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Theology, the university, and the poor

December 11, 2010 2 comments

I recently read the commencement address given by Ignacio Ellacuria, SJ in June 1982 at Santa Clara University.  (Ellacuria would be killed in El Salvador just over seven years later, in November 1989, at the very university about which he speaks in this address, Universidad Centroamericana.)  The talk is available here: http://www.scu.edu/jesuits/ellacuria.html.  Ellacuria’s words have made me reflect again on a topic which has emerged many times on this blog: namely, the preferential option for the poor.  In particular, I want to ask, What role does the university play in realizing this option?  And how does our theology relate to this task of the university? 

Ellacuria may provide some guidance:             

A Christian university must take into account the gospel preference for the poor. This does not mean that only the poor will study at the university; it does not mean that the university should abdicate its mission of academic excellence–excellence which is needed in order to solve complex social issues of our time. What it does mean is that the universitv should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those without science; to provide skills for those without skills; to be a voice for those without voices; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to make their rights legitimate. 

What strikes me about this passage is that the realization of the option for the poor at the university is not limited to a sector of it, such as a Center for Social Concerns, as we have at Notre Dame (http://socialconcerns.nd.edu/), or some analogous institution.  Ellacuria certainly does not deny the value of this sort of center–which, at Notre Dame, does serve the poor in concrete ways that are worthy of support.  But this vital part of the university is not his focus.  The things he calls for involve the university’s work as a whole.  The intellectual presence of the university should have a positive outcome for the poor.  Its academic excellence should provide the means to analyze the complex social realities of a world in which the majority of humankind lives in poverty.  The science and the skills that the university develops and teaches should be used for those who have no access to them.  The collective voice which the university has–of numerous students, faculty, staff, and administrators, whose voices are heard throughout campus–should give voice to those who have none (which means, above all, listening to them, and bringing their concerns out into the open).

Theology, as both an academic and a Christian pursuit, must have an important role to play here.  But what exactly is it?  It cannot be to reliquish its intellectual rigor in order to be an advocate for the poor.  Rather, as Ellacuria suggests, it must put its intellectual rigor in service of the poor.  Nor can it be to forsake faithful reflection on the gospel in order to make way for a secular ideology.  That is far from Ellacuria’s mind.  Ultimately, for Ellacuria, theology’s role at the university is this: to understand more deeply how to confront the realities of a sinful and suffering world in an authentically Christ-centered way.  

Much more really needs to be said on this topic.  But for now, perhaps you and I can take some time to meditate on the concluding words of Ellacuria’s address, in light of our own contexts (wherever we are):    

And how do you help us [the poor]? That is not for me to say. Only open your human heart, your Christian heart, and ask yourselves the three questions Ignatius of Loyola put to himself as he stood in front of the crucified world: What have I done for Christ in this world? What am I doing now? And above all, what should I do? The answers lie both in your academic responsibility and in your personal responsibility.

Let us take care of Christ

October 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Alright, last post from Gregory:

Yet think, I beg you, of humanity’s original equality, not of its later diversity; think not of the conqueror’s law, but of the creator’s…Let the one with good health or with riches come to the aid of the ailing and the needy; let the one who has never stumbled help the one who has fallen and is being trodden down…become more eminent than your neighbor by showing yourself more generous; become a god to the unfortunate, by imitating the mercy of God. For a human being has no more godlike ability than that of doing good; and even if God is benefactor on a grander scale, and humans on a lesser, still each does so, I think, to the full extent of his powers… The instruments of the Spirit have not simply spoken once or twice about the needy and then fallen silent; nor was it simply some of them and not others, or some more and others less, as if they were dealing with no great matter, with nothing of pressing importance. No – all of them laid this command on us, each with the greatest urgency, either as the first of our duties or as one of the first…

Do you think that kindness to others is not a necessity for you, but a matter of choice? That it is not a law, but simply an exhortation? I used to wish this very much myself, and supposed it to be true. But that ‘left hand’ has instilled fear in me, and the ‘goats,’ and the rebukes that will come from him who raises them to stand before him: condemned to be in this class, not because they have committed theft or sacrilege, or adultery, or have done anything else forbidden by the Law, but because they have not cared for Christ through the needy! If you believe me at all then, servants and brothers and sisters and fellow heirs of Christ, let us take care of Christ while there is still time; let us minister to Christ’s needs, let us give Christ nourishment, let us clothe Christ, let us gather Christ in, let us show Christ honor…since the Lord of all things ‘desires mercy and not sacrifice,’ and since ‘a compassionate heart is worth more than tens of thousands of fat rams,’ let us give this gift to him through the needy, who today are cast down on the ground, so that when we all are released from this place, they may receive us into the eternal tabernacle, in Christ himself, who is our Lord, to whom be glory for all the ages. Amen.

On the Love of the Poor, 26-27, 35, 39-40.

On Care of Lepers

October 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Another couple passages from Gregory’s On the Love of the Poor:

There stands before our eyes a terrible, pitiable sight, unbelievable to anyone who did not know it was true: human beings both dead and alive, mutilated in most parts of their body, scarcely recognizable either for who they are or where they come from…even the kindest and most humane of neighbors is insensitive to them; in this instance alone, we forget that we are flesh, clothed in this lowly body, and we are so far from caring for our fellow creatures that we think the safety of our own bodies lies in fleeing from them. One approaches a body that has been dead for some time, even if it has been dead for some time, even if it has begun to reek; one carries about the stinking carcasses of brute animals, and puts up with being full of filth; yet we avoid these lepers with all our might (what inhumanity!), almost taking offense at breathing the same air….

They are driven way from the cities, driven away from their homes, from the market-place, from public assemblies, from the streets, from festivals and private celebrations, even – worst of all sufferings! – from our water; not even the springs flow for them, though they are common property for everyone else, nor are the rivers allowed to wash off any of their impurities. Most paradoxical of all, we drive them away as bearers of pollution, yet we draw them back towards us again, as if they caused us no distress at all, by giving them neither housing, nor the necessary food, nor treatment for their leisons…Whose heart is not broken by the mournful cries of these people, sounding forth a kind of pitiable music?…the wail of their begging offers a counterpoint to the sacred singing within the church, and a miserable dirge is produced, in contrast to the sounds of the Mysteries. Why must I depict all their misfortune to people celebrating a feast day?Perhaps it is that I might stir up some lament in your hearts, if I carefully play out every detail; perhaps suffering will triumph over celebration! For I say all this, since I have not yet been able to convince you that sadness is sometimes more precious than joy, and gloom than celebration – a tear more praiseworthy than unseemly laughter…

What about us, who have inherited the great new name, in being called after Christ…disciples of the gentle and kindly Christ, who ‘bore our weaknesses’ and humbled himself so far as to share in the mixture of our nature, who ‘became poor for our sakes’ in this flesh…what about us, who have received such a great example of tenderness and compassion? How shall we think about these people, and what shall we do? Shall we simply overlook them? Walk past them? Leave them for dead, as something loathsome, something more detestable than snakes and wild animals? Sure not, my brothers and sisters! This is not the way for us, nursed as we are by Christ, the Good Shepherd, who brings back the one gone astray, seeks out the lost, strengthens the weak; this is not the way of human nature, which lays compassion on us as a law, even as we learn reverence and humanity from our common weakness.

On the Love of the Poor, 10, 12-15

On the Love of the Poor

October 20, 2010 3 comments

This semester I am having my first-year students read about poverty in early Christianity. John Chrysostom’s sermons on Lazarus and the Rich Man are rightly famous for their urgent demand to care for the poor and thus are the standard text for introducing this aspect early Christianity.  We will be reading a bit from Chrysostom but I decided to focus on a less well-known (and only recently translated) text by Gregory of Nazianzus: Oration 14: On the Love of the Poor. In this oration Gregory appeals to his congregation to have compassion for the poor and homeless, particularly those suffering from leprosy. Here is a taste:

Let each one simply walk on the way, and reach out for what is ahead, and let him follow the footsteps of the one who leads the way so clearly, who makes it straight and guides us by the narrow path and gate to the broad plains of blessedness in the world to come. And if, following the command of Paul and of Christ himself, we must suppose that love is the first and greatest of the commandments, the crowning point of the law and the prophets, I must conclude that love of the poor, and compassion and sympathy for our own flesh and blood, is its most excellent form. For God is not so served by any of the virtues as he is by mercy, since nothing else is more proper than this to God…

We must open our hearts, then, to all the poor, to those suffering evil for any reason at all, according to the Scripture that commands us to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.’ Because we are human beings, we must offer the favor of our kindness first of all to other human beings, whether they need it because they are widows or orphans, or because they are exiles from their own country, or because of the cruelty of their masters or the harshness of their rulers or the inhumanity of their tax-collectors, or because of the bloody violence of robbers or the insatiable greed of thieves, or because of the legal confiscation of their property, or shipwreck – all are wretched alike, and so all look toward our hands, as we look towards God’s, for the things we need.

Gregory of Nazianzus, On the Love of the Poor, 5-6.