“Jesus said unto them, They need not depart; give ye them to eat. And they say unto him, We have here but five loaves, and two fishes. He said, Bring them hither to me. And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude. And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full. And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children.”—Matthew 14:15-21 (King James Version)
If you want to justify your own heartlessness, your crass unwillingness to share with others less fortunate than yourself, if you’re looking for sophisticated rationalizations for your own selfishness, your greed, there are today—as there have always been—plenty of people ready to give you what you’re looking for. These purveyors of comforting sophistries are now—as they have always been—rather obvious enemies of the poor, the destitute, and the weak. But the needy have other, less obvious, enemies.
There are today—as there have always been—plenty of well-intentioned people who believe they know what’s best for the poor. Some of these well-meaning folk have managed to do good in the world, despite their hubris. But others have, albeit unwillingly, destroyed the very communities they sought to save. They’ve created social programs that have hurt the people they were supposed to help. What’s worse, they’ve often robbed the poor of one of their most precious possessions: their dignity.
At bottom, presuming to know what’s best for the poor is a function of a deep-seated contempt for the poor. This is an ugly truth, and, as a consequence, intelligent dogooders have come up with all sorts of ways—often ingenious ways—to reconcile a theoretical love of the poor with an actual contempt for the poor. None has proven more adaptable than Marx’s notion of false consciousness, though Freud’s idea of denial will do in a pinch—same is true of Gramsci’s (largely circular) concept of hegemony. Regardless, positions of this stamp invariably devolve into some species of Leninism: the poor are, according to this view, deluded idiots, and, as a consequence, social progress depends upon some sort of a vanguard party: a small minority of enlightened experts (who see things clearly, unlike the poor). According to this logic, the poor should, if they know what’s good for them, defer to the superior wisdom of these enlightened experts. If they fail to do so, well, then, they deserve their fate.
The poor are today—as they have always been—so often caught between a rock and a hard place: between a heartless conservatism that blames the victim, and a demeaning dogooderism that shames the victim. The radicalism of the feeding of the 5000—recounted in Matthew’s Gospel—must be understood within this context. Jesus doesn’t hector the hungry or lecture the lame; he just gives them what they need. No questions asked. No strings attached. People are hungry. And they are fed. Giving people what they say they need—as opposed to what you think they need—can be dangerous. No doubt about that. It’s a risky business. To say otherwise would be foolish. Some people—especially self-destructive people—desire and demand that which will destroy them. So you’ve got to use your head, you’ve got to be smart. Nobody’s saying you have to check your capacity for reason at the door. But Matthew is saying that reason isn’t enough, that real, open-handed generosity is a function of faith and respect as well as reason.
If you’re going to feed the 5000, you have to respect the humanity of the humble, and the dignity of the destitute. If you’re going to feed the 5000, you have to have faith in their capacity for reason—viz., you have to believe that, more often than not, the needy know what they need better than you do. If you’re going to feed the 5000, you have to be humble enough to ask them what they want, and wise enough to shut up and listen. Finally, and above all else, if you’re going to feed the 5000—if wish to help those in need—you have to temper your aspirations for what they might become with a respect for who they are—who they are right now! Because the new and improved person, the redeemed sinner of the future, is always to some extent a product of your imagination. And loving products of your own imagination is a kind of idolatry, a species of self-love. Jesus didn’t command us to love products of our own imagination. He commanded us to love one another. And you can’t love another human being in the future or the past. If you want to love them, really love them, you have to love them now, as they are, and where they are.
—John Faithful Hamer, The Village Explainer (2016)