Saturday, January 10, 2009

Scandal of the Particular

This week I started a new semester, teaching Social Justice to my high school juniors. I always feel a little overwhelmed teaching this course, as Catholic Social Teaching is ever bumping up against current events, economics, poverty, politics. Anyone who would facilitate such an exploration must learn to dance delicately: one must allow the Gospel to challenge one's students, without seeming to shove anything down anyone's throat. At the same time, delving into how our faith calls us to live with each other, today, keeps everything fresh. I feel like Social Justice class is God's way of keeping me on my toes, keeping me from becoming too complacent, too at ease in the comforts of my own life.

I opened the semester with a reading from an excerpt from Gaudium et Spes, the Vatican II document on the Church in the Modern World, paired with a story of Marion Maendel, a young woman who served for several years as a Catholic Worker. Her story resonated with my own experience working as a Jesuit Volunteer for two year before entering the monastery. Within the first month, Maendel discovered that serving on your own steam won't cut it. Cuban-American theologian Roberto Goizueta calls this the "scandal of the particular." Exalted ideals of working for justice serving the poor are fine and good, but when it comes to serving this particular poor person, working with this particular reality of an imperfect system, living alongside these particular neighbors- it's going to take something beyond my own limited wealth of kindness to keep me engaged.

When I realize that I don't have all the answers, that the answers I have don't all fit into nice tidy boxes, only then can I make room for the Holy Spirit. It is when our own "savior complex" is crushed and we realize our own limitations that we come to know solidarity with the poor, with each other. What is a preferential option for the poor when over half the world is trying to live on about $2 per day? Who am I to think I can make a difference when our systems of education, health care, criminal justice, and economics are so twisted as to wring out certain people almost no matter what they do? I am one little person, and I don't have all the answers.

Moreover, I am humbled when I look at my own consumption patterns: where does my clothing come from, and how fairly were those workers paid? How does my buying the cheapest possible version of something at a big box store affect a local family trying to run a smaller business? How is my food produced, and how do those modes of production and sale affect the environment? Whether I like it or not, my own life is complicit in a web of systemic injustices. Given all this, what is God calling me to do with my own little life, today?

Living in community is in itself a step toward greater justice in the world. When we share what we have, individually we need less. When we carpool, we emit a little less pollution into the air. When we garden together, we put to good use the earth we have been given and produce food in a sustainable way. In community we challenge each other to consider what we need, and to let go of what is superfluous. In a world where some people are unable to obtain necessities, who are we to hang onto what we don't use?

Community also provides the opportunity to practice solidarity with my neighbor. One contribution Jesus made to world religions was to expand the notion of loving God to include loving one's neighbor. If I really love God, I need to love the sister who drives me crazy, even if I don't like her. If I really love God, I need to be flexible enough to allow for another sister's perspective on our situation together. If I really love God, I need to be willing to help care for my sister who is sick. When I can get out of the notion that my life is all about me, then I can start to understand what it means to love my neighbor.

By God's grace, if I can learn to love the people I see and know, perhaps eventually I can learn to love those who I cannot see, those I do not know. That is the first step toward social justice is our world: "for what you did for the least of these, that you did unto Me."

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