Dodge: Social Justice

By Kevin Dodge (email)

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, recently published an article in Commonweal, commenting on Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si. As usual, Williams’ erudition and wisdom make his analysis worth considering.

Unlike others who either criticize Francis for his discomfort with markets or depict him as a new progressive voice, in an otherwise reactionary Church, Williams charts a different course. Williams sees Francis’ warnings in broad continuity with previous papal opinion. I’ll let Williams speak for himself:

“This encyclical is emphatically not charting a new course in papal theology … The fact [is] that we live in a culture illustrated by the persistent tendency of modern human agents to act as though the naked fact of personal desire for unlimited acquisition were the only ‘given’ in the universe, so that ordinary calculations of prudence must be ignored. Measureless acquisition, consumption or economic growth in a finite environment is a literally nonsensical idea.”

One of the Pope’s big ideas in Laudato Si is that the rich are harming the poor because of excess consumption. The environmental degradation which comes through overconsumption benefits rich countries but harms poor countries greatly because of the effects of climate change. It’s long been the job of the Church to point out such injustices and to seek to correct them.

I suspect most of us would be very saddened to learn we were harming the poor. Incarnation’s parishioners are, by and large, generous, thoughtful and loving people. We give time, resources and energy to improve our communities and the world. It’s a central part of our mission to do so.

Yet we should remember what God said through the prophet Amos: “because you trample upon the poor and take from him exactions of wheat, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them…Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time” (Amos 5.11-13).

We should keep silent in an evil time? The best way to understand this is that the prudent are often silenced in evil times. That’s how you know the times are evil. Amos is talking about systematic injustice toward the poor in taxation, law and economics. The rich sat atop a rigged system in Israel. God’s threat was to send Israel into exile for this.

Reasonable people can (and should) disagree over the best technical solutions for socio-economic woes. But what should never be in question is the poor’s preferential position in God’s economy and in our hearts.

The great Medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides reminds us that the “highest degree of righteousness, exceeded by none, is that of one who …. [puts the poor person] in a situation where he can dispense with other people’s aid.” Lifting the poor out of poverty by employing them, training them and giving them dignity is the highest form of social justice.

We must never let the poor become an abstraction. Use whatever influence you have to give dignity and self-respect to those who need it.

Categories: Between Sundays