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Poor People Are Bruised Reeds

Twenty Minutes with Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig

By Jonathan Mitchican

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has attracted a lot of attention lately with a mixture of orthodox theology and left-wing politics that is highly underrepresented in American discourse. Though only 23, she has already written for a wide range of publications including First Things, The Atlantic, Salon, America, The American Conservative, The Daily Beast, and The New Republic. Her work centers on the intersection of Christian faith and public policy, particularly on how society approaches poverty and issues of economic justice. She is a PhD student at Brown University, and earned an MPhil at Cambridge. She grew up Methodist, and was confirmed into the Roman Catholic Church last Easter.

Why are you so passionate about issues of economic inequality?
I feel called to it. I have for a long time. It’s hard to explain how a calling comes about, but I knew by the time I got to college that I felt I was performing the right role when I was working on issues of hunger, homelessness, and poverty. My heart is at home when I am working for the poor, who I understand to belong to God in a unique and meaningful way. I feel so lucky, so blessed, so fortunate to have had the opportunities and gifts that I’ve been given, and I think that each of them is on “loan,” so to speak — that if I’ve been given something special, it has to be used for good. And this is the good I feel called to put all my gifts toward.

Why is it important for Christians in particular to engage with issues of poverty?
I think it’s important to recognize that Christianity is fundamentally concerned with justice, and that many of our very beautiful Scriptures about the nature of the Messiah (Isa. 42, echoed in Matt. 12, for example) emphasize his mission is one of establishing justice. And in both those Scriptures we see that justice has a special relation to concern for the vulnerable — a bruised reed, we find, he will not break.

So our mission as Christians in the example of Christ has to be one of justice, and we have to understand justice to mean bearing a special concern for the weak, the vulnerable, the oppressed. And for us, in our world, this means turning our eyes toward the poor. Poor people are bruised reeds — compared to their wealthy counterparts, they have little share in economic power, little share in political power, worse health, shorter life expectancies, and less ability to participate in the life of society. I think it’s important for Christians to recognize this as a situation of injustice, and to respond accordingly.

If you could wave a magic wand and have American Christians understand one thing about public policy that they do not, what would it be?
Market income is not the only way to reduce poverty, and market solutions to poverty aren’t necessarily the most effective ones. When we think about poverty and how to reduce it, we always seem to come back to how to increase market incomes — that is, how to get people better jobs, or higher-paying jobs, or more skilled jobs. We end up talking about education, job training, and so forth. Or we end up talking about, say, long-term birth control — the goal of which is to delay childbirth until the mother’s market income is higher.

But a great many of those solutions are just not going to be particularly effective unless poverty is reduced first. Low educational attainment, young/unwed pregnancy, lower marriage rates — all of these are conditions that are usually understood to create poverty, when really they are results of poverty. Therefore I wish we could take an approach to them that didn’t rely on us somehow boosting market income alone, and let us solve the poverty first to allow for greater development in all these areas.
You are someone who is not easily classified within the typical left/right, Republican/Democrat spread of American politics. Do you think that the narrowness of American political discourse has affected the way we talk about God?

In American politics I see a paradoxical thing: the arena is very polarized, but the spread is relatively small. So we have two extremes, but neither of them is that far from the other. Thus our way of talking about politics is, compared to nations with more diverse political landscapes, pretty narrow. And I do believe our understanding of what role religion can play in our reasoning is therefore narrowed. God is rarely understood in American politics to be a radical force — he’s usually stuck with convention, platitude, establishment. And to me that’s madness! I hope it has not caused us to view God as essentially commonsensical and moderate, because the God of the Bible is not a milquetoast figure, not whatsoever.

You have been very critical of Catholics who embrace libertarianism. What about libertarianism makes it a problematic political philosophy for Christians? Or is it only problematic for Roman Catholics?
It’s a problem for all Christians in my view. It’s especially troublesome for Roman Catholics, who have many decades of social teaching and centuries of tradition militating against a libertarian anthropology and a libertarian account of property and ownership. But even if you don’t put much stock in tradition or Catholic social teaching, libertarianism is an ideology that seeks to absolutize the import of the individual and to extend that import to property, to the point that it conflates the privileges of individuals with their property.

For Christians this can’t be our frame — we can’t see the world in terms of What am I getting out of this? and we can’t imagine God to relate to humanity purely on the individual level. For us, the corporate person matters, the family, the community, the society: at all of these levels, we’ll be held to account. And we can’t understand property to have in any sense similar privileges to persons, because we see in creation that human beings are very different than the remainder of material creation, and that the world has a purpose apart from the intentions of human beings. In these ways I believe libertarianism sharply departs from Christian understandings of the person and the world.

Was Catholic social teaching a big part of what eventually led you to become Roman Catholic?
Strangely enough, no. I really did come to Catholicism through Augustine alone. It was the strength and clarity of the arguments that did it for me, and the beauty of the prose. I loved the sacramental theology Augustine articulated, and that’s what turned my heart. And, of course, the social teaching is the natural conclusion of all of those arguments, so I love it all too — but it wasn’t the starting point.

As you have begun to be published and read in more and more places, what kind of impact do you hope that your writing has?
In my mind there’s only one mainstream Christian political vocabulary, one set of phrases and ideas that are identified by most people as “Christian politics.” It’s a conservative, right-wing vocabulary. My hope is to popularize a left-wing Christian vocabulary that’s not only faithful to gospel and doctrine, theologically rigorous, and politically astute, but also understood widely to be all those things. I hope I can give Christians a way of thinking about politics in relation to our faith that is strong, intelligent, and not bound up with right-wing political pathologies. That’s my hope: that in a few years, Christian leftist politics will be broadly seen as authentically Christian and as politically viable as Christian right politics.

A lot of people hear “left-wing” and assume that means being liberal on social and cultural issues, but that’s not what you mean, is it?
No, not at all. I use “left-wing” especially to refer to economics, the sort of state structures of wealth. I use it in the old guard, coal mine, labor way, to mean the involvement of government in pursuing avenues for the elimination of poverty. Having spent time in England, I find it to be a peculiarity of American politics that we assume “left-wing” is a statement about how we identify on sex and family issues.

You and I share a love of comics. You mentioned to me that Dick Grayson has always been a really important character for you.
We do share a love of comics! Yes, Dick Grayson has always meant a lot to me. When I started reading Batman comics as a kid, he was the one who stuck with me, the one I followed. You cycle through writers and artists in comics, so you get variations on your characters, but for me Dick has always retained his sense of optimism, his dedication to goodness, his love of life. And there’s something about his grace.

Dick is probably the most acrobatically gifted character in the DC Universe, and you can always see that in his style of fighting and motion. And though it’s a gift, it’s also something he cultivates; in that way it’s a lot like his disposition, the “grace” that keeps him upbeat and committed to the good, even when circumstances are terrible. There’s also something beautiful, to me, about his ability to forgive, and about a certain faith he has — not explicitly religious, but this is a guy who spends a lot of his time in free fall over pavement, and yet he never seems to doubt himself or his mission very severely for very long.

The Rev. Jonathan A. Mitchican is rector of the Church of the Holy Comforter in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, and blogs at conciliaranglican.org.

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