Christian Political Capital

When you have a party, invite the poor. I have been asked, now and then, how someone might vote from the perspective of Gospel values, Christian values, Catholic values. Usually, I demur, not because I am reluctant to answer, but because I don’t think such questions are really serious. If I said what was on my mind, I’d be likely to receive either a blank stare or a wild glare.

It is pretty clear that when it comes to our social and political world, Jesus himself was rather direct in his values. In fact in Matthew 25, when Jesus lays out the criteria upon which the last judgment will be made, he enumerates, four times, his values. How have we dealt with the hungry and the thirsty? How have we welcomed strangers? How have we treated those who needed clothing and shelter? How have we attended to the sick and the imprisoned? It was not especially a matter of their worthiness. It applied even to the least of them.

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These questions are all economic and social matters. And yet, if a preacher uttered Jesus’ own words in a contemporary American pulpit, he might not be very welcome. He is certainly not welcome in our discourse on political economy. How could it be otherwise? The Gospels are incessantly concerned with our treatment of the poor and the marginal. Our political parties are increasingly forgetful of them.

How would a politician who might have Jesus as his primary political philosopher even deal with the Gospel of Matthew? Do not store up treasures for yourselves on earth (6:19). No one can be the slave of two masters; you will either hate the first and love the second, or treat the first with scorn. You cannot be the slave both of God and money(6:24). Provide yourself with no gold or silver, not even with a few coppers for your purses (10:9). Go back and tell John...the good news is proclaimed to the poor (11:4-6). The one who received the seed in thorns is the person who hears the word, but the worries of this world and the lure of riches choke the word (13:22). I tell you solemnly, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven (19:21).

And this is just a taste of Matthew’s Gospelto say little of Luke’s. Alas for you who are rich(6:21). Be on your guard against avarice of any kind(12:15). Fool, this very night the demand will be made for your soul, and this hoard of yours; whose will it be then?(12:20). When you have a party, invite the poor (14:14). None of you can be my disciple unless you give up all your possessions (14:33). Let us not even go into the parable of Lazarus and the rich man and the story of the rich young man.

I am amazed how some Christians, Catholic or otherwise, can build ornate theologies on a single line of the Gospels or construct stern moral prohibitions on fragmentary texts while they seem to ignore the call of the poor that haunts all of sacred Scripture.

Many saints knew this, and they wrote things that would never be uttered in a time like ours, so accommodated to affluence, so addicted to greed. St. Basil held that we were thieves and robbers if we kept for our own what was given us only to give away to others. Ambrose called it an impudent assertion to claim that we can keep our fairly won abundance. To deny alms to the poor is to steal from them. Jerome held that all abundance was for bestowing on others. Chrysostom insisted that our wealth, whether due to inheritance or hard labor, is actually only in our custody for the poor. Augustine, Leo and Gregory foreshadowed Bernard’s complaint, The poor cry out and say, it is our goods that you waste, and Thomas Aquinas’s injunction that all superfluities be given to them.

The citations in the previous paragraph can all be found in the life of St. Robert Bellarmine by James Brodrick, S.J. Bellarmine had cited these saints in his last devotional book, The Art of Dying Well, before concluding (in the quaint English version translated by the Rev. Edward Coffin): Here, if any will contend that these superfluous goods are not to be given unto the poore out of the rigour of the law, yet truly he cannot deny that they are to be given them out of charity, and it importeth little, God wot, whether a man go to hel for want of justice or for want of charity.

Father Brodrick notes that Bellarmine’s book met with the disapproval of the Dominican censor, who was Master of the Sacred Palace. Had it not been for Pope Paul V, the little book might not have seen the light of day. So it has been in our history whenever a serious response has been made to the question whether the way of the Lord Jesus had anything to say to our political, economic and cultural orders.

Perhaps it is better, indeed, not to bring a living faith to bear on a culture of death, its politics and law. Health care for all, forgiveness of foreign debts, food for the world, assistance for those who cannot afford a home of their own, aid for the poorly lawyered in prison, help for those not quick or smart enough to ensure their livelihoodmaybe these are not matters of our vaunted justice. Perhaps it should all be a matter of love after all.

But let us remember the warning of old Cardinal Bellarmine: It matters little whether we go to hell for want of justice or for lack of charity.

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