Some people have told me that “church should not be involved in politics”. By that, they often mean that clergy should not address controversial economic issues from the pulpit or in conversation with parishioners. They want church to be a sterile place, devoid of anything that might disturb their ideological comfort zone. In a Christian church of any denomination, however, that is not an option. One cannot explicate the teachings of Jesus without addressing public policy issues, simply because the activity of Jesus was an attack on the public power structure of His day which He sought to replace with that of the Kingdom of God, or Kingdom of Heaven, to use the equivalent term in the Gospel of Matthew.
As a non-profit, IRC 501(c)(3) corporation, churches are not allowed to support or oppose candidates for public office. We recognize, support, and agree with, these boundaries. Accordingly, Saint Cecilia Catholic Community does not engage in any such activities. Candidates do not appear at any of our events. We do not preach homilies or sponsor events that that support or oppose candidates, nor do we use church funds, publications or facilities for or such purposes. Significantly, both the Old Testament prophets and Jesus were able to do their work without engaging in any similar activity, so there is no need for us to do so.
But the work of the Old Testament prophets, and Jesus, included speaking out on public issues. They attacked a status quo which supported idolatry, neglect of the poor, and the oppression of unpopular people and groups. Our role as clergy is likewise. We are not here to preach individual moral virtue, but to advocate the just society explicated by the prophets and in the Gospels.
The number one target of the pre-exilic prophets, was idolatry. Idols are not just golden calves and wood carvings to which people show contrived homage and obeisance, but anything elevated and glorified in place of God. Biblical citations are legion and appear throughout the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, among others. The call to resist pagan pressure for Jews to compromise their religion by contact with Idolatry is nowhere more clear in the Book of Daniel, where Daniel’s three companions refuse to worship the king’s golden image and refusal to pray to the king. See Daniel chapters 3 and 6.
However, times have not changed. In today’s world, not only do people worship material goods, athletes, entertainers with far more money and devotion than they do God, they also worship their leaders, particularly those endowed with an ego that thrives on adulation by the masses. Such people were dangerous to the ancient Jews and remain dangerous today. A mass movement that supports an authoritarian leader is a major obstruction to the reign of God, because their followers replace God with the leader as a primary object. Given that during the last two decades, parties led by populist authoritarian leaders have surged in popularity in many nations, gaining legislative seats, reaching ministerial office, and holding government power, Christian clergy have a duty to call out those people and situations as dangerous to salvation.
Why? Salvation is not the individual saved from hell, but the replacement of the evil of this world with God’s love of which conservative authoritarian leaders are the very antithesis. Salvation, as an estachological concept, reflects our hope for the future, what kind of world we ultimately want. For Christians, that is a world where mercy, justice and peace replace selfishness, oppression, and violence. Market forces, property rights, and the use of force, near and dear to our right wing sisters and brothers, are the very antithesis of that. Christians can and must oppose these things when they result in the denigration of the dignity of human persons.
Concentrations of wealth and power accumulate only from an ongoing upward distribution of wealth and disempowerment of disenfranchised groups. The Old Testament prophet Amos in the Northern Kingdom of Israel denounces those who take their own cut from the hard work of poor people treat them with contempt, and take bribes. When they sell wheat, they rig the scales and the currency. It is always poor people who are their victims. These ruthless exploiters are nameless, but they plainly have wealth and power. See Amos chapters 5 and 8. The prophets of the Southern Kingdom of Judah exhibit similar themes. Micah attacks the “chiefs of the house of Israel” “who eat the flesh of my people” and “build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong,” referring to building done with forced labor. See Micah chapter 3. Isaiah presents God as denouncing “the elders and princes of his people,” saying “the spoil of the poor is in your houses”. Judgment awaits those who extend their land holdings at the expense of others. See Isaiah chapters 3 and 5. So this is injustice: the powerful treat poor people—who are most of their fellow citizens—as sources of wealth and unpaid labor, using coercion, bribery, dishonesty, legal technicalities, and even violence.
When Jesus appeared, this despicable behavior had not ceased. The only change was the people involved. Jesus did not see Himself as protecting the Roman secular and Idumaen religious power structures of His day. Jesus, like nearly all children, learned His values from His Mother, articulately stated in the Song of Mary in the first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. The coming of Jesus was God’s proclamation that the mighty would be put down from their seat; that the humble and meek would be exalted; that the hungry would be filled with good things; and the rich sent empty away. Jesus explicitly came to address injustice, not social stability or personal moral virtue. Quoting Isaiah who prophesized what He would be doing, Jesus proclaimed that He was here to “preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, [and] to let the oppressed go free.” In doing so, Jesus was explicitly involving Himself with public issues of wealth and power, and just like today when clergy address the same issues, people got mad at Jesus. See Luke chapter 4.
For Christians, Jesus is our guide and inspiration. He had a special sense of mission to poor and oppressed people evidence fulfillment of the messianic promises. For Catholics in particular, the dignity of the human person drives appropriate social policy because every person was created in God’s image. The tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, which began in earnest with Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical, “Rerum Novarum”, understood poverty to be connected to powerlessness and non-participation in society. The mission of the church does not stop with simple assistance with a meal or shelter, but encompasses advocacy for social and economic change. Thus, Catholic social teaching requires advocating on behalf of and with those marginalized by our society; the hungry, sick, poor, prisoners, strangers and powerless people. Jesus’ life provides the model by which we are to work for justice and peace in our world. See Matthew 25. For Christians, dealing with poverty is not a luxury. It is a moral imperative. It is not something that can be separated or expunged from the meaning of the Gospel. Thus, Christian history reflects and long and intense involvement in opposing injustice, oppression and poverty in the public arena.
In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI condemned slavery, stating, “We warn and adjure earnestly in the Lord faithful Christians of every condition that no one in the future dare to vex anyone, despoil him of his possessions, reduce to servitude, or lend aid and favor to those who give themselves up to these practices…” Both Catholic and Protestant Christians were at the forefront of those advocating the abolition of slavery in the United States. And who can forget Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his passionate commitment to civil rights?
The same is true on poverty-related issues. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops sponsors numerous initiatives to advocate for the interests of the poor, such as the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Journey to Justice, and Ending Poverty in Community. The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Episcopal Church awards grants for ministry among the economically impoverished in the United States and elsewhere, to provide opportunity to the marginalized to overcome chronic adversities, and challenge unjust structures that perpetuate the poverty cycle. Similar efforts can be found among Protestant denominations, including, but not limited to, United Church of Christ, Methodists, Disciples of Christ, and Presbyterians. The point is, Saint Cecilia Catholic Community is not the only church who takes Jesus seriously on these issues.
But in nearly every religious body that opposed slavery and/or segregation, the argument that social justice issues were secular and not sacred featured those who spoke out against clergy who condemned policies that oppressed the dignity of the human person. Yes, civil rights, disparities of income and wealth, are “political” issues in the sense that they are the subject of discussion in the public square. But because our Christian principles demand it, they will always be subjects of discussion at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community as well. Yes, we love our ceremonial, but to paraphrase the late Anglican Bishop Frank Weston, we cannot adore Jesus in the tabernacle if we do not pity Him in the slums. Thus, to adore Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is hypocritical when we do not see Him in the eyes of the humanness of the poor. He exalted humanity by becoming one of us in the Incarnation. The physical presence of Jesus is not only in the form of bread and wine at Mass, but in each one of us. We are called to be Jesus-like, and that includes not just listening to, singing, or reading His words, but living as He lived. And that includes doing the things He did, among them, advocacy for the poor and oppressed. How many Christians state that Jesus is our role model, but criticize their business-owning neighbor for paying poverty-level wages and not providing health insurance for their workers? Not many! Why? For too many people, social approval is a higher priority than the Gospel.
Scripture mentions justice over 200 times — more than just about any other topic. Scripture asks us to do justice and to stand up to anyone — including the rich or powerful — who engaged in injustice or oppression. Scripture features a constant call to seek justice. Jesus got upset at the Pharisees because they neglected the weightier matters of the law, which He defined as justice and the love of God. We get upset, too, for the same reasons. Praying for justice is not enough. We have to “walk our talk” and actualize, not just recite or sing our prayers. Having faith in our God, that is, a relationship with God based on love and trust, means we are God’s hands for administering justice. Scripture tells us God wants it no other way and that God is appalled when we sit on our hands and do nothing. Saint James reminds us, “faith without works is dead.” See James, Chapter 2.
The United States has lost sight of the fact that Jesus was a social justice hero. He boldly spoke out against inequality, helped the oppressed, condemned the oppressor, and embraced the alienated. Like today, many were drawn to His causes and could identify with his messages. He attracted crowds, followers, and disciples. But when it came time to stand with Jesus in solidarity–when he was arrested and about to be put to death by a corrupt government–virtually everyone abandoned him. This unfortunate human tendency is manifested by many clergy to become more concerned about their paycheck and their standing in the religious communities they serve causing them to refrain from preaching the Gospel message when it means people would leave the church, stop contributing money to it, or that they become unpopular with their flock. While this has been true since ancient times, that is not going to be our tradition at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community. Ignoring the poor the oppressed, the unemployed and the needy, and, more important, ignoring what keeps people poor, is, quite simply, unchristian. Like the Old Testament prophets and Jesus Himself, the clergy of Saint Cecilia Catholic Community will unceasingly raise their voices with the voiceless and help victims defend themselves from injustice. Social justice cannot be detached from the Gospel. It is an inherent part of the Christian identity. When the clergy of Saint Cecilia Catholic Community see injustice, oppression of the poor or any other disfavored group, any and all violence, and mistreatment of immigrants, we will call it out, every time, consequences be damned.