Saturday, September 11, 2010

Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara and the Communist/Socialist Label

At some point, I came across an intriguing quote:

"When I give food to the hungry they call me a saint; when I ask why the poor
are hungry they call me a communist."

The words are attributed to Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara, a Brazilian Roman Catholic priest and archbishop. He lived from 1909 until 1999.

This quote is appealing to me because it describes an old ploy that is unfortunately still being used today to discredit people who raise concerns about structural impediments to justice. I guess with the fall of the Soviet empire twenty years ago, the term “communist” no longer gets thrown around. Now days, they instead throw the term “socialist” at folks who raise structural concerns about economic and/or social justice issues. The term has such a negative connotation in our modern American culture that just labeling someone or some proposal as “socialist” is often enough to make it unpopular. No one wants to be associated with the term because it is toxic and will ensure that most Americans will discount your positions.

It particularly frustrates me when fellow Christians throw out the phrase “socialist” to discredit their brothers and sisters in Christ. I’ve heard conservative Christians refer to more progressive Christ followers as embracing “more of a socialist philosophy” than a “Christian world view” when such progressive Christians advocate ideas like universal health care or rolling back tax cuts for high income taxpayers. The implication seems to be that such ideas are not Christian. It is implied they are inspired by Karl Marx, not Jesus Christ.

This attitude makes no sense to me. I grew up at the end of the Cold War, and witnessed the implosion of the Soviet Bloc as a young adult. I don’t know anyone who seriously thinks a command economy is a feasible or desirable policy alternative. People of my generation saw Marxism as a miserable, failed experiment that has mercifully ended in most parts of the world.

I don’t think anyone can deny that the Bible is full of concern for the poor and other vulnerable members of society. That is a pervasive theme that one just cannot miss with even a casual reading of the text. By contrast, the accumulation of wealth and property was just not a core value of our Lord. Indeed, at his encouragement, Jesus’s followers often sold or left behind their belongings before they joined his ministry. Jesus often warned against the love of money and accumulating material possessions.

Christ also taught us to love and care for one another. Indeed, the early Christians took this teaching so seriously that they lived communally. They pooled their resources and try to provide for all within the Christian community. I myself am certainly not looking to join a Christian commune, but pooling and sharing resources has always been a quintessentially Christian thing to do even if we haven’t always done it to the same (extreme) extent of the early Christians. And of course, Jesus himself astutely noted that some of us have more to contribute to the community’s resources than others.

Job 36:15 (King James)

He delivers the poor in their affliction,
And opens their ears in oppression.

Psalm 10:18 (GOD’S WORD Translation)

In order to provide justice for orphans and oppressed people
so that no mere mortal will terrify them again.

Luke 12:48 (American Standard Version)
And to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required: and to whom they commit much, of him will they ask the more.

Mark 12:41-44 (Amplified Bible)

And He sat down opposite the treasury and saw how the crowd was casting money into the treasury. Many rich [people] were throwing in large sums.
And a widow who was poverty-stricken came and put in two copper mites [the smallest of coins], which together make half of a cent.
And He called His disciples [to Him] and said to them, Truly and surely I tell you, this widow, [she who is] poverty-stricken, has put in more than all those contributing to the treasury.
For they all threw in out of their abundance; but she, out of her deep poverty, has put in everything that she had--[even] all she had on which to live.

1 comment:

  1. The church seems to believe that it needs to be actively involved in politics because it sees social changes as a threat to religious freedom. Back in February the LDS church’s chief lawyer said the following: “I believe that the greatest challenge faced by the Church, is the challenge to religious liberty that is growing worldwide. … A battle is looming over the effort to acquire civil social rights at the expense of civil religious rights. This battle, I believe, represents the acceleration of a disturbing slide downward in the law regarding the place of religion in the public square.”