Paul Farmer Lecture: A Perfect Conclusion to a YDS Course on Poverty

By Timothy Sommer ’13 M.Div.

There's something to be said when a lecture at Yale Divinity School not only fills Marquand Chapel to standing-room-only capacity, then fills the overflow capacity space in Niebuhr Lecture Hall, and then makes its way into two other overflow spaces. That is what happened when global healthcare/antipoverty activist Dr. Paul Farmer spoke at YDS on April 26.

FarmerEqually, there is something to be said for Associate Professor of New Testament Diana Swancutt's reading seminar on poverty, where nearly 40 students—about four times the expected amount—showed up for the class. Reluctant to turn anyone away, she decided to effectively double her workload and teach the course to two separate classes. What draws so much attention to Farmer's YDS lecture and to Swancutt's course is a common cause: the fight to eradicate poverty.

Taking place less than two weeks before final exams, Farmer's lecture, entitled "The Corporeal Works of Mercy and The 21st Century Struggle Against Poverty," was a fitting conclusion to Swancutt's course "Jesus and Paul On Poverty and Economic Justice," which centered on using the Gospels and Epistles to critically address contemporary poverty.

The genesis of the course goes back to a few years ago, when Swancutt chanced upon Tracy Kidder's biography on Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains. Arrested by Kidder's depiction of how Farmer made serving the poor the central cause of his medical practice, Swancutt found herself contemplating how she could make the fight against poverty more central to her work as a scholar. Then emerged an idea for a course that placed modern materials on poverty—demographical information, statistics, Farmer's extraordinary book Pathologies of Power—in dialogue with liberation theology and biblical materials on issues of status, wealth, economics, power, and difference. The course combined scholarship with praxis, and students had to engage their surrounding communities with the issues surrounding poverty and economic justice.

The Farmer lecture became the capstone event for Swancutt's students. "In the context of the class, I thought it was crucial to bring Paul Farmer to speak," said Swancutt, "so that students could hear directly from someone doing integrative, holistic, community care with a preferential option for the poor."

With the help of Ali Lutz '12 S.T.M., a student in the Anglican Studies program who is special projects coordinator in Haiti for Farmer's organization, Partners In Health, and YDS Student Body President Jared Gilbert '12 M.Div., Swancutt arranged the lecture. Jointly sponsoring the event were the YDS Office of the Dean and the Samuel Thorne and Zenas Crane lectureships, the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics at Yale, and the Yale Medical Humanities Lecture Series.

Paul Farmer is one of the world's most renowned physicians, health activists, and medical anthropologists. Before being named a MacArthur Fellow and Kolokotrones University Professor at Harvard Medical School, Farmer started working with the poorest of the poor in Haiti, the world's most impoverished country. Farmer's work, which has expanded to outposts around world, is best summed up in a formulation borrowed from liberation theology, "Providing a preferential option for the poor." Indeed, this is the motto of Partners In Health (PIH), the international non-profit organization co-founded by Farmer that provides direct health care services and undertakes research and advocacy activities on behalf of those who are sick and living in poverty.

For any student of theology, the "preferential option for the poor" is familiar as an extrapolation from Matthew 25:40, which says, "Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me." Last year at Notre Dame Farmer co-taught a class with the acknowledged "father of liberation theology," theologian Gustavo Gutierrez (whom Farmer affectionately refers to as "Yoda").

Book Signing with FarmerThe force of Farmer's YDS lecture was its attack against what he critically termed "the modern theology of public health." The problem, said Farmer, is that most public health initiatives are worshiping the wrong god because they have been "dominated by a misunderstanding of cost-effectiveness." The prevailing "ideology" in public health, observed Farmer, is based on the bottom line: If it costs a lot it's too much for the poor. Partners in Health, Farmer explained, is proving this wrong. Using a tripartite model linking health-care clinics, hospital access, and community-based care, PIH is responsible for introducing a system of comprehensive health care that shows how the ideologues' estimated costs per patient are, as a whole, wildly exaggerated and poorly estimated to begin with.

Farmer also spoke at-length of Haiti, particularly about the 2010 earthquake. "There are no natural disasters," claimed Farmer, by which he meant that the impact of any disaster can be measured in advance, and its effects mitigated. In the midst of extreme poverty, a devastating earthquake, and the world's worst cholera epidemic, Farmer corrects what the uncritical observer might call "Haiti's history of bad luck" and instead refers to Haiti's situation as "a direct product of Europe's expansion to the new world." Studying the aftermath of colonialism is a fundamental part of Farmer's practice of identifying the role of social inequalities in determining disease distribution and outcomes.

An intolerance for social inequalities and a commitment to the active work of bringing people dignity is the common ground shared by Farmer's medical project and Swancutt's course "Jesus and Paul On Poverty and Economic Justice." In Farmer's words, theology can be "very grounding."

Emily Goodnow '13 M.Div. testifies to the grounding that Swancutt's class provided. "Professor Swancutt changed my relationship with the Bible this semester. She exploded complicated parables and other scripture into new meaning and new sources of inspiration for me, and put words to the hope for justice I have long sought in sacred texts but had not been able to articulate thoroughly until her class...Professor Swancutt and the ideas she taught this semester continue to be a sounding board and a great source of hope and motivation."

Throughout the semester Swancutt held up Farmer as an example of someone who not only thinks about the problem of poverty but who also acts on it. By the end of the term, students had gotten the point, and class conversations had turned into praxis: from theological reflections on Occupy Wall Street, to a study on race and our criminal justice system, students engaged in real life-giving, justice-making work in response to the course.

Another student in Swancutt's course, Tyrone McGowan '13 M.Div., observed, "Each week her pedagogical approach provided the class with the necessary tools to weave elements of the biblical narrative and our contemporary culture together to create a complex tapestry exploring the problems of poverty, status, and class difference."

The turnouts to both Farmer's lecture and Swancutt's course are testimonies to how seriously students and friends of YDS are committed to battling poverty both internationally and locally. Good News indeed.

Date Posted: Monday, May 7, 2012 - 1:53pm