Evangelical Poverty and the Healing of the Nations

"Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war. You do not possess because you do not ask. You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions." James 4

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What message is your lifestyle sending to the government? Do your words speak peace, but your lifestyle cry out for violence? Are you shoving the poor out of your way in your own pursuit of the "American Dream"?

Everywhere on earth, resource scarcity drives war and violence. When it comes to conflict the media focuses on religion and ideology, but scratch the surface of these conflicts and you find violence over land, water, minerals, oil, and other resources. More people using more stuff require even more stuff and more stuff requires more energy and more resources to manufacture. If there is a crowd pushing to get access to something, the weak and the poor will be the first to be shoved out of the way. The rise in the price of oil, and the continued increase in petroleum consumption by rich countries, yields less oil available for the poor countries. We are outbidding them in the energy marketplaces. Because we are taking more, there is less for them. And so it comes to pass that everywhere the margins of the poorest of the poor are squeezed to the point of collapse. Our nation's war policy in Iraq and elsewhere is directly related to the greed, waste, and gluttony that is the non-negotiable basis of the American "lifestyle".

We make many individual economic and lifestyle choices every day, and each year we make political choices. Sometimes we inflict cruelty and injustice upon others with our choices. Sometimes we rape and exploit the natural environment. We close our eyes to the consequences of these bad choices. Yet, the practical details of how we live, shop and spend our money, may have deadly consequences for others. The culture of death suggests that we just ignore those consequences, but this is not the way of Christ.

Our involvement with violence in the Middle East relates directly to our national dependence upon petroleum. It's been obvious for a long time that we face trouble ahead with our petroleum supplies, but the response of most American households has been to ignore the warning signals and to spend energy like it was cheap and plentiful. The refusal of most American households to responsibly conserve energy is (effectively) an ongoing demand to the government to use whatever means are necessary to ensure a continued supply of cheap energy. We are telling our leaders that any level of violence is permissible to satiate our thirst for energy and resources.

During the middle of the winter, we load our tables with fresh out of season vegetables, much of which is imported from very poor countries. It is grown by giant corporations on land that is often stolen from its original family farmer owners. They are occasionally murdered, and sometimes just "relocated" to an urban slum, where they are too poor to buy the produce grown on their former lands. Even if those fresh agribizness veggies are grown in this country, they come to your table courtesy of the desperation of the poor migrant farm workers who are willing to work for less than minimum wage. Migrant farm workers typically earn less than $8,000/year. You pay for this exploitation with your dollars.

We deliberately close our eyes to these realities. We refuse to acknowledge any responsibility for how we spend our money, even as we steal food from the mouths of hungry children in poor countries. In fact, we tell ourselves bold lies to make us feel good about keeping these people hungry, exploited, and poor. After all, people would complain if the agribizness corporations had to pay a just wage to their laborers.

Pope John Paul II wrote about the problems that "structures of sin" create in our societies. These structures of sin make it easy to do evil, they reward evil, sometimes they make it appear as though evil was the only choice available to us. The structures are empowered by the individual choices we make - our own personal sins - that create more evil in the world.

Just as there are structures of evil, there are structures of beauty and goodness that are empowered when we do good, resist evil, and choose righteousness over wickedness.

How each person and household lives therefore does indeed make a difference for good or for evil in this world. Imperial households support imperial governments. Households rooted in the evangelical counsels and virtues such as humility, temperance, justice, and fortitude grow a civilization of life and love. If we want peace, we must contribute to peace by radically reducing our greed and gluttony and our consequent demands on the natural and human environments which in turn reduces our demands on our political system for more war and more violence. We call this manner of living "a little way of justice and peace" that is open to all who are willing to take personal responsibility for living a Christian life in this modern world..

When we take the bus, walk, or ride a bicycle instead of driving. . . when we vote for adequate mass transit systems, we call our government to peace. When we push the speed limits, race between stop lights, buy gas guzzling cars, we call our government to war and death. And so it comes to pass, every day, in a hundred ways, some big, some small, by the way we spend (or don't spend) our money we call our government to war or peace, life or death, hope or despair, sustainability or environmental catastrophe.

Gandhi once said that if people had been less willing to go along to get along with Nazi Germany, millions of deaths could have been averted. Our willingness to go along with the culture of death's structures of sin (such as materialistic gluttony) is condemning hundreds of millions in our own day to death, poverty, and misery. Since the American Empire is such a money dependent materialistic society, a significant factor in our nonviolent, peaceful opposition to the culture of death must be to not spend so much money, not buy so much stuff, not store so much stuff, not live with so much stuff, not haul around so much stuff, not use so much stuff, and then, ultimately, not throw away so much stuff and not bury so much stuff in the ground, where it becomes useless waste. Our addiction to the mindless consumption of stuff is a manifestation of disordered priorities and decadence, not of strength and hard work.

Waste not, want not, our grandfathers and grandmothers once advised us; now people snicker and roll their eyes when they hear such quaint speech. The structures of sin which contribute so much to the problems of this era are fed, one little bite at a time, by the voluntary choices of myriads of people. In like manner, the structures of beauty and wisdom that should replace these evils are planted and grown by the voluntary choices of people who decide they will eliminate or minimize their involvement with structures of sin and evil and who go on to make a positive contribution to their communities that is rooted in actual changes in the way their households live. We got into this one bad decision at a time. We will get out of it one good decision at a time.

If you think your own personal consumption doesn't really matter in the long run and grand scheme of things because you are only one person, and a special one at that, you are wrong. You are telling yourself something that the system has taught you in order to help you feel better about making bad choices. No one is so special that they get a "waste all the energy and consume all the resources you want" card from the universe that entitles them to wage war on innocent people to secure access to cheap resources such as petroleum. The judgment of the Catholic Church is that resource wars are unjust wars.

There is no way out of the culture of death without conversion of heart and mind, and a subsequent change in our ways of living. This is bound to involve considerable personal inconvenience, pain, and sacrifice, and so we know how popular this proposal will be. But the stakes are high, for ourselves, our children, and our children's children. Despite what the secular humanist culture of death capitalists say in their glorification of greed and gluttony, we can't base our economic life on the seven deadly sins and expect to not have serious problems. Our life on this earth has physical limits. The longer we delay confronting our personal and household responsibilities, the more problems we will face. The sooner we change the ways and manners in which we live, the more secure and sustainable our families, communities, cities and nations will become, and the more hope, peace, and justice there will be in the world. And as there is more hope, peace, and justice there will be less violence, less greed, less arrogance, and more life, love, beauty, and wisdom.

The future will grow from what we plant today. We've seen the effect of entire populations motivated to do evil, but even a few people determined to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before their God can have an enormous impact for good on the flow of events. This is one of the truths of the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; even ten righteous could have averted that calamity, but they were nowhere to be found.

These are grave and terrible times in which we live. New horsemen of the apocalypse ride about the world, seeking the ruin of souls and the deaths of many: Economic injustice and catastrophe, starvation, violence, revolution, war, pestilence, embargoes and sanctions are in the news every day.

In response to the ongoing deterioration of the situation of the poor worldwide, Mother Teresa of Calcutta called upon those who are rich to take and use less, so that there would be more for others. Thus, instead of encouraging fear and violence, we can plant gardens of abundance and peace. Where others preach hate and fear, we can live in love and respect. If greed is exalted, we should praise and live an honorable and evangelical poverty, in the world, yet not of the world.

If this be treason against the culture of death, then the Devil can make the most of it, but our Catholic faith tells us that even though death destroys the body, yet in your flesh you shall see God. Yes, there is the valley of the shadows of death, but it is not a place to fear any evil, for if we walk there, God walks with us every step of the way. His staff is there to comfort and protect, and he leads us to green pastures. God restores our soul, and in the end, goodness and mercy will reign in justice and peace. I know that's how this all ends up. I read the Book all the way to the end. "And the leaves of the trees were for the healing of the nations."

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