On Giving and Receiving

"I was just at church, and they were praying for the homeless," Larry said, holding the day's belongings in a bag beside him. As the subway screeched to a halt, I heard him quip, "I decided that I should pray for the housed." Larry was sick of handouts, sick of condescension. To Larry, as a longtime guest at the homeless shelter at which I worked, Christian compassion seemed like little more than a masquerade, a power trip for those fortunate enough to be in the seat of the "giver" rather than the "receiver."

Larry's complaint about Christian compassion resonates with Friedrich Nietzsche's depiction in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Through the voice of Zarathustra, Nietzsche diagnoses Christian compassion as "pity"—a belittling, demeaning approach to the sufferer that shames rather than restores. Sufferers do not want pity, according to Nietzsche; they don't even want solidarity, when it comes from people descending

from on high to be with the sufferer below. Sufferers also want to be givers. To only receive and never to give is to be dehumanized, to be belittled.

How should Christians confront this very real critique of Christian compassion as "pity"? How do we respond to Larry, who feels labeled and demeaned when he becomes one of the "homeless"—an Object of compassion rather than a Subject, a real person?

What may come to mind for many Christians is the insistence, in Matthew 25, that when one helps the hungry, the stranger, and the prisoner—the "least of these"—then "you did it for me," for Christ. But how is this scripture passage to be lived out? How do we minister to Larry, who is tired of being "clothed" and "fed" by Christians who are all too aware of their good deeds?

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Sojourners Magazine April 2007
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