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The “least of these” on the internet


Jennfier Knapp Wilkinson via Quora

David Mills - published on 03/29/17

This isn't the Christian way.

You probably didn’t see the picture, but it was a huge hit on the kind of websites that let people make fun of other people. One of them is called “The people of Walmart” because some guys think you should laugh at people who shop or work at Walmart.

A very large woman sits on the floor, wedged between her motorized cart, tipped up on two wheels, and the grocery shelves. She had reached to her right to get a 12-pack of soda and the cart tipped over. The picture went viral and may have been seen by millions.

“The worst thing about this photo,” the woman says, writing on the website Quora, “is that people think a fat woman tipped over a cart because she was too lazy to get out of the cart to get the case of soda.” After she fell over, “I thought I saw a flash of light and heard some young girls giggling.” Then she says the saddest thing: “I thought nothing of it cause I am used to hearing people make fun of me or saying snide remarks. It was nothing new.”

Real people, real memes

Jennfier Knapp Wilkinson via Quora

Jennifer Wilkinson explains that she has a bad spinal condition. It began with degenerative disc disease in her early twenties, and has gotten worse. Her parents suffer it as well, so it’s presumably genetic. It makes her legs numb and weak and sometimes she falls over when she stands too long. She can’t easily exercise.

She also suffers from severe depression and from the post-traumatic stress syndrome that followed several emotional traumas. She eats to cope with those illnesses, because food is a medicine everyone can afford. She can’t exercise much yet feels driven to eat to feel better, and thus she gains weight.

Jennifer Wilkinson’s story reminds us that there are real people with real struggles behind the web memes that make some people laugh. Laughing at her requires a degree of coarseness and cruelty, and a brutish inability to feel for other peoples’ suffering. But many people who laugh don’t know they’re being coarse and brutal because they laugh at the things everyone else laughs at.

Fat people are ridiculous! And so are people who shop at Walmart! That’s what mainstream popular culture says. So people like Jennifer Wilkinson can write that they get insulted in public so often they don’t think about it.

This idea also serves some people’s social darwinian politics, people who have the same brutish inability to feel for other peoples’ suffering. They want to say that fat people are lazy and self-indulgent and don’t deserve any help. So they laugh at a poor woman lying in a grocery store aisle.

This isn’t the Christian way. Jesus binds us to care for the “least of these,” and explains that our eternal destiny depends on how we treat them.

As we treat them, we treat Him. To the righteous, He says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” To those who didn’t do that, He will say “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

It’s a sobering passage. I’m pretty sure that laughing at people who shop at Walmart puts you in the second group.

Jennfier Knapp Wilkinson via Quora

A lapsed Catholic knows

The Church teaches us all this. The writer Wilfrid Sheed had grown up as the son of two of the most famous Catholic writers around, Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward Sheed. He lapsed from the faith, but he still looked at people the way the Church looks at them — though the lapse showed.

In one of his books, he writes, “As we were driving through Sag Harbor just now, I saw three hopelessly fat, plain girls, who by the sound of it were also stupid, and I thought a certain pagan friend of mine might quite reasonably say, ‘Why do these fat, ugly people marry and procreate and produce such hideous children?’ And I thought, No Catholic could ever say that. Nobody is altogether worthless to us.”

Not the kindest way of putting it. It’s still a little cruel. But at least he knew, because he had been raised in the Catholic Church, that no one is worthless. He had a sense of concern for the least of these. He couldn’t be a pagan like his friend. I don’t think he’d laugh at Jennifer Wilkinson or the people of Walmart.

Remember, when you see people like her: There but for the grace of God and a great deal of luck you didn’t earn go you. Remember also that the coarse and brutal who laugh at the people of Walmart are not altogether worthless either.

Read more:
Pope Francis to youth: Promise Jesus and promise me that you will never bully

Images via Quora with permission.

Mental HealthPracticing Mercy
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