Our senior scholar and keynote speaker is Paul Fiddes, Research Professor and Emeritus Principal of Regent’s Park.
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.
“I wanted life and I wanted the abundant life. I wanted it for others too. I did not want just the few, the missionary-minded people like the Salvation Army, to be kind to the poor, as the poor. I wanted everyone to be kind. I wanted every home to be open to the lame, the halt and the blind, the way it had been after the San Francisco earthquake. Only then did people really live, really love their brothers. In such love was the abundant life and I did not have the slightest idea how to find it.” (39)
If Gandhi obsessed about the food he ate, Dorothy Day obsesses about the places she lived. My head swims taking in the moves from city to city and apartment to apartment. I think she was happy by the ocean because she was in one house for a period of time. Still, this restlessness is a part of her story – a sign of her search for both happiness, security in relationships, and abundant life.
Searching for abundant life seems an odd pursuit. Better look for a job, a spouse, a place. But all these are subordinated in Day’s unfolding story. And the most surprising thing is that her deepest acquaintance with abundant life followed a natural disaster. The San Francisco earthquake succeeded in opening up the everyday getting and grabbing and a new community stepped forth. A community that cared for the other without qualification, putting aside selfish interests and desires. This became the image of community Day hoped to abide in fully, even to create if she could be her work and her writing. It is this search for the space of a community that lurks in her coming and going, moving and staying.
What most sings out in her story is the Mystical Body of Christ, a tune that comes in and out of hearing, more when she is in touch with herself, in a way reflecting what she remembers Augustine writing “Lord, that I may know myself, in order that I may know thee.”(10-11) The Mystical Body of Christ is her solid home, and it takes a long journey there. She sacrifices many things to be there, but finds everything and more of abundant life in these moments of discovery. It is even a blind instinct to pray, emerging in the space of her life and loves, that leads her toward this Mystical Body. She fears that the church might be a mere opiate for her dissatisfaction with the world, and it is not until her great happiness by the ocean and the birth of her daughter that Day confronts the Mystical Body of Christ as real possibility as her own place. She sends her infant child ahead into this Mystical Body through baptism, like a small envoy that precedes the one with less faith. She does follow, even at the cost of her physical union with the body of her common-law husband.
The Mystical Body of Christ is Day’s ultimate love. This is the space she desires to inhabit, body and soul. And this is the space she opens up within her church, confronting it with the reduction of faith to a spiritual category, separate from the identification with the poor and outcast. In this way she opens up this space to us all – the Mystical Body of Christ is close, right at arm’s length, in the life and suffering of the poor and dispossessed. May we all find this space in the Mystical Body of Christ.