Judging those who are poor! English speaking blogs of North America, Europe, Australia, Philippines, etc. witness to discussions that imply judgments about those who are poor. These discussions are often times quite heated. Some of these judgements are quite harsh. Other judgements are overly idealized.
In today’s installment of Saturday Study Hall based on the Vincentian Encyclopedia I propose reflection on a presentation by Fr. Tom McKenna, CM on “People of the Scarred Coin”. After a reflection on the basis of human dignity it lays out Vincent’s perspective on judging those who are poor.
The presentation begins with a question.
“Tell me why you’d ever want to help somebody who was repulsive – whom you didn’t even know.” Put more graphically, “You’re walking down Union Turnpike near the University and there in front of you a little crowd is gathering around someone lying on the sidewalk. You walk over and see it’s a badly dressed older man, disheveled, fairly drunk and he can’t get up. Just as you walk over, someone from the crowd picks him up, sits him on the curb, talks to him, has someone call a cab, pays the driver and finally sends him home.” Then, I would pose the key questions, “Why would anyone do that?” “What is there in that stumbling old man that’s worth doing something for him like that?”
“Some student would say, “He’s human.” I’d reply “Yes, but what is there in being human that makes it worth it, to go out of your way for?” Then, the answers would really start to roll: “It could be me”; “It makes me feel good”; and “I’d be guilty if I passed him by.” I’d say “yes” again, but press the underlying question, the nub of the issue. “What is there in him that you don’t want to see trampled on, that you’d show respect to? What does he have inside that could command such a response and what name do you put on that something?”
The presentation moves forward with how “Religions Respond”
“The answer from the religious traditions is this: something God-like is inside that old man, something of the most precious, priceless, inestimable reality in existence, and that is, the Divine. When Moses came upon it, he made the Middle Eastern gesture of respect. He took his shoes off, as he felt the presence of the Divine in the burning bush. The same is true of the encounter with the pathetic man. Something special, worthy of incalculable dignity, is present and meant to be treated as such. It is not the same as this man, but it is somehow within him– and so, we bow down.
“There is also a classic answer to the question, “Why stop and help?” in the Christian tradition. It comes from the mouth of the Risen Lord Jesus, “Because in doing it for that poor person, you’re doing it for Me.” (Matt: 25)
St. Vincent de Paul Responds
“Inside that same Christian tradition, there is a riff on that answer which has come, in our circles to be regarded as classic also. The signature response of Vincent de Paul to the human dignity question – “Why help this disheveled old man?” is “Because you’ve seen through to the other side of the coin.”
“Vincent’s metaphor is of a beat-up, dented, scratched, scarred, and very common coin, which turns out to have another side. It is applied to the beat-up, dented, dime-a-dozen, mostly invisible ones– the poor people. “Why treat that common nobody on the ground as if he is somebody?”
Here is Vincent’s answer:
“I shouldn’t judge poor peasants, men or women, by their surface appearance, nor by their apparent mental capacities. And this is hard to do, since very frequently they scarcely seem to have the semblance or the intelligence of reasonable beings, so gross and so offensive are they. But, turn the coin, and you will see by the light of faith that the Son of God, Whose will it was to be poor, is represent
“In back of this conviction are two bedrock beliefs: first, God is the most real and the most precious reality there is, and second, this precious God lives in His people, at the tip of their hearts, in their in-most personal chambers, shot through the core of their very selves. This at base is what gives us reason to metaphorically “take our shoes off” when we come into their presence.
“Anyone wanting the key to Vincent de Paul’s “great soul” could not get much closer than meditating on these two convictions – two beliefs which, for Vincent, were wrapped one inside the other. They are his answer to, “Why stop to help a crumpled old man who can’t help you back?”
The remainder of the presentation explores the implications for Vincentian educators whether they be in a university setting, high school parish religious education program or any of the other settings in which education takes place.
“To sum up, the followers of Vincent de Paul, then and today, gravitate toward education for two reasons. First, it draws out that which is most precious in us, or in New Testament terms, it lets the face of God, given in Jesus, shine more clearly within the human. Secondly, it enhances the humanity of those who tend to be dehumanized, those who are poor. It would do this by educating the poor and also by sensitizing everybody else on the scene to their dignity and worth. From the beginning, that has been the Vincentian project. It has not been as clear in some times as it has been in others; it has not burned brightly in every single Vincentian and every St. John’s collaborator. But it has always been there as a kind of pressure, an undercurrent, a magnetic north for the institution.”
The next part of the article explores the concept of virtue and specifically the virtue of transparency – something sorely lacking in a world of hideen meanings and agendas.
Father McKenna concludes…
“As followers of Vincent de Paul, we are “People of the Scarred Coin.” We are God-touched individuals who have been awakened to the worth of everyone around us – especially the ones who most easily get pushed off the screen, the poor. We see their value and respond to it with deep respect. We intuitively know why it makes sense to pick up that disheveled old man. The institutions we staff, in a corporate way, know the same thing, the treasure on the other side of that scarred coin. St. John’s must continue to be known even more clearly as a university that, in a term of the day, is value-added; and that value is– the preciousness of people and the face of God in them all.”
Some questions for further study and reflection
- How can we get past our judgements so often based on appearances and not knowing enough about scars of another person?
- Can we begin to see both sides of every person as God does?
- The Basis of Human Dignity
- Virtue — Developing Capacities to Act
- The Mantle of St. Vincent De Paul