Fleur Dorrell looks at how we can build community using the Bible as our guide and key Catholic Social Teaching principles.
As Catholics we believe that our Faith underpins all our thinking and that the Bible has much to say to the state, the market and wider civil society. The world of reason, of secular thought, of different faiths, all need one another in order to live peacefully and for the sake of the kingdom. We should not be afraid to enter into profound dialogue for the good of our world, to find some common language and common ground. Without such engagement we see the rise of fundamentalism, terrorism and oppression..
There are no obvious biblical instructions to vote, join a political party, stand for office, or to take part in democratic societies. it may seem odd to some of us to be so involved with politics. Yet politics is the art of living together in community and that is precisely what the story of God’s people and the Jesus parables of the Kingdom is all about. As both a local and a global church we need to live in ways that enable everyone to flourish. We recognise that basic justice and dignity are crucial to positive relationships and that they require commitment and education to succeed. The human dignity that we all share as God’s gift is not defined, nor derived from, our gender, beliefs, background, age, health, wealth or sexual orientation, it is a dignity shared by virtue of being human. This shared humanity lies at the heart of both our religious freedom and our respect for fundamental human rights.
As a global church, we understand, and live with, enormous cultural diversity. Our calling is to hold in balance all the tensions and challenges, as well as celebrate the diversity this creates. Everything we do and say shapes our values. Our values come from the fact that we are not only individuals but are relational. We need each other because we need each other to realise our potential – that is what our faith is all about and is modelled by the perfect relationship found in the Trinity. That is why each person matters and no one should be excluded. This instantly takes us towards a particular concern for the most vulnerable – the old, the very young, the disabled and the ill – and to ask of each of us – how well their needs are being met. It was in response to such concerns that Catholic Social Teaching has been developed in the last two centuries. So combined with our faith and what the Bible teaches us, we have a very powerful ethos in seeking the kingdom on earth.
With this in mind, it is not enough for us to focus purely on legislation, regulation or finance as we engage in community-building and politics. Our strength lies in being grassroots-led. We know that societies thrive when their citizens are inter-dependent, seeking mutually beneficial ways to uphold each other’s dignity and to ensure that we all have what is needed to live a fully human life. Our political engagement is not only concerned with advocating rights or pursuing goals for individual gain but with promoting wider responsibilities and the concept of service at all levels of society. These responsibilities and service are important whether they affect the individuals promoting them or their neighbours in other countries. As such our engagement is three tiered: local, national and global. But to this end, we need to be equipped spiritually and practically if we are to make significant contributions to community building.
While we don’t know what Jesus would have voted if he were around today – does it matter? Two themes stand out for us in our community-building from the Gospels:
We are called to care for God’s world and we are called to care for others, especially the vulnerable.
Using our Gospel values we can put into practice these two themes by working towards justice, compassion and reconciliation. By living out Christ’s teaching and mission in this way, we bring about his kingdom on earth. That is both immediately and ultimately what our voting, our faith and community building are all about.
As we allow the revelation of the God of creative liberation and freedom, as we attend to the cries of the Prophets for Justice, and as we meditate on the life and teaching of Jesus, we are challenged to refine our engagement in family work and community to realise the vision of a fully alive humanity in harmony with the gifts of the earth.
In other words, God can use our policy work to reveal himself to us and to others. The more we know of God, the stronger our relationship with him becomes and the more we become aware of the needs of others. For this reason, our faith and policy work are in constant dialogue. Word and witness must always walk together.
So how do we go about doing this? A starting point might be the idea of a pastoral cycle of social action. The first stage is to become aware of the social reality that is the pervasiveness of injustices, oppression, dominance, violence and suffering both within our own society but also in the relationships between nations. In our complex and inter-dependent world we know that the task of responding to injustices involves more than individual charity and compassion, even though these are also necessary.
It is a key task of justice to understand the causes of injustice, such as racism, gender inequality, poverty or unfair trade arrangements with developing countries. This is what we call social analysis. And this is the second stage in our pastoral cycle which leads us inevitably into a critique of the social, economic and political arrangements in the world today. Whether we are concerned with domestic or international injustices, the causes are often to be found in the dominant and aggressive forms of free market liberal capitalism in the world today. There is no doubt that these forms of economic system have demonstrated efficiency and have also resulted in the lifting out of poverty of many millions of people in the world in recent decades. But in their unregulated form, they also result in increasing inequalities both within societies and also between nations. Given the universal destination of the goods of the earth intended for the global common good, excessive inequalities are unjust and a source of legitimate grievances and violent conflict. Where economic inequalities lead to differential access to political and cultural power, these inequalities become more strongly entrenched and legitimated by ideologies such as ‘there is no alternative’ to current arrangements or ‘it would take too much effort to make the necessary changes’ or ‘it works for us in the West, why should we help others when we have spent years trying to help ourselves?’ These inevitably favour existing economic and political elites that clearly benefit those under their control, and for whom distribution of wealth and power through revised models are considered as a weakening of central governance, a reduction of influence, and a diminishing of financial profits.
So what does the Bible and the church have to say? The third stage of the pastoral cycle might be called scriptural and theological reflection:
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus urged people to stop worrying about daily concerns and instead, to seek the kingdom of God and justice for all (Matthew 6:33). Asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was to come, Jesus said that ‘the kingdom of God is among you’ (Luke 17:21) ‘as something already present and active’. Yet before Pilate he stated that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). So how can we reconcile these apparently contradictory comments? Bible scholars tell us that Jesus came to inaugurate the kingdom of God so that it is here ‘already, but not yet’. In other words, where justice, peace, joy and love prevail, there the kingdom of God is near but it will only be fully realised at the end times. Then the King will call into his kingdom those people and nations who have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the migrant stranger, clothed those without, and visited the sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25:34-40).
Jesus was controversial and challenging because he loved the prostitute as much as the tax collector, the gentile as much as the Pharisee. He offended the liberals by saying that the Law-abiders were welcome, and he offended the conservatives by saying that the free-thinkers were equally welcome. Why? Because each one of them was his neighbour, and he loved each one of them equally. So who did Jesus agree or identify with? We don’t quite know and so we can’t easily categorise him – he said different things to different individuals and groups but we do know that he upheld justice at all times and that the vulnerable were his priority – be that through poverty, gender, status or relationships. This surely is a lesson for us all in not defining each other by limited categories of our religious and political views.
In the Old and New Testaments, the family held a very important place to the Jewish people. Yet Jesus’ own attitude towards family life seemed somewhat hostile which seems confusing for Christians. In Mark 3:34-35 when Jesus was told that his mother and brothers were outside wanting to speak to him, he seemed to brush them aside and pointed to the crowd and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and mother”. The main point here isn’t the demise of the family, but the extension of the family; everyone belongs in Jesus’ understanding of family. One’s duties to one’s blood relatives, Jesus says, need to be re-defined. Jesus didn’t care much for many social perceptions and rules although this offended people deeply – especially the Pharisees. He challenged the social boundaries that people had selectively constructed with one key principle: You shall love the Lord your God and love your neighbour as yourself. (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31).
The Old Testament prophets such as Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel all spoke out strongly for justice and against the religious officials of their day.
Amos’ message begs for social justice: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24; 6:12). People have forgotten the most basic demand of their law – respect for their neighbours. Amos repeatedly refers to ways in which the people abuse the poor (Amos 5:11); take advantage of debtors (Amos 2:8); and deal deceitfully in the marketplace, even on the Sabbath (Amos 8:4-6). They have lost all sense of right and wrong: they carry out appalling war crimes (Amos 1:3-2:5), worst of all, their sin has religious roots: believing their prosperity to be a sign of God’s pleasure, they think they can please God with sacrifices without seeing any relationship between justice and worship.
The Old Testament Prophets are the social reformers, the political radicals, reminding people of the implications of their actions and always speaking from a faith perspective. They were isolated figures who spoke out against society to reform it, who opposed all the bastions of power – the bad kings, the flawed institutions including the religious leaders and the wealthy, in support of the oppressed and the poor – they are the original social justice activists and political shakers. But Jesus was the ultimate prophet because he died for justice as well as speaking up for it. Jesus reminds us that the private and the public are not different when it comes to this justice and compassion. We are called to be prophets in our own time and that time is now.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 22:15-22 ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’. We must discern the difference between God’s power and earthly power and how to distinguish between whom and what we serve and obey. Societies need governance and frameworks for justice and order, – Jesus was never against systems per se, only those which undermined the most vulnerable and that made their rulers into gods.
Many of Jesus’ parables reflected the daily life of Palestine with its political and economic systems of wealth concentrated in the hands of the ruling elite, while the wider peasant group of tenant farmers, labourers, and slaves were forced to struggle daily. Having to pay taxes was, for most people, an inescapable duty. The Herodian rulers also levied taxes, as did Rome, and an annual census was taken to determine the number of people to be taxed (Luke 2:1-5). The payment of taxes to Rome caused great resentment, leading to the First Jewish War in 66AD and also to the question demanded of Jesus: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Mark 12:14). Not surprisingly, tax collectors were very unpopular, making Jesus’ accepting attitude towards them all the more remarkable. How similar today is this situation with our current recession, fragile economy, increasing poverty and inflation rates soaring. We live with a constant tension between Church and State, the Free Market economy and State controlled ownership. Thinking through our local and national policies from the biblical perspective reminds us who we should ultimately serve and obey.
It says in Proverbs 29:18 ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’. Our political engagement partly depends on our confidence in the political sphere as well as confidence in our beliefs. The more clearly we speak out on political issues at a local level, the greater the impact at the national and global levels. The prophet Isaiah also reminds us in Isaiah 59:15-16that “the Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no-one to intervene…“
We must never assume that our voice doesn’t matter or that we’re not in a very strong position to intervene on behalf of each other and all those who remain unheard.
We can enable each other to be prophetic – to make our collective voice heard through lobbying and campaigning on faith and policy issues locally, nationally and globally because we have a clear call to action from both the Old Testament prophets and from Jesus in the gospels.
In the light of the above we can challenge the mechanisms that perpetuate injustices; advocate policy reform; and influence public opinion in the church, communities, schools, legislative and government bodies, campaign headquarters, boardrooms worldwide, and to commit to vote whenever we have the opportunity.
We know that in order to challenge the power structures that perpetuate global injustices, we first have to change ourselves. Social Policy is not an abstract process relevant only to MPs or academics in remote university silos – it is our voice and our opportunity to make a difference in every corner of the world.
The first concept, considered as the basis of official Christian social teaching, is that of the inviolable dignity of every human person – that every human person has been created by God in His image and likeness and has been saved by Christ.
This refers to the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals to reach their fulfilment as fully and as easily as possible. It presupposes respect for individual people and social groups and their access to what is necessary to lead a fully human life, and a stable, secure and just social order.
One community should not interfere in the internal life of another community in such a way as to deprive the latter of its functions, but should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities in relation to the rest of society, always to the benefit of the common good. Subsidiarity defends the right to associate and organize, and the rights of individuals and families in their relationships with the state. It encourages a healthy plurality of intermediate civil society associations such as trade unions. It assumes responsibility starts where we all are and that we are all called to be agents of change.
Preferential option for the poor:
This principle commits us to resist the injustices, oppression, exploitation, and marginalization of people that permeate almost every aspect of public life and to disengage from serving the interests of the powerful and instead to take the side of those who are powerless. This principle runs through the whole of the Bible.
In response to liberal capitalism and extreme individualism, this faith principle stresses our common humanity and responsibility for others. Solidarity goes beyond enlightened self-interest and is open in the direction of love and altruism.
The final stage of the pastoral cycle is that of right social action. Here are just some of the ways we can respond: