Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 1, 2003
Yes, we are our brother's keeper
When I lived in an old downtown walk-up apartment, I became familiar with some street people's activities.
Because my room was facing the alley, I would sometimes wake up from the noise coming from the garbage bin in the parking lot. Sometimes the sounds came from the truck collecting garbage. More often it was from the scavengers scouring the alleys looking for empties residents threw the night before.
Often, I preferred not to look at them. One day, not only did I have to look at one of them, I had to talk with one for a story on homelessness.
Reflecting afterwards, I asked myself "Why do I prefer not to look at scavengers?"
It wasn't because they are not a great sight to behold. It was because of my fear to be constantly reminded of my responsibility.
Emmanuel Levinas, the 21st century French moral philosopher, called the people in need, the "Face." He called them that because for him the human face has an innate capacity to awaken the sleeping consciousness of one person of his or her responsibility for others. The look in the face of a beggar or someone in need always invites a positive response.
But who says that I have a responsibility to them? Am I my brother's and sister's keeper? And if I am, could I also expect that others would do the same for me?
Levinas teaches that the one who recognizes the person in need is confronted to embrace an infinite responsibility.
Does he mean there is no end in helping the poor? Does he mean once we got hooked on it, it becomes an addiction that is difficult to get out of?
Not necessarily. What he meant is that from the face of the person in need appears an immediate and urgent call for help. In order to help, one has to recognize first that to do so is embracing a responsibility that precedes and exceeds the self's limited and finite capabilities.
One woman told me why she doesn't give money to beggars.
"I think I should do more than that. I think the society has to try and eradicate poverty instead, because poverty stems from a sinful structure and not just due to the fact that people decided to be poor."
I agree with her on some points. But I also recognize the fact that there is always an urgency to respond to a plea. When someone is begging today, that is because there is a need today. In fact there was a need yesterday and a need tomorrow.
There is always immediacy and we cannot delay our response.
In a play I wrote called, To Feed or Not to Feed, I portrayed a beggar who hasn't eaten for 30 days asking for a bowl of porridge. A politician, a philosopher and a businessman encountered this fellow. Instead of giving him what he needed, they argued first. Why is he hungry? Should they feed him or not? Who should feed him?
In the midst of their argument, the poor fellow died. Only then did they try to feed him with a bowl of porridge.
A delayed response is a response wasted.
Our responsibility to our neighbour is non-transferable as much as it should not expect for reciprocity. We cannot say, "I recognize this person is in great need, but I will let others help him. John, can you give him some food for me please?"
We cannot respond to all the people in need because the need of the world surpasses our capacity to do so. But we can respond to the needs of those in front of us.
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