Ever since I was little, I’ve always loved picking favorites.
My favorite lollipop flavor is mango. My favorite place is the mountains. My favorite color is yellow. My favorite Taylor Swift album is Red.
I’m finding that this trait about me is not going to bode well if I chose to go into a career of social services. You don’t get to pick favorites and dole out Big Brother’s funds according to who has the best smile or the saddest story.
I’ve indulged some of my favoritism at the Haven this summer. In the kitchen, we are only supposed to give out one scoop of sugar per cup of coffee, but there’s one guest who I always give two—he doesn’t even have to ask anymore. A few weeks ago, a woman came to the kitchen and the only thing she wanted for breakfast was fruit, because it was healthy. I gave her a heaping bowl of our beautiful fruit salad—more than I was supposed to. Maybe she would become my new favorite.
Yesterday, she flicked me off. We’ve never exchanged a word after the fruit salad incident. But I was just sitting in a chair by the exit, and she walked past, and she looked into my eyes and stuck her middle finger in my face.
Honestly, she still has a chance of turning out to be a favorite. I sort of like the sass.
But in all seriousness, it is interesting and sometimes disturbing to me how easily our emotions impact the way we might fight for justice or equality for others. Sometimes, I fear that my internship this summer is actually making me a less compassionate and empathetic person. When you’ve dried the tears of a victim of domestic abuse who is scared for the future of her children, it can be hard to muster sympathy for anything less extreme. I often find myself emotionally exhausted and resort to hoarding my love and compassion for only those who’ve earned a spot on my favorite list.
In her book, God Knows There’s Need: Christian Responses to Poverty, Susan Holman explores popular church teachings surrounding the poor during the first eight centuries of the Christian tradition. Just like today, priests had differing viewpoints and instructed their congregants differently about how to properly provide alms to the needy. However, Holman found, as she translated these ancient sermons, that more often than not, churches from this time period adopted a “broadly inclusive” view towards charity and almsgiving. One church leader, Basil of Caesarea, “urges his congregation to…imitate God’s generosity, since God without distinction gives rain and food to all on the earth, just and unjust. By this divine imitation, Basil suggests, differences between rich and poor could be leveled…By sharing equally, the hungry will have what they need, the rich will deflate into healthy and spiritual sanity, and the city will enjoy peace and good political order” (Holman 60). This theology links humanity to divinity in the way both our beings and actions belong to the divine: the mere act of God’s creation requires that we regard and interact with it in light of God’s ownership and authority over all creation. The ramifications of Basil’s theology on my personal life is that he just effectively destroyed all permission for me to use favoritism amongst the Haven’s guests. Shoot.
Another priest named John Chrysostom wrote this around 400 AD: “If you see any one in affliction, do not be curious to enquire further. His being in affliction gives him a just claim to your help. For if when you see a donkey choking you lift him up without inquiring whose he is, you certainly ought not to be over-curious about a person. He is God’s, whether he is a heathen or a Jew; since even if he is an unbeliever, he needs help.” (57). He elaborates, explaining that we should not place ourselves in the roles of a jury, trying to determine whether someone’s need is real or fake, or less or more than someone else’s. The mere fact that someone asks for help is cause to give them whatever they ask for.
I read this at my house one evening and become totally enamored. I romanticize this type of radical charity, excited by the way it equalizes and restores humanity to everyone, no matter what their story is. But then I go to The Haven in the morning and experience sexist remarks from some of the older male guests. They are not seriously concerning or threatening, but the gendered remarks rile up the feisty feminist in me. I decide that Laura deserves extra warmth and hospitality, where Rob deserves a curt nod at best. Aaron deserves a large bar of soap, whereas Sherika deserves the leftovers of my charity. Based on whether a guest’s personality, smile or demeanor strike my fancy, I decide they are more or less worthy of my help or kindness. I wish I was like Jesus, who healed the sinners and saints alike, whenever they asked. Instead, I’m the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld doling out sugar scoops, only deeming certain individuals worthy of my kindness.
This is where the priests’ linking of divinity and humanity is effective. Ultimately, everything on this world is finite. There is never enough funding for housing; there are not enough beds in homeless shelters. At the Haven, there is a limit to how much food our fridge can contain, and my capacity for compassion for the hungry will lamentably always be finite. But this idea of imitating the divine provides access to the infinite, incomprehensible and all-encompassing magnitude of God. Through attempting to serve, love, and enact mercy like Jesus, Christians remember, realize, and embody the Christian doctrine of incarnation. With this teaching, we consider that the divine encourages creation to adopt holiness, embodying divine righteousness and justice in a way that evokes awe and reverence that reflects back towards the Holy. Volunteer and guest alike participate in enacting this doctrine: each are recipients as well as administrators of the incarnation.
Holman explains “affirming the Christian doctrine of the incarnation requires more than an intellectual exercise within our usual comfortable physical routines” (162). Our resources are limited; even our intellectual resources are unequipped to fully comprehend the magnitude of God. Holman suggests that liturgy, or ritualized practices of service and worship, are our best tools for imitating the grand mercy of God. Holman quotes a Catholic woman religious named Mother Skobtsova (certainly no stranger to ritual) as she says, “It seems to me that this mysticism of human communion is the only authentic basis for any external Christian activity” (163). It requires comprehension and ritualization of both the mystery and the miracle of human and divine connection in order to even attempt to solve the problems of our world with our finite resources. It means acknowledging the limits of our own flesh, yet also inviting the unlimited power of the divine into the embodied suffering of the poor in our society—and into our own bodies, to be vessels of God’s infinitude.