Compassion is the highest virtue! proclaims Gregory Nazianzen in a homily on illness and poverty. Embrace the sick without fear of contagion—leprosy in his case—and care for the poor, for they are Christ to you. Therefore, “Let us visit Christ, let us heal Christ, let us feed Christ, let us clothe Christ, let us welcome Christ” in the person of the poor and suffering.
He does point out that in caring for the lepers his listeners should “accept the evidence of science as well as of the doctors and nurses who look after these people,” even as he calls them to “extend a helping hand; offer food; give old clothes; provide medicine; bandage wounds; ask after them; counsel fortitude; offer encouragement; keep them company.”
The current crisis presents an extraordinary situation of medical, social, and economic need. Gregory already recognized the link between illness and poverty that is made glaringly obvious in a different way by the current pandemic. While the virus itself may infect rich and poor alike, in fact the repercussions are far greater among poorer people who cannot afford to stay away from jobs, are unable to work from home, and live in close quarters without the option of social distancing.
Christians have engaged in acts of charity and compassion for centuries. Many in the tradition exhort us to welcome strangers, care for the poor, and heal the sick. We are often encouraged to increase such efforts during Lent or other fasting periods: not just refrain from indulgence and luxury but contribute actively to helping others.
There are even stronger voices. John Chrysostom was run out of his congregation in Constantinople because he was too vocal about their luxuriant lifestyle. Basil of Caesarea condemns any accumulation of wealth: “Those who love their neighbors as themselves possess nothing more than their neighbors.” Even the last piece of bread should be shared with the starving.
He calls anyone a hypocrite who wears fancy jewelry or stores food in barns, but claims to have nothing left over for others: “The bread you are holding back is for the hungry, the clothes you keep put away are for the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse are for those who have none.” Symeon the New Theologian even goes so far as arguing that not feeding the poor, if one is able to do so, is tantamount to murder.
And poverty does kill. People of color and those in poorer neighborhoods are infected by the virus and die at a disproportionally higher rate than members of more privileged communities. Currently, the death rate among Latinos and blacks in New York City—especially in Flatbush and the South Bronx—is double that of whites.
They are least likely to have reliable health insurance or to be near good hospitals. They are far more likely to be among the millions who have lost their jobs in the last month. Many of them no longer know how to pay their rent or feed their families. Or they have the sort of jobs that pay very little and expose them far more to the virus—like grocery store clerks or cleaning staff—and cannot afford to stay home even if they are in fragile health.
This is a structural problem of injustices that are deeply embedded in our economic and political system. More than thirty million people have lost employment within six weeks without a social safety net, sustainable unemployment benefits, and health care that is not tied to employment. Something is seriously wrong with a system in which many children only eat regular meals when they can rely on school lunch programs, where whole families become homeless because rents are unaffordable, and a small handful of people hold more than half of the wealth of the entire country.
The current crisis has pushed an already unsustainable system to the breaking point and revealed its deep injustices even more glaringly. Our economic structures are designed to support an enormously unjust distribution of wealth. The level of inequity is infinitely larger than anything imaginable before the modern age.
This situation cannot be addressed or relieved by personal acts of charity regardless of how generous. Our theology of compassion is deeply problematic if it extends only to individual handouts, if it never addresses the sources of injustice, if it does not challenge the structures that perpetuate and entrench poverty.
The call for charity in the tradition is often linked to personal salvation. Almsgiving is counseled as an expression of piety. We are told to store up wealth in heaven, rather than on earth: to trade in a higher economy. Basil argues that pursuit of wealth pampers the body but shrivels the soul. Therefore we should contribute to the health of our soul by giving generously to others.
Treating the suffering as if they were Christ, we are assured, increases virtues and brings us closer to God. It contributes to personal holiness and opens the gates of heaven upon death: Gregory imagines the poor at those gates, welcoming their former benefactors. Some aspects of the ascetic tradition can give the impression that the highest goal is the personal pursuit of sanctity—and that this can be accomplished on an individual basis, between the solitary individual and God.
Yet, these are ultimately rather self-serving reason for helping the poor. If the sick person becomes merely a means for me to work out my own salvation, then the other is expendable—any poor person will serve the purpose as well as the next. This provides no rationale for addressing the causes of poverty and suffering or challenging the structures that reinforce and increase them.
But others are not a tool for working out our own salvation, they are part of us and we are part of them. Our redemption is bound up with theirs. Gregory says that “we are all one in the Lord, rich or poor, slave or free, healthy or sick in body.” The suffering person “is part of you, even if he is bent down with misfortune.” He reminds us that the leper is “human just like you”—a claim to human equality that was radical at the time.
Throughout the liturgy God is frequently invoked as philanthropos, the lover of all people. Christ does not come simply to save us personally, but to redeem humanity as a whole—and all of creation. When we celebrate Pascha, we rejoice not in personal redemption, but we feast Christ’s overcoming of the very structures of death, destruction, and disintegration.
The current crisis presents an opportunity—indeed, an urgent call—to rethink our legacy of compassion in broader and more fundamental terms. To challenge our economic order built on exploitation and on enormous inequities between rich and poor. To overhaul an unjust and expensive health care system, so it genuinely provides high-quality, affordable, and equal care to everyone. To rethink a political order that disenfranchises people of color and gives no voice to the poor.
If we truly believe in compassion, we should be at the forefront of creating such change. We must move beyond private acts of charity to address the deep social, economic, and racial inequalities that perpetuate poverty, homelessness, and disproportionate rates of illness and death. There can be no “spiritual” salvation that ignores the suffering bodies of the poor.
Crina Gschwandtner is Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University.
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