Earlier this week I attended a talk titled “Accompaniment: Liberation Theology, Solidarity, and a Life of Service“, with Paul Farmer of Partners in Health in conversation with Roberto Goizueta of Boston College’s Theology Department. It was a well-organized and inspiring 90 minutes, run by BC’s Church in the 21st Century Center. I ran into a lot of people I’ve known for a long time, and was delighted to see a full house of men and women of all different ages who are interested in the topics being discussed that evening. (Two highlights that didn’t make this list: Gustavo Guittierez being described as the “Yoda of liberation theology”, and the recognition that if I weren’t taken, a talk like this would have been a really good place to pick up justice-y Catholic men.)
There are seven things in particular that stuck out to me as graces that evening.
— 1 —
When the undergraduate introducing the two main speakers dropped the word “epistemological” into a sentence like it ain’t no thang, I immediately felt at home. Later on, Paul Farmer referred to Medellín without explanation. In a room full of people who went to hear a talk on an element of liberation theology, he was probably correct in assuming that we didn’t need any of this explained. I didn’t feel as if anyone was being showy by throwing this lingo around, but that they were implicitly acknowledging that there is a shared language among those of us with certain interests.
Every time Dr. Farmer referred to “medicine”, he was careful to clarify that he meant all the different workers in health care – doctors, nurses, medical assistants, community health providers. Some people in attendance found this tedious, but I thought it was a nice reminder that there are a lot of people working to provide health care throughout the world. My suspicion would be that the health care community often deals with its own version of clericalism, with doctors as the anointed ones, and the careful clarification of who makes up the medical field was a simple way to battle that perception.
A willingness to talk about vulnerability
Sometimes I forget how spoiled I am to be in communities where people are willing to talk about tough stuff. So much public rhetoric is about glossing over problems or feigning invincibility. Over and over the two speakers talked about being alongside the poor, and how that accompaniment requires us to confront our basic fears: illness, loneliness, powerlessness. Prof. Goizueta mentioned that the experience of accompanying the poor reminds us that we are all powerless (later he amended that, adding “we are all in God’s hands”, which does not sound quite so ominous). Our powerlessness is a fundamental condition of being human; it’s refreshing to hear that acknowledged.
A sense of time
Dr. Farmer joked a few times that for him “time began” in the early 1980s when he began working in Haiti. Because he was realistic about the limited scope of his experience, the conversation had a context that was illuminating, and avoided the grand universal statements that can ruin a discussion that ought to be nuanced. The 30 years he discussed sometimes seemed like a very long time: long enough to make “global health” a commonplace term, long enough to make care for the poor around the world an acceptable career pursuit, long enough to improve the lives of people. But in other ways, 30 years were framed as being the blink of an eye: there is still more to learn, there are more hearts and minds to win over, and the basic structures of poverty still need to be struck down. In that way, recent history has not offered enough time for the big changes.
A social emphasis
“Social” anything is a tough sell in an individualistic society. Both speakers last night mentioned this, but it comes as no surprise to anyone who has tried to explain social justice or systemic sin to a skeptical audience. The social component (put briefly, that “we’re all in this together”) is a fundamental aspect of Church itself. Not only do my actions affect other people, but the way that our entire society is organized traps people. Both inertia and powerful individuals cause unjust systems to stay intact. I could go on and on writing apologetics to the imagined pushback I am used to getting when I make these statements, but I’d just get myself worked up. Let me leave it at this: THESE ARE REAL THINGS.
A balanced approach to individuals
When discussing institutions and their natural resistance to change, Dr. Farmer balanced that with the explanation that institutions are of course made up of people, and people within those institutions can make progress. A longer, earlier discussion of inequality brought about the statement that inequality is a “system problem, not a volition problem”. People aren’t oppressed because they don’t want freedom badly enough, but because the system is rigged. Similarly, the system is rigged to cause someone like me (near the top of the food chain, globally) to constantly make decisions that perpetuate inequality. This doesn’t exonerate me as an individual, but it is helpful reminder of the system I’m up against.
Care for the poor
Maybe this last one is too obvious. Or maybe, in a world that vilifies the vulnerable and punishes those already oppressed, it cannot be said too much: we must side with, opt for, and accompany the poor as best we can. This doesn’t necessarily mean trying to enter their contexts (we can’t) or going on “poor-person-safari” to assuage our bourgeois guilt. It means doing our best to make decisions that don’t keep people down, and not having a double-standard about what the poor “deserve” (vs. what the rich take for granted). Farmer quipped that his studies of infectious disease taught him early on that “microbes have an option for the poor”.
May we be able to say the same about ourselves with such conviction.
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