By Frank Wessling
To do well requires faith, hope, promise, visions and, in the end, love for what we do. Normally, it also requires persistent and punctual effort, as Newt Gingrich, one of the Republican candidates for president, noted last week.
But as he criticized the work ethic learned in pockets of terrible poverty, Gingrich threw light on only part of what cripples the children he had in mind: the habits that grow so easily out of personal depression. He, and all of us, should first be indignant over the condition of persistent poverty itself and focus on ending it.
Gingrich reportedly told an audience in Iowa that children raised in very poor conditions don’t know how to work except in crime. “Really poor children,” he said, “in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works, so they have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of, I do this and you give me cash unless it is illegal.”
There is some tragic truth in those words. But the question for us and our politicians is: Why do we tolerate “really poor neighborhoods” and “really poor children?” What in the world is wrong with us that we accept such conditions?
Especially now, during our Advent season of hope, Christians should wonder how we have failed to carry out the promise of Christmas. What must we do to carry the mission of God’s love among us to the biblical “ends of the earth?” We seem to have missed, or avoided, those low ends where “really poor children” experience only desolation, not the consolation of hope.
The Catholic Church does see these places and calls them occasions of social sin. Most of us who could help root out such social sin have other priorities that keep us busy. Like Newt Gingrich we cultivate our own gardens, try to keep our own lives well ordered, and feel some satisfaction as we overcome our own personal sins. Taking on the big problems of poverty and injustice seems like too much — and besides, those people often make their own poor lives by their poor behavior.
We were reminded just recently, though, that an essential connection exists between us and the people oppressed and depressed by those big problems: if we aren’t “with” them, as in “with your spirit,” then God isn’t with us and we aren’t with God in the end. On Sunday, Nov. 20, the Feast of Christ the King, we heard the Last Judgment story from Chapter 25 of the Gospel according to Matthew. Jesus says there that the kingdom of God is inherited only by those who see that the hungry get food, the sick are cared for, the stranger and the lost are welcomed, the prisoner has visitors: essentially that the poorest and least important in the eyes of the world receive the attention they need for human flourishing.
The kingdom of God tolerates no “really poor neighborhoods.” In Catholic teaching we call this caring for the common good. Along with cultivating our own personal gardens, we are called to work on the common garden, the life we share in society. It’s the life affected especially by the way we do politics and govern ourselves. Catholic teaching on the common good asks us to do politics and government always with the music of Matthew 25:31-46 in the background.
Tom Chapman, director of the Iowa Catholic Conference, pointed out last week in The Messenger that “A central moral message of any budget proposal is how it affects … the needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty….”
The Catholic bishops of New Jersey said in a late November statement: “As the plight of these, our brothers and sisters (in poverty), continues to spiral downward, we cannot stand by in silence. We cannot ignore children who go to bed hungry, parents who are jobless, families who are homeless, the sick who suffer without medical care, or the elderly who live in infested or unsafe housing. …We must remember that the moral worth of a society is measured primarily by how justly it responds to the most vulnerable.”
We may not have immediate answers to these deep problems affecting the common good. Answers don’t necessarily come from us. They arise from the investment of our interest, our care, our passion, so that the promise and hope and love we live by is shared in “really poor” places.