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The poor will always be with you. But do we have to have so many of them?

Lenten meditations on justice and peace



Monday of Holy Week

Readings: Isaiah 42:1-7 -- John 12:1-11

I have called you for the victory of justice, says the Lord through the pen of Isaiah, speaking of the Suffering Servant. This is the one who will open the eyes of the blind, release the prisoners, and bring light to the darkness. Alas, in this modern world, "justice" and "victory of" are not often combined.

In today's Gospel, the Suffering Servant is at a dinner in Bethany and Mary anoints him with a costly scented oil. Judas, who as we shall see has a lot of room to talk about anyone else, criticizes this gesture, claiming the money would be better spent helping the poor. Jesus replies with his famous statement, "The poor will always be with you."

How often have we heard this statement quoted to justify opposition to our work of evangelizing economic and social structures?

People think that Jesus' prophetic understanding of the nature of sinful humanity and the structures of sin we create with our sin somehow justifies the exploitation and oppression of the modern world.

Of all the possible explanations for these words, that one isn't even close.

Because the poor are always with us, Jesus' explicit commands regarding our social relationships take on even greater urgency. There is much to be done. But is Congress listening to God's word? Is the President? Are the various state legislatures in the US, and parliaments and congresses in other countries, paying any attention?

Of course not, the last thing on the mind of the Oklahoma State Legislature is "how can we help the poor."  Instead, we steal from the poor to give to the rich. We have so many poor people because that's the way our system is designed to work. People make big money off of poverty, so we need plenty of poor people so we can exploit them.  Poverty is not a perplexing problem without a solution.  It is the known consequence of poor design of social structures and evil actions by governments. This is not to deny that personal problems may be a controlling factor in various individual situations. But seen from a holistic viewpoint, poverty is the result of the greed and oppression wielded by the rich and powerful for their own advantage.  This is as true now as it was under the ancient Roman empire 2,000 years ago.

How well do we listen to God's word in the Church when it comes to our social and community relationships, rights, duties, and responsibilities? Yes, I dare to use the "d" and "r" words. Duties. Responsibilities. Not "when we get around to it" or "if we have time" or "if there is any money left over." We have duties and responsibilities to the poor. Non-optional duties and responsibilities --  for Church, family, individual, state, nation, world. 

Sadly, the Church has much to answer for in this regard.  The silence of our bishops in the face of unjust war is a scandal before the world.  The inability of the bishops to teach Catholics about the proper roles of law and justice and punishment is a tragedy.

The conspiracy of our bishops and the Vatican to hide the evil of clerical sexual abuse continues to tarnish the ministry of the Church. Their material cooperation with the objective evil of unjust war is a shame and a scandal. That no one cares about the bishops' orientation of moral relativism toward war, other than a few marginal folks here and there, is a further shame and scandal in the Church.  The worldly lives of luxury of so many of our bishops are nails holding the hands and feet of Christ to the Cross.  Dorothy Day said that the Church is a Cross on which Christ is crucified every day.

Jesus Christ was not tortured and murdered  so that 2000 years later, rich First World Catholics could have lives of luxury, profiting from violence and war, while giving a pittance  of time and treasure to satisfy the duties and responsibilities of justice. Time? We should donate time too? Time, treasure, and more.

We are called for the victory of Justice. From where does this come?  It begins in the Passion of Christ and covers all time and all people. All of us have something to do towards that victory. No one is exempt.  Isaiah says to open the eyes of the blind, to release prisoners from the dungeon.  We begin by examination of  eagerness to lock people up in jails. If the call of Isaiah is to release the prisoners, we should ask ourselves -- why do we have so many people in jail?

  • We criminalize stupidity.
  • We criminalize immorality.
  • We criminalize people we are mad at.
  • We criminalize people so we can make money off of them.
  • We criminalize people who make unpopular choices.
  • We criminalize people because they are poor.
  • We criminalize people to force them to do what we think they should do.
  • We criminalzie people because they are mentally ill.

So it comes to pass that the United States has the highest prison population in the world -- more than two million people! Nearly five million people were on probation or parole! With less than 5% of the world's population, 23.4% of the world's prison population are in the United States. 40% of the prison population is African American (13% of the general population is African American). Hispanics, 16% of the national population, are 20% of the prison population.

  • Half of the people in state prisons are there for violent crimes.
  • Only 1/5 of the people in city or county jails were there for violent crimes.  Jails are the primary place where poor and mentally ill people are locked up because they are poor or mentally ill or they owe the government money.
  • Over the past 30 years, the prison population has grown 400%. The primary driver has been the war on people who use drugs.  Incarcerations for drug offences grew 1200% since 1980.

Our system of "justice" is not a system of justice, but a structure of social domination and control.  Possession of a gram of marijuana can and has been punished in some areas with life in prison.

Meanwhile, criminals such as Al Gore and Bill Clinton and George Bush I and II live lives of luxury and impunity.

We should therefore not be surprised when the police act with injustice and immorality, because thatís the nature of the structure within which we have embedded them.

To me, this situation seems rooted in the narcissism of our society.

ME ME ME ME!  I am the most important person on the planet.  My wants, my needs, they are the most important.  I have a right to my demands, whatever they may be.

In fact, people who disagree with me, should be locked up, right? 

Of course not, you reply, that's a terrible thing to say.

But I think if we look at our criminal justice system, that we have the system we have because we are the people that we are. Greedy, narcissistic, cruel, and without mercy.  This is certainly writ large when the legislatures of our states are in session.

So it cames to pass, that 2000 years later, we are still crying out CRUCIFY HIM, CRUCIFY HIM!

Prayer intentions today:

Let us pray for all people, but especially those who serve in Congress and our state legislatures. 

+ Bring all people  to an understanding of the proper role of law in our society, we pray to the Lord.

+ Teach us to  stop locking people up for unjust reasons, and release prisoners who are in jail for unjust reasons, we pray to the Lord.

+ Help us to repent of the crimes of injustice that we commit, we pray to the Lord.

+ For those who share the responsibility and duty of teaching Catholic doctrine, that they will break open the riches of God's Word regarding our social and community relationships, so that the call to the people is clear, compelling, and without ambiguity.

Praxis today:

+ What are your social duties and responsibilities? Make a list. Check it twice. Examine your conscience.

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