Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What we owe to the poor.

Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval scholar whose ideas became the semi-official philosophy of the Roman Catholic church, wrote that whatever we have in "superabundance" - that is, above and beyond what will reasonably satisfy our own needs and those of our family, for the present and the foreseeable future - "is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance." In support of this view, he quoted Ambrose, one of the four original "Great Doctors" or teachers of the Church. He also cited the Decretum Gratiani, a twelfth-century compilation of canon law that contains the powerful statement, "The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry: the clothing you shut away, to the naked: and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless."

Note that "owed" and "belongs." For these Christians, sharing our surplus wealth with the poor is not a matter of charity, but of our duty and their rights. Aquinas even went so far as to say: "It is not theft, properly speaking, to take secretly and use another's property in a case of extreme need: because that which he takes for the support of his life becomes his own property by reason of that need." (Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save, p.20)
This is a challenging passage. I recall feeling shocked when I read something very similar in one of John Wesley's sermons many years ago. The idea that we owe our surplus wealth to the poor is something that offends American sensibilities. (And I hasten to add that this is not a uniquely American problem. America is simply what I am most familiar with.) It offends those who believe they can pass their responsibility toward the poor off to the government. It also offends those who believe that they have a right to the the consumerist lifestyle of the "American dream".

I'll be posting more about Singer's book as I make my way through it. From what I've read so far he is making a compelling case that it is not only possible to give real relief to those 1.4 billion people in extreme poverty but that we are morally compelled to do so.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Something more useful than liberal versus conservative.

Like most people, I'm dissatisfied with the usual conservative-liberal dichotomy. I was intrigued, therefore, when Noah Millman wrote "Notes Toward a New Political Taxonomy" several weeks ago.

He begins by noting that several terms which should be differentiated are treated as synonyms. They are:
  • Left
  • Liberal
  • Progressive
  • Right
  • Conservative
  • Reactionary
Millman suggests that if we clarify the meaning of these terms we will have a more accurate way of describing our political views. First, liberal versus conservative:
The core of the difference between a liberal and a conservative outlook relates to one’s basic assumptions about human capacities. A liberal is someone who is generally impressed with the capacities of an individual, and who therefore wants individuals to be free to develop those capacities. ... A conservative by temperament takes the opposite side in this dispute. Most human beings are naturally afraid of freedom, eager to hand over decision making power to some authority. They frequently do not – cannot – know what is best for them. ... Put simply: a liberal outlook trusts individuals and questions authority; a conservative outlook distrusts individuals and defers to authority.
Next, left versus right, which is defined by attitudes toward success:
A left-wing perspective is animated by failure and the consequences thereof. Whether we’re talking about Rawlsian liberals or Christian socialists or orthodox Marxist-Leninists, the ultimate object of concern is the miserable of the earth. ... A right-wing perspective is opposite to this. How to design a system that adequately rewards success is the essence of the right-wing political project. ... Put simply: a right-wing perspective is animated by an affinity for the winners and their interests, while a left-wing perspective is animated by an affinity for the losers and their interests.
Lastly, progressive versus reactionary, which is defined by attitudes toward history:
The progressive is future-oriented. Things will – or could – be better in the future than they are now. But more than this, history has a direction that can be discerned, and that one must be cognizant of in constructing one’s politics. ... The reactionary, by contrast, is past-oriented. Things will – likely – be worse in the future than they are now, just as they were better in the past. Apparent progress masks the loss of things that were more valuable than the novelties acquired. Moreover, in the deepest sense, the real truth is that there is nothing new under the sun.
This strikes me as very useful. So where do I fit? On liberal versus conservative, it's hard to say. As a Christian who believes in the continuing power of original sin I am not too optimistic about the capacities of individuals. But, then, I'm not one who is terribly impressed with the track record of the traditional authorities. I want the individual to be free but I also want tradition to be respected and listened to. If God came to me and said I had to choose, on behalf of the whole human race and for the entirety of its future, between freedom for individuals or adherence to traditional authorities, I'd have to come down on the side of freedom. But I'd ask God if I could go live on another planet after he executed my choice.

Left versus right is easy: I'm on the left wing. I do not say that Christianity requires us to be left-wingers. I will say, however, that Christianity is the major driving force behind my lefty-ness. I know that, for example, the biblical demand to provide for the poor does not automatically mean support for the welfare state. I know about intermediate institutions and private charity and all that. But I do not see how Christianity's concern for the poor and the outcast can be reconciled with free market profiteering and the cult of success.

On reactionary versus progressive spectrum I'd say I'm mildly progressive. I do not believe in utopias and I see no reason to believe that progress is inevitable. With those caveats in mind, however, I believe life now is better than it has been in the past. There are ways in which it is worse, to be sure. It seems to me that there is good and bad mixed in every age. There are no golden ages past or future. But I'd choose the time in which we live over most times in the past, if for no other reason than technological advances. My assumption is that the quality of our lives will improve in the future, not inevitably, but more likely than not.

In sum, I'm (reluctantly) liberal, (decidedly) left-wing, and (mildly) progressive. Where would you place yourself?

Monday, June 7, 2010

The dual nature of baptism.

In the "Fellowship of the Baptized" Archbishop Rowan Williams makes some fantastic remarks about baptism. First he identifies the baptized identity as "being where Jesus is". Baptism "places us in the place of Jesus". Or, in the words of James Alison, in baptism we are made to "swim with the ugly ducking [Jesus]. We have agreed to undergo death in advance, to occupy the place of shame and curse voluntarily, to be forever linked to the class fairy" [i.e., the kid everyone else picks on in school].

But Jesus stands in more than one place, says Williams:
Jesus is in the neighbourhood of God the Father and so when we stand where Jesus is we too are in that neighbourhood and we learn his language of his relation to God the Father. But the incarnate Jesus is also in the neighbourhood of the chaos and the suffering of the world – a world he has entered to transform.
Because Jesus stands in this dual relationship, we also must learn to live in this dual nature of baptism. We cannot choose one over the other. Not only are we in relationship with God and with all Christians, we are
in solidarity with an unlimited variety of human experience that relates to the darkness and the chaos into which Jesus descends in his incarnation. We are in the neighbourhood of a darkness inside and outside the Church, inside and outside our own hearts. In sinu peccatoris: in the bosom—the heart—of what sin means.
Baptism is not the establishing of a static relationship. It is not "the experience of endings, but of repeated new beginnings.
We don't simply acquire a relationship with God the Father which then requires us to do nothing more. On the contrary, to be baptized is to be constantly re-awakening our expectation, our penitence, our protest, our awareness that the chaos and darkness of the world is not what God wills; our awareness that we are colluding with that state of chaos which God does not will. So as baptized persons we look constantly into ourselves, rediscovering over and over again the hope that comes out of true repentance.
We see how the dual nature of baptism works out in the life of the church. We stand in relationship with God and thus we are all one in Christ. It is the recognition of this reality that allows Paul to says that there is "one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all" (Eph 4:4-6).

And yet we see division all around us. This is because we also stand in the "neighborhood of chaos and the suffering of the world". We are a self-wounding body and we "divide and divide again, and divide again and again". This is the state in which we live. But this wounded body also heals itself because it is, after all, Christ's body.
What heals the wounds in the Body of Christ is the stubborn, unchanging reality of the Lord Jesus Christ, who has promised to be there, who has promised that he will not abandon his body. So the unconditional covenant he has made to be with us—Emmanuel, 'God with us'—heals and restores his Body time and again. Which is why the practice of the Eucharist is at the heart of the Church because in the Eucharist, in the total self-giving of Christ to his people embodied in the sharing of his body and blood, the unconditional covenant is affirmed. When we come to Holy Communion we rediscover not just a story about Jesus that happened a long time ago, we rediscover the unchanging reality of what some theological traditions call 'the covenant of grace' as renewed in the Eucharist.
"The Fellowship of the Baptized", the John Coventry Memorial address by Rowan Williams.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The difference between charity and justice.

In "Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus" (an excerpt of a booklet produced by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), there is a helpful distinction between charity and justice:

  • Focuses on the needs of people
  • Looks at individual situations
  • Meets immediate needs
  • Ameliorates symptoms of social problems
  • Relies on the generosity of donors
  • Focuses on the rights of people
  • Analyzes social situations and structures
  • Works for long-term social change
  • Addresses underlying social causes
  • Relies on just laws and fair social structures
Charity is the work of individuals working to relieve the immediate needs of others. Justice is more comprehensive: It goes beyond, for example, giving aid to the poor and looks for ways to reduce poverty. It is also more collective, since it requires a greater number of people working together for change.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives priority to justice: "The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity." If I understand this correctly it is saying that charity is no substitute for justice. If an unjust situation exists it is not enough to relieve the symptoms by offering charity. Justice must be satisfied.

These unjust situations are the result of "structures of sin". Individual sins aggregate and create sinful situations and institutions which, in turn, perpetuate and enable further sin. These structures of sin cannot be destroyed through charity, only collective working for justice.

The document offers a model for living this out, "The ART of Catholic Social Teaching":


"Act" is the initial charitable action to relieve immediate needs. "Reflect" asks what causes the need. What structures of sin lie behind the needs addressed by charity and how are those sins addressed by Christian teaching? "Transform" is the effort to destroy those structures of sin which are the root cause of suffering in the world. In the words of the World Synod of Bishops:
Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation. ("Justice in the World", 1971).
Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus (pdf)
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, a collection of primary source material on Catholic social teaching.

About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.