Sprinkled through the New York City subways this month are posters advertising this year’s AIDS Walk on May 15, 2016. The one I saw this week shows a middle-aged man in a white t-shirt that says, “Don’t stand for it—walk!” Superimposed behind him is a crowd of smiling, waving people with “AIDS WALK NEW YORK” placards. The annual event, which starts and ends in Central Park, started thirty years ago. The poster includes a motto, which appears in the top left corner: “Because hate is not a New York value.”
I take this poster as a fair representation of the state of caritas in a post-religious society. When you read that last phrase, you have to wonder. Where’s the connection? Walking to raise money for AIDS research and treatment is a charitable act. The aim is to alleviate the agony caused by a physical disease. The motto, however, extends the march into a campaign against a feeling, a bias, a belief. You will march because you are not a hater—because you wish to declare yourself against hate—because hate is a bad “value” and we must battle it as much as we would the HIV plague.
It’s a passive-aggressive formulation. Behind this forthright “because” rationale that targets something all of us judge odious, you can sense the will of a tyrant, or a tyranny of the majority. It counts as tyranny by virtue of this very conversion of helping-the-afflicted to fighting-the-spiteful. An invitation to charity gives way to a renunciation of hate. Here, the two go together. If you do not march, if you do not support the project, then you are willing to countenance the hate in our midst.
But why should an act of humane love say anything at all about hate? Obviously, because of the continuing homosexual meaning of AIDS. Hate, in this case, signifies homophobia, and it pairs the health program of combating AIDS with the social program of changing sexual attitudes. You can’t join the march out of the intention simply to ease the pain of anybody suffering from AIDS. The hate factor singles out the gay victim and adds a socio-political angle to your charity. It’s not a soft encouragement, either—note the aggressive t-shirt: “Don’t stand for it.” The last three words of the motto make that element explicit. The motto doesn’t say “Because hate is inhumane” or “Don’t hate your suffering brothers—love them.” It defines hate as a value, the wrong kind, and it identifies a local habitation, New York, to which it doesn’t belong.
It’s a secular orientation, not a transcendent or spiritual one. These are people talking, not the gods. Values, you see, are human constructions, not divine decrees natural laws. Yes, we may form them in accordance with nature and nature’s God, but we can form them on our own, too. The word values preserves some human discretion in the adoption process. That allows us to divvy values up by place and people, a New York value here, an Atlanta value there. In most cases, when people talk about “our values,” they mean explicitly that, our values, the values we have freely chosen and defend. They are not God’s values. If they were derived from God or nature, we wouldn’t speak of them as values. We would accept them as duties. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” is not a value. It’s a commandment. “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” is not a value. It’s an order from above. And “do not hate,” too, is not a value. It is a corollary of another commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and it applies everywhere, not just in one city.
Perhaps that “New York values” phrase comes from the lips of Ted Cruz, who used it against Donald Trump several weeks ago during the run-up to the state primary. The citation would fit Cruz’s support among social conservatives and their judgment of homosexuality as a sin. But the poster itself is disengaged from any overt political or religious context. It creates a simple opposition: not walking vs. AIDS, but walking vs. hate. And it has worked, too, if we measure the project by the amount of money it has raised at present, $2,001,866.
The mixing of charity and politics, however, this vigorous alignment of biomedical research and social belief, poses a challenge. What if you want to support AIDS projects but don’t share the social assumptions? How does a religious conservative offer money and labor when the organization hosting the project casts him as a hater? The poster strikes someone like me as an accusation. It feels coercive.
One hundred and eighty years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson felt the pressure and recoiled. In “Self-Reliance,” his hymn to nonconformity, he wrote,
If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass? If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, “Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper: be good-natured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.” Rough and graceless would be such greeting, but truth is handsomer than the affectation of love.
Those are outrageous words, of course, and we don’t like the example. More than 650,000 men died fighting over that cause in battles far from Concord, Massachusetts. But Emerson didn’t object to abolition. Because of his fierce individualism, he resisted social movements of any kind, but by the 1850s he had become an avid supporter. Indeed, what condition gainsaid self-reliance more than slavery—and for both parties, master and bondsman?
Emerson’s objection lies in the act of enlistment. Someone presses him to care for a people in misery whom he never encounters save through the reports of others. The indignation he is supposed to feel doesn’t spring from within; it happens because someone tells him that it should happen. For Emerson, this makes the response insincere. How can he feel for other human beings who in no way affect his daily life? Yes, you may recognize the evils of slavery, but to emotionalize it in this rousing way in the comfortable dens of Massachusetts . . . well, it seems fruitless. Love of people you’ve never known, he suggests, has in it a whiff of vanity. The philanthropist feels “tenderness” for “black folk a thousand miles off,” but doesn’t seem to show the same tenderness at home. Slavery makes him angry, and he seeks to rouse Emerson’s anger, too. Let’s all get indignant together!
The Sage has had enough, and so he explodes in this admittedly graceless reply.
That’s not all. He has more to say:
Men do what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily non-appearance on parade. Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world,—as invalids and the insane pay a high board. Their virtues are penances. I do not wish to expiate, but to live. My life is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady.
Charity as expiation, a payment for sin—the act in itself isn’t wrong, nor is the motive. It all depends on how you do it. If the act leans too much on you and not on the person in need, if you think more about the goodness of your deed than the suffering of the recipient, then charity does indeed veer into selfishness. And from there, it slides smoothly into spectacle. The home page of the AIDS WALK provides a good example, listing the Top Walkers, Top Teams, and Featured Sponsors by name. Better to ward off that sore temptation to self-credit and keep it on the “lower strain,” Emerson advises. “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them,” the Lord instructs (Matthew 6:1, NIV).
Emerson sounds to modern ears mean-spirited, but I feel a twinge of the same thing when I look at the subway posters. The people in them are so happy to be participating, so pleased with themselves to be part of the affair—and they are eager to denounce the haters. Instead of appealing to our better natures and calling for pity and mercy and generosity, the poster hails a fighting spirit and in-group congratulation. Instead of showing AIDS sufferers, it has pictures of gleeful actors and activists, implicitly urging the rest of us, “Be like them!” If you don’t go along, well, you’re one of the bad guys. You don’t belong in New York City.
This is a kind of guilt wholly different from that of the Gospels. When Jesus tells us to love God and love our neighbors, we know we fall short again and again. Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof (Matthew 8:8)….But I also know that though I fail in love, though I slip into hate now and then, the opportunity to rise above it abides. The poster shuts me out. Jesus draws me in. I am guilty, but I can repent, and Jesus doesn’t ask me to change my politics in the process. Jesus doesn’t tell the centurion with the ailing servant, “You must stop being a Roman soldier—then I shall help.” If I joined the AIDS walk but divulged my obedience to the Church’s conception of marriage, I expect I’d be ousted. Remember the Seinfeld episode when Kramer joins the walk but won’t wear the AIDS ribbon?
We occupy a society that applies litmus tests all the time. The practice extends even to charity events. Someone who sincerely loves his neighbor and wants to help may enter the room only by affirming one side of a complicated and controversial social issue. The word of Jesus was meant for all, though many ears were closed to it. This is the right way of caritas: not the mobilization against hate, but the inspiration to love.
Mark Bauerlein is Senior Editor at First Things and Professor of English at Emory University, where he has taught since earning his PhD in English at UCLA in 1989. For two years (2003-05) he served as Director of the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. His latest book is The State of the American Mind: 16 Leading Critics on the New Anti-Intellectualism, a collection of essays edited with Adam Bellow. He has also written Literary Criticism: An Autopsy (1997), The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief (1997), and The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008). His essays have appeared in PMLA, Partisan Review, Wilson Quarterly, Commentary, and New Criterion, and his commentaries and reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Weekly Standard, The Guardian, Chronicle of Higher Education, and other national periodicals.
1. See https://ny.aidswalk.net/About for information about the organization behind AIDS Walk NY.
2. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson Texts, http://www.emersoncentral.com/selfreliance.htm, par. 7.
3. Ibid., par. 8.
The views, opinions, authors, and contributors represented in The Table do not necessarily represent the beliefs of Biola University or the Biola University Center for Christian Thought.