Home > Uncategorized > A Kierkegaardian option for the poor?

A Kierkegaardian option for the poor?

There is a surprisingly rigorous insistence in Kierkegaard’s Practice in Christianity on something like a preferential option for the poor. And it does better than some versions of the preferential option at explaining the dialectic between universality and preference—i.e., at responding to the common objection that, since God loves everyone equally, God can’t possibly love the poor more than the rich. An absolute universality is K.’s starting point, in fact: love doesn’t count as love unless it blows away every natural distinction, unless it completely eliminates every hint of preference. But that absolute universality is offensive enough to the established order that it comes to appear as a preference for the poor.

A subtheme in this book is that human compassion—what passes for compassion among human beings—is intrinsically cruel. It only shows compassion to those who don’t really need it; those who do need it, the truly suffering, the “indescribably wretched,” are cast into the desert and ignored. Because divine compassion is genuinely universal, it shows human compassion for what it is: self-serving partiality. Thus divine compassion inevitably appears as a judgment on the well-off, the ones who claim to be showing compassion, and in favor of the forgotten. Plus, since divine compassion is infinite (whereas human compassion is only ever “to a certain degree”) and drives God to actually become one of the poorest and weakest, the well-off have no interest in joining him. On the contrary, “it is urgent for the world to preserve the appearance of being compassion; this now makes the divine compassion into an untruth—ergo this divine compassion must go” (60).

What appears as partiality (divine compassion) is actually universality; what appears as universality (human compassion) is actually partiality.

That said, this is an extremely peculiar ‘option for the poor’ in that it apparently does nothing for the poor. It’s manifestly not an issue of improving their condition, of relieving their suffering, etc.; if anything, it’s the opposite: joining Jesus, for the poor as for anyone, means more alienation, more suffering, more debasement. Part of K.’s argument in this book is that Christianity can only be believed in spite of its essential, unavoidable offensiveness, and this would seem to be the way that offensiveness looks to the poor—that while changing everything for them (or claiming to), it changes nothing.

Can this be called an option for the poor?

  1. Andrew
    November 29, 2010 at 1:29 am

    Interesting idea. Do you think it’s fair to say that K does have an option for the poor but also a particular theological understanding of history which reduces the potential for this option to encourage change in society? What I have in mind is something like this: If the option seems to do nothing, this is because the gospel is mediated in history only as offensiveness, as negation, as the cross, etc. But perhaps with a more positively sacramental view of history, in which the gospel would be partially or inchoately realized as something noticeably good, life-giving, etc., the option would give the poor reason to hope in (and to struggle for) a union with Christ that would effect positive social change and not merely constitute a deeper participation in the cross. What do you think?

    • November 29, 2010 at 5:59 pm

      I agree that something like that would have to be said, but I have to admit I think K. is in some way importantly right to argue that the gospel often necessarily appears ‘bad’ for humanity. The idea that in history ‘truth always suffers’ seems to me an inescapable conclusion of Jesus’ life—and a conclusion that’s far too often passed over glibly. My trouble is that I don’t know how to incorporate that truth without ending up where K. does, reducing the idea that the gospel is really recognizably good news to the poor to utter nonsense.


      • Andrew
        December 1, 2010 at 1:07 am

        Let’s consider the difference between Romero and those whose suffering he sought to alleviate. Romero witnesses to Christ by his sacrifice for the poor. His martyrdom supports, anecdotally, the idea that truth suffers–although I’m not sure if “truth” is the most precise term. Let me say this instead: actively living a Christ-like preferential option for the poor, as Romero did, will, in a sinful world, mean risking the extremes of suffering and death, in order that the poor might live. But the plight of the poor themselves, their involuntary, unjust, deadly suffering–this is a very different thing. K’s confusion of the two jeopardizes the idea that he has anything like a coherent preferential option. To be only half-right, in this context, is in my mind to be pretty much just wrong. The stakes are too high for those very unlike K–namely, the involuntary poor.

        So, I suppose what I want to suggest is that K’s theological understanding of history as only offensively mediatory, combined with an insufficiently clear distinction between voluntary and involuntary suffering, proves almost wholly fatal to the coherence of K’s preferential option, that is, taking for granted that he seems in some ways to point toward one.

      • December 1, 2010 at 10:47 am

        I’m pretty sure K. is aware of the infinite difference (and I think he really would, on his own terms, call it an infinite difference) between voluntary and involuntary suffering. That can’t be his problem. The question is whether voluntary suffering is integral to the Christian life (as K. believes) or whether it’s only instrumental, for the sake of alleviating involuntary suffering (as I think you’re suggesting). To say it’s integral means that no one is exempted from voluntary suffering, not even those already involuntarily suffering.

        I think Kierkegaard is wanting to say that the Christian life, as Christ’s life, has to be a dialectical unity of abasement and exaltation—but the problem is that on his construal everything appears as abasement, and exaltation is merely imputed. (Outside of history, ‘when Christ returns again in glory,’ K. turns that on its head: all exaltation, no abasement.) That seems to me a false dialectic. But instrumentalizing the cruciform dimension of Christian life seems to cut the knot in the other direction: it renders abasement accidental, and the real point is only ever flourishing. I guess I think Kierkegaard’s right to say abasement has to be there somehow, has to be part of what’s accepted when one accepts Christ in history, but it would have to be a form of actual abasement that coincided with actual exaltation. —But maybe that’s not actually possible.

      • Andrew
        December 1, 2010 at 1:56 pm

        I can agree with you that suffering is integral to the Christian life, but I think I have to disagree with any attempt to suggest that Christian life is not largely constituted by an active effort to alleviate the sufferings of others. Look at Jesus in the gospels. He tells his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him. But what example does he give us to follow? He doesn’t just suffer in order to show how abasement and exaltation strangely coincide, he suffers for the sake of all those whom he wants to liberate and save. Jesus heals, frees, forgives, exorcises. His life, death, and resurrection are all about defeating those forces in the world which destroy God’s good creation. Abasement as such is never the point of distinctively Christian kenosis. Its abasement-qua-compassion. Do you disagree?

        I’m going to have to defer to your superior knowledge of K on the issue of voluntary and involuntary suffering. But if he does make this distinction, and calls it infinite, what then does he say about forms of involuntary suffering produced by human injustice (such as experiences of slavery, spousal abuse, etc.)? Does he condemn these, with the prophetic voice of scripture, or incorporate them into his understanding of what it means to be Christian? So the question may be, what is his distinction between voluntary and involuntary suffering doing for his theology?

      • December 1, 2010 at 3:43 pm

        I’m honestly just not sure how highly K. values the alleviation of involuntary suffering. He’s definitely not insensitive to it, but he shies away from recommending it very often because he’s more worried about another problem: that in Christendom, Christianity is turned into something essentially comforting, something essentially ‘good for humanity,’ which, if it were straightforwardly true, would never have led everyone to hate Jesus or fear him so thoroughly as they actually do, at the end of the day, in the gospels. In other words, if there is relief from suffering here, it’s an odd sort of relief—one that the powerful hate immediately, and that even the lowly ultimately reject. K.’s way of highlighting the oddity here is to say that though Jesus invites all, eventually all run away from him—so what was supposed to be a universal invitation is apparently received as a universal threat.

        So for me, the challenge is to understand why the invitation came to appear as a threat—and yet why the apparent threat really is an invitation. (It’s the last part that K. can never quite explain.) I completely agree with you that abasement can’t in itself be the point, and that the point must be the defeat of all the forces of destruction. But Jesus’ example does seem to me to suggest that that defeat integrally includes abasement somehow. The defeat of suffering somehow includes suffering.

        I’m really not sure about your last question—about what the distinction between involuntary and voluntary suffering does for his theology. It definitely does not drive him to prophetic critique of social injustice. There’s no way to make that kind of prophet out of him. But neither—at least by 1848—can involuntary suffering be positively ‘Christianized’ in any form.

      • December 1, 2010 at 3:45 pm

        And in case this needs to be said directly: I myself agree that Christianity has to be about the alleviation of suffering, or it’s worthless. But I am willing to entertain the possibility that ‘alleviation’ in a Christian context has a counterintuitive shape—as long as that shape is still recognizable as alleviation at the end of the day. (My problem with K. is that his alleviation is not recognizable as alleviation.)

      • Andrew
        December 1, 2010 at 6:03 pm

        Thanks Brian, that’s helpful. I’m left now wondering to what extent it is possible to speak the good news as good news for the poor, without reducing the gospel to a mere source of comfort (which K shows that it really can’t be). Offensive and liberating–such is Christianity, and K reminds us of the former, perhaps without sufficiently developing the latter…

  2. November 29, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    Have you read Eliseo Perez-Alvarez’s book A Vexing Gadfly? It’s on the late Kierkegaard and economics.

    • November 29, 2010 at 5:59 pm

      No, I haven’t, but that sounds excellent. I’ll be looking it up right away.

      • November 29, 2010 at 6:47 pm

        I can recommend it. Basically what he argues is that there is a decisive shift in the late attack on Christendom towards a sort of radicalism by SK. It’s a pretty bold thesis, especially given that SK was generally very conservative for most/all of his life. I want to believe Perez-Alvarez, and I think his work has cleared the way for more work in this area.

      • November 29, 2010 at 6:54 pm

        What sources is he drawing from? Letters and journals, or what? This is, I confess, a first pass through Kierkegaard for me, but I’m at Practice and am still having to read very far between the lines to get anywhere near his opinions on socio-political questions.

      • December 6, 2010 at 3:03 pm

        Brian, I just remembered that I saw that you had posted a reply to me, and I realized that I never got back to you. You’ll have to forgive me and allow me to blame the craziness of final papers.

        Anyways, as I recall he draws from late writings, basically Practice on, including journal entries and also stuff from the Moment. The book isn’t too expensive, if I recall, and it’s a fairly quick read. I remember being more convinced mid-way through the book that I was at the end, but I’ve since put my hopes of working on SK and politics/economics on hiatus, so it’s been a while since I’ve thought about it.

      • December 6, 2010 at 4:45 pm

        No problem, Dave. Thanks for the info. I’ve got the book now, and plan to read it sometime next week.

  3. November 29, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    In some ways Works of Love offers some very clear if seemingly unappealing economics. SK’s criticism of charity is its merciless domineering of the poor in how it renders the poor without value and so SK seems to always be driving at an expression in which full access and participation can be gained by any and all, which is love and mercy (which your post on Practice also seems to illustrate).
    the world has understanding only for money – and Christ only for mercifulness. . . . Of all you that you have seen there is nothing you can be so sure will never enter heaven as – money. On the other hand, there is nothing heaven is so certain about as mercifulness. Therefore you see that mercifulness infinitely stands in no relationship to money.
    The move then seems to recognize the powerful position of the ‘poor’ because of the mercy they are able to extend to the rich. So he says to the poor,
    Do not let envious pettiness of this worldly existence finally corrupt you in such a way that you are able to forget that you can be merciful, corrupt you in such a way that a false shame squelches the best in you. . . . Be merciful, be merciful toward the rich. Remember that you have this within your power, although he has money! Therefore do not misuse this power; do not be unmerciful enough to call down the punishment of heaven upon his mercilessness! . . . For mercifulness works wonders. . . . O, how many has money made merciless – if money shall also have the power of making merciless those who have no money: then the power of money has conquered completely! But if the power of money has conquered completely, then mercifulness is altogether abolished.
    SK goes so far as to rely on the poor to keep our theology of God from collapsing,
    Do not forget to be merciful! Be merciful. This consolation, that you can be merciful, let alone the consolation that you are that, is far greater than if I could assure you that the most powerful person will show mercy to you. Be merciful to us more fortunate ones! Your care-filled life is like a dangerous criticism of loving providence; you have it therefore in your power to make us anxious; therefore be merciful!
    Mercy must be focused on and charity looked away from (because it distracts and quickly postures itself to primary importance above mercy). So the clearest examples of mercy are those which ‘can give nothing and are capable of doing nothing’ because they have nothing to distract.
    I suppose there is still much reading between the lines here but in many ways the implication for basic orientation are clear if not clearly developed.
    The eternal knows nothing of money.
    I would love to here further thoughts on this though and thanks Dave for the resource.

    • December 1, 2010 at 10:53 am

      Really great quotes. A longer study of Kierkegaard on money would be fascinating, since, you’re right, he seems to intersperse little comments like these into quite a few of his books. (I was just tracking in Practice all the times he says that the clergy have twisted their relation to the gospel by making it the source of their livelihood. One of the best is his comment that a father who knows his son isn’t much good at anything else should have him study theology—then he’ll have a very secure future.)

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