Sunday, July 5

Option for the Poor and Vulnerable

Over the last century, the duty of solidarity and the preferential option for the poor have become major pieces of Catholic Social Thought. Solidarity has been seen as a duty, one which is not simply the desire to change but the will to enact change, as well as a call to commitment and servitude. In other words - those who wish to become great must become a servant, and those who wish to be first must become last – or rather, they must become a servant to all (Mark 10:43). The message of the gospel is transformative, and when we engage in social justice work we not only attempt to avoid evil but overcome it entirely. It is concerned with building the kingdom of God on earth and through God’s love in our lives, with loving our brothers and sisters and with bringing justice and love to all the nations. Questions arise, then - what might be some of the barriers to building solidarity relationships with people who are poor? What can be done to overcome those barriers? In order to explore these questions, it is important to read the signs of the times, understand the Biblical tradition and its perspective on poverty, and determine what it means to have a preferential option for the poor, and will provide a personal experience on how these concepts may be lived out.

Reading the Signs of the Times
There are a number of barriers, to solidarity with the poor and vulnerable. For example, the class system in the United States makes it difficult for those in the upper or middle class to relate to the lower class, or vice versa. Other barriers are racism, gender discrimination, the apparent stigma associated with associating with “poor people,” and so forth. The Church is known to read the signs of the times, and in order to understand these and other barriers to solidarity, one must therefore read these signs of the times. In 1996, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops noted that in the southern regions, approximately 1.3 billion people live in poverty, and approximately 12.5 million children die each year from diseases that may be easily prevented with the proper health care.[1] But in fact, health care, clean drinking water, good nutrition and basic education are available for only about one billion human beings.[2] These statistics are nearly twenty years old at this point, but the signs of the times today indicate that the numbers have only shown an increased margin between the rich and the poor, as well as a continued challenge to provide these basic human needs.

Poverty is a source of suffering and can be seen to symbolize marginalization. Poverty has links to race, gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation, employment, location, environmental issues, political corruption and other challenges, particularly in light of modern globalization.[3] Poverty can also result from a particular illness, a disability or a lack of motivation and initiative. But most often, poverty is the result of economic processes “created and directed by humans. Viewed in this light, poverty appears as a phenomenon that we can influence. We can change such processes by making different societal choices.”[4] Some of the groups that have suffered the most from poverty are women, aboriginal people, displaced people, children and young people living in families.[5] Women, for example, spend a great deal of time caring for their children, taking care of their homes and taking care of their husbands. But this work is unremunerated work. Human rights are at stake. But one of the other barriers to solidarity and to a deeper understanding is how people view an issue. In Canada, for example, “if a parent denies a child food, clothing, and social security, it is considered child abuse, but when our government denies 1,362,000 children the same, it is simply balancing the budget.”[6] This difference of “point of view” can be a barrier that can and has created very real consequences.

When one considers the Biblical “point of view,” poverty in the Hebrew Bible is seen in a number of contexts. God promises to bless those who bless the poor (Psalm 41:1-3, 112; Proverbs 14:21, 31; 19:17, 22:9, 28:27; Isaiah 58:6-10) but to judge those who oppress and denounce the poor (Deuteronomy 27:19; Proverbs 17:5, 21:13, 22:16, 28:27; Isaiah 10:1-4; Ezekiel 16:49, 18:12-13). When the Israelites received the Mosaic Law, God became seen as a God of the oppressed. The poor were given the right to glean fields (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 24:19, 21), and during the sabbatical year, the poor were able to get food by sharing in the produce from the vineyards and the fields (Exodus 23:11; Leviticus 25:6). Further, during the year of Jubilee, the poor could have their property returned (Leviticus 25:25-30), those who borrowed from the poor had to return the possession before the setting of the sun (Exodus 22:25-27; Deuteronomy 24:10-13), and the rich were commanded to be charitable toward the poor (Deuteronomy 15:7-11). The poor were also allowed to share in feasts (Deuteronomy 16:11, 14; Nehemiah 8:10) and part of tithes were to be given to the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 26:12-13). There is similar treatment of the poor in the New Testament as in the Hebrew Bible (Luke 3:11, 14:13; Acts 6:1; Galatians 2:10; James 2:15-16). St. Paul calls Christians to “Remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10). Dr. Luke’s gospel portrays Jesus as being born into poor conditions, and 2nd Corinthians 8:9 describes Jesus becoming poor for us so that we may become rich. Jesus is thus seen as responding and living in solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed of his time.

The CCCB, in reading these signs of the times as well as rooting themselves in sacred Scripture, committed themselves to solidarity with victims of the global economic restructuring, “for example, the fishery workers and coal miners who watch their entire industries shut down; the industrial worker whose job is exported to a low wage zone; the office worker who is declared ‘redundant’ because of new technology or government downsizing. By taking up the path of solidarity with the poor, we acknowledge their importance in the effort to create a new, more humane social order.”[7] But the CCCB is not alone in these efforts. Other groups, such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the anti-poverty activities of PLURA (an ecumenical group), the work of women’s groups, community-based organizations, the Order of Malta, Knights of Columbus, the Franciscans, Sisters of Charity and others have continued to extend an arm to the needy and offer a hand to the poor.[8]

The Preferential Option for the Poor
In recent years, several papal encyclicals have either directly or indirectly addressed the poor, such as the 1991 encyclical from Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, which notes that new forms of poverty have arisen in recent times, requiring an expansion of our definition of the poor and that the Church’s teaching on social justice should not be a mere theory but a motivation for action.[9] Prior to the Second Vatican Council in September 1962, Pope John XXIII suggested “an innovative pastoral and theological perspective when he spoke of the church of the poor. ‘Before the underdeveloped countries, the church is, and wants to be, the church of all people and especially the church of the poor.’”[10] Due to the efforts of Popes such as John Paul II and John XXIII, the Church began again shifting their approach to and concern for the poor.

This is where the “option for the poor” comes in. Since the late 1970s, the phrase “preferential option for the poor” has been used to ask, how do laws and decisions by society effect those who are sick, those who are young, and those who are in poor economic or social standing? In short, what effect do they have on the marginalized? In order to challenge injustices, Pope John Paul II declared that we need to listen to the poor and share their experience with them - or rather, to stand by and with them. Only by doing this can we truly know how economic and political decisions effect the poor.

This preferential option for the poor is one in Christian theology that attempts to respond to the question, “How can one live out the gospel in a world of destitution?”[11] The preferential option for the poor is concerned, as Catholic priest and scholar Fr. Daniel Groody has pointed out, “with a lifestyle and not with sporadic acts of proximity or assistance to the poor.”[12] It should become a way of life, and not simply a weekend outing. It is considered preferential in the sense that God loves all of his creation, but he has a preferential or a special kind of love for the poor due to their destitute position in our unequal and discriminating society. Therefore, the option for the poor essentially means that we are trying to share in their lives, to be friends with them, to be committed to their particular social class – to live with them, as we see in the lives of individuals such as Mother Teresa.

The United States Catholic Bishops has written in their pastoral letter Economic Justice for All that “Our faith calls us to measure this economy not only by what it produces, but also by how it touches human life and whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person. Economic decisions have human consequences and moral content; they help or hurt people, strengthen or weaken family life, advance or diminish the quality of justice in our land.”[13] It is because of this that we are called to uphold the freedom and dignity of the human person. This is when solidarity is also called for - for a kenosis, an emptying of self, which can allow the Body of Christ to see the face of God in poverty, vulnerability and powerlessness.[14]

Pope Paul VI stated that the more fortunate in society ought to renounce some of their rights in order to place their goods at the service of others. In 2004, Hilary Clinton indicated that certain tax cuts were being made on behalf of the common good, so that the margin between the rich and poor would decrease and those below the poverty line could rise above it.[15] Just as the early Christians shared all things in common, although this may seem like an unattainable utopian ideal, we must strive for sharing with those who are vulnerable and those who live in poverty. Making a commitment to the poor is intended to help them become more active in the life of the community and society at large. The USCCB has pointed out that “the deprivation and powerlessness of the poor wounds the whole community. The extent of their suffering is a measure of how far we are from being a true community of persons. These wounds will be healed only by greater solidarity with the poor and among the poor themselves.”[16]

Practical Application
It is important not only to understand the basis for the option for the poor, but also on how someone moves from service to a place of solidarity. At this point, then, I find it important to discuss an immersion (community based) learning experience that deepened my understanding of being in solidarity with the poor. In October of 2014, I went on a service trip to Philadelphia with a group of students. Upon entering the city, I remarked that our trip was in the appropriate city, as Philadelphia meant “city of brotherly love.” Over the course of the trip, I felt as though this love came to life before me. We stayed as guests of the St. Francis Inn, where we interacted and worked with the current ministers, as well as several hundred people who came for a meal. I had been a part of the Soup Kitchen ministry during most of our time there, and on the last day had the opportunity to go with two other individuals on ten home deliveries in the surrounding areas in Philadelphia.
When I was out on these home deliveries, I saw several children - one of the little girls came up, in her tiny voice, to tell me how grateful she was for the food, and introduced me to her small dog, Buddy. This was one of the most touching moments of experience. Later, when helping at the St. Francis Inn, I felt that I picked up on something. I met the eyes of many people, and it seemed that some of these people had hope and thankfulness in their eyes, others had visibly lost that hope. Affliction has the power to take possession of someone’s being and make them feel dead while still alive. But it is ministries such as this program or other volunteer organizations that can greatly benefit those seeking to live more simply, live in community and live in solidarity with the marginalized. 

The Epistle of James convictingly asks, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (2:14-17). This experience with the people of Philadelphia helped to move notions of solidarity and the option for the poor from the abstract to the concrete. It has made me more conscious of my possessions. It made me more mindful of how to live simply, but it has also continued to develop and foster a desire to return soon to these people, live among them, and become a servant to them.

“The brothers... gave [to] all those who begged from them, especially to the poor... if they were traveling along the road and found the poor begging from them for the love of God, when they had nothing to offer them, they would give them some of their clothing even though it was shabby. Sometimes, they gave their capuce, tearing it from the tunic; at other times they gave a sleeve, or tore off a part of their habit, that they might fulfill that gospel passage: ‘Give to all who beg from you.’”[17]

The above quote from the Legend of the Three Companions concerns the life of the early Franciscan movement. They did not give away their capuce, pieces of their habit or give of themselves because they wanted to seem “holier-than-thou.” Rather, they saw the command of Christ as an example of how true Christian love could be expressed. This is a form of solidarity, and a way of expressing the option for the poor. During the Last Supper, Jesus said to his disciples, “This is my body, which will be given up for you.” One would argue that this is true solidarity. We may also offer up our bodies, so that when I choose to help others I too may say, “This is my body, which will be given up for you - emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually.” In doing so, we are offering to give all of ourselves. To offer up our being, our body.

Pope John Paul II has described the option for the poor as "a call to have a special openness with the small and the weak, those that suffer and weep, those that are humiliated and left on the margin of society, so as to help them win their dignity as human persons and children of God."[18] Further, the title of this paper, “Option for the Poor and Vulnerable,” holds a key trait and characteristic that must always be borne in mind when one decides to act on social justice and live out the gospel: vulnerability. We may say that vulnerability is and can be a form of humility. When we open ourselves up to the way the world truly is, when we open ourselves up to others, when we convey honesty to others, we are left completely vulnerable. But this vulnerability can also lead to a transformation of the human person that will help us to begin to live out a deeper immersion and integration of the gospel with those living as the marginalized and the oppressed.

[1] Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Struggle Against Poverty: A Sign of Hope in our World. 1996. Print.
[2] Ibid., 1-2.
[3] Ibid., 2.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 5.
[7] Ibid., 7.
[8] Cf. Proverbs 31:20, “She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy.” So too, the Church ought to continue to extend her hands to the marginalized.
[9] Groody, Daniel G. The Option for the Poor in Christian Theology. 1st ed. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. 58. Print.
[10] Ibid., 17.
[11] Ibid., 5.
[12] Ibid., 30.
[13] United States Catholic Bishops. Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy. 1986. Print.
[14] Ibid., 52.
[15] "Hillary: We’ll Take Your Money for ‘common good’." WND, 29 June 2004. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.
[16] Economic Justice for All 88.
[17] From The Legend of Three Companions 43.
[18] Economic Justice for All 87.

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