“Irksome!”

I love this passage so much. It makes me chuckle, because it’s so dead-on, and it’s not couched in airy-fairy language. “Irksome,” indeed! That’s a dead-on assessment of the reaction these concerns usually get. People are irked at having to think about them.

This whole section of Evangelii Gaudium is talking about economic systems and the need to make sure they are truly equitable and provide for the poor. It’s a procession of plain-speaking, conscience-pricking paragraphs: welfare should be considered a temporary solution, the dignity of the human person should shape all economic policy, inequality is the root of social ill, we can’t trust the market to do this work, and on and on. It’s so good. Take time to read it!

“Renounce some of their rights”

Background image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

First of all, let me just say I recognize how challenging this quote is. This idea stands 100% in opposition to our American cultural values.

However, if we are citizens of Heaven first and America second–as should be the case for all who call ourselves Catholic–then we have to accept the challenge in these words.

Interestingly, they are *not* Pope Francis’ words. They are the words of Pope Paul VI (he of Humane Vitae fame) from an apostolic letter called “Octogesima Adveniens,” dating from May 1971. I haven’t read the whole letter, but this is the full paragraph Pope Francis quoted from:

Through the statement of the rights of man and the seeking for international agreements for the application of these rights, progress has been made towards inscribing these two aspirations in deeds and structures (16). Nevertheless various forms of discrimination continually reappear – ethnic cultural, religious, political and so on. In fact, human rights are still too often disregarded, if not scoffed at, or else they receive only formal recognition. In many cases legislation does not keep up with real situations. Legislation is necessary, but it is not sufficient for setting up true relationships of justice and equity. In teaching us charity, the Gospel instructs us in the preferential respect due to the poor and the special situation they have in society: the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others. If, beyond legal rules, there is really no deeper feeling of respect for and service to others, then even equality before the law can serve as an alibi for flagrant discrimination, continued exploitation and actual contempt. Without a renewed education in solidarity, an overemphasis of equality can give rise to an individualism in which each one claims his own rights without wishing to be answerable for the common good.

Pope Paul VI, Octegesima Adveniens, #23

There’s so much to unpack in that. “Legislation is necessary, but it is not sufficient for setting up true relationships of justice and equity.” Legislation, in other words, needs to happen, but we have to go beyond it.

And “renouncing rights” means what? Perhaps we could read that as a call to be less tax-averse. Perhaps we could read it as a call to be less inclined to hoard, judging others as unworthy, requiring them to prove they don’t need what we have to offer before we’re willing to give it to them.

“A renewed education in solidarity…” Solidarity is a word a lot of us associate with Lech Walesa, but it’s something we’re all called to–to enter into the pain of others, to make it our own. (Read Shannon Evans’ book Embracing Weakness. She broke open solidarity for me in a way I still haven’t figured out how to incorporate into my real life.)

“individualism in which each one claims his own rights without wishing to be answerable for the common good.” That one explains itself.

A lot to think about here! Because again, we’re recognizing that evangelization is not narrowly defined as walking around talking to anything with a heartbeat about Jesus Christ. Evangelization is something that encompasses all of real life. Because who will listen to us when we talk, if our view is so narrow we can’t see the forest for the trees?

Primary Motivator

The readings this weekend were all about money. Amos was talking about the dishonesty of those with money–how they were so focused on their own profits that they didn’t really care what happened to the “have not”s of the world. And Jesus said, “Guess what? How you use your money matters.”

Listening yesterday at Mass, it really struck me how those readings should skewer America. The obvious application is the question of income inequality: how many of the huge profits made by companies are held by those at the top of the food chain, how little is actually shared with those down the ranks.

But you know, so much of what we talk about in America centers on money. Many would like to believe we’re a Christian nation, but money–capitalism–is the primary thing that preoccupies our social and political discourse, even among Christians. So many things come back to money: health care and social programs would require more taxes, and we can’t possibly suggest raising taxes. Immigrants are perceived as a threat to American jobs, so again–it comes back to money. The question of whether a president deserves re-election is always about the economy. We’re having all these discussions about China and intellectual property and trade fairness, but nowhere on anyone’s radar is the question of just wages for labor, which is–let’s face it–the only reason manufacturing went overseas in the first place. It went overseas because we, the rank and file Americans, aren’t willing to pay what it would cost to make a product while paying a just wage to the laborer who made it.

We have a lot to answer for, and I don’t pretend to have a pat solution. I personally try to take a step back from the consumer culture by starting with secondhand clothing purchases as much as possible. But those clothes, too, were made by cheap labor overseas, and I order from Amazon just like every other red-blooded American. What do I think God will say to me when it comes time for me to answer for my choices? I don’t like pondering that question any more than anyone else.

In any case, when I was looking through the possibilities for things to share today, this quote from my Beatitudes book seemed to dovetail with what we heard at church yesterday. Because what if? What if, instead of money, we made God’s will, God’s kingdom, God’s priorities, the central principle that guided every other choice?

Public Prayer and Religious Freedom

Image by Beverly Lussier from Pixabay

Every so often a meme goes around Facebook that riles up Christians about public prayer and religious freedom. It’s not always the same one, but the idea is the same: we Christians are persecuted, we should rise up and demand that America act like the Christian nation it is.

The problem is, America is not a Christian nation. Many of America’s first immigrants came here to escape religious persecution. That persecution was very much on the minds of those who set up the system of government. They structured America specifically so that nobody’s faith would get to knock down anyone else’s. Everyone gets the chance to worship as they see fit. Whether we as Godly people like it or not, that also means freedom FROM religion. Not having publicly-sanctioned prayer is not persecution. It’s simply a recognition that we are a nation built on religious liberty. No one’s prayer can be imposed on all.

We as Christians may not like that idea, but this is what makes America great. Because in fact, it’s a system that mirrors God’s own heart.

As the saying goes, God is a gentleman. He doesn’t force himself on us. When has it ever gone well for us to try to force him on others? The Crusades. The Inquisition. The suppression of native cultures. Every time we try to force God on others, we end up gravely sinning in His name.

Our job is to do as God does: invite.

Instead, I would argue that much of what we as Christians display publicly is not inviting at all. Inviting could mean different things in different situations, but surely the fundamental quality of one who invites is a joyful heart. A heart so welcoming and kind and compassionate and peaceful in spirit that others say, “Hey, I want some of that. How do I get it?”

Instead, so often we Christians display anger, resentment, bitterness, judgment, and attitudes of exclusion when faced with those in crisis situations. We focus on our own preferences and emotional comfort while turning a blind eye to inconvenient facts—like the fact that if my free expression of religion requires the suppression of someone else’s free expression of religion, then it really isn’t religious freedom at all.

Like the fact that if we were truly a Christian nation, we wouldn’t be looking for ways to avoid helping our neighbors in desperate need. (“Who is my neighbor?”) Like the fact that a truly Christian nation would prioritize making sure all its citizens have health care and equal opportunity in education. Would prioritize support for the poor, recognizing that poverty, lack of opportunity and inequality are factors that undercut our ability to build a holistic culture of life.

When we turn a blind eye to these realities (which admittedly are hard, complicated to navigate, and resist neat and tidy solutions) and instead let ourselves be manipulated into outrage over something that’s really not a threat at all, we damage our ability to evangelize. We alienate those we are meant to invite.

Book Recommendation: When Helping Hurts

How about a chance of pace for a Monday morning? I have a book recommendation to share:

When Helping Hurts:
How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself

I can’t say enough good things about this book. Written by two Christians (not Catholic) who have been involved for decades in mission work, they share wisdom on how to be helpful, rather than going in with great intentions and making everything worse. In a nutshell, it boils down to this: we can’t come in and be saviors. Our job is to facilitate others helping themselves. There are three types of help: relief, recovery, and development. Most of the time, what’s needed is development, but the vast majority of the time what we offer is relief–because it’s easier. It’s easy to measure, its results make good reports to the investors.

The authors take a “both/and” approach. Many Christians look at the poor and assume they got that way by their own bad choices/sins; therefore their problems are theirs, not ours, to deal with.

Sin is an issue, the authors stress, but so are unjust societal institutions. As an example, they point to civil rights work in the south in the 1960s, and a particular pastor who didn’t speak out on racism.

“Both Reverend Marsh and the civil rights workers were wrong, but in different ways,” the authors wrote. “Reverend Marsh sought the King without the kingdom. The civil rights workers sought the kingdom without the King.”

The authors address overseas missions as well as efforts undertaken within the U.S. When Helping Hurts suggests that successful solutions are not either/or; they have to acknowledge both the effects of personal sin and the effects of institutional oppression, because those two things exert an influence over each other:

“What happens when society crams historically oppressed, uneducated, unemployed, and relatively young human beings into high-rise buildings, takes away their leaders, provides them with inferior education, health care, and employment systems, and then pays them not to work? Is it really that surprising that we see out-of-wedlock pregnancies, broken families, violent crimes, and drug trafficking? Worse yet, we end up with nihilism, because these broken systems do serious damage to people’s worldviews. Worldviews affect the systems, and the systems affect the worldviews.”

(p. 92)

When Helping Hurts offers the concept of “poverty alleviation” as a solution to the complexities of institutional injustice and personal sin. It is a “ministry of reconciliation” in which we use our money in such a way as to empower those in desperate circumstances to begin to help themselves. It acknowledges that they do, in fact, need help from outside, but that as much as possible we should honor the God-given human dignity of the poor by allowing them to be the leaders and the experts in their own lives. That our job is to empower them, not rescue them.

I’ve long believed that in most issues we bicker about, God is in the middle. This book shows us a Godly middle to issues of poverty. Both conservatives and liberals will find things that resonate and things that challenge in this book–which is, to me, the strongest argument that they are on target.

Inequality leads to violence

It’s interesting to hear this argument, given the conversations/arguments we are having as a nation about gun violence. I’ve never heard anyone talk about this factor. Of course, violence goes way beyond mass shootings:

– Domestic violence is made possible by unequal relationships between life partners.

– War is quite often a symptom of one group imposing its greater power upon another weaker (i.e., unequal) population.

– Violent protests are quite often a symptom of a weaker, poorer, or oppressed group rising up against the institutions of power that hold them down. (Race protests in the wake of police shootings come to mind right away. And what happened in Puerto Rico.)

And so on. I find this statement really striking because we bemoan violence, we come up with all these ideas for what will stop it, and we miss this obvious reality, which means we can’t talk about violence without also talking about race, poverty, discrimination, and so on. It’s the spaghetti bowl principle all over again.

Trickle-Down Economics: Who’s right, and what does it mean for Christians?

I have to be honest: it’s terrifying to share this excerpt from Evangelii Gaudium. The idea of free market and trickle-down economics is foundational to the world view of so many Americans who hold the Christian faith, it’s often viewed as fundamental to being a Christian. Heck, I grew up that way. I know how defensive a reaction this quote is likely to provoke in many faithful Catholic readers.

So I guess we have to start by acknowledging that we can’t examine this question solely from the perspective of faith, because there is a very concrete, practical reality underlying it. The fundamental practical question we have to answer before we can address the faith component is this: does trickle-down economics work? Does it actually bring prosperity (and, far more important, greater human dignity) to all? Because if so, more power to it. But this weigh-in from the Church indicates otherwise.

According to this analysis, faith in trickle-down economics as a boon to all is on pretty shaky ground, with the financial benefits extremely lopsided–over 25 years and two trickle-down tax cuts, 6% growth for the bottom fifth versus 80% growth for the top fifth; the economic growth credited to those tax cuts uncertain because of other strong influences at work at the same time.

(To hearken back to the topic of honesty and fact checking in social media: The site hosting that analysis is one of the very few sources given the rating “least biased” by Media Bias/Fact Check, a site I visit routinely when I’m not familiar with the source I’m reading.)

Back to the topic at hand. If Pope Francis is right, then what does this mean for us as Christians?

I’ve spent an hour trying to formulate an answer to that question that doesn’t trip political land mines. Maybe the answer is that we all, regardless of where we stand politically, need to pray for the grace and wisdom to be able to self-reflect more honestly. We’ve always embraced it when our leadership has called out the failures and injustices in the Communist systems. And with good reason. But we’ve often turned a blind eye when the popes and bishops have called out the same offenses within capitalism. It’s easy to assume we know God’s will and not even recognize when what we’re actually worshiping is our own.

Starving

Background image by Tama66, via Pixabay

This is probably one of the best illustrations a girl could hope for in trying to explain what I mean when I talk about being “intentional” about the faith. We’ve all heard about food waste, but how often do we actually connect it to our Christian faith? Plus, it’s such a general, “out there” kind of concept. Places like this, that put it in concrete terms we can wrap our heads around, paint the issue in big, global terms, which means we don’t always connect it with our individual habits. For instance:

We don’t make our kids finish eating whatever they don’t want, because it might teach them an unhealthy relationship to food… but we don’t wrap it up and save it for the kid’s next meal, either; we throw it away.

Restaurant portions are gargantuan and sometimes we take home the leftovers, sometimes we don’t; it gets thrown away.

And all the while we’re enjoying the bounty of our own privileged existence, people are starving.

What if we were more intentional about how we eat and how we deal with food waste? (This link from the EPA gives some great tips.) What savings might we be able to achieve, and thus redirect toward providing food for those not as blessed as ourselves?

These are the piddly little habits we don’t always recognize as being connected to our faith. Being intentional means we have to stop think instead of doing what we’ve always done on autopilot.

I know. This means devoting time and mental energy none of us feel like we have. Believe me, I get it!

But having been on this journey for several years, I can promise this: Whatever you invest in living your faith intentionally–in these real, concrete, practical ways–will come back to you many times over.