On the homeless and other noble savages

I suppose it’s not very original, but I’m a great fan of Shane Claiborne. His book The Irresistible Revolution is one of the most challenging and inspiring things I’ve ever read, despite the ubiquitous descriptions of Shane’s eyes filling with tears at practically everything he encounters (but he can’t help that, he’s American, bless him).

Shane writes beautifully and lovingly about the homeless people he likes to hang out with – how they become his friends and how much living with them changes his understanding of the Gospel. He also loves his homeless anecdotes. There’s the man who puts a pack of cigarettes on the offering plate in church, this being everything of worth he possesses. There’s the woman who’s fighting for a meal at a soup van, only to offer it to her elderly friend who is physically unable to get into the fray herself. There are adorable children who dream of becoming doctors and social workers and selflessly share the little they possess with other adorable children.

I don’t doubt that these anecdotes are true, and yet it’s striking how well they fit into a long (and I really mean long) tradition of idealising those we perceive as less civilised or less fortunate. The ‘noble savage’ is presented as more pure than us, untainted by modern society or material possessions. He’s a safekeeper of values we, the rich and civilised, have lost or forgotten. He’s in touch with nature and his inner self, genuine and childlike in his moral beliefs. We claim they should become more like us, but it is really us who should learn from them.

Is there anything wrong with the ‘noble savage’ trope? One would think that idealising people is better than dehumanising and exploiting them. Still, I think there are at least two reasons why we should try to stop perpetuating this trope.

(1) Idealisation is dehumanisation too. When you deny a fellow human their dark side, you’re essentially denying part of their humanity. You’re refusing to acknowledge those parts of them that do not fit your preconceived idea of how this person should be. You might even deny them agency, for fear that they might lose their ‘purity’ if they were to enjoy the same freedoms as you. Also, if you don’t see someone as fully human, it only takes a small step to start seeing someone as less human. Paradoxically, idealisation of the poor opens the door to exploitation of the poor.

(2) Painting the poor as ‘noble savages’ justifies the status quo. The trope of the noble savage suggests that there is a silver lining to poverty and misfortune: it kind of sucks but at least it’ll turn you into a better and happier human being. But that means that some beautiful things will be irrevocably lost in a world without ‘savages’. If we eradicate poverty, who will be left to show us the value of selflessness and simple living? Who will be left to denounce our greed and artifice? Who will confront us with ourselves and teach us to be happy? If the poor are perceived as the guardians of beauty and morality, if poverty is perceived as an antidote against the poison of modern society, the world cannot do without them. And in giving poverty and suffering a function, their existence – and perpetuation – are justified.

In many ways, the idea of the noble savage is tempting and comforting. It makes for a lovely anecdote, and might encourage people to love, spend time with and learn from their less fortunate neighbours. But in the end, it’s a lie, and like every lie it will end up turning you bitter and disappointed.

Like Shane Claiborne, I have worked with the homeless. Like Shane, I’ve found that this brings the words of Jesus to life in unexpected ways. I loved these people – but they weren’t noble. They weren’t selfless. They complained about everything. They refused to share what they had. They bullied those who were less tough. They said horribly racist and sexist things. They watched porn together on flashy smartphones.

They weren’t angels in human flesh. They were ordinary human beings. In fact, quite often, they were pretty much like me on a bad day, except they tended to have quite a bit more of those.

This was hard sometimes. It’s nice when you feel that people really deserve the energy you spend on them. It’s nice to see someone blossom under your attention. It’s nice to see them smile at you, missing teeth and all, and feel all warm and fuzzy inside. But just as often they don’t ‘deserve’ it, they don’t blossom, they don’t smile, and they don’t teach you valuable lessons about life and how to be a better human being.

And yet they have the same rights as I do – a right to care and attention and justice and equality, a right to live their own life and tell their own story. Not because they are better, purer, or more ‘noble’ than us. But because they’re fellow human beings, lovingly made in the image of the same God.

And I like to believe that real change will happen when we stop seeing others the way we want them to be, and learn to see them for who they really are: as beautiful as us and as wretched as us – as humans.

About hannadevries

University lecturer (in linguistics/artificial intelligence) with occasional opinions on religion & social justice-related stuff.
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6 Responses to On the homeless and other noble savages

  1. LizBR says:

    Thanks for this.

    I’m leading a trip of college students to India in May, and I’m going to ask them to read this in advance of the trip.

  2. Sophie says:

    Great post! You happen to have published this post on the same day that a newspaper published a story about Mother Teresa’s critics. Of course there has been a tremendous backlash. Her most prominent critic whom I know of was the lat Christopher Hitchens, who alleged that her beliefs about the sanctifying effects of poverty made her fetishise the suffering of those she was supposed to be serving, and even go so far as to actively refuse them physical comforts and pain relief. I suppose if you’re going to devote your life to something you have to be convinced of its worthiness, so people ought to be on their guard against romanticising and othering real people.

    • hannadevries says:

      Yes, I’ve heard about that. From a non-religious point of view I kind of understand the criticism – although I don’t know if I’d trust Christopher Hitchens for a fair critique of any religiously motivated behaviour – but as a Christian I do agree with Mother Teresa and many others throughout history that voluntary poverty can be a very holy and spiritually valuable thing. The keyword being voluntary, though – I’m inclined to think that it’s not poverty in itself that’s sanctifying, but purposely getting rid of your material possessions (or anything else you find you put too much trust in) may very well be.

      • hannadevries says:

        (I’m still trying to figure out if I put too much trust in my brains and, if so, whether that means I should purposely get rid of them ;))

  3. Ronald Puma says:

    I am working on my project StreetLife in which there are also photos of homeless people. I see them as people who can’t cope with the harshness of the modern society: http://ronaldpuma.wordpress.com/2012/11/26/armoede/

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