"When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor they call me a communist." (Dom Helder Camara, 1909-1999, Archbishop of Racife Brazil).
There are those who believe poverty is the result of personal choice. They will often sight anecdotal evidence of people being lazy, faking injuries or abusing the system by eating steaks while on food stamps.
There is an element of truth to some of these claims but the reality is that over 90 percent of those impacted by poverty have not chosen their economic status. The same people who think poverty is a personal choice usually fail to mention the much higher percentage of corporate welfare fraud.
Archbishop Camara was called a communist for addressing the real issue of systemic poverty the same way Pope Francis has been called a Marxist for challenging the impact of unbridled capitalism.
Both men were not speaking as economists but as ministers reflecting on their experience of working with the poor. They experienced the devastating effect on society due to the ever increasing gap between the haves and have-nots. They have seen the punitive attitudes of many toward the poor and the psychological effects of poverty manifested by depression, exhaustion, anger and loss of hope. They both witnessed the vulnerability of the poor and marginalized because of their economic and political inability to influence legislation or policy. The socioeconomic system is rigged in favor of the powerful who protect their interests at all costs. "Unjust social structures are the root of all violence and disturbances. Those who benefit from these structure react selfishly to any kind of change." (Archbishop Oscar Romero). One element of this protection is a strong military.
In the late 1970s hunger was eradicated in this country. However in the 1980s many of the social safety nets were dismantled in order to help pay for our arms race against Russia.
During the same period, the wealthy received a generous tax cut and our national debt tripled. The military budget has increased to our present day where we spend as much on defense as the next ten countries combined.
It is clear that the cost of armaments far supersedes the needs of our most vulnerable citizens. There are those in Congress who continue to argue for increasing the Pentagon's budget even beyond what has been requested.
People of good will may have legitimate disagreements on how to implement safety nets that offer a hand up and not a hand out, but the Judao-Christian tradition offers some guiding principals..
1. We are all sons and daughters of a loving God. This means every person is sacred regardless of economic status, nationality, race, gender or sexual preference.
2. Protecting the dignity of each person is the criteria used to judge every economic decision and institution. The economy is to serve people not the other way around.
3. As brothers and sisters we have a special obligation to the poor and vulnerable. Every person has the right to "life, food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, education and employment" (John XXIII, Pacem in Terris).
4. We are social beings by our very nature. Therefore the common good takes precedence over private concerns. We must ask ourselves and our legislators if our economic and political decisions enhance or undermine our human solidarity.
There are other moral principals that need to be incorporated in our decision making but I also want to point out that Jesus and the Biblical Tradition were far more interested in economic issues than pelvic concerns.
Unfortunately the history of Christianity to our present day has been just the opposite. We are more concerned with personal sin than systemic evil as reflected in economic injustice, militarism, consumerism and the glorification of violence.
Peter J. Carli
Spread Eagle, Wis.