would illuminate the world with this dark lantern, this problematic of our belief. Compassion burns but concepts sputter. We just can’t get the darn thing to light. Because it lights itself.

The liberation theologians would say it’s all too simple for us. If we were really hungry, we wouldn’t be liberals. We’d be something else, and God would love us.

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