Bread and Roses

Cynics claim that the half-life of New Year’s resolutions is about three days. By February the good intentions hatched at Christmastime have wilted along with our decorative poinsettias.

While many such pledges are indeed doomed from the start, I began 2010 with a promising, fresh approach. Instead of vowing any type of direct behavior modification, I have found it helpful (and so far eminently doable) to make a pledge that highlights heightened awareness and appreciation (details below) rather than specific action. While this may sound like a classic cop-out, the truism that consciousness precedes all human action lends some encouragement. Perhaps my resolution will prepare and motivate me in some unforeseen way for practical measures in the future. To cite the best advertising mantra ever adopted by the New York State Lottery, “Hey, you never know.”


My pledge is a dual resolution. In the course of these 12 months, I promise to do a better job remembering two categories of people who tend to fall off my radar screen far too often for comfort.

The first groups I pledge to keep in mind are the desperately poor of our nation and our world. It may seem odd that amid today’s serious recession, with unemployment at 10 percent or more, such a vow is necessary at all. Yet, like so many Americans who live in relative comfort, my day-to-day experience is highly buffered from the brutal realities of grinding poverty. Working as I do on a college campus and spending many hours in comfortable offices, classrooms and libraries effectively shuts me off from the reality of unmet human needs.

One need not live in Beverly Hills or a gated suburban community to miss out on the struggles of low-income Americans. Living in any first-world setting insulates the most fortunate portion of humanity from the daily struggles for material sustenance endured by the vast majority of human-kind. News coverage of January’s earthquake in Haiti brought horrifying images of death and destruction to our eyes; but horrendous suffering is a constant presence in the global South, if only we have the stomach not to avert our attention from ongoing crises that unfold in slow motion.

The point of my New Year’s resolution is not to feel guilty about the human suffering I am missing, but to raise the level of cognizance that I do achieve. I might start by committing myself to keeping abreast of relief efforts in Haiti, even as public attention fades. Or to reading all the way to the end of the latest article describing the plight of the record 35 million Americans receiving food stamps. I might spend some time praying for benefit-eligible families and imagining the particular deprivations they face.

The second group that I resolve to be more cognizant of is the community of artists. Perhaps because of circumstances that led me to spend quite a bit of time in recent months with a variety of creative types, I realized as 2010 dawned how rarely I pause to appreciate the contribution of artists. Most people who specialize in bringing beauty to our world labor in obscurity and are never featured at major museums, concert halls or the Kennedy Center honors. People who curate exhibits, design buildings or household items with flair, embellish the Web sites we enjoy, mix the sound or write the scripts for our favorite films and programs—these are the artists whose creativity I pledge to admire more consciously this year.

By a stroke of serendipity, this pairing of concerns turns out to be reminiscent of the motto “Bread and Roses.” Originally a phrase from a poem published in 1911, “Bread and Roses” has become an evocative political slogan, adopted by trade unionists, especially women, for nearly a century. When workers express their aspiration for income adequate to afford not only the necessities of life but a measure of beauty as well, they remind everyone that the aesthetic is an essential aspect of life. Not by bread alone do we live. Committing to maintain awareness of the plight of the materially poor as well as the contributions of the artistically accomplished is a step forward in the humanization of social relations—and the humanization of me in 2010, if I manage to uphold my pair of resolutions.

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7 years 11 months ago

It's not so much that our Catholic Church, spell it "Vatican City" has emerged as a welthy political entity worth billions, not counting real estate and other assets. Vatican City is, after all, an independent secular state within a religious frame. Or is a religious state within a secular frame? I'm not sure which. However, as an independent state it must maintain adequate materiality to function in this material world, while achieving an attitude of indiffernece towards the fleeting grandeur which material wealth is - a mere puff of smoke in finality. As is well known material wealth can bring with it the probability of monetary mismanagement, even money laundering with criminal intent and this can happen in the Church too. Scoundrels exist everywhere, even within the Mystical Body of Chrisrt at its administrational level, as Church history sadly attests. Repeatedly, it's been a matter of too many "roses" and not enough "bread," enough bread to feed "Jesus present in the distressing disguise of the poor" quoting Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Too much pomposity, while sisters and brothers languish.

Of course, our Church does feed the poor, doing a good job at it, a job which according to Jesus will never end because "The poor you will always have with you!" I think the real problem with a wealthy Catholic Church, for that matter, with a wealthy Christianity as with the televangelists side of the coin for example, is how followers of the poor crucified Christ, clergy and laity alike, live high off the hog, couching themselves in extravagant living, while so many of our sister and brothers are languishing in any of many ways. Isn't it true that, Baptism which is "death with Christ" implies factual divestiture from disordered materiality and empowers the Church to live non-extravagant lives? True, we are Ambassadors of Christ the King. But we should be ever mindful of the battered Body of our King, wrapped in swaddling cloths at birth and a loin cloth at death, by no means a fashion model, clad in the best of clothing,a rich guy living in a multimillion mansion as some do, even some Bishops!

This doesn't mean, however, that the Catholic Church, Christianity, should become impoverished, destitute. No, destitition is a vice not a virtue. What I'm trying to say is, as a Church we must get back to the simple life depicted in Acts, discovering there how the First Christians lived, trying as best we can to practically duplicate their simple manner of life. Is any part of the Body of Christ hurting? Then, we too, should hurt! But it's not a matter of simply "giving until it hurts." Rather it's a matter of "giving until it helps!" There's been just too many "roses" in service to Christ, and too little "bread" in which too many are tranquilized in extravagant ease. There's not enough detachment from extravigance in the Church, too veiled an attempt to emulate a holy indifference to the importance of material wealth as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, oh yes indeed and often right under our noses on the way to Mass!

Is this evaluation simplistic? Was G.K. Chesterton simplistic when he said, "Christianity hasn't failed, it just hasn't been tried!"


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