As we reflected in the previous chapter, the gospel calls us to the margins of society in order to bring about the conversion that is begun in our encounter with the poor. The conversion of Francis was a profound change from seeing the leper as an abhorrent and despised non-person to seeing him as a brother in whom Christ dwells. In Francis’ conversion of heart, he began to feel and practice compassionate solidarity. In this chapter we reflect on the next stage of our response as we let go in order to enter more deeply into that conversion process. We are asked to move beyond our comfort zone, beyond the insulating boundaries of class and social status to places of greater risk, toward those on the margins.
As we are given the grace to encounter people on the other side of society from us, we quickly become aware of the tremendous abyss that exists between us and them. Beyond cultural differences, which should be celebrated but not obliterated, we begin to recognize that the abyss that separates us is rooted in racism, economic injustice, and fundamental social inequities. Our task as the non-poor is to remove the obstacles that we have created and that prevent the liberation of the poor and marginalized. Our task is to create the space needed by marginalized communities for their process of self-determination.
Our conversion may entail letting go of deeply held ways of seeing the world. As we emerge from the cocoon of middle-class existence and begin to see the world from the perspective of the poor, we discover a profoundly different reality. Our perspective is likely to be altered as we increasingly learn, with the help of the poor, to read reality from their perspective. Gradually, we begin to understand our history and the forces that shape the present moment from the perspective of the “underside” of society. This is not only a profound shift in understanding but, on the basis of that new awareness, a conversion of the way in which we live.
Relinquishment is much more than giving up material goods. It means giving up prestige and privilege, learning to listen and to accept criticism and learning how to use our power differently and ultimately to share our power. At the very least, our task as the non-poor is to share the power available to us—our resources of wealth, education, influence, and access—with those who lack these things. This is not charity or “noblesse oblige.” It is a fundamental letting go to allow the very structures that benefit us to be transformed so that they will no longer impede but will include and benefit others.
Our task as people of faith will be to refashion, indeed, to re-create more equitable, open, and inclusive systems and structures, not just in the religious
community but in the larger society. At first it may seem that we are being asked to work against our own interests and to our disadvantage. As structures and systems yield to change, we may experience sharing power as a loss of power or even a taste of powerlessness. But ultimately, as conditions of justice, equality, and self-determination begin to take shape in concrete ways, we will understand that what we have been about is the transformation of power from the power of domination to the power of compassionate solidarity. New possibilities will emerge for reconciliation, friendship, and a genuine empowerment grounded in community.
In the end we are faced with the terrible paradox of Christian faith that defies human definitions of power. In the moment of the absolute powerlessness, indeed the complete self-abnegation of Jesus on the cross, God has radically overturned all human notions of power. Out of weakness comes strength; out of powerlessness comes power; out of death comes resurrection, life. This is part of the radical witness that Jesus, Paul, and Francis placed before us: God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness stronger than human strength.