From Benevolence to Mutuality


This post is the third of four written for students on an alternative spring break with the Farm Workers Support Committee here in South Jersey and in eastern Pennsylvania.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world from which we draw much for our civilization and our ways of thinking, equality was not an ideal but a suspect notion often held in contempt. The great man (sic) used his prosperity to further his greatness by becoming a benefactor to the common people who were expected to be very grateful for his generosity. The benefactor gained honor and pride by demonstrating his greatness through charity.

That we still think somewhat the same way can be seen in our praise for philanthropists (literally “friends to humanity”), no matter how they gained their wealth. Churches continue in a lesser version of the philanthropic model by pooling their people’s offerings of money for benevolence, sometimes understood as the blessed giving to the less fortunate. If it made the ancient benefactor look good to give money to the poor, it may make the modern religious person feel good to give some to the unfortunate, often without contact and mostly without dialogue.

Somewhere along the line of modern church history, missionaries came to be called fraternal workers, meaning brothers and sisters working in concert with the people of the host land. New words have entered the conversation about equality, justice, and help where help is needed – words such as partnership and mutuality. Instead of benevolence, there is to be sharing. If we go to teach, we go also to learn. The goal is to remove both pride and shame from all groups, replacing them with mutual respect and appreciation.

Is mutuality just a pretense? It can be, of course, but does it have to be? Can we find a humility that is not phony and self-congratulating? Can we discover our common humanity and respect it? Jesus warns that it is very hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Is his warning not related to the difficulty of sharing humanity from a superior position of wealth and power? Jesus also tells his followers not to be benefactors but to be servants (Luke 22:24-27). What does he mean, and how can we who have so much (such great possessions!) learn the strong humility of mutual respect, understanding, and gratitude?

Are we benefactors or hermanos (brothers) y hermanas (sisters), compañeros (comrades) in life? Is the migrant or immigrant a lesser person in need of our charity or a respected neighbor? How do we go from theory to praxis? How do we learn humility without just trying to appear humble because the appearance of humility enhances our pride and feeling of virtue, much like the gift which the proud benefactor handed down to the common people?

An even harder but more practical question is, How do we start to reach across the barriers to mutual understanding, acceptance and respect? If those society labels superior may have consciously or unconsciously assumed that higher-than position toward others, people society labels inferior may also, consciously or unconsciously, have assumed a lower-than position, however resentfully. Change starts with a new, conscious assumption of equality on one’s own part, but mutuality has to be, well, mutual. So, how is the change of mind/heart put into effect between those labeled superior and those labeled inferior?