Monday, August 09, 2004

Privilege, Advantage, and the Christian Faith

I received the following email from a member of my family today. It is provided here (with the sender’s permission) as a reference to the comments which I sent in my reply.
In studying the evolution of our culture, including laws (Jim Crow, Segregation Laws, etc.) and common practices (whites only), I found that it is appropriate to examine how privilege and advantage operate in our society.

The notion that one group who might starve and/or freeze to death would not seize the opportunity to do otherwise (to survive and thrive) - were they given the same rights and privileges as the other group - seems ludicrous.

When our culture is carefully examined, we can conclude that there is more to the story than meets the eye. And beyond the culture, there's the fact that, as the Bible says, "The poor shall always be with us." Shall we not offer charity to them? Shall we not be willing - even eager - to share the incredible wealth with which we have been blessed? Is it ours to question or judge? Isn't that up to God? Isn't that what we are taught?

I'm confused by the story. It sounds as if it were written by someone who has been disconnected from their ability to appreciate the different circumstances others find themselves in. Surely, it was not written by a Christian. At least not a Christian in the way I was raised to believe and understand them to think and to act.

As a recipient of free school lunches for my children when I was struggling financially, I willingly and happily pay my fair share of taxes, in the hope that no child has to go hungry when my stomach is so full. I am grateful that God blessed me with the experience of needing help. It taught me a tremendous lesson - to always speak out in favor of helping others, and never for one minute to question that it is ABSOLUTELY the right thing to do.

I remember hearing a speaker once tell a story about a Minister who was visiting a very sick woman who the doctors had given up on. When hearing of the woman's great suffering, the Minister said, "You are very lucky. I have never received such a blessing." That story changed me forever.

Love to all,

Here is my reply:

I would agree that all persons, given the opportunity (a word left out when mentioning rights and privileges), will opt for survival as opposed to death. Exceptions to this would include those not competent to make such a decision, or to carry out such a decision (and it seems that there are a number of these people on the streets today; some of whom do, indeed, suffer); and those who must choose between surrendering or upholding moral and ethical standards in order to survive. Many Christians (among others) became martyrs because they would not deny their Lord, even when faced with starvation, death by freezing, or other forms of torture and/or execution. This includes many who have suffered in our own lifetime at the hands of the Communists in Russia, eastern Europe, and China.

Our Lord Jesus Christ did, indeed, tell us that we shall have the poor always with us. This does not mean, however, that, because there will always be those who lack material resources, we are free to neglect them. The Fathers of the Orthodox Church teach us that God, in His mercy, allows those of us who have been blessed with material abundance to share from what we have been given with those in need. This saying about the poor does not stand in isolation; the same Lord Who made this statement also taught about the Last Judgment (Matt. 25:31-46), using the imagery of all the people being separated into the sheep and the goats. "Lord, when did we see Thee hungry, and fed Thee; or thirsty, and gave Thee a drink; or naked, and clothed Thee; sick, or in prison, and ministered unto Thee?" His reply: "I tell you the truth, whenever you did this for the least of my brethren, you did it unto Me."

We have the poor with us, not because God desires people to be poor, or suffering, but because of the hardness of our hearts. Yet we can, if we choose, act to soften our hearts, and reach out to those in need around us. The Fathers go farther in their teaching us the Faith: we are not responsible for what the person who receives our charity does with what we have given to them. (OK, if they tell you they want the charity to buy guns/bombs/rockets/WMD, it probably wouldn't be a good idea to help them out.) If a beggar asks for money for food, and then takes what has been offered and buys wine, or liquor, or drugs; well, that's not your choice. So, no, we are not to judge anyone other than ourselves; and, when confronted with an opportunity to be charitable, we must examine ourselves, and then make a choice -- and we will be accountable for that choice on the Day of Judgment!

It has been said above, "Shall we not be willing - even eager - to share the incredible wealth with which we have been blessed?" Note that even what we might claim to have earned is, in fact, a blessing from God. From Whom did the abilities that allow us to earn the means to obtain our daily bread come from? From Whom did our very life come from? So then, we are not meant to be owners, but stewards of what God has provided for us. There is no doubt in my mind that I could do better, live more simply, and so have more that I could use to help those in need; and I suspect this is true of most Americans. This doesn't mean that each and every one of us is meant to sell all that we have, and give to the poor, in order for us to follow Christ; although each of us would find true blessing, and true wealth, if we actually were to do so. The Fathers teach us that our material possessions weigh us down; certainly, this is true spiritually. We are not meant to store up for ourselves treasures on earth, where moths and rust corrupt, and thieves break in and steal -- but rather to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven; and this by our works of charity for those in need (and beyond what is provided from the use of the money we pay in taxes!). In a way, those who are poor (whether by chance or by choice) are closer to God (or, at least, have a better place to be closer) because they are not so tied to the comforts and possessions of this world, and so look instead for the world to come. But again, although some will say that we are then doing the poor a favor by not helping them, this is not the Christian faith or practice.

The Epistle to the Hebrews has a cryptic teaching: that our Lord Jesus Christ was "made perfect" through suffering. The Orthodox Church understands this to mean that the Son of God, already perfect in His Divinity, was made perfect in His humanity by His suffering the Passion. This makes sense for us, when you think about it. First, He said (in effect), "If it happened to me, it will happen to you; if they did it to me, they will do it to you." As such, we know that we also must, if called upon to do so, suffer, in order to be transformed more closely into the likeness of Christ. Secondly, when we suffer, our thoughts turn away from the pleasures and temptations of the world, and draw closer to God; even if this takes the form of anguish on our part. The Fathers teach that we should continually be mindful of the reality of our death; and so be preparing for that time when we shall depart this life, and stand before the Lord to account for our lives. This is easier to do when we are suffering; and much harder to do when we are enjoying the pleasures of life. God, in His mercy, allows us each; but suffering as this is needed, either for our own salvation, or as a way for us to bear witness to others of the grace and mercy of God. All of us know someone who is suffering, or has suffered, in body, mind or spirit; and who, from this suffering, has obtained a wisdom and understanding and peace that this world cannot give or remove. We should not cause others to suffer; and we should do what we can to relieve the suffering of those to whom we can minister. As for ourselves, we do not go looking for opportunities to suffer; but, if such an opportunity comes our way, we do not flee from it.

I hope this makes some sense. If you have any questions or comments, I certainly invite you to reply to me.

with love in Christ, I am
Your unworthy servant in Christ,
Priest John McCuen