Sunday, April 20, 2008

Social Justice From Below

Recently I made this point elsewhere in another context, but on reflection it seems worth making again here. At times one hears complaints that parts of the Episcopal Church are stressing social justice too much, and especially at the expense of the church's really essential business, its sacramental life. I'm sure there are abuses where, say, the social justice preacher is a closet Zwinglian, but one must be very careful treading over such ground. Treading on the territory of social justice we are NOT merely touching the Ethical, even if the words give that impression; we are touching the Religious, and one ought to take off one's shoes in the presence of God's desire that justice be done.

It does not really seem that difficult to tie concern for social justice to sacramental life, seeing that every normal Sunday Eucharist begins with an offering; i.e. the labor of the church community is sanctified with the Real Presence of Christ and returned to the community, sent out into the world to continue work as the body of Christ.

There are a number of themes integral to the Eucharist and the notion of justice–note how multiple Exchanges and Labor (even Objectification) are essential to the sacrament, how Communication of the Elements could bring up questions of what constitutes a fair exchange, how the collection of the offering implies a notion of common good, how the presentation of the elements imples a notion of representation, etc.

There is no–there cannot be–an apolitical or a politically neutral Eucharist.

Granted, loosey goosey lefty preachers might preach social justice and be too dull to notice the sacramental context in which they preach is soaked with the political. And how could it be otherwise than soaked when God is so clearly The Sovereign in our Eucharistic prayers? Just how could one fail to notice Christ the King?

But there is also a loosey goosey mentality abstracting the Eucharist from the political, as if real labor and real money and real paychecks and real exchanges were not actually involved and actually sanctified, as if it were all just symbolic or even pretend. Surely a priest with such an odd mentality can celebrate a valid Eucharist--no problem there. However, given the essentially political nature of the Eucharist, given that any political/sacramental dualism necessarily fails whatever the celebrants' mentality, given that discerning the body in Faith must carry the weight of a political commitment where witness could make a martyr, it seems fair to ask: what kind of faith goes with such a mentality? To the point: is it possible to be committed to Christ as Lord--as Lord--and Savior and not be politically committed precisely on account of one's commitment to Christ? Sure, insofar as commitment here below isn't simply binary as the question seems to imply. But insofar as discerning the Body must carry political meaning, and one is obligated to discern the Body as a condition of partaking in the Eucharist, an apolitical mentality at the Altar seems out of place.


At 10:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this.

I spend much of my time thinking about, and working against, torture. In the anamnesis (the remembering) we retell the story of One who was tortured to death for highly political reasons. As you say, in receiving the bread and wine we become again the body of Christ and we are then sent out to do Christ's work in the world.

One way I think of the sacraments as being "the means of grace" is that in becoming - and discerning - that body, we are formed in the Christian graces, faith, hope, and love - or as some call it, solidarity.

Have you perhaps seen Timothy Sedgewick's short book Sacramental Ethics?

At 9:07 AM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

Scotist--I've responded to both your comment and this post here.

At 11:01 AM, Blogger Annie said...

You have it in your second paragraph. It is quite simple, really. We do not separate sacred and secular--we are Christians! We go to the Lord's table, we commune with him, we take our intent to the table with us--which includes our prayers for those who suffer oppression and our powerful--God given--need to see that justice is done. Without which our faith is empty. Faith without works is dead.

If there is an inherent problem in our love of our liturgy it is in teaching people there is a difference between sacred and secular. Emerging Church likes to combine the two opposing words: sacred secular. I'm as much in the presence of God right now in my living room as I am during the liturgy--I'm just not as aware of it. I know people in my congregation who won't join us for our annual picnic due to the fact that for them worship can only occur within the confines of sacred space--not out in the world beneath the blue sky.

A final argument would be that when I suddenly and mysteriously found myself to be a spiritual person, I also found out that my church and my priest required that I remain at the level of the rest of the class, if you will, the beginner's level. We should so understand the liturgy that our sermon should be able to help us see the many directions our faith can take our commitment to Christ.

I guess in short I am saying the same thing in different ways. Requiring that we separate even our good works from our observance of the liturgy is as damaging, if not more so, than to be too blatant and too frank about the needs we, as Christians, should concern ourselves with. I'm all for that warm and fuzzy good feeling I get from Holy Eucharist--but my faith has purpose and meaning only in how I live it out in every day life.


At 6:43 PM, Blogger Jon said...

I think you may have missed the problem. It isn't that social justice isn't important. Action needs a foundation, and that foundation needs to be made explicit from time to time, especially in the Eucharist since that has always been focused on the foundation of the Christian life. Ignoring the foundation also makes it harder to recognize when a person has a vocation to something other than social justice work. For example how do we understand the place of contemplative monasticism in light of folks insistence on the importance of social justice?


At 10:26 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


I'd ask about the extent to which the monks minimize exploitation as the economic foundation of their contemplative common life--have they done all they could to minimize it? For example: Have they eliminated sweatshop & child labor from their invested capital? Are they self-supporting?

If they rely on exploitation, then the objective foundation of their contemplation is in danger. That is, to put a fine point on it, they are in danger of Christ saying to them "I know you not" regardless of how many prayers, confessions, masses, genuflections, rosaries, and walks through the labyrinth are performed.

But that is in particular cases ultimately a matter between the monks and God, a matter in which the church might or might not elect to intervene in instances of fraternal correction. I have no idea what would be called for in actual, particular cases.

At 5:16 AM, Blogger Jon said...

The orders with which I am familiar rely on the generosity of their associates and those who visit them, so they aren't exactly self-supporting. I don't know that they have any endowments at all, and if they do I'm pretty sure they'd be using something similar to what the Church Pension Fund uses.

I don't know that they successfully avoid participating in exploitation in everything they buy, but I doubt anyone actually succeeds. I do know that they strive to be faithful, including to the bits about loving their neighbors as God has loved them, and I trust they include some social justice concerns when concidering which goods they'll purchase as part of loving their neighbor.

I'm concerned, however, that they way you talk suggests that the contemplative life isn't a legitimate vocation or at least isn't a comprehensible vocation.

I think you've also missed the point of contemplative prayer. The point in't to get saved (that isn't even the point of social justice unless we are saved by our works instead of faith). The point is to one oneself to God. Making the point of contemplative prayer its fruit seems to me to turn from what is greater to what is lesser, and as a prayer I have heard attributed to St. Julian of Norwich suggests aiming for the less will always leave us in want.

I've commented at somewhat greater length on my own blog as well.


At 6:00 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Being self-supporting was meant only as an example, but what the Church Pension Fund--an excellent point to raise--does with its investments is directly relevant to the practice of worship, it seems to me.

Actually succeeding in avoiding exploitation is not the point, and I don't think I mentioned that. Actually succeeding can serve as a regulative ideal, governing a practice aimed at doing all possible to eliminate expoitation. It may be one has done all possible, and some degree of expoitation nevertheless remains; that might not then be culpable, it seems. What seems reprehensible is not even to try to minimize it.

I do not know of many contemplatives with better credentials than the Franciscans, and yet you probably already know how the question of poverty nearly tore their order apart in the Middle Ages--the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Indeed, I'd wager contemplative life is historically rooted in practice that emraces poverty, and without question embraces a complete refusal to enjoy any profits off interest.

Those moral practices have become detatched from contemplative practice only through historical contingencies--and I would hesitate to extoll the triumph of our modern capitalist, hedonistic ethos as the unalloyed expression of God's good will.


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