Monday, February 1, 2016

Our Common Humanity Will Save Us from Fear and Economic Injustice

By Bill Moseley

Note: The following reflection was delivered before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on the weekend of January 23-24, 2016.

People of God, my name is Bill Moseley and it is my privilege to reflect with you on today’s readings.

The second reading for today comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. I found the historical situation of the city of Corinth highly relevant to the challenges we face today. Corinth was a large Greek city which was totally destroyed by the Romans about 150 years before Christ in order to put down a rebellion, but then it was slowly repopulated. People from all over the Roman Empire, including many former slaves, began to flock there. The pull of Corinth had much to do with its advantageous physical geography. It is located on an isthmus, or strip of land, connecting southern and northern Greece. It became a hugely important place for trade and commerce. Travelers going from one part of Greece to another had to pass through here. Ships regularly stopped off at its ports.

Corinth grew by leaps and bounds, becoming the third largest city in the Roman Empire. Former slaves and immigrants who had moved to this area became fabulously wealthy and rose to positions of power. Rags to riches stories became a common part of the city’s collective narrative. Newly wealthy people gave money for public structures, almost always accompanied by large plaques acknowledging their generosity and hard work. But not everyone in Corinth benefitted from these boom times. Huge divisions of wealth began to appear. Not surprisingly, the Christian community here began to experience divisions similar to those in the broader society.

The situation in Corinth struck me as hauntingly familiar. A place depopulated by conquest, repopulated by immigrants, that becomes fabulously wealthy, yet deeply divided along economiclines. Change that produces economic divisions understandably generates a lot of uncertainty andfear – and faith communities are often called upon to try to make sense of this. How should religious and spiritual communities operate in places with deep and growing economic divisions?Do we moralize such differences, do we scapegoat others for our problems, do we assist the poor, or do we work for a more equal and fair world? Interestingly, religious communities have played a role in all of these approaches.

For example, some Protestant Christian denominations have a long history of holding up those who are economically successful, praising their efforts, and suggesting that their economic success is a sign of God’s favor. This “Protestant Work Ethic” has been championed as the reason for America’s economic success. We celebrate our entrepreneurs as people who toil alone to build businesses and generate wealth, and we deride those who suggest that there is a societal or collective element to any individual’s success. Increasingly, we elect the wealthy to public office so that we may double down on the economic system that produced them, so that we too may become wealthy.

But if we celebrate the wealthy as God’s chosen, if we glorify the economic system that produced them, then we still need to locate the source of our problems, to scapegoat the “other.” For this, we need to reify difference: to determine who is in and who is out. Sadly, many faith communities have excelled at constructing social difference.

In our first reading today from Nehemiah we hear the story of Ezra preaching to his people. Heretoo the context is vital. Ezra, along with the other elite of Jewish society, have slowly returned to Judea after a long exile in Babylon. Those who had stayed behind had intermarried with other groups, no longer speaking Hebrew, but the local language Aramaic. The Jewish elite see this as a problem and Ezra, interpreting Hebrew text that his people no longer understand, is commanding his people to leave their non-Jewish relatives. These non-Jewish relatives are different, they must be excluded. This is an immensely sad time, but, as you will hear today, Ezrais exhorting his people to celebrate this moment.

Some Christian communities are also accomplished at the art of exclusion. As a high school student I worked at our Episcopal Church as janitor, cleaning toilets, mopping floors and mowing the grass. My boss was an evangelical Christian seminarian who lived in an apartment in the upstairs of the church. We spent a lot of time together working and chatting. I distinctly remember him telling me that non-Christians would go to hell. I had many friends of other faiths and yet he insisted, no matter how good they might be, they would go to hell. They were different.

Sadly, we have also seen a certain brand of fundamentalist Islam gaining ground in economically marginalized West Africa – an area of the Islamic world historically known for its tolerance and moderation. Using tactics similar to the Crusades and the Inquisition, we have seen armed Jihadists increasingly wage terror in the name of religion. Just last week armed Islamists attackeda hotel and cafĂ© frequented by Westerners in the capital city of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, killing and wounding nearly 100 people. I had a friend in that hotel. I sat stunned last Saturday as I read her interview with a local newspaper. She only survived by pretending to be dead.

Yes, such horrible atrocities are done in the name of religion, to separate the chosen from the unchosen. We celebrate the powerful, we blame the poor, we exclude the immigrant, we condemn people to hell, we ostracize folks, and we even kill people of other faiths: all to preserve or create some insane sense of order.

This is not, however, Paul’s advice to the Corinthians – the community racked by economic difference that I described at the start of this reflection. Paul neither justifies economic differencewith scripture, nor does he blame challenging circumstances on others. His overarching message is that we are all members of one body. “In this way all members may have the same care for oneanother. If one member suffers, all suffer together. If one member is honored, all rejoice together.” We are one, we are connected, we must care for one another – this is the message.

So what do we do in our troubled economic times that are rife with division, inequality and fear? Paul is suggesting that recognition of our common humanity will save us. Human contact, exchange and understanding are powerful antidotes to abstract ideologies and divisive narratives.

Every time my family and I volunteer at the Dorothy Day center I am reminded how I could so easily be down and out, freezing in the cold, and struggling to feed my family. I am reminded how deeply misplaced and flawed is our societal narrative of poverty linked to a poor work ethic and wanton substance abuse. Instead, I often see hard working people who can’t make ends meet, or folks struggling with mental illness with treatment far from accessible. I am reminded ofPaul’s message. Recognition of our common humanity will save us.

Minnesota is rightly proud of the fact that it was the first state to successfully beat back a regressive amendment, supported by a Catholic hierarchy divorced from its people, narrowly defining marriage as a heterosexual union. The tactics employed to defeat this inhumane amendment are relevant. It was a novel person to person campaign designed to reveal our common humanity. It was the simple idea that it’s a lot harder to disenfranchise same sex coupleswhen you actually know and respect them: they are our loved ones, neighbors and friends. Recognition of our common humanity will save us.

It’s a lot harder to categorize Muslims as terrorists to be excluded and ostracized when we have Muslim friends, or when thousands of Americans have served abroad in Muslim countries as Peace Corps volunteers developing a deep respect for these cultures and forming enduring friendships.

Recognition of our common humanity will save us. Recognizing our common humanity is a critical first step because it moves us beyond abstract ideologies that allow us to vilify, exclude and inflict violence on others. If others are not the problem, if we are all connected by our common humanity, then we are pushed to consider the structures that produce inequality.

Today’s Gospel reading from Luke is a policy manifesto of sorts, hinting at a better way to approach inequality. Here we see Jesus, the itinerant sage, the would-be radical, the most unlikely of prophets, beginning to speak truth to power in his home town. By referencing scripture, he is essentially arguing that the powerful need to relinquish privilege. He calls for a jubilee. “God has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed: to proclaim a year of favor from our God.” I’m not sure if I can relinquish my privilege on my own. I am quite comfortable and I enjoy my status as a white middle class American. But recognizing our common humanity helps me understand the destructive nature of this privilege and gives me the courage to work with others for change.

I would like to end with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that nicely summarizes the messageI take away from today’s readings. "Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love withoutpower is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Bill! A much needed message you preached in polarizing times. My parish is nowhere near as progressive as Cabrini, but the guest minister this past Sunday preached a refreshing message, just stopping short of saying that Judaism, Islam, and Christianity workship the same God, but nonetheless stated that we have the same Abrahamic faith. It was enough to cause the otherwise inattentive to raise their eyebrows. I was ready to applaud, shout and offer a standing ovation, but I would have been the only one in the congregation. Bear in mind that it was Catholic schools week and attendance was higher than average! Come to think about it, I regret NOT doing it.