O for the P: Paul Famer and the Core of the Reversal

I was captured by the images of chaos, death and hope in Kidder’s “narration” of Haiti. I know enough about Haiti and its challenges to feel desperation about its future. It is not just that Haiti has been ignored. Rather it is a small country, well known to American Christians, and the American military. What once was a lush and productive land is now packed with more people than it can sustain, its politics of violence and repression are other worldly, and U. S. and western complicity have exacerbated its problems. It is not that Haiti is hopeless, but that we have made it a land of hopelessness. How does a country become poor? Not by the features of its landscape – only by the actions of other people.

So when we see Paul Farmer in his Haitian element he is not just doctoring poor people in a scary country. He is confronting the system and structures that produce the conditions of Haiti. This is why his plan for health care in Haiti is transportable to other contexts: the same system and structures that erode life in Haiti do so in many other places as well. Reversing these forces, responding effectively to this pressure is a titanic task. Titans were giants who ruled the world, now these Titans are corporations with money and governments with guns, and people without care for things beyond their day to day world.

The account of Farmer’s call presented in Mountains beyond Mountains focuses on his medical brain and his concern for sick people everywhere. And his organization, Partners in Health, that grows up like some kind of ivy around his work is a fascinating example of organizational development. But what is the core of this concern, for this man and this organization? What gives it coherence? Tracy Kidder quotes Farmer’s connection to Liberation Theologians, those catholic thinkers from Central and South America who confront the theology of their hierarchy and all Christendom pointing out that God is for the liberation of oppressed people. Jesus did not come to bring hope to rich people, to comfort them in their dissatisfaction in luxury, but spoke to poor people exclusively. The shock of Jesus’ gospel was that it aimed at those people out of view to the religious society – lepers, women, prostitutes, cripples. Jesus confronted and confronted, told stories, preached and provoked. He said “I did not come to care for the healthy, but for the sick.” John’s disciples asked, apparently in disbelief, “Are you the one?” and Jesus replied, “the bondage of the prisoner is broken, the blind see, the deaf hear, and good news is preached to the poor.” These are the signs of the kingdom. So Liberation Theology points to our understanding of salvation, a theology of wealth. We are blessed, meaning wealthy. We hold this wealth as a confirmation of our proximity to God. Farmer turns this on its head. God’s concern – standing there clearly in the words and deeds of Jesus – is for the poor and oppressed. If we want to be like Jesus, to be in the mind of Christ, we must follow Christ’s preference for the poor. Farmer calls this exercising the preferential option for the poor – O for the P. In any question of resource disbursement, we (the decision makers, the powerful, the wealthy) should prefer the option that benefits the poor. We should use wealth, as Jesus says, to make friends. We should see wealth as a gift, a responsibility, as Woolman says, to be made a channel for universal love for all people.

What would change about us – just focusing on you and me, the people in this room – if we took the O for the P seriously? It would be a real change, a reversal of so many things in our world and practice. We would consider the lives of people who see the future as a burden the center of our work. What we count as success would not be the expansion of earning potential or stock portfolios but removing the stressors on people who struggle to respond to the challenges of life for themselves. Like a doctor helps the body fight illnesses one at a time, so we would see our work as an incremental aid to healing, to freeing life from the system and structures that choke it. We would prefer to think of the world from that point of view, and that would be a great revolution for us and the world.



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