Dawn breaks upon us. The Sun of Justice spreads his warming rays across a dark and icy world. The images of the Christmas season evoke liberation from oppressive times. They announce new life and a new order of things. “Justice and peace embrace.” It is a welcome message at all times, but particularly this year, the fourth since the Great Recession began.
While the official unemployment figures have only just dropped below 9 percent, the unofficial figure may be 16 percent or higher. Recent college graduates cannot find jobs. Discouraged workers have spent years looking for new work without securing it. Many seniors have either lost their pension benefits or have to make due with diminished savings. Governments and families are tightening their belts. Anxiety haunts the land. We sorely need the Light of the Nations to shine into our lives.
Christmas is intended for everyone, but it has a special relevance for the poor and oppressed, for God “lifts up the lowly.” According to the Gospels, Mary identifies herself as a “lowly handmaid.” The shepherds in the Judean hills to whom the angels reveal the good news live on the edge of Israelite society. The Holy Family has to seek out makeshift shelter for the Savior’s birth and then, as refugees, find asylum in Egypt. Later, Jesus begins his own ministry proclaiming “good news to the poor,” and his very first blessings are for the poor and the landless (the meek). These details of the Gospels are intended to appeal to the poor but also to draw the rest of us into their company as the new family of God.
Christmas is time for us to strengthen our bonds of solidarity with the poor, to join in God’s work of raising up the lowly. In the United States of 2011, this solidarity is needed more than ever. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is attempting to deny access for single adults to city shelters unless they can prove they have no place else to go. In Maine, where 80 percent of homes are heated by oil, a 60 percent cut in federal subsidies for home heating fuel this year will expose the state’s sizable poor population to the cruelties of a Northeast winter. Using deceptive practices and robosigning legal papaers, banks foreclosed illegally on thousands of homes. After three years of economic distress, we can hardly speak any longer of “a social safety net.” For the poor and resourceless, it is “every man for himself.”
In an environment so hostile to the poor and working people, what can be done to lift up the lowly? How can we participate in Christ’s liberation of the oppressed? First, even as we try to rebuild a dangerously unstable economy, we must resist every effort to blame the victims, whether the poor, workers or Occupy protesters, and instead create a public ethos that favors the common good.
Second, we should demand that government redirect needed spending cuts away from programs for the poor and take them instead from expensive giveaways to commodity producers, hedgefund managers and extravagant purchases of military hardware. If that is not enough, government can institute a Tobin tax on financial transactions, as the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace recently proposed, to fund poverty reduction and economic development.
Last, we can promote economic policies that, unlike those of the last 30 years, hold economic inequalities in check. For decades now the German social market economy has succeeded in producing prosperity with justice. We should be able to do the same in the United States.
For some years it has been fashionable to depoliticize the Gospel, to make Christ’s saving work solely a spiritual liberation from personal sin. In the history of Israel, however, religion and social justice were intermingled. The sin condemned by the prophets was social sin, and God’s fidelity to Israel was conditioned on people and king upholding justice in the land. The infancy narratives echo those same themes. Luke’s Magnificat holds a message of political renewal:
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
the rich he has sent empty away.
Details of Matthew’s Gospel, like Herod’s fear of John the Baptist and the massacre of the innocents, set Jesus’ birth and public ministry amid a political struggle. Taking up the challenge of social responsibility, therefore, is integral to full faith in the Incarnation. For, as the psalm of the Christmas Mass at Dawn declares:
Light dawns for the just;
and gladness for the upright of heart.
Be glad in the Lord, you just,
and give thanks to his holy name.