Sociological studies are demonstrating that societies with wider gaps between rich and poor experience higher levels of violence, poorer health for all, lower levels of trust and community participation as well as higher levels of racism and sexism.1 Patterns such as these can open our eyes to the ways that we’ve structured society so that it benefits the rich by giving privileged access to limited social goods, and marginalizes the poor by denying access. Patterns such as these reveal that poverty is a type of violence.
Such negative impacts on society are all very good reasons why the growing gap between rich and poor should disturb us. However, for people of faith, these reasons also point to deeper issues. Indeed, they call us to examine what it means to be people of faith in such a social context.
“Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask
for ancient paths, where the good way lies;
and walk in it” (Jer. 6:16)
We know that faith is nurtured and deepened in the context of community where personal relationships call us to make our love concrete in many different ways. But the prophetic voices of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures call us to live community in even deeper ways. It is not enough to be a caring individual. The prophets also insist that we are meant to shape radical new patterns in society. Through the call to Covenant, they spotlight the Wilderness Journey of Exodus in which the people are drawn by God into new social and economic patterns, into patterns of justice and compassion. In the process, God is revealed as the God of Justice and Compassion.
“I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth,
for in these things I delight.” (Jer. 9:23)
Likewise, when Jesus of Nazareth reveals to us what it is to be authentically human, we find ourselves called to deeper practices of justice and compassion. As we watch Jesus interact with his society, we learn that we are called to live Communion. In his life we see that being in intimate relationship with God is fully integrated with seeking to live patterns of justice and compassion in all of our relationships – personal, social, political, economic, ecological or cultural.
“Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person
to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 6.21)
The growing gap between rich and poor and the Reign of the God of Justice and Compassion are antithetical. Or, to put it another way, an unjust society cannot help but undermine God’s call to participate in Communion since such a society slowly tears itself apart at the seams as people lose both hope and compassion.
How have we gotten to this place where Christian communities live so comfortably with the rupture that exists between our faith stories and the stories of globalized capitalism? On the one hand, we know that God, who is Justice and Compassion, reaches out in desire for union with every creature, continually creating, liberating and sanctifying us in order to draw us into the fullness of Communion. On the other hand, we have been immersed in the vision, values and assumptions of corporate-led capitalism our whole life and it has left us with a badly distorted sense of purpose and identity. To a great extent, we think, feel and act as though we were separate from each other, as if “more” for another meant “less” for us, as if our worth were rooted in how we compare to others in terms of our work, our possessions, our social status and so much more.
As a result of our immersion in corporate-led capitalism, we hardly blink when we hear of maximizing profit at all costs, shopping wherever we can find the best bargain, calling migrants “illegal” when they’ve come in search of viable employment, praising the use of tax dollars to benefit corporations but not to support people who need to access social assistance, and choosing small government over collective efforts to address social and economic concerns.
All these choices, and many others like them, show that we are living the stories of globalized capitalism, not those of Christianity. Or rather, we have allowed globalized capitalism to distort our Christianity to the point where these two worldviews can comfortably co-exist.
The bottom-line is, as people of faith, we are called to create community structures that ensure everyone has enough when it comes to the basic goods in society and to give to all a social place of respect. In a just and compassionate society, people will not need to rely on charity to access basic shared goods such as food, safe and affordable housing, jobs that pay a living wage, safe working conditions, life-long education and training, dental and health care, security from violence, access to transportation, recreation and an ecologically healthy bio-region.
Just as the Hebrew prophets pointed to the Economy of Enough and the Practices of Social Inclusion as concrete implications of their community’s faith relationship with God, the Christian faith communities of today need to look into the concrete social and economic implications of our faith.
Will we search our souls to see how a faith-filled vision of community can become badly distorted by the assumptions of corporate-led capitalism?
Will we be the catalysts that move our society from living patterns of rivalry and exclusion to engaging justice issues for the common good?
- Patterns of violence and poverty in today’s society point to deeper issues of broken relationships and unjust social and economic structures that marginalize the poor. In this context, what does Jeremiah 6:16 say to people of faith? How does it translate into action?
- How do we live in community in deeper ways and shape new patterns of justice and compassion in society? What do these patterns look like in our personal, social, economic, political and ecological relationships?
- Why have we become so comfortable in supporting corporate-led capitalism, in maximizing profits at all cost, in choosing self-interests over collective efforts to address social concerns such as poverty? How does our biblical vision of life address this distorted worldview?
- As faith communities, how can we be catalysts for change in creating structures that protect the well-being of all people and advance the common good? What are some concrete actions and practices we can take to meet the needs of the poor?
Sue Wilson, CSJ is a CPJ board member. She works at the Systemic Justice Office of the Sisters of St. Joseph. The Office of Systemic Justice works on issues of poverty, climate change and human trafficking, with emphasis on public education and lobbying for policy change.
- 1. Richard Wilkinson, The Impact of Inequality (New York, NY: The New Press, 2005), pp. 36-53.