896 million people live on less than $1.90 a day; 1 billion people live with a disability; 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from home; These are just some of the problems the most disadvantaged people in the world face.
Those who experience poverty, disability, mental and physical illness, or discrimination—some of the underprivileged—are often called lazy, or are told to overcome their situation. In the case of the impoverished, we tell them to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps.’ This misdiagnoses the problem. The problem that the underprivileged face is not laziness, or a lack of will. They often cannot change their circumstances if they tried (and tried they have).
The problem is rather a broken world in which evil and suffering, often felt acutely by the underprivileged.
The view that all people can freely exercise their autonomy is nothing new. In his 1486 “Oration on the Dignity of Man” Pico Della Mirandola used Aristotle’s “Chain of Being,” a hierarchy for all beings, to tell an audience that human beings possess the power of achieving any level on the chain of being; effectively a human version of Pokemon Go:
“To you is granted the power of degrading yourself into the lower forms of life, the beasts, and to you is granted the power, contained in your intellect and judgment, to be reborn into the higher forms, the divine.”
And yet, the subjugation of serfs and peasants of Mirandola’s day and the dehumanization of slaves that would soon be taken in chains to the ‘New World’ seems to severely limit those who would self-actualize their way to any place on the chain they desire. Mirandola’s claim appeared out-of-reach for many (of course serfs and slaves possessed the capacity to actualize themselves in the ways privileged people could, but they couldn’t insofar as they were denied the privileges the upper classes enjoyed).
Today, as in Mirandolla’s day, the way in which the privileged and underprivileged experience obstacles are distinct. Privileged persons, on the one hand, face far fewer impediments—which are viewed as “obstacles” to be leapt over—and those who do not are considered lazy, often rightfully so. Many underprivileged persons, on the other hand, experience the cumulative effect of many impediments which, when stacked upon each other, are viewed as barriers and walls. These walls often determine how the underprivileged live their lives.
This difference in degree—which in actuality exists as various continuums which together make up the intersectional social status of each person—amounts to a difference in kind.
The underprivileged must struggle and their perspective is prone to fatalism instead of freedom.
The underprivileged sense that they are perceived as immutable, interchangeable objects in the land of the free, as others by those who freely exercise their selfhood—“scenery” in society’s play. Simone de Beauvoir describes an example of this phenomenon, when she argues that women are confined to objectivity: “…Humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being.”
When societies define their most vulnerable or different citizens the definition is always other-izing, essential-izing, and restrictive since the definitions are from the perspective of the socially powerful, who often view those who are not like them as “lower forms of life.” Thus, to participate in society the underprivileged must accept the definitions that have been given to them. De Beauvoir describes this as well:
“To decline to be the other, to refuse to be party to the deal—this would be for women to renounce all the advantages conferred upon them by their alliance with the superior caste…there is also the temptation to forgo liberty and become a thing…thus, woman may fail to lay claim to the status of subject because she lacks definite resources, …and because she is often very well pleased with her role as the Other.”
If the underprivileged come to agree with their essentializing self-identities, rather than exercising their autonomy, they come to ‘accept their fate,’ which defined for them by others and factors outside their control. That fate is fatalism.
Can fatalism be overcome? Is there hope for underprivileged people? It is obvious to me that underprivileged people have overcome fatalism, but I am not sure that I, as an extremely privileged person, can accurately assess how they did so. Instead, I defer to James Cone’s schema of Christological liberation, developed from the vantage point of the suffering of black people in America, to provide alternative of how fatalism may be overcome.
Cone argues that the underprivileged must recognize the importance of Christ’s work to liberate humanity, which required Him to also become an underprivileged person, a ‘suffering servant’, and subsequently involved His overcoming of the realities of subjugation. Christ’s Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection involve the participation of the Creator in the realities of fatalism and suffering: His vocation was selected for Him at birth. He was poor, and a refugee, and His crucifixion and abandonment by God the Father involved untold pain.
Christ, by becoming a particular person, preferentially chose to identify with a social situation that included subjugation and suffering. In doing so, Christ’s act of liberation also provides a depth of meaning to the lives of the oppressed that only an oppressed person can truly appreciate:
“In this encounter [community worship], they are set free as Children of God. To understand what this means for black people, we need only to remember that they have not known freedom in white America. Therefore, to be told ‘you are free, my children’ is to create indescribable joy and excitement in the people.”
Christ’s Crucifixion, His Resurrection, His identity as “the captain who has never lost a battle,” and His existence as an underprivileged person means that He can rip apart the confines of fatalism from the inside. In Him, underprivileged people are truly free. They are free to recognize their subjectivity (which had actually never left them), to find meaning in relation to their Creator, to be free from sin and shame, and to fight the chains of history that keep their sisters and brothers in bondage. They are free to hope in the future.
Cone’s argument does not cease with hope in Christ’s victory over fatalism and death. The reality of Christ’s victory calls on the community, particularly the community of those who call themselves “Christ-ians,” to participate in the work of liberation:
“God is making plain that God’s kingdom is not simply a heavenly reality; it is an earthly reality as well… [Human beings] were created for liberation—for fellowship with God and the projection of the self into the future grounded in historical possibilities.”
It is the role of Christians—privileged and underprivileged—to participate in the liberating work of Christ within history, with the hope of His second coming.
For if the privileged, including myself, leave the underprivileged under the weight of societal pressures alone we should not be surprised if they succumb to fatalism, or what we can only recognize as laziness from our view.
But more importantly than that, we would betray the work of Christ, and abandon the people He has chosen to be His people.
Guest Writer: Robert Jones is a junior pursuing a B.A. in Philosophy and International Relations at Wheaton College. While at Wheaton he has served as a debate team captain in addition to participating in protests and dialogues on racial and ethnic issues on and off campus. Robert has also worked for the National Center for State Courts and the Michigan House of Representatives. After he graduates, Robert hopes to pursue a Ph.D. focusing on East African international security. When he is not debating or doing research, Robert’s hobbies include lizard-keeping and a good game of foosball.
Share Your Thoughts Below