Lessons from a hero

Where do people earn the Per Capita Income? More than one poor starving soul would like to know. In our countries, numbers live better than people. How many people prosper in times of prosperity? How many people find their lives developed by development? Eduardo Galeano, quoted in Partner to the Poor: A Paul Farmer Reader, p. 328 (California Series in Public Anthropology, 2010)paul-farmer

Paul Farmer has much to teach us about last Sunday’s parable of the Publican and Pharisee. He has written the stories of many people who have been his patients in many countries. One of these is Acéphie Joseph, a young woman who died of AIDS in Haiti in 1991. She was from an impoverished family of “water refugees” who had lost their home and land years earlier when their valley was flooded by a hydroelectric dam. Acéphie’s beauty — she was tall and fine-featured, with enormous dark eyes — and her vulnerability may have sealed her fate as early as 1984. Though still in primary school then, she was already nineteen years old; it was time for her to help generate income for her family, which was sinking deeper and deeper into poverty. Acéphie began to help her mother by carrying produce to a local market on Friday mornings. There she caught the eye of Captain Jacques Honorat and she entered a liaison with him, even though she knew he was married and had children. She knew it was wrong, but…

“What would you have me do? I could tell that the old people were uncomfortable, worried; but they didn’t say no. They didn’t tell me to stay away from him. I wish they had, but how could they have known?…I knew it was a bad idea then, but I just didn’t know why. I never dreamed he would give me a bad illness, never! I looked around and saw how poor we all were, how the old people were finished… What would you have me do? It was a way out, that’s how I saw it.”

Jacques Honorat died from AIDS and Acéphie moved on to a low-paying job in Port-au-Prince, where she began seeing another man, Blanco Nerette. Soon after giving birth to a daughter, she was diagnosed with AIDS. She died and left behind her daughter also diagnosed with AIDS.

Many Christians would look at Acéphie and see a woman who died because of her sinful behavior. Moralistic judgment of others is one of the trademarks of being a “Christian” in our comfortable American society. But Paul Farmer sees her and countless others differently: “Little about Acéphie’s story is unique; it brings to the foreground many of the forces restricting not only her options but those of most Haitian women.”

Paul Farmer is an anthropologist and physician, and he has worked with poor people in Haiti and other third-world countries for the past three decades, providing health care where none or little is otherwise available. And all the while he holds the position of Kolokotrones University Professor at Harvard University. He is one of the most remarkable humanitarians the world has ever known and I’m sure he will win a Nobel Prize one of these years. He is still only 55 years of age. And he is my hero; a real-life hero, not a comic-book hero.


Farmer connects the story of Acéphie and others like her to the “structural violence” that permeates life in so many countries, especially among the poor. The suffering he witnesses is “structured” by forces like racism, sexism, political violence, and grinding poverty. He quotes from The Praxis of Suffering, by Rebecca Chopp:

“Knowledge of suffering cannot be conveyed in pure facts and figures, reportings that objectify the suffering of countless persons. The horror of suffering is not only its immensity but the faces of the anonymous victims who have little voice, let alone rights, in history.”

People who die of AIDS, or drug overdoses, or street violence, are just numbers to us. And we tend to form snap judgments about their character and how they lived their lives: People die of AIDS because of their immoral or deviant sexual behavior; people die of drug or alcohol abuse because they were addicts and didn’t turn to Jesus for help; people are poor or unemployed because they’re lazy; people are on food stamps because they’re cheaters and liars… and so on.

We judge people by our own narrow standards of morality, from the viewpoint of our own socio-economic comfort. We even judge entire nations. For years now it has been commonplace in Europe and North America to accuse Greeks of being lazy and spoiled; that’s why Greece is in the mess it’s in. Not true! Sure, Greeks cannot deny their own responsibility for their woes. But it was European market tactics that encouraged Greek people to buy and owe beyond their abilities. And it was Wall Street, especially Goldman Sachs, that taught the Greek government the tricks they needed to lie their way to debacle. The same tactics that sunk millions of Americans because of subprime mortgages also sunk the nation of Greece. And just as ordinary Americans were forced into bankruptcy while the banks and financial institutions that caused the crisis walked away with government handouts, so also Greece and the millions of Greeks who have borne the burden of the big boys’ crimes. Angela Merkel should go after Wall Street instead of Greeks who have been stretched beyond sustainable limits!

The Pharisee in last Sunday’s Gospel reading did what we do: He judged the tax collector and everyone who was not like him. Jesus warns against forming judgments of others. I can speak from personal experience how often I have formed judgments of people only to discover later what difficulties or tragedies they were experiencing. Paul Farmer teaches me that instead of judging others I should do what I can to fight the “structures” of economic, racial and gender oppression that drives people to drugs, sex, alcoholism, violence, and even terrorist sects. We are all connected. None of us can know how one show of kindness could save another person from despair. And I’m not talking about giving money. I’m talking about a kind word, an embrace, an invitation of friendship – small acts that could make a turning point in the life of someone headed for disaster.

But it all starts with not judging. Do not judge! No matter what you think you see or what others say, DO NOT JUDGE! Take a hint from my hero, Paul Farmer. Every person has a history. Before you judge, get to know a person. Chances are you’ll find he or she is not very different from you. Chances are you’ll see that you could be that other person if your circumstances were different! Knowledge is the great leveler of consciousness. Don’t judge.


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