A Baptist and Archbishop Chaput speak out for the Poor
A Mormon, 2 Catholics and a Protestant go into a homeless shelter
Friday, September 14, 2012
Religiously speaking, this presidential election is a fascinating moment in our national life, and for multiple reasons.
First, one party nominated a Mormon and a Roman Catholic as president and vice president respectively, the first time in American history that a major party ticket has excluded a Protestant! This is not the first time a Mormon has sought the presidency. The father of the present Republican nominee unsuccessfully pursued that party’s nomination in 1968. Mormon patriarch Joseph Smith ran for president in 1844, the same year he was assassinated by a “gentile” mob in Nauvoo, Ill.
Second, the ideological orientation of the two Roman Catholic vice presidential candidates could not be more disparate. Yet, both the Republican and the Democrat have been reprimanded by American bishops for their views on economics and sexuality, respectively. (Ironically, the bishops have found themselves chastened over similar issues.)
Third, the Democratic nominee (the country’s first African-American President) is a Christian, long schooled in that faith by the African-American church. Yet many question his Christian profession in surveys indicating some 40 percent of the public still believes him to be a Muslim.
These electoral events bring together four individuals with diverse religious identities, many reflecting contradictory approaches to personal and communal faith. As election-day looms, what in their traditions might unite them, with long-term implications for the party that captures the presidency?
What if these candidates made a concerted response to poverty, a major imperative of each of their respective faiths? Yet each campaign seems strangely silent regarding poverty and the poor. As one commentator recently noted, talking about poverty in this election year is “not a political winner.”
But what if the candidates took their distinct religious traditions seriously enough to make alleviating poverty a “winner” for everyone?
Consider, for example, the Mormon text, Doctrine and Covenants 119:4: “Those who have thus been tithed shall pay one-tenth of all their interest annually, and this shall be a standing law unto them forever, for my holy priesthood, saith the Lord.”
Suppose the Mormon candidate, inspired by his faith tradition, agreed to encourage those making more than $250,000 annually, who would receive additional tax relief through his administration, to give at least 10 percent of their income to benefit poverty-alleviating agencies for perhaps the next four years?
And what if the Roman Catholic vice presidential candidates asserted: “We know we are miles apart on many religio-political questions, but our faith commitment unites us in common concern for poverty. We affirm the recent statement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressing dismay that poverty has been so small an issue in the 2012 campaigns. With our bishops, we recognize that some 12 million Americans are unemployed, while some 10 million exist as the ‘working poor.’ As candidates for vice president, we will follow our faith to work in behalf of the poor in America.”
And what if the Democratic presidential candidate recalled the words of the Protestant preacher, Martin Luther King Jr., who organized the “Poor Peoples’ Movement” in 1968, the year of his assassination: “People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, 'We are here; we are poor; we don't have any money; you have made us this way...and we've come to stay until you do something about it.'"
What if this president affirmed his own faith-based commitment to “do something about” poverty in 2012? This could involve conversations and strategies related to government programs, nonprofits, and religious communities, all revisiting together the growing needs of the impoverished among us.
In the end, whoever gains the presidency, might “a preferential response to the poor” become a real “political winner” for everyone?
Suppose we accept the assertions of the Mormon, the two Catholics and the Protestant that they are indeed persons of faith. And if they are, let’s ask them to take seriously another ancient text, claimed by all three of their traditions: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has not works, is dead” (James 2: 15-17).
Matter of fact, if the rest of us ever-squabbling-faith-based-sinners should take those words even half-way to heart perhaps a renewed effort to attack poverty and its horrible affects together would have political, ethical and yes, even spiritual implications for an entire nation. I’d vote for that, by God, no picture ID required.
© 2012 Associated
As we enter another election season, it’s important to remember that the way we lead our public lives needs to embody what the Catholic faith teaches -- not what our personalized edition of Christianity feels comfortable with, but the real thing; the full package; what the Church actually holds to be true. In other words, we need to be Catholics first and political creatures second.
The more we transfer our passion for Jesus Christ to some political messiah or party platform, the more bitter we feel toward his Church when she speaks against the idols we set up in our own hearts. There’s no more damning moment in all of Scripture than John 19:15: “We have no king but Caesar.”
The only king Christians have is Jesus Christ. The obligation to seek and serve the truth belongs to each of us personally. The duty to love and help our neighbor belongs to each of us personally. We can’t ignore or delegate away these personal duties to anyone else or any government agency.
More than 1,600 years ago, St. Basil the Great warned his wealthy fellow Christians that “The bread you possess belongs to the hungry. The clothing you store in boxes belongs to the naked.”
St. John Chrysostom, Basil’s equally great contemporary, preached exactly the same message: “God does not want golden vessels but golden hearts,” and “for those who neglect their neighbor, a hell awaits with an inextinguishable fire in the company of the demons.”
What was true then is true now. Hell is not a metaphor. Hell is real. Jesus spoke about it many times and without any ambiguity. If we do not help the poor, we’ll go to hell. I’ll say it again: If we do not help the poor, we will go to hell.
And who are the poor? They’re the people we so often try to look away from -- people who are homeless or dying or unemployed or mentally disabled. They’re also the unborn child who has a right to God’s gift of life, and the single mother who looks to us for compassion and material support. Above all, they’re the persons in need that God presents to each of us not as a “policy issue,” but right here, right now, in our daily lives.
Thomas of Villanova, the great Augustinian saint for whom Villanova University is named, is remembered for his skills as a scholar and reforming bishop. But even more important was his passion for serving the poor, and his zeal for penetrating the entire world around him with the virtues of justice and Christian love.
Time matters. God will hold us accountable for the way we use it. All of us who call ourselves Christians share the same vocation to love God first and above all things; and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We’re citizens of heaven first; but we have obligations here. We’re Catholics and Christians first. And if we live that way -- zealously and selflessly in our public lives -- our country will be the better for it; and God will use us to help make the world new.