Just before the Thanksgiving break, I received my December 1, 2003 copy of Newsweek magazine in the mail. In the regular feature, The Last Word, Anna Quindlen wrote a column entitled A New Kind of Poverty. Quindlen quotes Mary Brosnahan, who runs the Coalition for the Homeless in a section of New York City. Mary is quoted saying:What we're seeing are many more working families on the brink of eviction,....They fall behind on the rent, and that's it, they're on the streets.Quindlen goes on to quote Julia Erickson, the Executive Director of City Harvest, which distributes food to soup kitchens and food pantries:Look at the Rescue Mission on Lafayette Street. They used to feed single men, often substance abusers, homeless. Now you go in and there are bike messengers, clerks, deli workers, dishwashers, people who work on cleaning crews. Soup kitchens have been buying booster seats and highchairs. You never used to see young people at soup kitchens.Quindlen goes on to paraphrase from The Betrayal of Work by Beth Shulman:We salve our consciences,..., by describing these people as "low skilled" as though they're not important or intelligent enough to deserve more.I remember the time I spent in formation for Catholic priesthood with an Order of Franciscan Friars. This was in the 1990's, prior to the emergence of the recent conditions Quindlen describes. One Friar who lived and worked in the inner cities of Baltimore, MD once said to those of us in formation something like the following:Don't come here thinking that you are going to find the undeserving poor who are just having a streak of bad luck. I hear volunteers and do-gooders constantly saying things like "Not all of the homeless are drug addicts and the mentally ill", and I want to scream. Most of them are drug addicts and mentally ill. So what?Does that make them any less an image of God? Does that mean we do not care for the basic needs of the body of one for whom Christ died?I hear people talk about "tough love" to drug addicts and inner city youth and the homeless. Don't get me wrong. I preach the ten commandments, the value of hard work, drug free living, chastity and non-violence day in and day out here in the inner city. Many of my people need, and want to hear the Gospel message without it being watered down. They want to believe there is an alternative to this mess. People want to hear some "tough love" down here, and I give it to them.But we need some tough love elsewhere too. We are all sinners, and there is no such thing as the deserving or undeserving poor. In the face of poverty, we see what we all might actually deserve due to sin, and what none of us truly deserve. We are called by the Gospel to care for one another, whether you feel a person deserves it or not!In light of recent scandals such as Enron, World-Com, Martha Stewart, Condrad Black, and dozens of other companies currently under SEC investigation, who can argue with this Friar about what we each might deserve?
The Catholic Church teaches that we are saved by grace alone, which is an absolutely free gift of God's life infused in the soul, as we see in The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC):1999 The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it.Grace is a free gift to us, and we are called to be as gracious with the gifts we are given as God has been gracious with us.
Some theologians posit that there is a primordial grace that is an ineffable and unthematic non-verbal "fuzzy awareness" of divine holy mystery. This grace is the life of God in the soul even prior to baptism. It is experienced by all people as an innate awareness of our capacity for transcendence and self-awareness that arises in self-transcendence. It is the mystical experience. In the language of Trent, this might be called "prevenient grace", and it is this grace that saves us.1998 This vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God's gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself. It surpasses the power of human intellect and will. as that of every other creature. (CCC)2001 The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. (CCC)Why am I bringing up all this theology of grace?
I am bringing this up to say that the mentally ill, the drug addict, the "low skilled" worker, and all who are poor have God living within them!
Even when such people are not Catholic, they may be on the road to salvation because they may have a non-verbal awareness of God that is saving them. Furthermore, if this non-verbal awareness of God is grace, then by definition, God lives within them. To ignore their suffering condition is to ignore the suffering Christ!
Moving on in the exploration of grace, there is also grace as it is experienced in our concrete historical existence through religious experience within a culture. Language shapes consciousness, and religious language (including symbols) help to facilitate the experience of transcendence. In Catholicism, this latter type of grace is mediated through word and sacrament, and word and sacrament help us become aware of grace that is everywhere already present through the omnipresent mystery of God.
If grace is everywhere already present, God is just as really present and revealing himself in a soup kitchen as he is at Mass!
I am not denying real presence in the Eucharist here, and I have great devotion to the Eucharist. It makes a great deal of sense that God appears as simple bread - the food of the poor. Yet, I am saying that Eucharist is not the sole place of encounter with God. God is among the poor!
Furthermore, if language shapes consciousness, as it must, or we preach the Gospel in vain, then we need to examine our language about those who poor and powerless. I've written elsewhere about this, so let us return to some basic points on grace and salvation.
With the infusion of grace, we are given the gifts of faith, hope and charity, and these gifts demand a response on our part.2002 God's free initiative demands man's free response, for God has created man in his image by conferring on him, along with freedom, the power to know him and love him.Faith is necessary for salvation, and is defined as trust in God. There are two types of faith: a primordial faith, which is non-verbal trust that goes beyond the intellect. Then there is fiducial faith, which is faith lived out and linguistically expressed in concrete historical reality.
These gifts of faith animate the other gifts of hope and charity such that Catholics believe that faith without works of love is dead faith (cf James 2:17). Thus, the Church teaches that along with faith, works are also necessary for salvation. If our faith is not producing good works, we have to wonder if grace is operating in our souls.
Because love, itself, is an infused gift of grace, we can rightly say that it is God who is working through us when we act lovingly. It is God who loves from within us. The creator works through creation to reach out to the rest of creation. Thus, the merits of the cross become applied to a person who is allowing Christ to work from within him or her.
In the incarnation event, God reveals the divine presence in a human person. In doing so, we come to realize that we, the human race, are the center of God's attention. Furthermore, by loving other people, we are loving those whom God already loves, and we are doing so because God is working within us to reach out to the other. It is in love between persons that we most become the "image of God."
What does this have to do with poverty and the poor?
Poverty is a scandal and a blasphemy against the God who became incarnate as a human person! By becoming incarnate, God has revealed that ignoring another person is to ignore God. In the incarnation event, God says to us that we are stop looking for him in the heavens or solely in our navels. She stands next to us in other people!
The Gospels record Christ saying the following:"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?' And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.' Then they will answer and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?' He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.' And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (Matt 25:31-46)The Gospel makes it abundantly clear that whatever we do to the least of our siblings, we do to Christ.
Jesus preached the inbreaking of the reign of God through his words and deeds. His message was "good news to the poor" and a message of liberation to the oppressed. In the Gospel according to Luke, the author creates a narrative of Jesus' first homily. The story goes like this:He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord." (Luke4:16-19)There is much for conservative Catholics to ponder here. Ignoring questions such as whether we have the very words of Christ here, or the author's redactions, Luke's Christ would be a leftist by today's standards.
He not only brings glad tidings specifically to the poor, with no mention of the rich, but he also says he comes to let people out of jail!
He admits to a victim mentality by saying that there are oppressed people who will be liberated by his words and deeds.
He says that he came to declare a "year of favor", which is a reference to the Old Testament concept of debt cancellation!
Indeed, the earliest memories of Jesus include sayings called beatitudes that appear in Matt, Luke, and probably Q. In all sources, Jesus is remembered as saying that the poor already posses the reign of God in a preeminent way:"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:3)Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land. (Matt5:5)Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours. (Luke 6:20)But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. (Luke 6:24)In the issue of Newsweek that I already referenced, there is another article in the regular My Turn feature. In this column, Paul Zeitz, who is a medical professional who spent a good deal of time in Zambia, East Africa, writes that the United States controls 30.8 percent of the global GNP! Yet, we only contribute 1.6 percent of the funds the United Nations is requesting to combat the global AIDS epidemic!
Meanwhile, this issue of Newsweek also contains an article by Keith Naughton entitled Three for the Road about the growing popularity of "occasional use" vehicle purchases, where Americans own more cars than licensed drivers in a household!
In his treatment of the beatitudes, Catholic Biblical scholar, Father John Meier, argues for the authenticity of the beatitudes in the mouth of the historical Jesus in Volume II of his A Marginal Jew series, pp. 317-348. His argument is too complex to completely summarize here, but I wish to highlight two essential points of his research.
First, Meier presents a hypothesis that Matt 5:3 and 5:5 are possibly two different Greek translations of the remembrance of a single Aramaic saying. The poor in spirit (Gr ptochoi) and the meek (Gr. praeis) are possible Greek translations of the Aramaic anawim, which has the connotation of humble and meek, or the Aramaic aniyyim which carries the connotation of the afflicted and oppressed! (p. 334).
If we interpret Matthew in light of Luke, assuming that each author is borrowing from a different source of Jesus tradition, the meaning of the beatitude likely carries the connotation of the economically poor and oppressed. Matthew's "spiritualizing" of the beatitude to include the humble is somewhat of a departure from the original words of Christ.
What I am trying to emphasize is that there is no Biblical justification for simply turning poverty of spirit into an abstract principle that speaks only of being humble to authority or claiming to be non-materialistic and humble before God while continuing to accumulate personal wealth. It seems clear that the Jesus of history meant something far more literal!
Second, Luke is clear that the poor are not blessed alongside the rich. In Luke's view, the poor already possess the reign of God against the rich. God takes sides!
This theme of God taking sides is also echoed in the Blessed Mother's magnificat, recited every evening in Vespers:He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty. (Luke 1:50-53)Was our Blessed Mother a Marxist because she somehow sees the incarnation event in her womb as a sign of the overturning of power in the world? How can anyone read these words and NOT see an indictment against power?
What is it about the incarnation event in the womb of a unwed teenager in a colonized outpost of the Roman Empire that speaks to the complete reversal of worldly power?
In various discussion in Catholic blogdom, I have been accused of Marxism and advocating a philosophy that "It's all about power".
The worldview of the Gospels is one of clear class conflict between the rich and the poor, those who have power and those who do not. Throughout the Gospels other forms of class conflict emerge, such as the feelings of all Jews, including Jesus, toward Roman occupation. In all of these conflict situations, Jesus takes the side of the underdogs.
Indeed, he does this even when it goes against Jewish religion. For example, he associates with unclean prostitutes, sinful adulterers, traitorous tax collectors, violence prone zealots, those believed to be cursed with illness and possession, as well as the poor and working classes!
My world view is not Marxist.
Rather, to the extent Marx agrees with the Gospel, Marx was Christian.
One cannot be Christian and NOT be concerned about poverty and power distribution, and there is nothing un-Christian about criticizing those in power: Jesus did it too, and we are to follow his example!
I have written elsewhere that I reject war as a solution to conflict based on Jesus' teachings regarding forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and doing good to convert your enemy.
I am not advocating revolution by admitting that there is class conflict in the Gospels. I am advocating evolution instead of revolution. We need to create evolution in our political and religious institutions and culture through the use of active non-violent resistance and the power of the word and charity to overcome evil. The Gospel is clear that a rich person has a harder time entering the reign of God than a camel passing through a needle's eye. This needs to be said boldly lest we miss out on the reign of God!
Jesus is not simply reaching out to those who are the "undeserving poor". Rather, he seems to distinguish himself from all other religious leaders of Judaism by breaking down the wall of separation that defined holiness, and taking the side of the most marginalized and oppressed members of an already oppressed nation!
What kind of God is this who empties himself of his own divine nature to become human and then associates with such people as those with whom Jesus associated?
Jesus also seems to have distinguished himself from his teacher, John the Baptist, by rejecting the message of doom and gloom, and preaching that the coming reign of God is good news for the poor. We see this in the following narratives of the Gospels:Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me. (Matt 11:4-5)Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me. (Luke 7:22)This saying is in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark or John. Thus, many scholars would say the passage originates from the Q source. While the saying may not enjoy multiple attestation, based on all we are seeing here, it meets the criterion of coherence. Meier also builds a case for the teaching's coherence with his view that Jesus was at one time a disciple of John. Thus, due to coherence and the early origin of the source, I believe the passage may go to the historical Jesus.
Regardless of whether the saying originates with Jesus, it seems there is a high likelihood that some of the followers of John the Baptist had trouble accepting Jesus because he did not preach impending condemnation and the consummation of the present world. Instead, he preached glad tidings to the poor and healing of infirmity to the sick and undeserving. There is something scandalous in Jesus message that causes religious people offense. Yet, the one who takes no offense is the one who is blessed!
The scandal of Jesus is that we do nothing to gain access to the reign of God. It comes to us as a free gift, and has immediate effects in this life if we open our hearts to the healing redeeming possibility of God's power.
The scandal is this: too many people consider themselves good if they give a little bit of their leftover wealth to others, and too many people who do this almost wish those who have not earned their way would receive some form of punishment that would wake them up.
Christ seems to reverse the very expectations of religious people who think this way. It is those who do not deserve the reign of God, and have been pushed to the bottom of society that are being saved even now. Those who are offended by this message will be those who receive the harsh judgment!
Christian virtue is expressed in the high virtue of charity, and it is true that we express this in part through family life, giving hand-outs and other works of social service.
The early Christians seemed to believe that charity to the poor could wipe out the consequences of sin and convert evil-doers to righteousness. We see this in the epistles of Paul, written prior to the Gospels. For example, Paul says:"if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head." Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good. (Rom 12:20-21)The Gospels record Christ advising a Pharisee to practice almsgiving as a condition for forgiveness:But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you. (Luke 11:41)The entire letter of James seems directed at pointing out to the early Church that faith must lead one to care and concern for the poor. Indeed, in Jam 2:1, the author compares lack of concern for the poor to murder and sates it is worse than adultery. In James 4:4, the author again calls those who mistreat the poor "adulterers". It seems that social justice was clearly more important to James than sexual morality!
Returning to Saint Paul for a moment, we see that he believed that one of the greatest temptations against true Christianity is the love of money:For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains. (1 Tim 6:10)We see this same sentiment later echoed in the Gospels, where Christ is frequently said to have warned that the love of money can harden the heart against the reign of God:No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (Matt 6:24)No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (Luke 16:13)The same theme is echoed in the famous narratives where Jesus advises us to look at the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air. He invites us to place our trust in the same God who cares for creation, and stop worrying about what we are to eat, or drink, or wear, or how will make our living tomorrow.
Going beyond our obligations to family life, hand-outs and social service, the disciples of Jesus experienced the peremptory call of Christ as one of total abandonment of personal property to become one with the poor, where the reign of God is breaking into the world:Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to (the) poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. (Matt 19:21)Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, "You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to (the) poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. (Mark 10:21)When Jesus heard this he said to him, "There is still one thing left for you: sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."(Luke 18:22)Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy. (Luke 12:33)What I believe Christ is saying in these passages goes far deeper than simply giving a little bit to the poor. Jesus is not simply asking us to give others a handout.
Just as God emptied himself to join the human condition, Christ calls his disciples to empty themselves and enter into solidarity with the poor.
Solidarity is a relatively new principle in Catholic social justice teaching, and is a contribution of Pius XII that gave rise to a labor union in Poland that defeated atheistic communism. Yet, the idea sort of appears Marxist, even as it opposes communism.
Pope John Paul II has been an advocate and champion of the philosophy of solidarity.
Solidarity includes charity, but goes beyond simply giving people your leftover wealth. Solidarity is forming a union of purpose, shared dreams, goals and aspirations with the poor and the powerless, and even a redistribution of goods so that all people might feel united with one another. The Catechism says the following about solidarity:1941 Socio-economic problems can be resolved only with the help of all the forms of solidarity: solidarity of the poor among themselves, between rich and poor, of workers among themselves, between employers and employees in a business, solidarity among nations and peoples. International solidarity is a requirement of the moral order; world peace depends in part upon this.The early Christians of the post-resurrection Church lived in solidarity in what could also be called the perfect communist lifestyle:The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. (Acts 4:32)Contrary to the dreams and goals of the Bush administration and the conservative voices of Evangelical Christians and even conservative Catholics, the New Testament proposes what appears to be socialistic thinking.
The Church proposes solidarity as the solution to all or most of the world's problems. Solidarity is international and would have absolutely demanded that the United Nations or a similar international body is the only authority that could have declared a just war on Iraq, if there be any such thing as a just war in modern society.
Solidarity is more than a pie in the sky dream that all people will just live in peace. Based on the Gospel, the principle of solidarity is built on an acknowledgement that class conflict and inequity do exist, and that such conditions are a contradiction to the Gospel:1938 There exist also sinful inequalities that effect millions of men and women. These are an open contradiction to the Gospel.Solidarity is the opposite of the notion of a meritocracy where poverty is solved through a "tough love" approach that assumes the poor will pull themselves up by their own bootstraps when they hit rock bottom. Solidarity says we get down in the rock bottom with the poor and lift them up on our shoulders.
Solidarity is opposed to the rugged individualism of free market capitalism where people grope at power to compete for access to resources. Solidarity says we are all in this together and must work together for the common good, seeking win-win solutions that achieve mutual goals and aspirations through cooperation.
The very idea of an "us-verses-them" mentality between competing powers such as two competing IT firms or two automobile manufacturers or two economically powerful nations (ie - the U.S. verses Japan in the 1980's and early 90's) must be dissolved in favor of a poor verses rich mentality. We must set aside competetive market strategies and work to compete against poverty and death!
The Christian always and everywhere must assume solidarity with the powerless and the poor. When poverty shifts from one group to another, the Christian moves allegiance to the new poor, "reading the signs of the times". We know that as Christ warns, "the poor will always be with you", but this is not meant as an excuse to do nothing. Our job is to discern who is poor and take their side!
Solidarity says that we treat others the way we would want to be treated if we at rock bottom.
None of us would want to be publicly humiliated, forgotten or ignored. Yet, isn't all of this what happens to the homeless person whom we walk past quickly trying not to make eye contact?
To the drug addict, so many people say that a certain number of strikes and you're out? Christ says we are to forgive seven times seventy and he says that he came to let people out of the prisons.
We prefer to buy "occasional use vehicles" while people starve? Solidarity tells the rich or powerful that they are morally obligated to get into the minds, and even the situation of the poor! Failure to do so is not simply a lack of "heroic virtue", it is a scandal!
Solidarity undermines the assumption that simply giving large amounts of money to charity saves one. This is false, because if all we are doing is giving away from our wealth, we are not in solidarity with the poor. Christ made this clear when he said an elderly woman who gave her last two pennies gave more than all the rich Pharisees.
We will not be judged on our ability to create wealth so that we have something to give away. Rather, we will be judged on what we do with what we have in this moment!
Everyone of us has time, talent and treasure today that must be dedicated primarily to making the reign of God break into the world. Failure to do so with our time, talent and treasure is failure to be a Christian!
Until we feel the pain of the poor so intensely that we would give everything we own to make it better, we may not be true disciples of Christ. This is what is meant by the phrase "pick up your cross and follow me".
Out in Catholic blogdom, I have run across various articles saying that liberals are afraid to pick up the cross because we don't emphasize sexual morality or we don't emphasize traditional asceticism such as fasting. To understand the cross in these terms is to "privatize" spirituality.
Pope Pius XII warned against privatizing spirituality in his Encyclical, Mystici Corporis Christi. In this famous Encyclical where he says the Church is the mystical Body of Christ, he spends several paragraphs saying that our care for the poor, the mentally ill, and all who are at the bottom of the social ladder is the salvific activity of the Church!
I have written repeatedly that I accept that we are to pick up our cross, but the cross is lifted only when we love others to the point where it hurts.
It is in charity that we pick up our cross, not in asceticism!
Until love hurts, we have not picked up the cross.
Certainly, Saint Paul asserts that charity begins at home, and we pick up the cross when we sacrifice for our parents, spouse, and children. The Church has always affirmed the centrality of the domestic Church, and I am not saying that we must give away so much of our possessions that we fail to meet our basic Christian obligations to others.
However, how can we prefer buying "occasional use vehicles" and video games and all the "stuff" of an American consumerist culture to helping the poor?
Christ does invite his disciples to renounce family ties (cf Lk 14:26). I believe that it cannot be the case that Jesus wanted his disciples to stop loving and caring for family members.
What he is saying is that we must recognize those times when we are so focused on our own family and friends that we are ignoring the poor. We are not to become so wrapped up in providing for our family that we are actually creating excess wealth in one place, and ignoring poverty in another. We do this by creating a culture of "keeping up with the Jones next door". When we relize that this is happening, we must put the reign of God first, even if it upsets our family members.
The cross is not senseless acts of asceticism, nor scrupulous concern about things like dietary codes or sexual mores. The cross is entering into total solidarity - even the condition - of those who are in poverty and powerlessness. Fasting and asceticism should only be understood in terms of entering into solidarity with the poor who are starving and seeking to be filled by the graciousness of God.
God's grace is a free gift, and I am not saying that we must do particular acts to be saved. I am saying that there is an attitude we must have to perceive the reign of God breaking in through Christ. That attitude is solidarity with the poor, the marginalized, the weak and the powerless.
It's not giving a certain percent of your income, or taking a certain kind of job that matters....it's what you do with what you already have that matters.
If you cannot take the side of the poor, the oppressed, or the marginalized, and insist there is no such thing as "victimhood", you run the risk of aligning yourself with anti-christ power to actually perpetuate oppression!
The evidence of wrong-headedness is the very existence of dire poverty, where people not only hit rock-bottom, but die of starvation!
The fact that any human being, anywhere in the world, would die of starvation in modern society is a scandal to all of us who can eat.
Let's be very radical - conservative Catholics like to speak in absolutes, and while progressives tend to avoid absolutes, I will use some here that all true Christians should accept:
Nobody -ever - under any circumstances deserves to die of starvation!
No AIDS patient, for any reason, deserves AIDS or deserves to die from AIDS!
Nobody should ever, under any circumstances, go without the basic necessities of life.
Even the worst criminal, or the laziest human being who ever lived, or the stupidest person on earth, or the ugliest person imaginable, or the greatest sinner known, or the most handicapped, all deserve to be treated with the incomparable dignity of the human person revealed in the revelation of the incarnation of God in human nature! (see Evengelium Vitae no 3 for a quote from the Holy Father to this effect - and this letter even condemns the death penalty).
If you claim to be a Christian and the very existence of the conditions of poverty do not make you sick to your stomach, worried for humanity and your own salvation, and simply anxious for the glory of the Creator of humanity, it could very well be argued that you do not know God and you do not know Jesus Christ!
I don't say this because I want anyone to go to hell. I hope for the salvation of all people.
Nor am I arguing for a particular political platform here. This is not about being democrat or republican, communist or socialist, or any such things - though all of our political decisions should be influenced to some degree by our faith. The point is that the Gospel calls us to an attitude of disgust and horror at the very existence of poverty, and our political decisions will then in some way reflect this disgust, as will every other choice we make in life.
What is revealed in Jesus Christ is that anyone who has not made equity of distribution of wealth the number one, overriding priority in every single minute decision you make in life, only such a one is potentially on the straight path to hell!
Care for the "least of your brothers and sisters" is more important than sexual morality, and sexual mores only make sense to the degree that they address issues such as the objectification and manipulation of people - the exercise of power. This is why rape, pedophilia and adultery and so forth are wrong - because such acts dehumanize others by being localized acts of power of one person over another. The same goes for violence - it is about power. Domination of others is wrong, whether done one individual over another, or a group over another group.
To get an inkling of Jesus' own disgust at poverty and human suffering, I invite everyone who has a copy of The New American Bible to open John 11:33 and look at the footnote. The setting is Lazarus' funeral, where he finds people morning. Jesus becomes "perturbed", and the footnote states, "a startling phrase in Greek, literally 'he snorted in spirit' perhaps in anger at the presence of evil (death)". In Christ we see that human suffering and death are evil to God - so evil that he "snorts in spirit" when faced with it!
God is disgusted with human suffering!
We should be too.
When Christ tells us to pick up our cross, it is not because God wants people to suffer, as some conservatives seem to imply. Suffering is an affront to God.
We must pick up our cross because suffering already exists, and the process of healing it will involve some personal sacrifice! Pain is part of the process of redemption, as revealed in the cross, and God is with us in this suffering, as revealed in the cross.
It is interesting that whenever Christ tells people to make sacrifices, he promises a reward, often in this life, but never a monetary reward or reward of status!
He says that whoever denies family will have a 100 times as many family members in this life. Whoever loses his or her life, will find it. The goal is not masochistic love of pain or macho displays of will-power. The goal of the cross is the resurrection - the conquest of suffering, pain, and death!
We give until it starts to hurt, and God comes to meet us. He will not let death triumph over us. We cannot out-give God.
This is not a give to get scheme either. We do not give a tithe in order that God owes us some financial return on our investment. We give because God is there in the people we give to, and we will suffer a bit until equity is achieved. The loss of personal wealth and power will not destroy us. It will lead to the greater wealth of coming to experience the reign of God that is already "in your midst" (Luke 17:21). This is the peace and joy of Christ we can taste in this life!
Christ says that he came that we may have life abundantly. What we discover when we open our hearts in faith to giving of ourselves for the sake of others is that we become invincible in the pursuit of the goal of alleviating human suffering. We pick up the cross not as an end in itself, but as a means to the end of suffering.
In the thirteenth century, Saint Francis called his new form of religious life "The Order of Friars Minor". Like Jesus, Saint Francis chose to deliberately associate with the outcast of society, such as lepers and the homeless. To be a minores in thirteenth century Italy was like belonging to the caste of untouchables in modern day India. Mother Theresa of Calcutta also associated with the lowest of the poor by doing exactly this. These great saints understood solidarity with the poor and the joy that comes with it.
In America, we have a grand responsibility to the rest of the world that we are not fulfilling. Indeed, our foreign policy is that of a bully, both in terms of trade policy, and our willingness to use pre-emptive war to achieve stability and peace for those who are rich. We do not enter into collaboration with others or try to understand the point of view of others. We simply march in with a self-righteous attitude that we know what we are doing, and we will crush any opposition.
Within American society, the lowest people are often drug addicts and the mentally ill. Strong statistical and anecdotal evidence exists that Blacks and immigrants fall closely behind. We are seeing an emerging class of working class people with non-technical skills who are being lumped in with these other groups as the new poor. These are the poorest of the poor, and there are others who remain poor despite great victories in recent years.
Women generally still earn less than men, and do not fully share in the institutional power structures that effect their lives. Gays and lesbians are frequently beaten and killed, and do not share equal access to all the benefits of the law that heterosexuals enjoy. Despite great strides in recent years, these groups remain among the poor until full equity is achieved.
Too few people calling themselves Christians really try to enter the mindset of these groups. Instead, we hand out a loaf of bread and expect the recipient to be so grateful that they will listen to us tell them how they should live.
Solidarity is not about giving a handout to gain a convert. Solidarity is about giving your very self - becoming the convert so that the other will become empowered. It is giving without expectation of return.
Tomorrow there will be new classes of poor and oppressed people, for the poor will always be with us until the second coming. Some of the old lower classes will have moved into power and relative wealth, as the Europeans did, who were once less well off than their middle-eastern counterparts. Christian class conflict is not about permanently taking sides with a specific group, such as Blacks or gays. Rather, Christian class conflict is about always taking the side of whoever is being excluded from power and whoever is suffering.
Christ took the side of the poor, the marginalized, and those branded as sinners. We are called to do the same. This calling goes beyond merely giving a hand-out. We are to enter into solidarity with the poor and oppressed, even when it hurts and even when it pits us against the rich and powerful. This is the very meaning of picking up the cross, and our goal is resurrection for all people!
Peace and Blessings!
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posted by Jcecil3 7:43 AM