Not all the people in our communities and nation have the same access to education, healthcare, and justice. This week’s SPIRIT spotlights Appalachia and the effects of mountaintop mining. The song “Sea Change” asks us why are we closing our eyes to the plight of people in our midst who are poor when we are all in this world together.
Key lines: So where will we go when the waters threaten to wash us away? / And all of our sons and our daughters wilt in the heat of the day? / I feel the sun draw nearer, I feel the sea start to rise / Who’s looking back in the mirror? Why are they closing —Why are they closing their eyes? / …Why are we closing our eyes?
Questions: When have you closed your eyes to a problem in your community or school? When have you opened your eyes to a problem? What did you learn or do about it? What duties does government have for the people it serves? How do you balance serving God and following the laws of our country? What issues make you struggle to answer?
“Without roots in the people, no government can avail, much less when it wants to impose its program through bloodshed and sorrow.” In 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated not long after he spoke these words. Romero challenged his government to end the violence that was sweeping through his country and killing his people. He refused to be silent about the injustice that was affecting the poorer classes of El Salvador. The song “Believer” is about recognizing the pain that injustice causes and using it as a force to bring about personal and social change.
Key Lines: First things first / I’ma say all the words inside my head / I’m fired up and tired of the way that things have been, oh-ooh / The way that things have been, oh-ooh / …Singing from heartache from the pain / Take up my message from the veins / Speaking my lesson from the brain / Seeing the beauty through the… / Pain!
Questions: Who do you see standing up injustice to people who are poor? What examples of injustice do you see in our society? How can you take a stand against them?
This week’s Spirit focuses on open-mindedness and communication, on discovering what we have in common with people who hold different beliefs, come from different cultures, and have life experiences unlike our own. We live in a global world with social media and the internet at our fingertips. We need to learn how to build bridges between ourselves and so many kinds of different others. Lady Gaga’s song “Million Reasons” explores the desire to walk away from someone but acknowledges one reason to stay that overcomes all the others: love.
Key Lyrics: When I bow down to pray / I try to make the worst seem better / Lord, show me the way / To cut through all his worn out leather / I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away / But baby, I just need one good one, good one / Tell me that you’ll be the good one, good one / Baby, I just need one good one to stay
Questions: When have you been in conflict or felt frustration with someone from a different background? How might you learn what you have in common? How does listening to others’ stories help you better understand them? When has talking led you to change your mind about someone or something?
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.
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?
My parents raised me to think of myself as a leader. They pointed out that I was good at listening to people and breaking down complex tasks into smaller, more easily accomplished steps (and then making colored-coded flow charts and to do lists to map the work to be done). They also called attention to the fact that I was good at negotiating and compromising—which was their way of putting a positive spin on the fact that by the time she was three and I was five, my younger sister could pin me in a wrestling match, thus forcing me to find non-physical means of getting what I wanted.
Throughout grade school, I found ways to exercise this leadership ability. I served on student council and was elected its president my eighth grade year; I was an altar server at church and eventually trained in new altar servers; and I was captain of my club gymnastics team.
But then adolescence hit, and everything changed. My class in high school was what the educational experts call “a bad class.” The ring leaders, the students with power who everyone seemed to look up to, were the students who were good at partying, not those who were good at academics, sports, the arts, music, service… or any other thing that might be valued at school. In this environment, being a leader seemed too risky. So I decided on a tactic for survival that was the complete opposite of being a leader: I strove for invisibility. My thought process was that if people did not know you were there, then they could not tease, harass, or reject you, and this seemed my safest option.
Our junior year, the administration sat our entire class down in the school’s theater over lunch one day, and their message was simple: “You are a bad class. We do not know where we went wrong with you. We simply do not know what to do with you. Please find it in your hearts not to ruin this school before you graduate next year and we can say good riddance.” (I am sure that their message was much more nuanced and delicately put than this, and there may even have been a positive action plan thrown in at the end, but this is what I remember from that odd occasion.) I felt bad that day; I hated the idea that anyone thought I was a problem, even if only by association with this bad apple of a class. And of course, I could hear my parents’ voices in my head, insisting, “You could do something about this. You are a leader.” But I quickly shushed them, rationalizing that no one would listen to me anyway and resolving just to last out my time in high school as quietly as I had started it.
A few weeks later, as I was minding my own business at my locker one morning, Kate, someone I knew only from classes we had taken together, told me she was running for president of student council and wanted to know if I would run as her VP. While not popular by the standards of high school, everyone knew Kate because she was that person who found a way to be nice to everyone in the school—the custodians, the lunch ladies, the freshmen who looked lost and forlorn, the stars of the basketball team. Skeptical, I asked Kate, “Why me?” She replied, “Because you would be good at it and because together we can win.”
The immediate conclusion to this story is not the stuff of fairy tales. Kate and l lost the election to two good looking, popular boys in our class. When the results were announced over the PA at the end of the school day, I hid in the bathroom for half an hour so that the school would be empty by the time I dragged my tear-stained self to my locker to get my things. But Kate’s invitation and the whole process of running for student council got me to stop hiding. My senior year I assumed leadership of the National Honors Society, worked as the sports’ editor for the school newspaper, and loved the opportunity to make colored-coded spread sheets again. And perhaps even more importantly, I started to really get to know people and to let them get to know me. (Turns out my whole invisible strategy had not worked as I had intended. People noticed me but assumed I was completely stuck up since I never said anything!)
In this week’s gospel reading from John, Jesus and his mother are at a wedding in Cana, and the wine runs out, which was as horrible a faux pas back then as it would be now. Mary shares this information with Jesus, likely already knowing that her son is special and thinking he may be able to do something about it. Jesus replies, “Mother, what is this to you and me? My hour has not yet come.” For whatever reason, Jesus does not yet want to bring attention to himself or to make his identity or ministry public. Maybe he knew once he started he would no longer be able to be invisible, that people would expect and want things from him, that his relationships with people would change. Maybe he was afraid that he was not up to the task. Maybe he still doubted God’s plan for his life.
It seems that Mary has having none of this. Instead of arguing with Jesus, she simply says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” After this, Jesus tells the servants to fill six large stone jars with water and to bring them to the steward in charge of the feast. When the steward tastes the contents of the jar, he imbibes the finest wine, and Jesus’ public ministry has begun.
Being truly who we are and who we are called to be by God can be a scary prospect. We might worry that people will not like us, that we will not be able to live up to people’s expectations for us, that too much may be demanded of us. Sometimes it takes important others in our lives to see our gifts, our best selves, and to gently encourage us to use them, instead of hiding ourselves and our gifts away. Sometimes we need to be called out of hiding, like Kate (and the ever-present voices of my parents in my head) did for me and like Mary did for Jesus.
Who in your life knows who you truly are? Who can you turn to in order to see your best self reflected?
When have you been afraid or hesitant to live as your true self? When have you been hesitant to answer God’s call for your life? Has anyone been able to call you out of hiding on these occasions?
Well, the election is here. After hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on conventions, ads and debates, the day has arrived. Tuesday, November 6th is voting day. If you are eighteen, use your voice by taking the time to place your vote! Even if you are not old enough yet, encourage others to vote, and take the time to really think about what policies and issues you are called to care about as a faithful person.
Do you think that is an important expression of faith?
The U.S. Catholic Bishops have come out strongly opposed to same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception. Specifically, they are opposing the new health care bill that mandates several institutions provide health care coverage for birth control. In an article by Mary Wisniewski at CNBC.com,
it was reported that U.S. Catholics think the church should focus more on social teaching and helping the poor even if it means focusing less on issues like abortion.
The survey is a good reminder to us that the church is the bishops, but it is also the people. As faithful people, we can use our voices and ask our bishops and our political leaders to put policy in place that advocate for the poor and vulnerable people in our communities. As we read the Gospel together week in and week out, we hear Jesus calling us to advocate for the poor. We can stand on that faith to work toward political change.
It is also good for me to remember that politics is only one way to address the brokenness in the world. Catholic Social Teaching talks about the importance of both justice and charity. I cannot sit on the couch and expect my bishops and leaders to do all the work for me. My vote and my voice are only part of the process of change.
Where in your community do you see brokenness?
What can you do today to help?
Young people have always been a force for change in our great country. The young vote matters, and the time and energy young people put into charity and justice work does make a difference.
What young movements do you see happening today?
Where do you fit into the movement?
Photo courtesy of League of Women Voters of California via Creative Commons License