Stepping Beyond Our Fear of the Poor

It is important for us to view ourselves as good people. According to Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, this is a key factor in whether and when we engage in dishonest behavior. In a recent NPR story, he explains that while most of us engage in dishonesty to a small degree on a regular basis, it is important for us to be able to rationalize it: again, we need to believe that we are good.

The second interesting point that he makes is supported by a study in which adults were tempted to lie about scores on a math quiz. Basically, they were allowed to grade their own quiz and self-report how well they did, "earning" a dollar for each correct answer. On average, people would report two more correct answers than they actually got. But, when people received tokens for their correct answers, which they would then exchange for dollars, the numbers doubled. This points to a trend, Dr. Ariely explains, in which the further removed we are from actual money received from dishonest behavior, the more dishonest we tend to be.

I was reflecting on these two points in considering the number of people that I encounter that seem to have such negative views of people in economic distress. I realized that, while I often try to put myself in the shoes of those most in need, I am much less open to placing myself in the shoes of those that seem to disdain those people - those who disdain the homeless, those on welfare, the unemployed, those suffering from addiction and mental illness. In praying about this, though, I came back to a simple yet profound notion that I have learned yet too often forget: the opposite of love is not hate, but fear.

Remembering this is central to empathizing with those that are not acting out of love, and to addressing when we ourselves are failing in answering the call to love. In this case, the question for me became, "Why do we fear the poor?" And, more broadly, why have people feared the poor for centuries, millennia even? We have many examples throughout Scripture, with God repeatedly, through prophets and, most perfectly, through Jesus, sending the message that we need to abandon this fear and to love those most in need. So why, still, do we fear them? The answer, I think, is tied to the first finding of Dr. Ariely mentioned above: we want to believe that we are good. Moreover, we want to believe that we are deserving, either by work ethic or divine providence, of our social and economic status. We want to believe that, in a fair and just world, we have come to where we are purely through hard work, and that those that have "failed" have only themselves to blame.

Love of the poor challenges this assertion. When we enter into loving relationship with those in need, we begin to recognize that there are often hurdles and barriers that are beyond a single human's ability to overcome. In realizing that, we have to conclude that not all of life is fair, and that even if hard work did advance our lives in some way, we are beneficiaries of an unjust society. And we are afraid to admit that. Terrified, really, because it is so contrary to how we have defined ourselves.

This identity of merit, though, actually imprisons us in fear. We are so afraid that we will be proven as somehow "unworthy," that we reject anything that gives worth to those whom society has deemed without merit. This goes to the second conclusion from Dr. Ariely: the more that we separate ourselves from the direct consequences of our rewards, the easier it is to justify those rewards. This is why it can be so difficult, sometimes seemingly impossible, to pull many people into loving and authentic relationships with those outside of their comfort zones. The closer we are to those that have suffered unfairly, the more we have to confront our part in that suffering. And this is not just a matter of physical proximity, but of emotional and relational proximity. I can serve meals at a soup kitchen or go on a mission trip, for instance, without developing the emotional ties and relationships that will challenge my views of merit and worth. It is a matter, then, of stepping beyond into genuine solidarity.

As Christians, of course, we know (but maybe do not truly know) that giving up our views of merit and embracing genuine love of all will actually free us. In the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16), the workers are caught up in this same concern for their own merit, grumbling that those who have worked less receive the same reward. The landowner replies, "Are you envious because I am generous?" I think that this question should really be keeping us up at nights! Are we envious that God's love knows no conditions or exceptions? Do we dare to be as free as the landowner, placing no conditions on our own love?

Jesus begins this parable by telling us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like this. He ends by telling us that "the last will be first and the first will be last." Why, then, are we still so concerned with being "first"? Why are we so fearful of those that are last? Too often, we see stories like this as, at best, a warning. But Jesus is offering us the Kingdom: the world in which God means for us to live. When we put ourselves last, when we let go of our concerns about who has earned what, we become free - free from fear; free to love. We want to be good people. God made us to strive for goodness. But as long as we fear those that we are meant to love, then we deny ourselves the fullness of the love that we are meant to share.