Confronting Poverty and Stigmatization: An Orthodox Perspective

by John D. Jones

Would you see His altar? … This altar is composed of the very members of Christ, and the body of the Lord becomes an altar. This altar is more venerable even than the one which we now use. For it is … but a stone by nature; but become holy because it receives Christ’s Body: but that is holy because it is itself Christ’s Body … [which] you may see lying everywhere, in the alleys and in the market places, and you may sacrifice upon it anytime… When then you see a poor believer, believe that you are beholding an altar. When you see this one as a beggar, do not only refrain from insulting him, but actually give him honor, and if you witness someone else insulting him, stop him; prevent it.

– St. John Chrysostom

Given the wide range of religious and socio-economic meanings of “poverty,” Christian discourse about poverty is inevitably complex. Christian responses to socio-economic poverty are generally framed in terms of almsgiving and providing material assistance to those who are poor.

For Orthodox Christians, concerns about poverty are ordered toward our deification or participation in the life of the Trinity. While utterly dependent upon God’s grace, this participation also requires our cooperation grounded in a recognition of all humans as icons of Christ. So, St. Maria Skobtsova insisted that charitable activities be guided by the conviction that each person “is God’s image and likeness, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the incorruptible icon of God.” Her insistence on the “dignity” of the poor is important given the widespread denigration and stigmatization of the poor.

Joel Handler observes that in the United States “Moral degradation of the poor is used as a negative symbol to reinforce the work ethic.” Moreover, in many societies, the poor often complain about the humiliation, shame and denigration to which they are subjected.

I want to focus on the stigmatization of the poor, and on stigmatization in general, as the starting point for considering an Orthodox Christian engagement with poverty. Stigmatization itself need not be associated with poverty in its social and economic sense; but it also constitutes its own form of poverty since those who are stigmatized are imputed to be impoverished or fundamentally defective as persons. Although not labeled as such, the discussion of stigmatization is central to St. Gregory the Theologian’s Oration 14, “On the Love of the Poor.”

For St. Gregory, “charity (agap) [is] the first and greatest of the Commandments … and its most vital part … is love of the poor (philoptchia)” (sec. 5). He identifies leprosy as the most extreme form of poverty (ptcheia). Indeed, among the poor, lepers experience the worst suffering since “most people cannot stand to be near them, or even to look at them, but avoid them, are nauseated by them, and regard them as abominations so to speak. This is heavier for them to bear than their ailment when they perceive that they are hated because of their misfortune (sec. 9).” These lepers are not just subjected to “economic” poverty, but a poverty constituted by a radical marginalization from their social world that is grounded in their stigmatization.

In Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck vividly illustrates the underlying logic of stigmatization through a conversation between two gas station attendants who have just sold fuel to the Joads.

“Jesus, what a hard looking outfit!” “Them Okies? They’re all hard-lookin.” “Jesus, I’d hate to start out in a jalopy like that.” “Well, you and me got sense. Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable. They ain’t a hell of a lot better than gorillas.”

The “Okies” for these two attendants, like lepers for those who stigmatize them, “are more like animals than humans.” This is the classic, core formulation of all stigmatization.

Stigmatization is different from stereotyping or making hasty generalizations about the members of a group. It is also different from what social psychologists call “marking” or taking note of a condition, such as blindness or tuberculosis, that we judge may be an obstacle in some determinate situation. We do this in making special accommodations for a blind person to participate in some activity or provide appropriate quarantine for someone with tuberculosis. “Marking” is a legitimate and regular part of our daily activities although we may not always be correct in marking individuals: e.g., we may mistakenly make unneeded accommodations for a blind person.

Stigmatization is qualitatively different from both stereotyping and “marking”:

It is the dramatic essence of the stigmatizing process that a label marking the deviant status is applied and this marking process typically has devastating consequences for emotions, thought, and behavior…In the classic case, the mark or sign of deviance imitates a drastic inference process that engulfs impressions of the deviant target person and sets up barriers to interaction and intimacy.

(E. Jones, Social Stigma, pp. 4-6)

Stigmatization arises when people are so overwhelmed by encountering certain conditions that they are repelled by those who are subjected to them. An acquaintance of mine, who could not bear to be near people in wheelchairs, once remarked, “I’d rather be dead than confined to a wheelchair.” People stigmatize various conditions because they are taken to be fundamentally imperiling and “death-dealing.” That is, such people believe that to be exposed to these conditions — or, e.g., in racism, to the “bearers” of these conditions — would irrevocably ruin their lives and strip them of significance. As “dirty” — physically, morally, existentially and symbolically — the stigmatized provoke reactions of fear, disgust and loathing, and thus are seen as fundamentally dangerous. So, they merit rejection and marginalization. Whether or not stigmatized people are economically poor, they are imputed to be “poor” or fundamentally defective as persons since they are viewed solely in terms of the stigmatized conditions. When socially legitimated, stigmatization often results in banishment or “ghettoization.” Stigmatization, then, does not consist simply in disliking people, not wanting to be around them, or even in morally censuring them for their actions. Stigmatization amounts to a kind of hatred of others that effectively seeks to dehumanize and marginalize them.

The issue for those who stigmatize people is not those people but themselves, or more precisely their embodied condition as free human beings. In his essay, Anti-Semite and Jew, Jean Paul Sartre astutely observed that:

the anti-Semite…is a man who is afraid. Not of the Jews, to be sure, but of himself … In espousing anti-Semitism, he does not simply adopt an opinion, he chooses himself as a person… The Jew only serves him as a pretext, elsewhere his counterpart will make use of the Negro… The existence of the Jew merely permits the anti-Semite to stifle his anxieties at their inception… Anti-Semitism, in short, is fear of the human condition.

St. Gregory, indirectly at least, provides a clue to what is at issue in confronting leprosy. First (sec. 10), he gives a graphic description of the plight of lepers and the manner in which people flee from them:

There lies before our eyes a dreadful and pathetic sight…human beings alive yet dead, disfigured in almost every part of their bodies, barely recognizable for who they once were or where they came from…even the most kind and considerate person shows no feeling for them… we actually believe that avoiding these people assures the safety of our own bodies.

Prior to this, he had taken note of his own ambivalence toward his own body. The entire text in context is quite long, but I want to present the salient parts. In sec. 4, St. Gregory observes that

activity [praxis] is beautiful because it welcomes Christ and serves [therapeuousa] him, and confirms the power of love through good works.

Noting that “Of all things, nothing so serves (therapeuetai) God as mercy because no other thing is more proper to God” (sec. 5), he then continues:

We must, then, open our hearts to all the poor [or]… those in distress from whatever cause … particularly those wasted with the sacred disease that devours their flesh and bones …who are betrayed by this wretched, vile, and faithless body.

Then follows a digression about his relation to his body:

How I came to be joined to it, I do not know; nor how I am the image of God and concocted of clay at the same time; this body…that I both cherish as a fellow-servant and evade as my enemy… If I struggle to suppress it, I lose the helper I need to achieve my noble aims, knowing that it is through my actions (praxen) that I am to ascend to God.

He then concludes:

We must, my brothers … care for (therapeuteon) the body as being our kinsman and fellow-servant.

Why must one care for (therapeuteon) the body? Because if it is “suppressed” we each lose the “co-worker” needed to perform acts of mercy by which we “serve (therapeuousa) God.” Indeed, if the body “wastes away” through the assaults of leprosy, poverty and other like “afflictions,” our very freedom to engage in the world in meaningful ways is threatened. So, “we actually believe that avoiding these people [lepers] assures the safety of our own bodies” — but not just our bodies, rather, our very existence in the world.

Confronted by the suffering, disfigurement, and rejection suffered by lepers and the poorest of the poor (ptchoi) generally — real threats and assaults on human beings to be sure — and overwhelmed by these conditions, those who stigmatize these people are overwhelmed by their own vulnerability to these conditions. To deflect their anxiety and to assure their own existential safety, they interpret those subjected to these conditions as fundamentally defective and, thus, as deserving their fate. They are taken to be accursed and abandoned by God. Theologically expressed, this sort of stigmatization is driven at bottom by an anxiety about one’s own possible abandonment by God.

What lurks unthematized in the hearts of those who are engulfed by the conditions, and thus the people, they stigmatize is a truncated version of Ps. 21:

  • subjected to these conditions, one will be abandoned by God — “My God, my God” (v.1) you shall indeed forsake me;
  • in the face of exhausting suffering — since “I [will be] poured out like water, and scattered [will be] all my bones; my heart [will] become like wax, melting in the midst of my bowels” (v. 16);
  • denigration and rejection — “As for me, I [will become] a worm, and not a man: a reproach of men, and the outcast of the people” (v. 6);
  • yet bereft of the possibility of transfiguration and resurrection. For it is promised that “the Lord will not set as naught nor abhor the supplication of the poor …but the poor shall eat and be satisfied” (vv. 24, 26).

Since people who stigmatize others are not fundamentally afraid of them, but anxiety ridden about themselves, they fail to see, not just others, but also themselves as icons of Christ. We can only find Christ in others or ourselves insofar as we are embodied and, thus, in the midst of suffering, pain, and denigration. After all, Christ became poor for our sakes; he took on all of our weaknesses, infirmities and suffering — actual and possible — in order to sanctify, heal, and restore us to life. Yet insofar as stigmatization is grounded in an anxiety over abandonment by God, then in stigmatizing others we effectively repudiate Christ’s promise that he will be with us always (Matt. 28:30). In stigmatizing others, then, we effectively circumscribe God’s healing power both for ourselves and for those who are stigmatized.

Moreover, charitable actions towards the poor may not counter, and may even mask, stigmatization. St. Gregory of Nyssa writes:

Let no one say that some place far away from our life is perfectly sufficient and send them off to some frontier, supplying them with food. For a plan of this sort displays neither mercy nor sympathy but is designed, in the guise of goodwill, to banish these people utterly from our life. Are we not willing to shelter pigs and dogs under our roof?… Will we disparage our own kind and race as baser than the animals? Let these things not be — no, my brothers! Resolve that this inhumanity will not triumph.

As socially sanctioned, such inhumanity and stigmatization form the “ideological” basis for oppressive and marginalizing social structures. The Theologian gives a powerful description of marginalization in “On the Love of the Poor.”

They are driven away from cities, they are driven away from homes … even…from water itself. They wander about night and day, helpless…To them a kind benefactor is…anyone who has not cruelly sent them away.

This marginalization indicates the failure, not just of individuals, but of a community to establish structures and policies that provide even minimal recognition, mercy and justice to people. It has often been a feature of the social policy toward the poor in capitalism: when society became construed as “a collection of independent, atomized individuals all pursuing their private interests and ordering their relations with each other by means of formal, explicit contracts,” paupers became viewed as “useless, shameless drones in the context of the new values of individualism and self-reliance” (F. Allan Hanson).

An Orthodox Christian response to stigmatization remains incomplete if it fails to seek to root out the forms of stigmatization that lurk inside and drive social policies. As Fr. Boris Bobrinksoy wrote,

There is, in the ultimate reality of things, no nonspiritual life that is closed off to the Holy Spirit… We chase him from public life by a Machiavellian form of separation between our private lives — pious and good — and the domains of politics …culture and work, where everything is allowed. All these domains of human work depend upon the creative work of man, seized, modeled and inspired by the Spirit of God.”

Note that individuals can stigmatize themselves particularly in response to external stigmatization: e.g., men who became acculturated to Skid Row or people who are severely sexually abused. Such people often act masochistically: they affirm their imputed worthlessness by seeking out punishment — abuse, humiliation and situations of self-defeat — that confirms it. The patient suffering of evil for Christ’s sake as well as the recognition of our own wretchedness before God in prayer and confession are a central part of Orthodox spirituality. Neither serve to legitimate self-stigmatization or its patient endurance but essentially protest against it, since both, grounded in the springtime of Great Lent, must take place in light of our faith and hope in the Resurrection. As Fr. Boris Bobrinskoy wrote of Job:

The merciless friends of Job consoled him with this logic: “You suffer; you are punished because you have sinned against God; repent before God.” With all his being, Job refused to surrender to such exhortations and did not admit his guilt. He appealed to God, in the certainty of seeing the Redeemer with the eyes of his flesh. God sided with him…Job’s refusal of unjust suffering still resonates in all human sufferings.

In The Hungry are Dying, Susan Holman notes that in the ancient world, litourgiai referred to “public service performed by private citizens at their own expense.” St. John Chrysostom and the Cappadocian fathers deliberately brought the poor into these liturgies and “extended” the Divine Liturgy into the alleys and market places, engaging it with the civic liturgies of public life. So, he identified the poor as an Altar — the Body of Christ — thereby powerfully repudiating their denigration. “When you see [a poor believer who is] a beggar, do not only refrain from insulting him, but actually give him honor, and if you witness someone else insulting him, stop him; prevent it.”

Stigmatization is a particularly difficult “hardness of heart” to expose and challenge. For example, people engaged in stigmatization are often unmoved by rational appeals to the “self-evident truth” “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Many racists cheerfully subscribe to this truth and yet hold tenaciously to their racism.

In the end, the most powerful negation of stigmatization is our direct engagement with those who are stigmatized in which we discover and respond to life — Christ in the person of the poor — rather than death. St. John Chrysostom’s identification of the poor as the Altar of Christ requires us to that engagement. For we do not partake of the mysteries of the Eucharist at a distance; we must come forward and make physical contact with them. So, too often in the profaned world in which we live, it is there in the “alleys” — marginalized social worlds — that we find the Altar of Christ in the poor and are bid to render hospitality.

Thus ought we ever to exercise hospitality by our own personal exertions, that we may be sanctified, and our hands be blessed. And if you give to the poor, disdain not yourself to give it, for it is not to the poor that it is given, but to Christ; and who is so wretched, as to disdain to stretch out his own hand to Christ? This is hospitality, this is truly to do it for God’s sake.

(St. John Chrysostom)

Dr. John D. Jones is Professor of Philosophy at Marquette University. One of his research areas is poverty and social marginalization. He is currently working on a book on philosophical and theological issues pertaining to poverty. He also does research in Neoplatonism, Byzantine and Medieval Philosophy focusing on (Pseudo)-Dionysius Areopagite. He is a member of SS. Cyril and Methodius Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is also participating in his local OCA Late Vocations Program with the intention of seeking ordination to the Holy Diaconate. A more complete version of his essay, including notes, is located in the Resources section of the OPF website. The wood engarving, “Christ of the Breadlines,” is by Fritz Eichenberg.