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Personal Sins of the Poor

The poor are no less susceptible to the "seven capital sins". The effects of their sin on the social structures of oppression, though, are less than that of the wealthy because there is a power differential between the rich and the poor. A poor person who engages in self-destructive behavior affects himself and a limited circle of associates (friends, neighbors). But the sins of the rich -- who may, e.g., be responsible for the unemployment of thousands, or the destruction of entire neighborhoods via urban "renewal," the financing of drug distribution networks, and the propagation of hate speech about the poor -- are as deadly to the poor as anything they do to themselves.

The poor are human persons who possess dignity and who reflect the transcendent God. To not call the poor to account for their personal sins that contribute to their plight, is to deny their essential humanity and their dignity. But it must be remembered in the current context, that to note the existence of personal sin as a contributing factor to poverty is not to claim that (e.g.) the poor are solely responsible for their plight, or even that they hold the major responsibility for their situations. Much of the sin of the poor has been stimulated, enabled, and encouraged by the structures of sin that have their foundation in the personal sins of the rich, the powerful, and the affluent. And so it may be that the rich who oppress the poor must share in these personal sins of the poor. Pope John Paul has noted (in his Brazil speeches of 1980) that the primary problem affecting the poor is injustice, and that the injustice of the rich drives the sin of the poor. The Vincentian movement, which perhaps has more direct experience with the poor than any other Catholic movement except for Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, says that while there are exceptions, most people are poor because they have been made poor. This is a direct contradiction of the "popular wisdom" of the era.

The poor contribute to their problems when they engage in fraud to receive public and private welfare assistance, abuse welfare and hospitality providers, envy those who are making efforts to better their circumstances; also when they are lazy about working to better their condition, commit sins of anger and wrath, engage in drug addiction and peddling, practice conspicuous consumption, sexual immoralities, and abortion, and when they commit crimes against each other and the rich. These personal sins participate in the social sins that cry out to heaven, including their personal acts that oppress other poor people (e.g. crime), murder of the innocent (gang/thug activity), not helping each other, not participating in heir neighborhoods, and not living in solidarity with the rest of the community.

It is important that we not idealize the poor, but it is equally important not to demonize them nor to avoid confronting unpleasant facts about American society via a fixation on blaming the poor for their own plight. The Gospel message is that everything in human society needs redemption -- rich, poor, middle class, government, economic structures, cultural and community institutions. Sometimes Jesus wears very distressing disguises when He comes among us.

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