Sunday, May 25, 2014

Equal Value - Equal Claim

This past week I was at Episcopal Divinity School for my final meetings as the Trustee elected by the alumni/ae. As we prepared for Thursday's Commencement we were treated to a Wednesday afternoon panel of the honorary degree recipients. The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, President of the Episcopal Church's House of Deputies spoke abouit her commitment to the principle that is the title of this blog post. For Jennings, and for me, all members of the Church have equal value, and therefore equal claim on the Church's resources. That Gospel principle was clearly at work in the description of the life of the Church recorded by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles: Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds[j] to all, as any had need. (2:43-45) While I am sure that Luke's picture of the earliest communities of the followers of Jesus is somewhat romanticized, his inclusion of this description points to how important this aspect of community life was to Luke's community, even if it rarely if ever lived up to this ideal.
Christian communities have rarely lived up to that ideal, nor have Christians in our society today advocated for that ideal as one for our country. Only a few of us have suggested that the resources of this country are to be shared by all. Only a few of us have made the connection between our theology of creation - The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it (Psalm 24:1) - and our social ethics.  Making that connection is, of course, not enough. There remains the complicated work of engaging in public policy discussions about the role of government in meeting the needs of all of us. Should government provide, as President Nixon proposed, a guaranteed family income? Should government provide enough food assistance so that people do not go to bed hungry? Or should government leave to the churches and other institutions responsibility for providing for the needs of the least among us? 
In the spirit of Episcopal Divinity School I take a both and approach to such questions. I believe that religious communities have an important role to play in the work of distributive justice and that it would be a mistake to leave the work entirely to government agencies. Not only are we called to serve those in need, but in serving them we can discover the necessity of moving beyond service to advocacy. We can begin to ask, as Dom Hélder Câmara did a generation ago, why so many people are poor. We can begin the hard work of social analysis to discover the systemic causes of poverty. And we can advocate loudly and persistently for the elimination of those systemic causes.
Engaging in this work may well get us into hot water. Dom Hélder Câmara was accused of being a communist when he asked that question, and we are likely to be called, if not communists, unrealistic or utopian. But is it unrealistic to work for a world in which children aren't condemned to being hungry? Is it unrealistic to believe that those who are in the image of God should not be abandoned to lives of poverty? Is it unrealistic to hope and pray and work for God's will being done and God's reign of justice coming on this good earth? No, it isn't unrealistic. It is, in fact, the most realistic of hopes imaginable.  


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