by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
A missionary Franciscan brother of mine told me of a conversation he had with a Bolivian woman. He was planning a trip to the United States and the woman asked him if he could find out if Americans actually used drinking water in their toilets.
Such micro-level incidents highlight our global reality today. We live in a world divided by a chasm between us who have and those who have not. And the separation affects the rest of life on earth. The woman’s question summarizes that scandalous situation which, Pope Francis has pointed to since the start of his pontificate. It beckons to the social analysis that underlies his seven-year plan to implement Laudato Si’.
I believe that a reflection is helpful to consider all that lies behind that woman’s astonishment at the possibility of clean water being “wasted” in such a way. It calls for a serious and disturbing examination of conscience by us, the privileged of the earth.
Providentially, as so often happens, just as Francis’ plan unfolds, the Sunday gospel addresses this colossal dilemma. It’s Mark’s story of the man who declined Jesus’ invitation to follow him and “went away sad for he had many possessions.” Jesus responds, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of Heaven”. (Mk. 10:21-23) What Jesus didn’t say is what we have now discovered: that our wealth comes on the backs of countless impoverished brothers and sisters.
We surely need reminders of this today. And Pope Francis offers us one such a reminder in calling for our responses to “the cry of the poor,” the “cry of the earth,” “adoption of simple lifestyles.” However, for “first world” Catholic and all Christians alike, the consequences of this gospel passage and Pope Francis’ call to examine our lifestyles come with great difficulty. One reflection on the subject put it this way: we have softened its impact with interpretations that dilute its meaning. In my own experience speaking about social issues, the question of lifestyle nearly always provokes strong defensiveness.
So, how do we deal with our privileged place in a world of extreme (or even relative) privilege and dehumanizing poverty? There are no easy answers nor solutions here. Yet, we can point to a few episodes in the gospels for some light on the problem. Jesus is clear about those with wealth.
There is the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19). Here, a wealthy tax collector has a conversion including giving half of his possessions to the poor. There is no recorded demand on Jesus’ part that the man “sell all and give it to the poor.”
In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16), the latter is condemned for ignoring Lazarus, who sat at the rich man’s, door day after day.
The beatitudes according to Matthew has Jesus declaring, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Is this not a call for first world people to have the spirit of living with less, not to prioritize wealth and to use our wealth in favor of the common good?
Following on these insights three modalities emerge:
- cultivating a spirit of spareness in our lifestyles
- informing our lifestyles with an option for the poor in mind
- striving to encounter sisters and brothers existing on the peripheries
These thoughts may be helpful, but the challenge remains. We’ll remain uneasy about a world where clean water is used for bathing and sewerage. Reflection and action on Pope Francis’ plan to implement Laudato Si‘ will help us face this ongoing, legitimate discomfort.
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.