Dan Lawlor: Stop Being Blind to History

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


As the Catholic Archbishop Helder Camara once said, "When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist."

In recent weeks, Travis Rowley's rants against local Christian churches ignore the teachings in very ancient texts he purports to uphold. It might come as a surprise to Rowley, but the only people to criticize greed, inequality, and injustice were not Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

In response to the Occupy Protests, Travis Rowley wrote, "Why would the teachings of Christ be suddenly summoned and embraced by American liberals? When it comes to public policy, why would Christ’s teachings matter at all to them?"

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One could just as easily ask, "Why would the teachings of Christ be suddenly summoned and embraced by the American Corporate community? When it comes to public policy, why would Christ's teaching matter to them at all?"

I get where Rowley is coming from - he views taxation as a necessary evil, social programs incompetent, and the state a danger to individual liberty. The 20th Century certainly gives credence to much of that - yet much to rebut it. Unchecked, anything warps into dangers. Yet, there is a difference between old age pensions and the Soviet Gulag. There is a difference between wanting to end chronic homelessness and establishing a network of secret police arresting poets and monks. The balance of individual and community concerns is at the heart of the American experiment, and that experiment has been influenced by many religions- from Deism to Quakerism - since the early colonies.

A strong nation, with fair wages, labor protections, open elections, and freedom of speech and faith- that "American Creed" built the most powerful, productive society in the world. You can criticize this spirit of concern, both in its private charity and its state investment forms, everything from public and charity schools in the 1830s, Settlement Houses and Board of Healths in the 1890s, Labor Unions and the New Deal in the 1940s, the Civil Rights Movement and Medicaid in the 1960s- yet it helped produce the world and some of the opportunities we have today. The American Welfare State came about at a time when the world was fast dividing between Fascism and Communism - the New Deal and its type across Europe and Asia (imperfect as they are) were a way to provide a material baseline for many to have basic assurances that Democracy was a safe bet, and to make Communism and Fascism less attractive. You can denounce this middle way as "the specter of socialism" - but, well, for many people, it worked, it helped raise the standard of living, and it ensures that no one needs to starve in this country. If the New Deal is socialism, I'm a socialist.

The idea that society, government, churches and individuals have a responsibility to use their wealth in socially productive and just ways is ancient, older than any 19th Century philosophies. From State Funded Roman Temples supporting good works to the Puritan Commonwealth to Medieval Churches supported by Tithes, the idea that the community at large has a responsibility to one another has roots in the earliest civilizations, and in the earliest voices of Christianity. We can debate the methods of how and to what degree- but the idea of "public provision" by and for the "public" was not invented in the 1960s, the 1930s, or the 1840s. Don't blame Karl Marx- blame human empathy and a frustration with hunger, ignorance and disease. That said, there are plenty solutions to those problems involving the state that don't work - and many that do.

The Magnificat, the ancient prayer of Mary, a Jewish peasant woman, reads, "(God) has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly. (God) has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich have been sent away empty."

People are not God. People, however, can be, have been, and are inspired by the holy to struggle for a better community than the one we have today. To deny that the faith of Abraham can produce discontent with the way things are is to be blind to history.

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