Posted by: Dan | July 2, 2008

The Academy and the Poor: Response Part 1. The Need for Justification

During the last nine years more than enough ideas for the salvation of the world have been developed by the International (if the world can be saved by ideas) and I defy anyone to come up with a new one. This is the time not for ideas but for action, for deeds.

So said Mikhail Bakunin when he quit the Jura Federation in 1873. Yet one could easily say the same today. Surely, confronted as we are with the monumental evils and injustices of our world, now is also “the time not for ideas but for action”. Now, perhaps more than any other moment in history, we are aware of the great harm that is resulting both from our actions — be that the harm that we cause to the environment because of our dependence upon things like oil and plastics, or the harm that we cause others through our dependence upon cheap goods, produced by foreign children, or any other number of things — and from our inactivity — be that the apathy we exhibit towards the AIDS pandemic, or our apathy towards the plight of the urban poor in our own cities, or any other number of things.

Furthermore, not only are we aware of the the ways in which we are causing harm to the earth and to others, we are also aware of any number of solutions to these problems. It's just that we choose not to inconvenience ourselves and pursue those solutions. Thus, although we know that it is possible to live without an automobile, we choose to continue to drive; although we know how to reduce our dependence on plastics, we can't really be bothered to follow through; although we are aware of how we can help reduce the impact of AIDS (we've all seen the World Vision commercials, haven't we?), we choose to change the channel; although we know that we can “invite the homeless poor into our homes” (as the Lord, in Isaiah, tells us we should), we choose not to.

Thus, just as there are a great multitude of problems of which we are aware, there is also a great multitude of causes — a host of people already working on implementing solutions — to which we could dedicate ourselves.

Likewise, the Scripture appears to call us inexorably, to simple, straightforward action. Thus Deut 15:

If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks… You shall generously give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings. For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, 'You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.'

And Is 35:

Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knee that gives way. Say to those with fearful hearts, 'Be strong; do no fear. Your God will come. He will come with vengeance; with divine retribution. He will come and save you.'

And Micah 6:

He has told you, O you people, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?

And so on and so forth, right through Jesus' embodied proclamation of holistic liberation, the Pauline and Johannine ethics of cruciform love, and James' definition of true religion. All of this is unavoidably straight-forward. If we are to be like our Father in heaven, we must love like our Father in heaven (Mt 5). And, just as we know God's love because of the actions God has taken with, for, and amongst us, so also our love of others must be demonstrated in our actions with, for, and amongst others. Furthermore, just as God descended to seek and save those who were lost, sick, and damned (Lk 19; Mt 9; Ro 5), so also must we priortise thoe who are abandoned, those who are sick, and those who are damned today. All of this is summarised quite well by the author of 1 Jn 3:

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.

Thus, I believe that the onus genuinely does rest upon the shoulder of the Academic. In light of these things — and the observations of Wolterstorff, Moltmann, and the liberation theologians, which I mentioned in my last post on this topic — the Academic must justify his or her study, and must justify that study in a way deemed satisfactory by the poor.

After all, it is the poor who will judge us. It is the poor person we encounter in the crucified and risen Christ who calls us to account for our actions, and it is the poor person of Jesus Christ who says to us, “whatever you did or did not do for 'the least of these' you did or did not do for me.” Hence, if the poor will one day judge us, we would do well to be concerned as to whether or not we find them currently accepting the justifications we offer for our Academic endeavours.

Consequently, if in this post I have made the case for the need for justification of Academic efforts, in my next post in this series, I hope to present what I consider to be some worthwhile justifications thereof.

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