Evangelical Poverty and the Healing of the Nations


This essay continues my ongoing project of applying the principles>
of the gospel and the social teaching of the Church to the practical
questions of modern life. The world situation is very confusing now,
I'm thinking that things are closer to being out of control than just about
any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s. For Christians,
there is a gospel imperative to wisely "discern the signs of these times,"
and the advice of popes has been to "Observe, Judge, Act".

So, a question: Could non violence have stopped Hitler?
This question is being discussed over at the Sojourner's magazine listserv.
It is constantly thrown out at Christian pacifists, as though it were the
ultimate Queen of Spades trumping all other cards.

Gandhi thought it was possible.

During the 1930s, he apparently wrote to many people in Germany saying
they had to start a mass non violent resistance to Hitler or all
would be lost in Europe.

That discussion is theoretical and historical. The German opposition
did not organize radical non violence mass resistance, and so they
perished in the concentration camps and tens of millions of more
died during the worldwide conflagration that ensued. And then,
millions more continued to die as the war continued, sometimes hot,
sometimes cold, over the next 50 years. Our Catholic Worker house
remembers one of those victims, Archbishop Oscar Romero of
El Salvador, a man killed with bullets sent to that country by
the United States of America, paid for by the taxpayers.

The violence that was used instead of non violence to suppress
Hitler beget more violence. Violence was used to quell that violence, and
more sprang up, calling for even more wars and bombs and guns and deaths.

Here we are, in the year 2002, and we are now so desensitized to
violence that we defend atrocities as lawful, and our bishops
justify the slaughter of the innocent as "regrettable, but necessary"
(that would be the judgement, for example, of Cardinal Law of Boston,
who obviously has a serious problem with seeing the poor and
weak and defenseless as human persons.

If the question about Nazi Germany is theoretical and historical,
the question about the United States, and how we should non violently
respond to our own culture of death, is very real. It is a question
we must face a thousand times every day. And we must find an answer,

that is our moral duty.
One person posted this question in the discussion thread at Sojourners,
quoting the pacifist theologian Jack Nelson Pallmeyer:
"How can nonviolence be used to stop the United States?"

I don't know the answer. I'm not sure anybody does. But just
because we don't see a complete answer right now in front of our
noses doesn't mean we should be incapacitated with inaction. None of
us have any control over the US government, it's going to do what
it's going to do, and those actions will be driven by the culture of death
which animates it. Even so, each of us is in control of our own lives.
And like charity, home is the place to begin. If you can't solve the big
problem that is out of your control, deal with the small
problem that is within your power.

This is not particularly attractive news. What we want to hear is an
invitation to a big mass rally on Sunday afternoon, which will be colorful
and there will be bands and inspiring speeches and afterwards we will
all march on the government, which will immediately surrender
to our demands and begin working for peace on earth, goodwill to all.

This is the modern way, an instant solution, which requires
minimal commitment, doesn't take much time, and afterwards we
can go back to business as usual, with a bit of after glo from the
feeling of "doing our part for peace and justice." We don't want to hear
that the demonstration doesn't end Sunday afternoon; if it is to be
effective it will go on for days, weeks, months, years, even decades, and
we won't be all together in proud array upon a great field, we will
move one by one, in our families and communities, committing
deeds that speak much louder than any verbal words we could chant.

Relying on words to bring peace and justice, thinking that words are
somehow enough, is but one more way to avoid what is really necessary,
which is a rigorous examination of personal and household conscience
regarding our own personal contributions to the climate of greed,
arrogance, and violence that is the root of our nation's warlike behavior
in this world, and this must be followed by a change in our ways
and manners of living.

Another weakness of relying on words is that the system has many defenses
against verbal attacks. For every expert there is a counter; for every study,
a refutation, for each demonstration, a rallying of opponents. We find
ourselves running in circles, never really accomplishing anything. See how
successful the system is in defending itself from verbal and political challenges?
Millions have marched, signed petitions, given generously to political
campaigns, run for office, and still the culture of death inexorably devours
our entire nation.

The War Party does have an Achilles heal. The culture of death does not
have a perpetual motion machine in its basement that provides all the necessary
resources and people. It is not productive itself, and so it must constantly
be replenished with both people and supplies, and we all contribute, one way
or another, to that. We buy the bullets and rockets that kill children.
We train the armies to torture and disappear political dissidents.
We send the rockets that destroy the schools and hospitals.
These are our tax dollars at work, fueled by our productivity.

Thus, the question of how we live our lives, of what we do with our
productive effort, is one of the primary social justice questions of this day,
for the rich, for the middle class, for the working poor, and for the very poor,
because as long as we pay its bills, the system will continue to do
what it does.

It is our individual choice how much energy we use responsibly, and how
much energy we waste and squander. It is our individual choice whether we
push the speed limits on the freeways, driving 70 or 75 miles per hour or
even faster, or whether we obey a self imposed speed limit of 55 miles
per hour, thus responsibly conserving gasoline and also refraining
from foolishly squandering money on "speed". It is our individual
choice to use air conditioning to gulp electricity, or to not use air conditioning
and thus radically reduce our electricity consumption.

It is our individual choice how much trash we produce,
which is then uselessly burned or buried in holes in the ground.

It is our individual choice how much obedience we show to the
mass marketers and merchandisers of deceit and manufacturers of consent.
We decide how much instant gratification we will pursue, and how much
we will worship with our hearts and works the creature rather than the Creator.

It is our individual choice where we buy our food, and thus whether we
help preserve American family farmers or help destroy family
farmers and thus enrich the agribizness transnationals.

It is our individual choice to mortgage our homes to the maximum in order
to access cash for consumer goods or expensive vacations. It is our individual
choice to carry a half dozen credit cards and pay double digit interest on
money we spend for dinners at restaurants, movies, and more stuff to
clutter our houses. It is our individual choice to live so far above our
means that we must work ourselves to exhaustion and carry such high
levels of debt to do our duty to keep up with the mythical Joneses.

It is our individual choice to steal food from hungry children in poor
countries so that we can have a fresh green salad during the snows of
the North American winter. Make no mistake about it. Chances are very
good that that is what you are doing when you eat green salad when there's
snow on the ground. At least have the decency to say a prayer for the child
whose food you eat. (Better that you shouldn't eat it, however.)

Based on many individual choices such as this, where we sometimes inflict
cruelty and injustice upon others, and sometimes rape and exploit the
natural environment, so that we can enjoy the benefits of our "high energy
American lifestyle," it is therefore the sum of our individual choices
whether the US Empire continues its wars of greed and aggression or
learns the folly of empire and embraces a more peaceful,
non interventionist foreign policy.

What message is your lifestyle sending to the politicians who are
ruining this world? Are you saying, "Stop, No More!" Or are you saying,
"Kill more people! Destroy more countries!"? Your actions speak
louder than your words.

A person can claim to be against violence in the Middle East all day long,
but as long as he or she wastes energy like the typical American household,
their actions drown out their words. The refusal of most American
households to responsibly conserve energy is an open and ongoing and
irresistable demand to the government to use whatever means are
necessary to ensure a continued supply of cheap energy;
any level of violence is permissible.

Energy usage is not just a matter of dollars and cost effectiveness;
it is a transgenerational moral issue. To take refuge in the worship of the
Gods of Technology and Greed to avoid energy conservation evades, but
does not eliminate, the moral issue.

Let me repeat this again so that no one is mistaken about what I am saying:
in the present circumstances, the refusal to radically conserve energy
says this to our government: "Kill anyone you want, destroy any country
you want, all we care about is low energy prices." If that's not the message
you want to send, radically reduce your energy consumption and send
a different, more peaceful and hopeful, message.

Gandhi suggested that if people had been less willing to go along to
get along with Nazi Germany, tens of millions of deaths could have
been averted. Is our willingness to go along with this culture's
materialistic imperialistic consumerism condemning millions in our own day
to death and misery? The answer is YES.

Gandhi once explained that the success of his nonviolent methods in
India depended upon him working with what was already there. He said
there were a lot of people sitting around in India, and part of what
he did was to say, "OK, if you are going to sit around anyway, do it
intentionally; sit HERE, and chant THIS." (I think I read this in
Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals".)

Since the American Empire is 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.

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 and evil which contribute so much to the problems of
this era are indeed fed, one little bite at a time, by the voluntary choices
of myriads of people. People who go to a peace demonstration carrying
plastic bottles of expensive tap water shipped long distances, who thus
are squandering fossil fuels in both the manufacture of the plastic bottle
and its transport, may think they are demonstrating for peace, but in fact their
plastic bottles are chanting, "More War! We Want More War!"

The structures of beauty and wisdom that we would replace these with
are, in like manner, planted and grown by the voluntary choices of
people who decide they will eliminate or minimize their involvement
with the structures of sin and evil. If the culture of death calls us to
wealth and power, then the response of life must be to embrace poverty and humility.

If you think your own personal use of air conditioning 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 absolutely wrong.
You are telling yourself something that someone told you in order to help
you feel better about doing evil. No one is so special that they get a
"waste all the energy you want" card from the universe that entitles
them to wage war on innocent people to secure access to energy resources.

The day of compromise with evil is past, if we are to do something
practical about the present situation. Life or death. Good or evil.
Truth or lies. Sustainability or catastrophe. No way to finesse it, wiggle
around it, or win through intimidation. None of the seven deadly sins will
help resolve the situation. There is no golden parachute for the
Americans. As the Bible promises, we will reap a seven fold
harvest from what we have sown in furrows of injustice. Perhaps now
would be the time to start sowing better seed, in furrows of peace
and justice, so that we can have a rescue harvest after the bitter falls upon us.

The longer we delay facing our personal and household responsibilities,
the more problems will emerge. The sooner we embrace our personal
responsibilities, and 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 in the world,
there will be less violence, less greed, less arrogance, and
more life, love, beauty, and wisdom..

What each person and household does indeed makes a difference.
Imperial households support imperial governments. Households rooted
in the evangelical counsels and virtues such as poverty, humility,
temperance, justice, and fortitude, grow a civilization of life and love.
There should be a difference between the "households of life" and the
"culture of death", and if there isn't, that's evidence that the culture of
death is winning. At least in the short term.

There is no way out of the culture of death without conversion of
heart and mind, and a subsequent change in our ways and manners of living.

This is bound to involve considerable personal inconvenience, pain, and
sacrifice, and so we know how popular this proposal will be. But all the way
to heaven is indeed heaven, and I will remind folks that I have now
survived two Oklahoma summers without air conditioning, which just goes to
show that God does not give us a cross too heavy for us to bear.

The future will grow from what we plant today. We humans have an
uncanny ability on occasion to dig in and do the right thing. Sometimes our
circumstances force this upon us, but always it is a work of grace. We've seen
the effect of entire populations motivated to do evil, but the fact is, even
a few people determined to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly
before their God can have an enormous impact 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 the destruction, but they were no where to be found.

This has been true time and again in history, and it is true today also,
which is another argument against that tired lie that is so enabling of
procrastination: "What I do doesn't matter." It does indeed matter.
You may be one of ten in your city whose presence and witness will avert
destruction, most likely by showing people a better way to live,
a model that they can follow through difficult circumstances, an
offer of conversion and grace and sacramental hope.

The stakes are high, for many, perhaps death, untimely, tragic, painful.
The rich (and this includes countries) often try to insulate themselves,
one way or another and with varying degrees of success, from many of
the risks of life, but the poor have no such protection. Indeed, the rush of
deaths among them has already begun. It is increasingly apparent that the
default solution of the modern world to the problem of poverty
is that the poor should die. Surprise, we knew that, it is a culture of
death after all, how could it be otherwise?

It's not an accident that the margins of the poorest of the poor are
being squeezed everywhere. Here in the United States, millions of units
of low income housing have been destroyed by various urban renewal
schemes and not replaced with similar housing. And most of this has not
been market driven, it's been one political deal after the other, and each
and every time the "space" of the poor is taken for the benefit of
those who are not poor. The sin of covetousness remains with us today,
alive and well, and is fundamental to the way local governments
carry out urban renewal programs. It's not a pretty sight when
"anything goes" becomes the basic maxim of economic development.

Republicans say they want a free market, and Democrats agree, but nobody
is talking about a market where the poor could participate in the community's
economic life. That much economic freedom might threaten the
Establishment. The Law of Moses assured the poor the right to glean at
the margins of their community for their subsistence, but the modern world
recognizes no such right, and places where poor people have traditionally
found subsistance have been enclosed for the benefit of others,
with the poor excluded.

Thus, 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. The poor die, the rich benefit. That's the modern "social
compact"; as it is in Afghanistan, so it is in Oklahoma City.

Modern philosophers and intellectuals drive this process with their
denials of objective truth: "everything's relative and contextual," they say.
Leaders are thus corrupted, they sacrifice the common good to enhance
the wealth and power of themselves and their allies. Religious leaders
agree with the modern NewSpeak, and even Catholic bishops are heard
blessing the slaughter of the innocent for the sake of politics
and ideology and greed.

Government is a zero sum game, where the goal is to prosper at the expense
of others; hurt them before they hurt you, deny your enemies access to
resources and acquire those resources for yourself and you friends.

People go along to get along. They constantly tell themselves, "This won't
really matter, I'm only one person, what can I do to change things? And
everybody else is doing it, if I don't, they will think I'm weird."

Jesus taught this: "Those who are not for me, are against me."
He didn't suggest going along to get along when they redefine people
as "tissue", or "collateral damage" in order to make murder appear to
be something other than what it is: the deliberate and willful taking
of a human life.

He didn't teach the duty of the rich to steal the land and space of the poor.

He didn't call the world to war, starvation, and pestilence.

He said, Blessed are the peacemakers, and Blessed are the poor and
Woe to the rich. The mighty will be confounded, the proud cast down,
and the lowly will be exalted.

The choice to serve God and journey in justice and solidarity with
the poor is not a pious platitude, nor is it a sentimental emotion, nor an
intellectual attraction. It is a daily reality that is sometimes harsh, but
ost often beautiful, and characterized by wisdom, prudence, courage,
and hope. It works itself out a thousand times a day, in decisions, large and
small, important and trivial.

You're thirsty, you're not at home, do you buy 6 ounces of watered down
apple juice, packaged in a plastic bottle made from fossil fuels, sold
by an agribizness corporation, or do you refuse and look for a drink
of free water, or perhaps you have planned ahead and have
some water with you.

It's December, you're planning a dinner to celebrate the birth of the
Prince of Peace, do you do indirect violence against the poor in another
country and buy fresh lettuce for your holiday table, or do you
"eat with the season", even at a great feast.

You need some clothes. Do you exploit the poor in Central America by
purchasing a cheap shirt, from a discount merchandiser that has driven
scores of locally owned businesses into bankruptcy, or do you have a shirt
made for you by a local tailor or seamstress?

Do you buy all of your food from agribizness corporations, or do you
shop at the farmer's market and grow some of your own food?

Usually, when people hear "journeying in justice and solidarity with the
poor," they think of giving food, or shelter, or clothing. And yes, it can
include buying groceries from the store to distribute to the poor. We do that
every week, lately we've been spending $200/week and more at a local,
independently owned grocery store, to buy food for our distributions.
Plus I would guestimate that we're getting at least $100 in donations
of actual food each week, which also 100% comes from supermarkets,
some of it from Wal Mart. But I keep thinking about my goal,
which is to come to a place where all of the food we distribute we grow
ourselves, or is grown by others here in the local area. I can't get there in
one leap, but with many small steps, made by many different people,
we will be there. It is good to give food to the poor, it is better to
give fresh, home grown food to the poor.

If we can't become perfect, then we can become better. And the journey in
justice and solidarity is one which does in fact go one little step at a time.
It is not a series of high jumps or fast rabbit races, but the slow, steady,
plodding of the tortoise.

These are not words of advice that our professional "experts" would
give as a response to the degeneration and decay in modern life. They would
begin by denying the degeneration and the decay. But what kind of advice
do culture of death experts give? Words that enhance the culture of death.
If that's what you want to hear, change channels now, because that is not
the message you will find here.

The Catholic Church listened to those experts on the clergy sex scandal issue,
and look at the hot water that has gotten us into. The bishops also listened
to the experts in judging the war against Afghanistan, and there's a direct
relationship between their flawed judgment about that conflict and their
flawed judgment about clergy sex scandals.

Perhaps instead of listening to experts, and then more tragically, following
that advice, both the bishops and us lay folks should start taking seriously
the admonition, "Listen to the poor." That is about as unAmerican a thing
as you could imagine, yet it is a truth of the Gospel. Which makes it very hard
for us Americans to do anything other than accept it as a pious platitude
to be honored rhetorically. It remains, for most, empty of any actual content.
Which is one reason our nation is headed for the ash heap of history.

We prefer to listen to the rich, but throughout history, and today is no
exception, the powerful deceive us for their own advantage. One can say that
by listening to the rich, we have produced the actual situation in which we
live today, for this world is nothing if it is not the product of politicians in
league with experts, funded by the very wealthy. So that suggests that maybe
there is a problem with this "preferential option for the rich", and perhaps
the antidote is to listen to the poor for a change, but I think we don't like
what we hear: "Why are you killing us? Why do you send bombs and missiles
to destroy our schools? Why did you murder my child?"

Both the Bible, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, teach that
the blood of the innocent calls out to God for justice, and we know that God
is faithful, and hears the cry of the poor, and tears down the proud and mighty
and uplifts the poor and humble.

We also know that God destroys the cities and nations of the wicked who
murder and oppress the poor, and this suggests that perhaps, given the
record of history, we should take a break from our arrogance, greed, and
violence to consider our fate. We wouldn't be the first civilization to
destroy ourselves by grabbing and exploiting everything and everyone in sight.
Others before us have abandoned the God of our fathers and mothers and
erected false idols crafted in our own image. We aren't the first to trod
the path of violence, arrogance, and greed, and what exactly is it that
convinces us that we can somehow escape the inevitable
consequences of these actions?

Perhaps it is the instant gratification we get from our participation in these
structures of sin, which also work to blind us with hubris so we can't see
the ash heap of history that we are so rapidly approaching.

Pray without ceasing, as the Bible says, and as I have been saying lately,
"invest in rootstock." While the world rages in fear and violence, our
response is to calmly and peacefully plant gardens. Where others preach
hate and fear, we aim to live in love and respect. If greed is exalted, we will
praise, and attempt to live, an honorable and evangelical poverty.

If this be treason against the culture of death, then the Devil can make
the most of it, but my faith tells me that even though death destroys my
body, yet in my flesh I shall see God. 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."

Robert Waldrop
Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House in Oklahoma City
May 6, 2002