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The poor and the theorems of «guilt»

Editorial – At the root of the attack against the solidarity networks

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 30/04/2019

One the greatest moral novelties of Christian and European humanism is having freed the poor of the guilt of their poverty. Ancient times had left us with an idea as legacy, the very deep-seated and widespread idea, that poverty was nothing but a divine curse, well-deserved due to some fault committed by either the person in question or his or her ancestors. The poor hence found themselves condemned twice: by life and by religion (the book of Job constitutes in fact one of the ethical heights of ancient times precisely because it is a reaction against the idea of poverty as a source of guilt), and the rich felt secure, justified and doubly blessed.

In Europe, however, it wasn’t the cities or States with their political institutions to liberate the poor from their curse. In fact, ever since the days of the Roman Empire and all through medieval and modern times, citizen statutes and laws were much more attentive in identifying the so called voluntary and hence guilty poor and beggars, in order to then chase them out of the city walls. We should not forget that the political history of European cities is also (and at times, above all) a history of the exclusion of the poor, the Jews, the migrants, the heretics and the vagrants, because they did not possess that “trustworthiness” required to become part of the club of the markets of the new cities. Thank God, however, European institutions were not only constituted by the political institutions in the bourgeois and merchant cities: the institutions born from religious faith were present as well. Christianity had brought along a great innovation regarding poverty. A religion founded by a man who was not rich and with a large number of impoverished apostles and disciples, who dared calling the poor “blessed”, in a religious and cultural context which discarded and cursed the poor.

And who in his life did everything to show the sick and poor that they were not guilty of their sickness and/or their poverty (think of the man blind from birth, the paralyzed man, the lepers…). The early Church continued this ethical revolution, and Saint Ambrose could hence write: «It is not true that the poor are cursed» (Naboth’s Vineyard). But he had to say it with force for he was well aware that he was going against the current mentality. Centuries later, this great religious and social innovation lead to Francis and the mendicant orders who lived an displayed an idea of poverty as a means of liberation and happiness which then continued to irrigate the second millennium. And hence the basis of the many social charisms of modern times, who see the poor not as cursed people, but as images of the poor and suffering Christ.

There is a process of erasing the stigma of curse at the root of the many hospitals, schools and orphanages that have formed the basis for European welfare. And while the politicians of yesterday and today argued and argue about the various categories of poor (voluntary and involuntary, deserving and underserving…), these social charisms told us and still tell us that a poor man is just a poor man, and that it is his objective condition of need that makes him a fellow human being and as such deserving of help. The Samaritan does not help the man who has fallen victim to brigands because he possesses any special merit, but because he was a victim and he was a human being, a man (“A man was going down…“). Blame and guilt have never been good keys to understanding or curing poverty, because each time the analysis of where the blame lies begins we always end up finding a source of blame condemning the weak.

The charisms, not the political institutions of the cities or later of modern States, were the ones to overcome the terrible distinction between the good poor and the accursed poor, and to have the “hospitals” where the guilty poor were locked up and submitted to veritable forced labour and social reintegration, very well-known in many European cities of the past, closed. Without that different view on poverty and the poor held by hundreds and thousands of priests, lay people, nuns and monks, Europe would have been very different and certainly much worse for the poor – and hence for everyone, because the condition of the poor and their social consideration still constitute the primary indicators of the morality of a civilization.

These last few years, this diverse European culture of poverty has plunged into a deep crisis. There are many reasons behind this, but a decisive factor has definitely been and is still caused by the culture of business, which is becoming the dominant culture in every aspect of Civic life. An economy based culture, of predominantly Anglo-Saxon nature, that in the name of meritocracy is reintroducing the archaic thesis everywhere of poverty as a curse and fault. Why? The logics of economy are at the root of ancient religions, which are born from the merchant concept of exchange between men and their divinities.

The first homo oeconomicus was the homo religiosus, who interpreted faith as a trade, as a giving and in turn receiving from the divine, as debit and credit to be managed through offerings and sacrifices. The Bible and later Christianity have fought with all their might to liberate mankind from this economy based idea of God. With the cultural weakening of Christian-Hebrew religion, the ancient idea of the economy god has resurfaced today on our secularized horizon, and with it the idea of blaming, of merits, of demerits, of new kinds of sacrifices and new idols. We have awoken in the “twilight of the gods” enchained by a religion of idols which brings back the archaic idea of the poor as being guilty. But its greatest stroke of genius lies in being able to present it as a moral innovation, as a higher form of justice, simply by giving it an evocative name: meritocracy.

We understand the recent attack against the solidarity networks and the world of the tertiary sector in Italy (it would be useful to read and reread the interview with Zamagni published here on Sunday the 28th of Aprile) without taking the ideological project of meritocracy and the business culture which fuels it too seriously. Meritocracy is becoming an ethical legitimization of the moral condemnation of the poor, which first interprets the lack of (certain types of) talent as a fault to be blamed for, and then condemns the poor as undeserving and finally discards them together with those who take care of them.

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