Some years ago, Ernst Kasemann, the Scripture scholar, commented that the problem with the church is that, chronically, the liberals aren’t pious and the pious aren’t liberal. If only, he speculated, Christians could be both. Today, I submit, this dichotomy exists in the church between social justice and contemplation. Invariably, those most actively involved in social justice are not as deeply involved in contemplation. Conversely, those on the front lines of contemplation are often glaringly absent in the arena of social justice.
This situation, while far from ideal, would be more acceptable, given different charisms and calls, a division of labor, and the fact that nobody can be on the front lines of everything, except for the fact that, most often, there is suspicion and distrust between those who identify closely with one or the other of these. Far from seeing each other as sisters and brothers in a common struggle, as persons with different charisms called to unblock different arteries within the body of Christ, more often than not, these two spend more time fighting with each other than challenging a world which tends to ignore both of them.
There are salient exceptions of course, as will be mentioned later, but all too common is the case where social justice activists cynically accuse their less socially active brothers and sisters of excessively privatizing the Gospel; of confusing love with sentiment, with being nice; of neglecting Jesus’ non-negotiable demand that we side with the poor; and of identifying Christian practice simply with church-going, with private prayer and private morality, especially sexual morality.
Why, this group asks, are those not actively involved with social justice forever talking about sexual morality and Humanae Vitae, and never about the social encyclicals? Why are people so fanatical about abortion and then so calloused regarding poverty, women’s rights, immigration, and capital punishment?
Those less active in social justice return the accusations: All too common is the angry and judgmental accusation that those most active in social justice no longer pray; that they have the Gospel confused with Green Peace; that they neglect the fact that Jesus’ non-negotiable demands radically invade one’s private world and are equally as demanding there, in the order of sexual morality and private charity, as they are in the area of social justice; and that talk of justice and equality for all is hopelessly compromised when it issues from hearts hardened to the unborn.
I think Kasemann’s words are true here. The liberals aren’t pious and the pious aren’t liberal.
This is a bad situation. If we are to offer any kind of help to a world which is interested neither in social justice nor in contemplation, a world which, effectively, has written us off, then we had best become liberal and pious, contemplative and socially active, both at once. In my opinion there is nothing more urgent on the Christian agenda than this question, the marriage between social justice and contemplation. Both sides on this issue have correctly intuited that survival is what’s at stake.
Unless the issues surrounding justice, poverty, war, the ecology, ethnic rights, and women’s rights are addressed we won’t have a world within which to practice our piety. Conversely, if private prayer, private morality, and contemplation die, then we still will somehow lose the world or, certainly, we will lose any world worth living in.
The signs of the times need to be read: Vatican II, the recovery of the social Gospel, the growing affluence of first world Christians, the breakdown of marriage and family life, the ecological crisis, the rise of feminism, the threat of nuclear war, oppressive injustice in the Third World, and the shrinking size of our planet, have conspired to make it vital, a matter of life and death, that we make a marriage between social justice and contemplation. If we don’t, we’ve no future.
As mentioned earlier, some are already modestly etching out a path towards this: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, Catherine Doherty and the Madonna House Apostolate, Richard Rohr and the Centre for Action and Contemplation, Jim Wallis and Sojourners, Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen and L’Arche, Sheila Cassidy and the Hospice movement, Gustavo Gutierrez with his brand of Liberation Theology which always puts justice, love, and grace together in the same breath, Mother Teresa with her directness in dealing with both God and the poor, Thomas Merton and Dan Berrigan with their reflective approach to civil disobedience, and, of course, John Paul II and many bishops’ conferences with their social encyclicals and pastoral letters on justice.
In these we see the beginnings of a path, some charting of the uncharted. Action and contemplation, private morality and social awareness, prophetic anger and understanding, liberalness and piety, are being married. From their lead we should take our cue.