The topic of discussion yesterday in my Sunday School class was “social justice.” We are reading Ronald Rohlheiser’s book “The Holy Longing.” He makes a point of the difference between charity and justice: charity being how we give from our generosity to those in need, and justice being how we try to change the systems that create poverty and alienation.
I was taken-aback by the amount of anger simmering just below the surface in some of the class members. I was prepared for an idealistic, creative sharing of ideas and instead was embroiled in a resentful, borderline hostile, debate on government entitlement programs. I can understand the perspective of hardworking taxpayers. But, I was surprised by the vituperative talk from these otherwise nice people. The general feeling was that too many people take terrible advantage of the safety net our society tries to provide. One woman, who works as a cashier in a grocery story, expressed her frustration at customers who use food stamps to buy their food, then spend $40 cash on beer and cigarettes in the same transaction. Another woman, less specifically, alleged that many families on welfare keep having children just to get more benefits. No one was really in the mood to discuss Dorothy Day’s support of the Catholic Worker’s Movement and distributism, or Liberation Theology, or the assassination of Oscar Roméro. Forget the nonviolent revolutions of Gandhi or Martin Luther King!
I’m left wondering how to reconcile personal feelings with long-term goals of change and improvement. If these people, who are extremely generous in their personal giving to ministries that serve the homeless, the poor, the disenfranchised, can feel so helpless and cynical, to whom will we turn? What can be said or done to inspire hope and compassion?
We did not complete the chapter and hopefully there will be some redemption in next Sunday’s discussion. Rolheiser recounts the story of an interview of Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourner’s magazine, on national radio. Wallis had had considerable reservations about the Gulf War of 1991 and the victory celebrations afterwards. The interviewer said to him, “This time the protesters of war have to admit they were wrong.” Wallis replied, “We weren’t wrong—we just lost! There is a difference.” Rolheiser concludes that “the struggle for justice and peace is not ultimately about winning or losing but about fidelity.”
I sincerely hope my Sunday School class can get to the third verse of “How Can I Keep From Singing?”
“When tyrants tremble, sick with fear and hear their death knells ringing;
When friends rejoice both far and near, How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile Our thoughts to them are winging.
When friends by shame are undefiled, How can I keep from singing?”
Very apt title! And in keeping with the acrimonious spirit of one person in my own adult ed class yesterday–in this case, not only about government take over of our lives, but an insistence upon seeing Islam as all about control and take-over as well.
A similar spirit of hardening and anger.
I can understand the anger about abuse of welfare resources (and abuse of one’s body with the cigarettes). But the challenge to think structurally is always immense. A college classmate of mine has gone into public health, and speaks of obesity as a social problem, not first and foremost an individual one. This shift of perspective is very hard for us–especially when it easily turns into something impersonal (economic forces, structural sin of many kinds).
Is what such angry voices seek to first be heard, themselves? Is it feeling disenfranchised in some way? Is it feeling like we want to justify giving less of our time and money when we are already stretched as it is? What do you sense if behind the anger, if anything beyond a protest at an abuse of the “system” of welfare? Why do you think there’s resistance to thinking about justice? Do only innocent, morally pure victims warrant a reorganization of society on their behalf?