It’s fashionable today to bash the churches, not just in terms of the scandals within them that hit the newspapers, but, more importantly, in terms of making them out to be enemies of the poor. There’s a popular myth that would have us believe that the churches are rich, self- interested, and too corrupt to have much concern and compassion for the poor. The secular media is now, more and more, seen as the champion of the poor, as the moral voice within the culture that speaks for justice, and as a voice that warns the unsuspecting of the greed and self-interest of the churches.
Don’t get me wrong. The media is not a villain and its critique of the churches, while sometimes biased and inflated, is rendering an important service, not least to the churches themselves who, except for this kind of criticism, too easily ignore parts of the gospel.
With that being admitted, something else also needs to be said: The argument that the media and not the churches are the real guardian of the poor is based upon selective evidence and a very bad memory. One needs only to look back into history, or just look around today, to see another picture. The churches have been, and still are, at those places with the poor where nobody else wants to be.
The churches, for all their faults and infidelities, ultimately were the key moral ingredient in the abolition of slavery, the founding and legitimizing of labor unions, the push for government health care, the rise of feminism, the push for the equality of races, and the ecological movement because, historically, they were the major moral instrument in shaping of the conscience of secularity itself. The Enlightenment has its roots in the Judeo-Christianity.
Our culture, now so critical of the church, should take a look at where its own roots come from in terms of moral principle. More than one historian will tell it that it takes its roots in the biblical and moral traditions of Judeo-Christianity. A certain honesty might, ideally, flow from that. Long before most secular groups became interested in serving the poor and working for social justice, the churches were already there, on the streets and in the academy of ideas, serving the poor and trying to shape the conscience of society.
Let me here, for critics and faithful alike, list, in caption form, some of the main tenets of that long tradition. With little difference among the various churches, Christian spirituality teaches, and has taught for a long time, these moral truths:
1) All people in the world have equal dignity and should enjoy equal rights in terms of respect, access to resources, and access to opportunity.
2) God intended the earth for all persons equally. Thus the riches of this world should flow equally and fairly to all. All other rights, including the right to private property and the accumulation of riches that are fairly earned, must be subordinated to this more primary principle.
3) The right to private property and accumulation of wealth is not an absolute one. It must be subordinated to the common good, to the fact that the goods of the earth are intended equally for all. No one has the moral right to keep as much as he or she can earn without concern for the common good (even is he or she is a celebrity).
4) No person, group of persons, or nation may have a surplus of goods if others lack the basic necessities.
5) We are obliged, morally, to come to the aid of those in need. In giving such aid, we are not doing charity, but serving justice. Helping the poor is not an issue of personal virtue and generosity, but something that is demanded by justice itself.
6) The laws of supply and demand, free enterprise, unbridled competition, the profit motive, and private ownership of the means of production may not be seen as morally inviolate and must, when the common good or justice demand, be balanced off by other principles.
7) Physical nature, too, has inherent rights, namely, rights that are intrinsic to itself and not simply given to it because of its relationship to humanity. The earth is not just a stage for human beings to play on, but is a creature of God with it own rights which humans may not violate.
8) The present situation within the world where some individuals and nations have excess while others lack the basic necessities, is immoral, goes against the teachings of Christ, and must be redressed.
9) The condemnation of injustice is part of the church’s essential ministry of preaching and is an essential aspect of the church’s prophetic role.
10) Movement towards the poor is a privileged route towards God and towards spiritual health. There can be no spiritual health, individually and communally, when there is no real involvement with the struggles of the poor. Conversely, riches of all kinds are dangerous.