I was raised to believe that prayer and private morality were the foundations of the spiritual life. They were non-negotiable. You were considered a good Christian if you prayed, privately and liturgically, and if your private morals were in order. The Catholicism I was raised on, while never denying the importance of social justice, rarely impressed upon me the fact that involvement with the struggle of the poor was just as non-negotiable as prayer and private morality.
The conscience of Christianity has changed. Perhaps the most critical development within all of Christianity these past years has not been the changes brought in by Vatican II, but the re-emergence of the idea that there can be no spiritual health without social justice. Liberation theologians from the Third World and social justice advocates within our own culture have helped irrevocably re-impress into the Christian conscience the idea that social justice is non-negotiable, that it’s not an extra we can choose to get involved in or not, just as prayer and private morality are not optional.
To be a healthy Christian means to pray, to live a good moral life, and to be involved with the poor. All three of these are non-negotiable. But this is not so easily conceded by all, as recent tensions within the church show. Social justice movements are often accused of not emphasizing sufficiently private conversion, private prayer and private morality. The criticism is made that they are producing a spirituality with an underdeveloped private conscience – that is, it doesn’t matter whether you pray, hold grudges, are one-sided, live sexually beyond the 6th commandment, or attend church or not, as long as you work for the right causes.
Conversely, on their part, they make the criticism that, for the most part, Christianity has dangerously privatized conversion and produced a spirituality with an underdeveloped social conscience – namely, you are a good Christian as long as you say your prayers and attend church and obey the church’s sexual commandments, irrespective of whether you are ignoring or even positively exploiting the poor. There is some truth and some exaggeration in the accusations of both sides, though at this time, because of an imbalance in the direction of private conversion, I submit, the church must be more sensitive to the criticism made by the proponents of social justice. Their criticism, save for a few exaggerated expressions, is correct and biting: Why is it that a Christian may not, in good conscience, ignore the teachings of Scripture and the church regarding prayer and private morality, and yet s/he may, in good conscience, ignore the social teachings of Scripture and the church?
Thus, for example, the church’s teachings which have to do with sexual ethics (e.g. Humanae Vitae) tend to be seen as the deciding criteria determining who is good or bad as a Christian, while the church’s teaching on social issues (e.g. Mater et Magistra), which have equal moral and dogmatic authority, can be largely ignored in good conscience. That’s an imbalance in need of correction. But there is still a further imbalance: Through much pain, we have come to realize that prayer alone is not enough, social justice is also needed. Now, through more pain, we are coming to realize that prayer and social justice, together but alone, are also not enough.
Why do I say this? Because too many persons who both pray and do social justice are angry, bitter, lacking in gratitude and joy, and full of hate. What is lacking? In a word, friendship. A healthy spiritual life is anchored on three pillars, prayer, social justice, and friendship. The latter is as critical, and non-negotiable, as the former. Without the warming and mellowing that good friendship brings into life, we invariably lose gratitude and joy.
To pray and to do social justice is to be prophetic. But that’s a lonely and hard business. Prophets are persecuted, are powerless and are rejected. Because of this, it is all too easy to get angry, to feel self-righteous, to fill with bitterness, to become selective in our prophecy and to hate the very people we are trying to save. When this happens, gratitude and joy disappear from our lives and we are unable to live without the need to be angry. Invariably, then, both our prayer and social action become perverse. We become recognized not for our joy and love, but for our anger and bitterness. Our prophetic words are spoken not out of love and grief, but out of indignation. We turn poverty into an ideology by losing sight of the end of the struggle – namely, celebration, joy, play, embrace, forgiveness.
Only friendship can save us. Loving, challenging friends who can melt our bitterness and free us from the need to be angry are as critical within the spiritual life as are prayer and social justice. To neglect friendship is to court bitterness and perversion.
There are three key questions to ask ourselves when we are evaluating spiritual health:
– Do I pray every day?
– Am I involved with the struggle of the poor?
– Do I have the kinds of friendships in my life which move me beyond bitterness and anger?