Culture of life: idea versus reality

Most ideas work in theory (i.e., in a perfect world). The question is, how do they interact when they bump into reality?

Take the idea of small government and low taxes: we should all be responsible for our own lives and fix our own problems. It makes perfect sense. In theory.

But here’s an example that shows things aren’t so straightforward when ideas butt up against reality.

For years, my daughter required extremely expensive orthotics to try to correct the “pronation” of her feet resulting from low muscle tone and loose ligaments. This is very common for people with Down syndrome. And when I say expensive, I mean $2000-$5000 per pair. Now, we never had to pay that bill, for two reasons: 1) we have great public insurance through my husband’s work, and 2) the county where we live has a dedicated tax to fund benefits for people with disabilities. Between those two realities, we were covered. Yay for us.

But what about the vast majority of people who have neither of those advantages? They just have to figure out how to pay $2-5000 for a pair of shoes, because individuals, unlike doctors’ offices and hospitals, aren’t allowed to negotiate lower rates with insurers.

It’s a heavy burden, and it’s only one example among many, where disability is concerned. Therapies are expensive, too. OT, PT, Speech. Heart surgery. Gastrointestinal surgery. The need for adult supervision long past the age it would normally be necessary.

You can see how easy it would be to receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome and be overwhelmed by the financial burden of raising this child. How easily these realities–which simply ARE; you can’t argue them away because they’re inconvenient–can be used to justify terminating a pregnancy. The burden is real.

This was one of the first realities that made it clear to me that the idea of small government, low taxes, and personal responsibility is not necessarily conducive to a culture of life. Sometimes, in fact, it will push us the opposite direction. This example shows how a centralized, universal health care system could, in fact, support a culture of life.

Countless Church documents over the years have stressed that government is meant to be a force for good. That it has a real role in making God’s justice manifest on earth. For generations, popes have been saying this.

But the modern counter-argument is that individuals and private charity can meet this need without requiring government intervention. So let’s take a look at how that idea plays out in reality.

First: outside of the families directly impacted, who even knows this need exists? (Did you?) How is the knowledge of that need going to reach the individuals and charities who might be able to meet said need?

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say someone does learn of the need, and creates an organization to meet it. The likelihood that they’re going to create a big charity with a wide reach is extremely low; the need is too specific. So at best, they’ll probably set up a charity that deals with their particular region. Yay for the kids in that region, but what about those in the next region over?

Best case scenario, someone else hears about it and sets up an organization there, too. Which means now we have two organizations, with two different leadership, doing the same job, competing for the same pot of charitable money. And meanwhile, the people three regions over still aren’t getting any help at all.

On the other hand, if this need were acknowledged and met through a publicly-funded entity–whether that’s something like the system in place in my county, or through a “Medicare for all” kind of national system–then we are actually being MORE efficient, because we have one administration, one funding stream, and one source.

Plus, we as a society are standing up and saying–with our pocketbooks–why yes, in fact, children with disabilities DO have value, they DO a right to be here, and to live fully.

It’s human nature to want to simplify the world, but the Gospel call has to be lived out in a messy reality. If we want to make any headway at all, we’re going to have to recognize that our ideas have to be “worked out,” as Pope Francis says, in the context of an immutable reality. That means being willing to listen to and learn from those impacted by any given issue, and to compromise with those who have different ideas on how to address the same problems.

Go Beyond the Surface

Background image by analogicus from Pixabay

Whether we are talking about the justification for raising or lowering taxes, the question of Dreamers and refugees, whether “voting prolife” must mean voting Republican or whether it can or should incorporate a larger view of the total life issues, or arguing over musical styles in worship, one thing is pretty much universally true: conflict gets ugly because we focus on issues instead of people.

Am I talking about the dignity of the person on the opposing side of the debate? Yes, but also the dignity of the people who are impacted by whatever issue we’re talking about. It’s much easier to look at issues as black and white, with no room for discussion or working together, when they are looked at in the abstract, rather than considering the real life people involved. When you start thinking about the dignity and well-being of refugees and Dreamers as beloved children of God, and of the Biblical call to be “our brothers’ keeper,” it becomes a lot less defensible to chant “build a wall” and tell Dreamers to go to the “back of the line.”

When we consider the dignity of the people involved, we have to look for solutions that take into account everyone, not just our own well-being. If we want to be a Christian nation, this is what we must do. It’s unsatisfying. Every one of us would be happier if the world laid itself out neatly in exactly the way we think it should. But we have to recognize that the world is flawed, and we’re not God. We can’t see the whole picture, and the only way we get anywhere close to seeing the big picture is by looking through the eyes of everyone else and figuring out how to set up the world to meet their needs as well as our own.

This is a lesson we learn as children: walk a mile in another’s shoes, see the situation through their eyes. Why do we stop thinking it matters when we reach adulthood?

Dignity vs. comfort

Over the years I’ve fussed a lot about religious platitudes. In liturgical composers’ circles, we’re often urged to take out all the religious clichés and see if there’s anything left. (Often, there’s not.) In my own writing I’ve talked a lot about deadly generalizations in how we talk about the faith. When you talk big picture, everybody can get on board, because it doesn’t actually challenge us. It’s when we get into the nitty-gritty specifics that we start feeling defensive, which is not a guarantee, but at least a warning sign that we might be guarding an idol.

“The dignity of the human person AND THE COMMON GOOD,” Pope Francis says, are more important than coddling the comfort of the privileged people of the world.

I doubt most of us recognize ourselves as those privileged people, but I can just about guarantee that every person reading this right now is a member of that group, just as I am. I know my audience is basically white American and middle-class or higher. We don’t see ourselves as privileged, but we are. Living with oceans to protect us from the vast bulk of outside violence is a privilege. Living in a place where we have the right to go to church is a privilege. Living in a place where we have a government willing to step in and rebuild our homes in the face of increasing climate events is a privilege. Living in a place where we trust the police to be on our side is a privilege (and that one, not even all Americans share).

Giving up “comforts” could mean any number of things. It could mean paying more in taxes so as to better support education, social security, or a host of other things our faith calls us to support. It could mean curtailing certain gun rights so as to better protect the common good. It could mean something as simple as turning off your car while waiting in grocery store parking lots and pickup lines, and thereby accepting that you may have to sit under a tree and be hot in the heat, or turning off your car and just bundling up in the winter. It could mean being willing to live in proximity to people who make us uncomfortable. (People of different races, people of different education levels, people with disabilities, people who are poor or even homeless…you get the idea. Someday I’ll do a post about solidarity.)

I’m aware that everything I listed there is a challenge to conservatives. Anyone who would like to comment and leave parallel comforts to those who lean left, please feel free. I am trying to cram a lot of things into my days right now, and I don’t always have time to do real justice to these reflections. 🙂

“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?

God’s means of hearing the poor

This reminds me of Teresa of Avila saying, “God has no hands but yours…”

There’s a tension in modern life between prayer and action. Many of us have gotten jaded about invoking prayer because so often, “thoughts and prayers” seem a pretty poor substitute for action. God doesn’t come down and magically change things; we have to do the work. God works through us. Prayer isn’t about changing God’s mind–it’s about changing us.

Yet sometimes there truly is nothing we, in our human limitations, can figure out to do, other than pray. Pray for peace of mind, for acceptance, for grace to bear what we cannot take away.

More often, though, there are things we can do–they just require effort. We have to advocate publicly, but that presupposes that we’re willing to educate ourselves on the complexities of situations. We have to be willing to look at the world through someone else’s eyes and accept that the way the world works for us–which fundamentally shapes our vision of what is and is not possible–is not the way the world works for others. (Remember this quote?)

Consumer culture: Is it possible to opt out?

Image by Eduardo Davad from Pixabay

Bear with me, because you may think I’m posting this on the wrong blog.

Friday night, I went to an Asian grocery store to buy boba pearls. Outside stood a group of three young people, chatting in what I presume was Chinese over a grocery cart full of white plastic bags. It was a beautiful night, and I glanced over at them as I walked in. My eye caught on the gorgeous dress one of them was wearing. Red, with white and black trim, fitted without being slinky, worn over black leggings. I thought, “I want to shop where she bought that dress.”

And I had this moment of crystal clarity: I hate American fashion. Every outfit I’ve admired in the past 4-5 years has been from Asia or Africa.

For months, I’ve been searching for a handful of clothing items to serve a particular purpose. I’ve bought nothing, because I can’t find anything I like. Not in the consignment stores where I start and not in the big box stores.

I have a handful of things sitting in my Amazon cart, but you know what? They all ship from China. Which brings me back to the post I wrote a couple weeks ago: how we ignore unpleasant realities about the way our food and goods are produced, because acknowledging those realities would mean admitting that many, maybe even most, of the things we enjoy are made cheap on the backs of people in poor working conditions with extremely low wages.

A friend of mine found this train of thought troubling. If this is true, how do we live faithful life? What if we can’t even survive without participating in some way in a system that harms others? What if the system is so pervasive, we can’t escape it?

To which I add: if we could opt out, wouldn’t we actually increase the misery of the poor, because whatever income they do make is more than they’d make if we stopped buying?

The world is full of good things, and I want to enjoy them: chocolate, a good book, and my backyard patio set all give glory to God, the maker of the raw materials and the giver of the human creativity used to shape raw materials into wonderful things.

But it’s hard not to wonder if I should be diverting every penny I spend on these things to people fighting for little more than survival.

Into this mix dropped the weekend readings:

How long, O LORD? I cry for help
but you do not listen!
I cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not intervene
.

And God’s reply:

The vision still has its time,
presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;
if it delays, wait for it,
it will surely come, it will not be late.

Habakkuk’s pain is so familiar. The world is such a mess. We just want God to fix it already.

But how can we yell at God for not acting to alleviate the injustices at work in the world? We’re the ones who enact the injustices, not God. The only way they get un-enacted is “if today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.” In other words, learn to recognize injustice and then DO something about it.

But the obstacles to doing something seem insurmountable. I’m a big believer in pebbles and ripples. I throw my pebble in the pond, you throw yours, and the guy down the street throws his, and eventually things change.

But it’s not satisfying. Waiting is hard. Waiting leaves us conscience-stung in that no-man’s land between the good things of the world and the knowledge of who’s actually paying the price for them.

And maybe, in the end, that’s the only takeaway: that while we are in the world, we have to accept that we are never going to have the answers—we’ll always be wrestling with what is versus what could or should be. We’ll always be looking for that balance between enjoying the world God gave us and recognizing the ways in which we are called to act. Even if it requires sacrifices we don’t want to make.

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?