Four Ways of Religion Part 3 Action

These past few weeks I have been writing about John Haught’s book What Is Religion? in which he examines five major religious traditions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and from them comes up with four “ways” of being religious: sacramentalism, mysticism, silence, and action. While certain religious traditions emphasize one of the four ways over the others (e.g. Buddhism emphasizes the way of silence), Haught argues that a balance of the four elements is important for authentic religious practice. In this final post on the topic, I consider the fourth way of being religious: the way of action.

Photo courtesy of CompassionInternational - Creative Commons Licensure

Photo courtesy of CompassionInternational – Creative Commons Licensure

While the major religions of the world may look very different in practice, one thing that they all agree on is the importance of love and compassion toward our fellow human beings. In other words, religious persons are called to act with love and compassion. Within a Catholic Christian framework, there are two components that make up loving and compassionate action: charity and justice.

Charity, what is sometimes called outreach, responds to an immediate need, often a need for food, shelter, or clothing. When people donate food to a food shelf or serve a meal at a soup kitchen, they engage in an act of charity, providing a direct service to someone in need. Acts of charity are one way to live in response to God’s call to care for the oppressed, the poor, and the vulnerable. Often doing charity brings a sense of satisfaction to the one doing the action; it feels good to help people.

While charity addresses immediate needs, justice addresses long-term conditions. Justice demands that we ask questions, such as “Why is it that there are so many people who do not have homes and healthy, sustaining meals to eat?” and “What institutions, systems, and policies contribute to this problem of homelessness and hunger?” and “What changes can we make to our institutions, systems, and policies to help eradicate the problem of homelessness and hunger?” Working for justice is often public, political work, as it is oriented to collective action for change. At times it can be controversial work, since people may disagree on what to do in the face of challenging problems like hunger and homelessness. People doing the work of justice may coordinate a letter writing campaign to law makers, help to educate people in their neighborhood about important issues, or organize a community self-help project to meet a need they see around them.

As I think about the place of religious action in my life this Lent, I realize that I do a lot more charity than justice work. Part of it is because it is easier to do charity. It is not hard to go through my closet and give away a few coats that I no longer wear or to donate the money I would spend on one latte a week to the food shelf. But admittedly, another part of it is that charity does not demand the same sort of investment in or relationship with those I am helping. Haught writes that the biblical sense of justice carries a much deeper meaning than our common understanding of justice as fairness. In the biblical witness, justice is about “fidelity to the demands of a relationship” (page 135). Justice involves recognizing the relationship and responsibility we have to all humanity. Justice calls us not to stand idly by as our sisters and brothers face dehumanizing conditions. Justice also means getting to know those that we categorize as the oppressed, poor, and vulnerable, not so that we can save them but so that we come to know God by seeing God in them.

Even as I write this about justice, I can feel myself shrinking back away from it. This is a lot. Maybe a good place to start is with this prayer, that uses the words from the prophet Micah: “Lord, this Lenten season, please show me what is good. Please help me to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you, my God.”

What acts of charity have you been involved in? How does participating in charity make you feel?

What acts of justice have you been involved in? How does participating in justice make you feel?

As you look at your school, your church, your neighborhood, and your community, what programs are you aware of that do the work of charity and justice? What needs do you see that are not being addressed, particularly the needs of the oppressed, the poor, and the vulnerable? Is there anything that you, along with your friends, family, neighbors, and church members could do to help address these needs?

Radical?

In this week’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus stands up to read at the synagogue on the Sabbath. He unrolls the scroll of the book of the prophet Isaiah that is handed to him and proceeds to read this passage: “The Spirit of the Holy One is upon me; therefore, God has anointed me and sent me to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty for captives, sight to the blind, release to prisoners, to announce a year of favor from God.” With all eyes upon him, Jesus announces, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus is making it clear that he is the anointed one of God, the one who ushers in God’s kingdom in which the poor will receive good news, the captives will be freed, the blind will see, and all will experience the favor of God.

As I read this passage and thought about how it applies to my life, my first inclination was to spiritualize it. Since I do not encounter too many actual poor people or actual captives or actual blind people, I wanted to think about it more metaphorically. Who are the poor in spirit in my life to whom I can proclaim good news? Who are those who are held spiritually captive by challenges they face either from within or outside of themselves and what can I do to help free them? Who are those who are spiritually blind and how might I walk with them toward sight on their spiritual journeys?

Annunciation House Soccer Game of Guests and Volunteers.

Annunciation House Soccer Game of Guests and Volunteers.

But then I read this week’s Spirit magazine article by Cindy Schlosser, who gave two and a half years of her life to live and volunteer at Annunciation House, a home for immigrants and refugees in El Paso, Texas. I also thought of my own sister. After college, she spent a year living in intentional community with other volunteers while working at a shelter for homeless women and their children. A few years later, she spent another year in a poor village in Uruguay, serving the community in multiple ways, from teaching English at the local elementary school to offering yoga classes to doing odd jobs at the church. Cindy and my sister are just two examples of people who have not spiritualized Jesus’ call to his disciples to do the work of justice. Both of them have made radical commitments to serve those who are most marginalized in our society and to advocate for those who are actually, materially poor and actually captive to social systems that keep them in poverty.

And then I think about myself, and I feel a discomfort that I always feel when I encounter the stories of those who live a radical commitment to justice in their lives. It is a discomfort that I try to ignore and try to rationalize away by thinking about all the things I do already to live as a disciple of Christ. What makes me uncomfortable is that I have this sense that God is calling me to be more radical. I have a sense that there is something more that I should be or could be doing.

At times like these, I am reminded of a prayer that is attributed to Saint Augustine: “Dear God, please make me good, just not yet.” Augustine famously struggled with the passions of the flesh and the joys of the world. Like many of us, he enjoyed things that he knew were not good for him, and he wanted to be freed from his desire for these things … just not yet. My version of the prayer goes like this: “Dear God, please make me a radical instrument for your peace and justice, just not yet.” Even though I feel bad, it is the best I can muster for now.

How do you feel or react when you hear stories about people who have made radical commitments to doing God’s work for justice in the world?

To what do you feel God is calling you? How can you proclaim good news to the poor, liberty for captives, sight to the blind, and release to prisoners in your life?

What prayers do you make to God about how you hope God will shape you to be an instrument of God’s justice and peace?

Current Music and the Gospel: “It’s Time,” Imagine Dragons

“It’s Time,” Imagine Dragons, Continued Silence, Interscope

Gospel Reflection for November 18, 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Jesus tells us in Sunday’s gospel that no matter what disasters or upheavals occur, his truth will remain the same. Even though the world has changed in so many ways since Jesus lived, died, and was raised up, we still have his words preserved in the gospels. “It’s Time” is a song about remaining true to oneself no matter how much is changing around us.”

Key Lines: It’s time to begin, isn’t it?/I get a little bit bigger, but then I’ll admit/I’m just the same as I was/Now don’t you understand/I’m never changing who I am

Questions: In what ways have you changed in the past year? How have you stayed the same? What situations have you encountered that made standing your ground hard? In what ways have our laws changed over the course of history? How have those changes moved us toward justice and equality?

The Girl Effect and Half the Sky

“Women hold up half the sky.” – Chinese Proverb

Half The SkyThis week’s SPIRIT, featuring an excerpt from Half The Sky by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn, is about human trafficking – and how empowering women can change the world.

Learn more about the Half The Sky movement at halftheskymovement.org.

The Girl Effect is another movement aiming to empower women. Watch the video below and learn about the unique potential of 600 million adolescent girls to end poverty for themselves and the world at girleffect.org.

“Rise To Me,” SPIRIT Xtra for January 29, 2012

“Rise to Me,” The Decemberists, The King Is Dead, Capitol Records

Gospel Reflection: Not only does Jesus speak with authority in Sunday’s gospel, his actions match his words as he casts out a demon.  Even when it would have been easier to ignore the possessed man, Jesus stands his ground and sets him free.  “Rise to Me” by the Decemberists is a reminder about the importance of standing firm for what is right.

Key Lines: They sing out/I am going to stand my ground/You rise to me and I’ll blow you down/I am going to stand my ground/You rise to me and I’ll blow you down

Questions: When is it hard to stand your ground? What makes it easier? When do you feel it is important to take a stand? What gives someone the authority to lead? Who speaks the truth in your community?