Poverty and the Shema, Jesus’ Great commandment


When I was working on my Associates degree my only means of transportation was a 12-speed bicycle. This was also my means of transportation when I worked on my Bachelor’s degree. School was seven miles from home. This meant, fall, winter, spring, and summer, I was on that bicycle every school day, going to school. There was three inches of snow on the ground and too cold for the salt to melt the snow? If I wanted to graduate, I went to school. It was spring or summer and a bad thunderstorm was outside; if I wanted to graduate, I went to school. The worst that could happen is that one second I would be riding to school, and the next, I would not be, in both senses of the term.

Of course, there was starting school. Two weeks into the first month living off the GI Bill, as there were no jobs at the time, ’81, I ran out of food. I looked into the living room and saw the four cases of canned mixed vegetables I was using for furniture. It gets old soon. The next month I switched to Macaroni and Cheese, mixed with tuna, hum.

There was the time I was riding along, to visit a friend, when one car came so close it caused me to lose my balance. I fell into the road, and saw nothing but a Buick Special, or more precisely the tires of the car, inches from my head. Then there was the time I was hit by a van, trying to travel from my mother’s home in Pittsburgh, to Sandusky, to check out graduate school there. It was the side mirror of the van, so I was not greatly damaged, but my arm was in a sling. I had parked on the road berm, but the van driver claimed I was in the road, so it was my fault. When I completed my Bachelor’s I started looking for work, with no car.

The solution of one friend was to spend $20 and print resumes, the mail them to perspective employers. Upon hearing that I did not have $20, his alternate solution was to spend $20 making phone calls to perspective employers. People with money cannot understand what it is like not to have money.

1980 ChevetteA long time ago, before the dinosaurs, I owned a 1980 Chevette. It did have some rust. The floorboard was rotted out such that there was a hole from the firewall to the seat, and you could shake the seat, and from the door to the transmission hump. There were no shock absorbers in the front of the car. There was no place to hook them. The brakes were bad.

I was told at Midas that I had no more than two weeks of brake pad left. Working as a cashier I was not able to save up the money for new brake pads, in particular as working conditions were bad, so I was looking for new work. Not finding it in Ohio, I was saving up to move to Oregon, where family said there was work. I saved for several months and drove this car to Oregon. In the process, I learned how to drive a car, using only the transmission as a brake. I learned to bring the car from 60 miles per hour to a complete stop, using only the transmission, and the parking brake. When the brakes finally completely gave out, I was driving 2 miles per hour in a shopping mall parking lot. I drove the car to my family’s home in Oregon.

I remember being told many times that if I was unemployed, it was because I was not looking hard enough, even though I was looking in six states, and using whatever transportation was available to find that job. Later I owned a car with the clutch out, so I had to speed shift, changing gears without using that clutch. For both cars, it means maximizing gas mileage, never going to fast, coasting, and when using the clutch to stop the car, slowing down a good mile from the stop light. That is why I get better than posted gas mileage for any car I drive. Car and Driver says I should get 20 miles per gallon, I get 25.

Then there was Senior Chief Petty Officer, Senior Chief Theodore (Gift of God) Bronson. A man of my own heart, a true conservative, he decided early that a person with my background had no business being in his man’s navy. First, he placed me in the supply department, not in a medical billet that I had training in. I dutifully did as ordered and asked for placement in the upstairs medical research unit. After several months, he placed me in billets over my training, running computers using computer language I was not trained in and demanding I not make any errors. Under high stress, of course I made errors. I received a below average evaluation.

To relieve the stress, I took a 30-day vacation. I returned to a special evaluation, for the 30 days I was on vacation. As I worked at the animal facility, one day, while walking across the field, I suffered the feeling that I was in a world that was surreal and the rules did not apply. It is a strange feeling, feeling detached from the world and everyone in it. While at this command, I was belittled and berated, in private and in public.

While this was going on, I was informed that I was to receive a general discharge from the navy because of two negative evaluations. I contested the decision. I did win my case, because of a pastor, at church was retired military who wrote a reference, and because of the writing of a very good lawyer. I must wonder what would have happened without the help of these fine men. Would I be like those living on Liberty Avenue in Pittsburgh, or Broad Street in Philadelphia, the slums of the world?

I could never be the person I was, a conservative in the mold of Senior Chief Bronson again. Senior Chief Bronson was also a bully. The instant of death, raw and stunning, is what I felt as I walked across that field at that facility. In his essay

Reflecting on Eden, it is hardly accurate to represent Eden as devoid of suffering. There are at least four conditions in the saga of creation constituting, if not suffering then the stuff out of which some types of human suffering are made. Loneliness is one. Adam is “alone.” Not only so, but this creature becomes acutely conscious of its solitude. Even the Creator must discover, apparently, there is something “not good” in the midst of this goodness: “It is not good that the Adam should be alone” [1]

Suffering emanates not only from loneliness but also from the experience of limits. Humans must encounter the limits of its existence, its powers, its intelligence. Limits are presupposed by the tellers of the creation narrative. Much is permitted in that garden; but in the center stands the living, fruit-bearing symbol of the limitations of creaturely existence, which must not be transgressed.

Temptation belongs to the situation of Eden. The serpent, a creature of God (for there is no ultimate dualism here), makes certain that the human beings become conscious of the thought that they might employ their wits and exceed the limits of their being creature.[2]

Anxiety: It is the anxiety of the creaturely condition that opens Eve to the subtle admonitions of the serpent, the anxiety of ignorance.[3]

Douglas John Hall, like Malthus, argues that the earth always was wilderness and chaos. When we look to God, the final cause, we can, with God’s help, strive to become like him, and inherit eternal life. Regrettably, we can also look to earth, become wilderness and chaos, and sink into the sea as Peter did in the story of Jesus walking on the water. This means we must know our limitations. We must know that we do not know what it is like for the other person to suffer. We can, and must try to relate it to our own suffering. We must relate the other’s anxiety to our anxiety. We must understand our temptation to get what is ours, and keep our eyes closed to the suffering of our neighbor. Some have far greater mental, physical and contextual limits than ourselves and we must account for that.

I learned from Deuteronomy 5:1-7, Remember, “I am the NAME your this one, who rescued you from the land of Oppression, the house of menial labor.” The rabbinic addition is, “You will remember what it was like to be there and you will remember your rescue, then when you see others suffering, it will bring back bad memories and you will do something.” Then there is Shema, “Here you who struggle with the NAME, the NAME is Almighty, the NAME is One. Love the NAME with all your hearts, (“Hearts” is plural, “your” is singular) all your animate being, and with all your measure. “Hearts is plural because we each have multiple hearts, inclinations, which are neither good nor bad. We are to love God with each. When people say you have evil inclinations, love God with those as well. This has been my life focus ever since.

The passage most relating to my experience is Luke 13, which states, “Do you think that the other guy suffers because of what he did? I tell you know, but if you do not straighten out, you are next.” Unlike Malthus, Hall will argue that we do have two ways of dealing with our limitations. We can look to God, our own past suffering, and then address our neighbor’s needs, following God’s example, or we can return to earth, forgotten by history, and our neighbor.

As Gustavo Gutierrez and Jon Sobrino point out, solidarity is important. For Gutierrez, the difference between the old Job who is Tam/simple, and the new Job, who has grown, is that the old Job gives to “them,” and the new Job gives to “us,” those of us who have suffered. Likewise, Sobrino asks us to realize we are in solidarity, a community of unequals. “For who the bell tolls, the bell tolls for us.” Leonardo Buff. As someone who has suffered, the second alternative is not open to me. I am stuck with the first.

[1] Hall, Douglas John (1987-01-01). God and Human Suffering (Kindle Locations 722-728). National Book Network – A. Kindle Edition.

[2] Hall, Douglas John (1987-01-01). God and Human Suffering (Kindle Locations 742-746). National Book Network – A. Kindle Edition.

[3] Hall, Douglas John (1987-01-01). God and Human Suffering (Kindle Locations 750-752). National Book Network – A. Kindle Edition


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