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Issue Date:  February 11, 2005

By Garret Keizer
HarperCollins, 276 pages, $24.95
Exploring the ambiguities of aid

A thoughtful look at the pitfalls of helping others


Garret Keizer brings impressive credentials to this wide-ranging consideration of help: religious insight, thoughtful reading of both literary classics and contemporary novels, and the fruit of considerable personal and professional experiences offering and receiving help as a husband, father, former English teacher and Episcopal priest. Now a full-time author -- a frequent contributor to Harper’s; his books include The Enigma of Anger and A Dresser of Sycamore Trees -- Mr. Keizer has a distinct style as an essayist that is well-suited to this topic.

The cover painting, Van Gogh’s “The Good Samaritan,” is aptly chosen, for the book is an extended meditation on that compelling parable. Mr. Keizer considers help as others might study a work of art, looking at it from all its angles, inviting us to participate in his ruminations on it. The book is full of intriguing insights, such as his observation that “Jesus is hardly ever seen doing the three helpful things we are most often called upon to do. He never donates money, gives advice (in the specific sense of ‘Here’s what you ought to do’) or offers support (in the uncritical sense of ‘Everything you’re doing is perfectly fine’). We see him reaching out to those at the margins of society to remind them that they too have a place in the kingdom of God, but we never see him sacrificing his time or his agenda on the altar of another person’s loneliness.”

If the religious center of this book is the road where the Samaritan meets his neighbor, the French Protestant town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is its moral center. Inspired by their pacifist pastor, André Trocmé, residents of Le Chambon sheltered and saved over 5,000 Jewish refugees through their “unstinting hospitality.” It was Trocmé’s wife, Magda, “who encountered the first Jewish refugee at the presbytery door and called her in out of the snow with the words, ‘Naturally, come in, and come in,’ and covering her with her shawl. If there is such a thing as a domestic Samaritan, Magda comes as close as one can imagine to providing that vocation with a motto: ‘I do not hunt around to find people to help. But I never close my door, never refuse to help somebody who comes to me and asks for something.’ ”

Mr. Keizer’s writing on domestic violence and poverty is strong, disturbing and prophetic, stripping away political and religious pieties. “When we absolve the poor of original sin,” he observes in a critique of liberation theology, “we absolve them of their humanity. On some level we need the poor to be blameless so that, in the inevitable discovery that they are not blameless, we can be free to loathe them again.” And while much of this book’s focus is on individual acts of help, he refuses to privatize justice. “No act of personal service, no association of right-minded volunteers, no constellation of altruistic superstars can replace a society’s need for the political will to take care of our own,” he writes.

Mr. Keizer raises important philosophical questions about altruism, writes with eloquent anger about injustice and poverty and is always adept at theological argument. He looks for metaphors in the work and lives of midwives, doctors and hairdressers, social workers, Peace Corps volunteers, ministers and missionaries. The strength of this book is Mr. Keizer’s attention to ordinary but gifted and thoughtful helpers whom he writes of with respect and gratitude.

There is Beryl Eddy, a hospice volunteer, who “entered a remote house where a man lay dying” and recognized that the wife would become completely isolated after her husband’s death. So, in the ice and snow, Beryl Eddy taught a “very timid woman” how to drive. Ms. Eddy’s action illustrates the strength of the hospice model where “great importance attaches to discovering what people truly want. ... Once you have determined a person’s last wish and committed yourself to it, you have assumed a truly altruistic orientation, for the other.”

Mr. Keizer sees similar lessons in the humility of hairdressers, “ideal illustrations of service. ... They work facing a mirror in which they are very much visible but that never allows them to forget who’s making who look good.” Of the work of hairdressers, he reminds us, “The poetry of human life often consists of the seemingly superficial, of adornment, compliment, the cup of cold water offered to the disciple, the bowl of porridge that enables the Buddha to sit down and be enlightened at last.”

Garret Keizer has had the courage to explore the ambivalence and complexity of the human heart. He is able to give us a book that never denies the cost of discipleship, yet offers a cup of cold water on that road between Jerusalem and Jericho.

Rachelle Linner, a librarian and writer, lives in Boston.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005

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