Tag Archives: Works of Mercy

Chris Hedges on the Works of Mercy

Hedges, Chris. “Fuelling the Fire of Real Change,” Truthdig.com (28 September 2008). [This article was reprinted in Hedges’s Death of the Liberal Class, chapter 5]

The coals of radical social change smolder here among the poor, the homeless and the destitute. As the numbers of disenfranchised dramatically increase, our hope, our only hope, is to connect intimately with the daily injustices visited upon them. Out of this contact we can resurrect, from the ground up, a social ethic, a new movement. Hand out bowls of soup. Coax the homeless into a shower. Make sure those who are mentally ill, cruelly cast out on city sidewalks, take their medications. Put your muscle behind organizing service workers. Go back into America’s resegregated schools. Protest. Live simply. It is in the tangible, mundane and difficult work of forming groups and communities to care for others and defy authority that we will kindle the outrage and the moral vision to fight back. It is not Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson who will save us. It is Dorothy Day.


Hope will come only through direct contact with the destitute. The ethic born out of this contact will be grounded in the real and the possible. This ethic will, because it forces us to witness suffering and pain, be uncompromising in its commitment to the sanctity of life.

“There are several families with us, destitute families, destitute to an unbelievable extent, and there, too, is nothing to do but to love,” Day wrote of those she had taken into the Catholic Worker house. “What I mean is that there is no chance of rehabilitation, no chance, so far as we see, of changing them; certainly no chance of adjusting them to this abominable world about them—and who wants them adjusted, anyway?

“What we would like to do is change the world—make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And to a certain extent, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, of the poor, of the destitute—the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words—we can to a certain extent change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world.”


Works of Mercy and Works of War

Eileen Egan (1954):

In point of fact, every one of the corporal works of mercy is literally reversed in total war. Rather than shelter the shelterless, we destroy the shelter of man; rather than feed the hungry, we make the children of man hungry for generations by uprooting them and scorching and mining their fruitful fields; rather than cloth the naked, we raze the productive plants that make the cloth that cover them; rather than ransom the captive, we make a captive of every member of the enemy nation we can lay our hands on; rather than heal the sick, we hasten their death by blockading their supplies of goods and medicines. And to make the unspeakable cycle complete, we unbury the dead.

Cruciform Charity

One of the most striking features of David Hart’s account of the history of Christianity in his Atheist Delusions is the central place afforded to the practices of charity. Hart notes that such practices constituted a unique feature of the gospel that radically distinguished the early church from its cultural surroundings. Not only was ancient pagan religion seemingly incapable of sustaining charity and mercy as a meaningful praxis of devotion, but it lacked the theological foundations necessary to make service to “the least of these” intelligible. In Hart’s view, it was the shocking, cruciform rupture of the divine self-revelation in Jesus Christ — God manifested to humanity and the human beheld for the first time in the glory of the Son — that enabled us to truly grasp the inherent and universal dignity of human personhood. He writes,

“[. . .] the entire idea of human nature has been thoroughly suffused with the light of Easter, ‘contaminated’ by the Christian inversion of social order; our nature is [. . .] first and foremost our community in the humanity of Christ, who by descending into the most abject conditions, even dying the death of a criminal, only to be raised up as Lord of history, in the glory of God, has become forever the face of the faceless, the persona by which each of us has been raised to the dignity of a ‘co-heir of the Kingdom'” (p. 180).

With such theological discussions of incarnation, cross and resurrection, redemption, participation, personhood, deification tightly in the background, Hart gives some helpful historical catalogues illustrating the various ways in which this cruciform charity took shape in the life of early Christians. To quote at length,

“There was, after all, a long tradition of Christian monastic hospitals for the destitute and dying going back to the days of Constantine and stretching from the Syrian and Byzantine East to the Western fringes of Christendom, a tradition that had no real precedent in pagan society (unless one counts, say the valetudinaria used by the military to restore soldiers to fighting form). St. Ephraim the Syrian (A.D.C. 306-373), when the city of Edessa was ravaged by plague, established hospitals open to all who were afflicted. St. Basil the Great (A.D.C 329-379) founded a hospital in Cappadocia with a ward set aside for the care of lepers, whom he did not distain to nurse with his own hands. St. Benedict of Nursia (A.D.C. 480-537) opened a free infirmary at Monte Cassino and made care of the sick a paramount duty of his monks. In Rome, the Christian noblewoman and scholar St. Fabiola (d. A.D.C. 399) established the first public hospital in Western Europe and — despite her wealth and position — often ventured out into the streets personally to seek out those who needed care. St. John Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407), while patriarch of Constantinople, used his influence to fund several such institutions in the city; and in the diakoniai of Constantinople, for centuries, many rich members of the laity labored to care for the poor and ill, bathing the sick, ministering to their needs, assisting them with alms. During the Middle Ages, the Benedictines alone were responsible for more than two thousand hospitals in Western Europe. The twelfth century was particularly remarkable in this regard, especially wherever the Knights of St. John — the Hospitallers — were active. At Montpellier in 1145, for example, the great Hospital of the Holy Spirit was founded, soon becoming a center of medical training and, in 1221, of Montpellier’s faculty of medicine. And, in addition to medical care, these hospitals provided food for the hungry, cared for widows and orphans, and distributed alms to all who came in need” (p. 30).

“Christian teaching, from the first, placed charity at the center of the spiritual life as no pagan cult ever had, and raised the care of widows, orphans, the sick, the imprisoned, and the poor to the level of the highest of religious obligations” (p. 164).

Of Relocation, PhD’s, and the Joyous Death of Transatlantic Blues

You’ll all have to forgive me for my prolonged absence. Since I last posted, I’ve not only formally decided on a PhD program for the Fall, but have also packed up my things and moved half-way around the world in order to get married and start a new life across the pond. I must admit, there’s something quite strange — if not unnerving — about reducing all of one’s material possessions into a handful of little (meticulously packed and carefully weighed) cardboard boxes; frantically tying up a thousand loose ends; bidding a fond farewell to friends, family, beaches, sunshine, In-N-Out, and (of course) the dog; and — with a one-way ticket in hand — moving to the other side of the planet for an indefinite amount of time. Needless to say much has occurred these last few weeks and I’m only just starting to come to grips with it all.

Having finished my MA at the University of Nottingham in 2008, I decided to have a year off to return home, rest, work, and begin the application process. Only in the last month and a half has that season rapidly drawn to a close. After much thought and careful deliberation, I have decided to accept an offer to conduct my PhD studies at the University of Durham. As a doctoral fellow at the Centre for Catholic Studies, I will be working under the joint supervision of Paul Murray and Marcus Pound. As anticipated, my PhD will focus primarily on a critical evaluation of the ecclesial, liturgical, and political place of the works of mercy in the church’s self-understanding, social life, and ethical praxis. During my last visit to Nottingham, I was delighted to discover that I will once again have the privilege of working alongside a good friend and former colleague, Thomas Lynch — who has also been recently awarded a PhD research fellowship at the Centre for the coming year.

Of course that’s not the only big adventure on the horizon. Over Thanksgiving I got engaged to a lovely British girl who lives here in Nottingham. Next month we’ll be throwing caution to the wind and getting married (a very welcome relief after nearly 10 long-distance months of phone cards, timezones, and other unpleasant by-products of transatlantic blues). Thereafter I will be living with her in Nottingham for the next few years while I am working my way through my PhD. From the looks of things I’ll be commuting up to Durham every other week or so, which isn’t an ideal situation but one that present circumstances demand. The positive benefit of this scenario is that I will be able to stay fairly well connected with the post-graduate community at the University of Nottingham — that is, if they’ll have me back!

So that’s the story in brief . . . and of course I’m writing it at 4:30 in the morning because this insidious jetlag has me wide awake in the middle of the night! Once life settles down a bit (and I managed to sleep with more thorough consistency) I’ll turn my attention back onto writing. Until then, all the best and Godspeed.

An Essay Introduction: Reading the Good Samaritan with Ivan Illich

Here is a completely rewritten introduction for a paper I gave at the Grandeur of Reason Conference held in Rome last September, originally entitled: “The Political Subjugation of the Works of Mercy: Recovering the Church from the Therapeutic Arm of the State.” Anyone who was there and actually heard the original are not likely to recognize this one. A few weeks after the conference, I skimmed through what I had presented only to discover how much work needed to be done. Of course, here I am now rereading my attempt to fix it and thinking much the same thing. Alas. I wrote this a while ago, but I think it tackles a few different angles of what I’ve been working on.

– – – – –

In his iconoclastic theological reflections on modernity, the Catholic philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich argues that the Incarnation of Christ created a rupture, radically exposing humanity to a new depth of relationality and loving, fundamentally transgressing the docile normativity of our moral sensibilities. In the divine Word made flesh, both the social policing and rationalist establishment of the boundaries of charity are at once disjointed from their cultural moorings, disbanded, and transfigured in the light of risen One; for Love has shown itself in our midst as the concrete universal; the ethical has found its content in a person: Jesus of Nazareth. Whoever sees him sees the Father (Jn. 14.6-10); “whoever loves another, loves him in the person of that other” (1 Jn. 4.11-12).[1] Any loving performance, any embodiment of goodness is only truthful to the extent it participates in the life of God.

For Illich, the enfleshment of the Son—the pivoting axis of human history—opens up an unprecedented dimension of charity at once subversive, unbounded, and “highly ambiguous because of the way in which it explodes certain universal assumptions about the conditions under which love are possible.”[2] Family, race, culture, wealth, nation no longer concretely demarcate the bounds of the neighbor. Illich maintains that in Christ I am beckoned into a startling freedom to choose whom I will love and where I will love. “And this deeply threatens the traditional basis for ethics, which was always an ethnos, an historically given ‘we’ which precedes any pronunciation of the word ‘I.’”[3] To elucidate this paradigmatic rupture, Illich appeals to a radicalized reading of the Good Samaritan.

According to the Gospel of Luke, a challenge is raised to Jesus: But who, then, is this other, this neighbor? Through his persistent questioning, an expert of the law reveals a primal yearning for the intimation of limits. He grasps desperately for a frame of reference, for a categorical delimitation identifying where the commitment of charity can safely cease. He expects Jesus to tell him what he wants to hear: a line in the sand revealing who is, and consequentially who is not, a neighbor for whom I am responsible.

Jesus responds with a parable. A traveler on his way from Jerusalem is attacked by bandits, ruthlessly beaten, stripped naked, and left for dead in a ditch. A priest comes along and after him a Levite, but both pass him by. Finally, a Samaritan (that is, an outsider, excluded and despised), sees the man, binds and dresses his wounds, and takes him to an inn to care for him without charge. Jesus then returns the question: Who was a neighbor? The one who had mercy on him (Lk. 10.35-37).

In saying “go and do likewise,” what Jesus tells the inquisitive lawyer is not to go and find neighbors “out there,” but to choose to be a neighbor to the one you happen upon, even if he is a Samaritan. Far beyond the unilateral transfer of disinterested aid, the Samaritan is moved by the call of this wounded man. His response opens the possibility of a new relation of charity that transgresses both the predetermined “we” of our tightly regulated social boundaries, and the “I” of our own illusions of autonomous self-sufficiency. Through an encounter of sheer contingency, a proportionality is opened between the Samaritan and the wounded man that clears the space for the creation of a new “we,” a new bond of reciprocity, a new communion.[4] This network of relation seeping outwards, extending into the unnamed territory at the fringes of the “acceptable” is what Illich calls the church. This fitting together comes from God and “became possible because God became flesh.” As such, this agapeic community is not an inherent human possibility; it is a revealed possibility and thus a gift. The Christian tradition calls the means of grace (i.e., the gifts of food and drink, prayer and compassion, shelter and hospitality) through which we enter into a neighboring relation with one in need, the “works of mercy.”

While the Incarnation opens this revealed horizon of relationality cultivated through the personal performance of the works of mercy, Illich nevertheless contends that this horizon also carries with it the possibility of its rejection, corruption, and subjugation. “There is a temptation to try to manage and, eventually, to legislate this new love, to create an institution that will guarantee it, insure it, and protect it by criminalizing its opposite.”[5] According to Illich, the gradual institutionalization of the church from rise of Western Christendom paved the way of secularization and facilitated the rational bureaucratization of human interaction through the systematic parsing of the world into neat categorical divisions: public/private, secular/religious, fact/value, objective/subjective.[6] As Charles Taylor concludes, “For Illich, there is something monstrous, alienating about this way of life. The monstrous comes from a corruption of the highest, the agape-network. Corrupted Christianity gives rise to the modern.”[7]

In our contemporary secular age, the church’s works of mercy are frequently appealed to as one of the few means through which the church can safely enter the public sphere. Religious institutions and their practice of charity are seen as a powerful means of tackling our more pervasive social problems. However, torn from their ecclesiological context and pressed into the service of the state, these practices are too often converted into bureaucratic mechanisms for the efficient redistribution of resources designed to pragmatically “solve” the very problems created by the political establishment itself. Reduced via a political nominalism, only those practices intelligible to a church that buttresses the socio-political system are deemed worth maintaining. Indubitably, thoroughly tackling such an ambitious agenda lies far beyond the scope of the present essay. Nonetheless, I hope to tease out some of the critical implications of Illich’s thesis by suggesting that a faithful, alternative theopolitical imagination capable of confronting the bureaucratic institutionalization and philanthropic domestication of Christian charity begins by reframing the works of mercy at the heart of the church’s liturgical politics of the everyday. In other words, perhaps a fruitful path forward is to risk raising the question: what happens when the works of mercy are taken seriously, once again, as embodied acts of worship?

[1] Cayley, D., The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2005), p. 47.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 197.

[5] Ibid., p. 56.

[6] On the pervasiveness of secular dichotomization, see McIntire, C. T., “Transcending Dichotomies in History and Religion”, History and Theory, Theme Issue 45 (2006), 80-92; Gregory, B. S., “The Other Confessional History: On Secular Bias in the Study of Religion”, History and Theory, Theme Issue 45 (2006), 132-149.

[7] Taylor, C. A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 740.

An initial survey of the literature

One of my ongoing projects has been to trace the origins of the doctrine of the works of mercy. Thus far, my approach remains methodologically opportunistic if not haphazard. I suppose this results in part from the fact that despite the countless theological works that presuppose the framework of the works of mercy for their intelligiblity, I have yet to come across any rigorous, thorough, and detailed theological study on the subject itself. Instead, the discussion seems to be divided into several fairly distinct camps.

(1) There are quite a few contemporary projects on “hospitality” that tend to rest at the intersection between political, liturgical, and practical/pastoral theology. Examples of such works include: Catherine D. Pohl’s Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Practice; Elizabeth Newman’s Untamed Hospitality: Welcoming God and Other Strangers; John Koenig’s New Testament Hospitality: Partnership with Strangers as Promise and Mission; Thomas R. Hawkins’ Sharing the Search: A Theology of Christian Hospitality; Patrick R. Keifert’s Welcoming the Stranger: A Public Theology of Worship and Evangelism; Arthur Sutherland’s I was a Stranger: A Christian Theology of Hospitality; and quite a few others.

(2) Then you have works that deal with the works of mercy explicitly, but not necessarily from a rigorously historical or robustly theological perspective. This might include the works of Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, and the surrounding secondar literature such as Dan McKanan’s The Catholic Worker After Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation. One could also cite here the writings of Jean Vanier. And there are also a few more popular level books on the subject like Mitch Finley’s The Corporal & Spiritual Works of Mercy: Living Christian Love and Compassion and James F. Keenan’s The Works of Mercy: The Heart of Catholicism.

(3) Additionally, in terms of academic research quite a few pariscope studies have focused their attention on isolated instances of works of mercy throughout the church’s history. To be honest, I am less familiar with this side of the table. However, I’ve found a few works that look promising. On the one hand, there are more general books like John Bossy’s Christianity and the West 1400-1700; Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Alters; and Ian Williams’ The Alms Trade: Charities, Past, Present, and Future. On the other hand, there are other much more concentrated books like Miri Rubin’s Charity and Community in Medieval Cambridge and John Henderson’s Piety and Charity in Late Medieval Florence.

(4) Then there is a massive amount of work done relating to particular works of mercy (on visiting the sick or feeding the hungry, etc.).

(5) There are also the more exegetical books dealing with the topic from a more strictly biblical perspective.

(6) Finally, there are a few works that are a bit difficult to categorize, such as Jon Sobrino’s The Principle of Mercy: Taking the Crucified People from the Cross; Kelly S. Johnson’s The Fear of Beggars: Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics.

It seems I have a lot of reading to do.

Vanity, charity, and intentionality

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

— Matthew 6.1-4

“There are many things done by man which are noble in themselves but still because of some reason are not noble. For example, fasts and vigils, prayer and psalmody, almsgiving and hospitality are noble in themselves, but when they are done out of vainglory they are no longer noble.

“God searches the intention of everything that we do, whether we do it for him or for any other motive.

“When you hear the Scripture saying, ‘You will render to each one according to his works,’ know that God will reward good works but not those done apart from a right intention. For God’s judgment looks not on what is done but to the intention behind it.”

— Maximus the Confessor, The Four Hundred Chapters on Love 2.35-37