From Streets to Stars

Prostitutes

“We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” — Oscar Wilde. Prostitutes viewing the rings of Saturn. Photo by Chris Arnade. Read the story here.

It was a crisp fall night, medical school had reconvened just a few weeks ago, and we were out on the town. “Should we stop at a bar first, and grab a few beers?” someone asked. “Or just go straight to the club and do some dancin’?” If there were worries that night, they were hard to come by.

Then, my friend tapped me on the shoulder. “Can I have some money?” he asked. “Please?” He wanted to give it to a homeless woman. I was a bit taken aback, and, honestly, I was frustrated. “Fine,” I groaned, and handed him $5.

We approached a woman slumped against a doorframe, taking shelter under the entryway awning, and under tattered blankets. My friend handed her the bill. Then we stood there for a moment, the two of us, and the one of her, face to face. I didn’t know what to say, and the silenced stretched on, for one second, and then for two. So I said, “I believe that God has a plan for all of us, and he’s going to make sure we achieve it.” She nodded. And we walked away.

At the time, it had felt like the right thing to say. But as we walked onward, I started to question my words. “Who was to tell her things would be okay?” I asked. I had received everything on a platter. I was a in medical school, training to become a member of an esteemed profession. I was wearing nice clothes. I was engaging in leisure. I was surrounded by friends. I had everything. What gave me the right to offer hope to someone who had nothing? As the night went on, I couldn’t help but wonder: can religion cross the class barrier?

I had my doubts. I remembered seeing the following cartoon in the New Yorker:

Fish

Of course I think things will go well. But that’s because, for me, they have so far. How might others feel? Someone who is homeless has likely undergone a series of misfortunes, such that, by now, they almost certainly believe that “there is no justice in the world.” So how could they believe in a just universe, or a just God?

The story couldn’t be that simple, though. What about the photographs and interviews of Chris Arnade? Arnade quit his job on Wall Street to spend four years photographing the heroin addicts and prostitutes of Hunts Point, a neighborhood in the South Bronx. And based on his work, it seems that those who are least fortunate are often the most faithful.

Arnade tells the story of Takeesha: “She was raped by a relative at 11, had her first child at 12, and was put out on the streets by her mother, who was also a prostitute, at the age of 13.”

Takeesha

“[Describe me] As who I am: a prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.” Read her story here.

“When I finished up talking to her for that hour and a half … I asked [her] how [she] wanted to be described,” Arnade remembers. “She said, ‘As who I am: a prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.’ “

After finishing his project Faces of Addiction, Arnade started another project, where he traveled the country asking people about the American dream. Here he met Enrique, who said, “I have nothing. But I am free because I have God and I can pray.”

Enrique

“I have nothing. But I am free because I have God and I can pray.” –Enrique, Albany, New York

It may have felt to me that religion is reserved for the privileged. But based on Arnade’s work, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Wealthy people might be able to look back, and thank God for their blessings. But the destitute, on the other hand, can look forward, and pray to God for hope. Maybe what I had said made sense after all.

Indeed, religion does seem to cut across socioeconomic lines. And it doesn’t stop there. More generally, those who have cause for celebration, and those who have cause for anguish, can draw from religion equally.

In the Brothers Karamazov, Ivan “returns his ticket”; he rejects religion when forced to confront the suffering of animals and children. There’s no place for religion, he feels, in a world which is unjust, and frankly, cruel. At the end of the book, however, Dmitri promises to sing hymns from the bowels of the earth, as he awaits incarceration in Siberia. “What should I be underground there without God?” he asks.

I’ve also seen religion appear in the medical setting. At UVa, we had a talk on the humanistic aspects of medicine, and members of the Catholic Medical Society were in attendance. One attending physician recounted a time when he was caring for a patient who was surely going to die, and the patient knew it. The patient asked, “Doctor, will I go to heaven?” The doctor was dumbfounded. He didn’t know what to say; perhaps he felt like me in front of the homeless woman. Then he recounted the story of Jesus, who, while on the cross, addressed the criminal next to him. He quoted Jesus in saying, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Religion isn’t just built for those who have, but also for those who have not. This is true of money, health, and hope.

Indeed, it seems that religion’s very purpose is to equalize across these boundaries. In the Jewish religion, scholars claim that the Torah was a pioneering work for its novel, and controversial, stance that men should be equal to each other. Rabbi Joshua Berman, a professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan university in Tel Aviv, writes in his book Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought:

Throughout the ancient world the truth was self-evident: all men were not created equal. It is in the five books of the Torah that we find the birthplace of egalitarian thought.

Before the Torah, religion existed in various forms. But its purpose was generally to cement the status of those already in power. When asked, “Why should he rule?”, those in power could point to religious mythology in order to posit that their leadership is divinely ordained. For example, Berman points to Enlil, the chief god of the Mesopotamian pantheon. He was, in nearly every aspect, identical to his earthly counterpart, the king.

Enlil, like his earthly counterpart, rules by delegating responsibilities to lesser dignitaries and functionaries. Like his earthly counterpart, he presides over a large assembly. He resides in a palace with his wives, children, and extended “house.” Generally speaking, the gods struggled to achieve a carefree existence and enjoyed large banquets in their honor. Like kings, gods needed a palace, or what we would call a temple, where they, too, could reside in splendor in separation from the masses, with subjects caring for them in a host of earthly matters.

With our without religion, the notion that inequality is a natural, and even desirable, aspect of society persisted through Greek, Roman and medieval cultures. “From the hour of their birth,” wrote Aristotle, “some are marked out for subjugation, and others for rule.”

The Torah, on the other hand, institutionalized egalitarian thought. Berman points to the revelation of Sinai as emblematic of Judaism’s emphasis on equality, as God spoke to the entire people at once–not just to the kings, or priesthood, or to Moses. Berman claims that this had extensive political and societal, not just theological, implications.

In Deuteronomy 4:32-36, Moses tells the Israelites:

You have been shown in order to know that God, He is the Supreme Being. There is none besides Him. From heaven he let you hear His voice in order to teach you, and on earth He showed you His great fire, and you heard His words amid the fire.

The use of the collective “you” empowers the common citizenry to uphold the commandments, elect leaders among themselves, and create a just society. Most important is the matter of principle: no one person is any more valuable than any other.

Similar strains are seen in Christian thought, where “the meek will inherit the earth” (Mathew 5:5). In Doestoesvky’s Crime and Punishment, an impoverished student and a decorated emperor are placed on equal footing before an unlimited God.

Indeed, the establishment of equality across perceived societal boundaries isn’t just an incidental aspect of monotheistic religion. It’s central. Religion doesn’t happen to cross the class barrier; it was meant to.

This doesn’t mean that inequality is not a problem, or that our differences should be ignored. But it does mean that each of us, no matter what our station, should not hesitate to give, and ought to be grateful to receive, messages of hope.

Resources

  1. Quitting Wall Street To Tell A Prostitute’s Story
  2. Who Still Believes in the American Dream? Portraits of a nation in search of a better life
  3. Chris Arnade photostream
  4. How the Torah Revolutionized Political Thought
  5. Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought
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