Angry for God?

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[re-post from 2015 in honor of today’s Mass Gospel]

A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God. — Abba Agathon

In Matthew 5:20-26, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter, locating the root of murder in the passion of anger:

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…

Jesus is never about behavior modification alone, but about striking at the root of all desire from whence come our thoughts, words and deeds.

St. John of the Cross, master of religious psychology, reflects on the danger of a spiritualized form of anger that can emerge in those who have made significant progress in the spiritual life. He says,

Among these spiritual persons there are also those who fall into another kind of spiritual anger. Through a certain excess in zeal they become angry over the sins of others, reprove these others, and sometimes even feel the impulse to do so angrily, which in fact they occasionally do, setting themselves up as lords of virtue.

Still others, in becoming aware of their own imperfections, grow angry with themselves in an unhumble impatience. They become so impatient over these imperfections because they want to become saints in a day. Many of these beginners make numerous plans and great resolutions, but since they are not humble and have no healthy distrust of themselves, the more resolves they make the more they break, and the greater becomes their anger. They do not have the patience to wait until God gives them what they need, when he so desires.

What is key in his analysis is this: for these spiritually immature religious adepts, the life of faith remains self-centered, self-preserving, self-promoting, and has not yet made the commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself,” their rule of life. For to love the neighbor in this way is to see their welfare or woe as your own, and so whatever you seek for them you also seek for yourself. For these anger serves not love, but self-love.

Those whose religious or ethical zeal is fueled by a seething anger, bitterness and self-righteous fury are often the masters of sarcasm and snark, murmuring cynicism and biting wit. St. John says what is most insidious about these people is that, because their anger is clothed in spiritual, religious or moral language, they are easily blinded to the vice beneath the garb. They feel that the cause they espouse justifies the caustic rhetoric. But, John says, to place the highest things (like faith, truth, justice) in service to the most base things — by placing them in the service of pride, anger, greed, envy, etc. — is profoundly dangerous. The Old Testament prophets are unanimous on this point: the use of God, and the things of God, in service to sinful motives and behaviors, no matter how well-disguised they are, stands among the gravest of evils. Better to be an angry atheist.

God says to Isaiah:

Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and the calling of assemblies—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression;
defend the fatherless, plead for the widow (Isaiah 1:13-17).

Anger can be a natural and healthy response to any situation where things are not as they should be, to injustice and evil. Anger is both a defense-reflex and a powerful motive for facing hardship or resisting evil with courage in the pursuit of justice. This is often called just or righteous anger. However, detached from mercy, which is love encountering and overcoming evil and injustice, anger turns into wrath. And it is wrath that is called a deadly sin. Wrath, unlike mercy, seeks not to overcome, redeem and heal evil, but rather to retaliate and destroy evil, inflict retribution.

This is why, for the Christian, justice can never be parted from mercy. Justice, when joined to mercy and bridled by patience, becomes remedial, restorative. Justice identifies evil, anger sets justice in (e)motion, and mercy, overcome with love for the evildoer, expends itself, not to destroy or malign, but to rescue, redeem and overcome evil with good. That is the logic of “the word of the cross,” as Jesus on the cross faced the full fury of the world’s injustice and evil with an omnipotent, non-violent merciful love.

The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18).

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” They cast lots to divide his clothing. (Luke 23:33-34).

What a vicious scandal it is when people of faith in Christ wage their merciless, destructive and angry warfare out in the midst of the digital public square for all to see. Facebook becomes a space not for revealing the Face of Christ, but for defacing the Gospel. Such a witness! “See how they despise one another!” Indeed. God needs no such favors done for Him.

I recall a number of years ago attending a workshop entitled “Justice for the Poor in the Gospel of Luke,” given by an Anglican Scripture scholar. During his lecture, he addressed this issue of anger in ministry. He said something like this:

There’s a sad irony in the fact that, in my experience, so many of us who have professed allegiance to the “justice and peace” movement are too often driven by anger against our ideological opponents. This, it seems to me, is a bit at odds with the meekness required of the reconcilers and peacemakers Jesus calls ‘blessed’ in the Beatitudes. Who are called to love their enemies, to settle on the way to court. We are our own worst enemies, friends, when we abuse and caricature our debate partners. Come on, just say it out loud: “Blessed are the pissed peacemakers.” This is not what Jesus wanted.

He was very much a sympathizer with the peace and justice movement, and his comment was meant to offer an honest self-critique. Ironically, one of the participants in the workshop stood up and shouted at the speaker: “Bullshit!” He went on to say that this accusation was an insult to the peace-activists’ righteous anger and an unfair assessment of the many people who have faced so much hardship over the years. The burden of unrighteous anger, the man said, rested squarely on the shoulders of war-mongering conservatives.

The biblical scholar replied in a calm voice, “Sir, your demeanor and words do little service to our cause.”

Pope Paul VI, in his 1975 Apostolic Exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi, argues that it is those who have been freed from sin’s grip by God’s liberating grace who are able to bear the force of joy. I will leave you with his words:

Let us therefore preserve our fervor of spirit. Let us preserve the delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow. May it mean for us an interior enthusiasm that nobody and nothing can quench. May it be the great joy of our consecrated lives. And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the Good News not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ, and who are willing to risk their lives so that the kingdom may be proclaimed and the Church established in the midst of the world.

Not Alone: A Single Mom Tells Her Story

Single-parent families often result from the unwillingness of biological mothers or fathers to be part of a family; situations of violence, where one parent is forced to flee with the children; the death of one of the parents; the abandonment of the family by one parent, and other situations. Whatever the cause, single parents must receive encouragement and support from other families in the Christian community, and from the parish’s pastoral outreach. — Pope Francis

A few weeks ago, I was blessed to hear the faith witness of a woman named Sharon Heno. She’s a remarkable woman. After hearing her speak, I asked, as is my habit, if she would allow me to share her story on my Blog. She immediately replied, “Absolutely.” As her witness was so vivid, gritty and powerful, and I didn’t want to risk misrepresenting her, I asked if she wouldn’t mind writing it out herself. She obliged. I am so grateful. Below is a personal introduction, her story of faith, hope and love, and the song she feels best captures her life’s meaning.

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Who I am:

My name is Sharon A. Heno, I am by profession a Licensed Professional Counselor and owner of the Counseling group, Behavioral Health Counseling and Consulting. Personally, I am a Mother and Survivor. I grew up Catholic and attended Catholic schools for my education. My elementary school was St. Clement of Rome then middle and high school Ursuline Academy. After a break in my academic journey I attended the University of Life. In all of this I survived violence, a stroke, among other health issues, financial troubles, being lost, and now single parenthood. I have survived many challenges in my life, but believe I have come out of each challenge with more awareness and insight into my life and my purpose. Eventually I returned to college and graduated from Loyola University. I went on to receive my Masters from the University of New Orleans and pursued my career in Counseling. Even now life is not free from challenges, I am ever changing and evolving to God’s calling. I openly share my story as I believe I am called to share my life’s ups and downs to encourage others facing obstacles.

My Story: 

I don’t believe that being a single parent is a calling from God. Becoming a single parent is a result of our free will. From the start, with Adam and Eve, we know the story of free will. God often uses our choices to teach us lessons. What an amazing God to use this love to teach us lessons of life and love. As a young adult, I frequently pushed limits, tested my independence and had little time for God or the church in my busy life.

With this I often found my life in turmoil and crisis. I was about to embark on the journey of a lifetime.

In early 2001 found myself back in crisis and my life reeling out of control. Discovering I was pregnant came as though I were diagnosed with a fatal illness. I was unable to receive the news as a gift, but rather as a curse. I went into damage control. I remember the feeling, fear and darkness took over, what was I going to do and how was I going to get out of this? My next steps were to reach out to the only other person who could understand, the only one who might have solutions. I contacted her biological father looking for support and comfort, I was met with something else. His fear was greater than my own and he too went into damage control. Our solution at this point was not to go further with this pregnancy. Looking back with no other intention but to cover up the shame we were feeling. He jumped into gear and took care of everything, setting the appointment, offering to pay and driving to the procedure.

Yes, he was in control and taking charge, this is what I thought I needed. And it was. Only at this moment I gave control to the wrong person, still believing we could change things and be in control of this situation. We had gotten in this, we could certainly take control to “fix” it.  While at the clinic, I heard that inner voice louder than ever before. I couldn’t do this, I wouldn’t do this. I had heard that voice before, but often reasoned it away. Not today, I suddenly felt peace not in knowing what I would do, but in not going through with the abortion. I left that day alone, without human support, but at that moment decided I would begin my journey in obedience, letting go. I left alone from earthly supports, but with 100% support from what I know today was my Heavenly Father. The shame I felt lifted and I was no longer in damage control, but rather asking the Father to show me what he wanted me to do.

I was still considering putting my daughter up for adoption, and some even offered to buy her. As I prayed about these, none of these options were met with feelings of peace for me. I have nothing but respect and admiration for those that put their babies up for adoption and for the families that adopt them. At this point in my life, I did not feel this is what I was being called to do. This was confirmed when her biological father refused to sign adoption papers which prohibited me from placing her for adoption. It appeared to many I was losing control and being abandoned, but rather I was letting go.

I felt the most peace when I proclaimed that at 31 years old, I would keep and raise my baby. Not sure how, but at that moment it was almost as if I were reborn. I had to let go of the demons of my past and embrace my future. Was I scared? Yes! I did not want to be a statistic, nor create one. How would I provide for her? How would I even survive the pregnancy alone? I felt alone, but would later come to see I was not. Looking back, God was there all the time, making what seemed impossible, possible. A friend of mine shared a biblical passage: “Go by faith not by sight.” This became my mantra and remains so today.

With the delivery of my daughter many miracles and blessings began to come, and only hours after her birth healing came to my family. We had not spoken the duration of my pregnancy, but they arrived and healing began. We began to heal as a family and individually. So much has been a blessing, but the lessons and challenges are there. There are daily struggles and fears that I face every day. Facing the trials and tribulations alone, carrying the support on my own. Trying to console me for not having the companionship of a husband, many often say, “Well you don’t have a husband but you have your daughter.” I agree, but I don’t believe you should rely on your child to process your fears and struggles. She is a child, and the challenges that I as a parent face should not and will not be shared with her. Children need to be allowed to be children.

Another challenge I face is with friendships. Friends are hard enough to make, but as a single parent, unfortunately, I have found you are almost ousted, excluded, which can intensify those feelings of loneliness. One thing I have learned is people or things cannot take away that feeling. I truly feel peaceful when I spend time every day in prayer. This is a challenge, as like so many I am always short on time. I have become more disciplined in giving my time to God and this brings me a peace I cannot explain. When I’m feeling, lonely I turn to my Father. He has said he can be all things. When my earthly parents can’t comfort me the way I need, it is God that offers support. When friends are scarce, God is a constant. As for finding a loved one, well, I do believe God has already selected him but right now God needs me to continue to grow and to stay focused on my daughter.

Some of the lessons I have learned and continue to learn are patience, living in the moment and most importantly nothing is possible without God, but everything is possible through him. He has entrusted me with the joy and responsibility of raising this beautiful creation of his.

Fall Away

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Maria

[Re-post from February 2016. Extremely busy days for me, so re-posts help. Oh, but did I mention that March 2, 2017 I’ll see Twenty One Pilots live, in concert, in New Orleans? #frenziedjoy]

God does not want to impose the good, but wants free beings. There is a certain usefulness to temptation. No one but God knows what our soul has received from him, not even we ourselves. But temptation reveals it in order to teach us to know ourselves, and in this way we discover our evil inclinations and are obliged to give thanks for the goods that temptation has revealed to us. — Catechism #2847

My daughter Maria introduced me to the group Twenty One Pilots in 2015 and I have (figuratively) joined their fan club. I will be posting more on them soon. Recently Maria wrote a brief reflection for school on a song of theirs, and I found her reflection so excellent I asked if I could publish it here. She graciously agreed.

Here was the prompt she received in class:

For this activity, you will be analyzing a song, poem, article, short story, or character in a book. Your typed response will answer the general question, “How does these lyrics or story promote authentic human freedom?”  You will need to attach the lyrics of the song, the article, the story, or some type of description of what you chose to analyze to the assignment (If you do a song or another media source you may attach the youtube clip as well).  Your response must be at least 200 words.  Pay careful attention to clarity of writing and grammar.

Here was her answer:

The song “Fall Away” by twenty one pilots discusses authentic human freedom in an obscure but brutally honest way. Tyler Joseph, the writer of the song, divulges his struggle of concealing who he really is and talks about his fear of “falling away” from the truth and, ultimately, God.

I believe that the message Joseph is trying to convey is that he strives to live the life he is supposed to live, but many self-doubts hinder his ability to do so. The line “but I don’t want your way, I want mine” is Joseph addressing God, saying that he wants to create his own path instead of taking God’s path of true happiness. Another line, “I can feel the pull begin/feel my conscience wearing thin,” expresses his struggle to retain his original beliefs and morals as the outside world pulls him away, giving him a false idea of what freedom is.

While this song does not exhibit an explicit representation of authentic human freedom, it does describe the difficulty many face to use their freedom how they ought to. In our tainted, confused world today, freedom is generally defined as the right to do or say whatever one wants. Especially with the recent upsurge in social media, the pressure to believe in a fixed set of ideas has increased, leaving many people in doubt.

Only with God can freedom be used unerringly, which is why it is imperative that we make ourselves immune to the temptations around us.

Here’s the song:

Here are the lyrics. 

I don’t wanna fall, fall away
I don’t wanna fall, fall away
I’ll keep the lights on in this place
‘Cause I don’t wanna fall, fall away 
I disguise
And I will lie
And I will take my precious time
As the days melt away
As I stand in line
And I die as I wait as I wait on my crime
And I’ll try to delay what you make of my life
But I don’t want your way,
I want mine
I’m dying and I’m trying
But believe me I’m fine
But I’m lying,
I’m so very far from fine And I, I can feel the pull begin
Feel my conscience wearing thin
And my skin
It will start to break up and fall apartI don’t wanna fall, fall away
I don’t wanna fall, fall away
I’ll keep the lights on in this place
‘Cause I don’t wanna fall, fall awayEvery time I feel selfish ambition
Is taking my vision
And my crime is my sentence
Repentance is taking commission
It’s taking a toll
On my soul
I’m screaming submission and,
I don’t know if I am dying or living
‘Cause I will save face
For name’s sake
Abuse grace
Take aim to obtain a new name
And a newer place
But my name is lame
I can’t walk and I ain’t the same
And my name became
A new destiny to the graveAnd I, I can feel the pull begin
Feel my conscience wearing thin
And my skin,
It will start to break up and fall apart
I don’t wanna fall, fall away
I don’t wanna fall, fall away
I’ll keep the lights on in this place
‘Cause I don’t wanna fall, fall away

St. Enemy

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[re-post from March 2016 in honor of today’s Feast. It’s one of my most cherished insights]

On January 25, 2016, feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, I had one of those insights that, when you get it, makes you suddenly see everything a bit differently. It’s something I’d already in some sense known, but not from this specific angle.

Eastern Orthodox theologian Fr. John Behr says that theology is knowledge of God acquired within the “matrix of the Scriptures” illumined by the light that shines from the cross and resurrection of Jesus. As I was praying that morning, immersed in the Mass readings for the day (especially Acts 22:3-16), my mind blazed with the light of epiphany as I inhabited Saul’s encounter with the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. It’s not critical exegesis as much as it is a spiritual read of the texts. Here’s the journal entry:

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The first Scripture of the New Testament was written at the command of Pontius Pilate and preserved in all four Gospels: “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.” And Pilate is the inspired author: “What I have written [gegrapha] I have written [gegrapha]” (John 19:22).

Let me pause writing for a prostration.

The enthronement of the King of Truth on Golgotha was first inscribed in mock of God’s royal Son. Divine revelation chose to use for its “writing tablet” the wood of the Cross, with a parchment declaring God as guilty of treason for usurping Caesar’s lordship over the world. The declaration of Christ’s kingship is at once the rationale for having executed God: “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.” And it was written in the sacred language of Hebrew and secular language of Greek/Latin, to Jew and Gentile. The first Scripture of the New Covenant is as universal as the covenant itself. It’s Scripture: “What I have written,” sharing the same root word as Scripture, graphḗ – as in Matthew 4:10,  “for it is written [gegraptai].” 

My God, the first Scripture of the new covenant was written at the command of a Gentile and an enemy. In this sense, inscribed into the heart of the Gospel is the new commandment on steroids: “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44).  Sacred Writ is inscribed on the cursed Cross that tears down all dividing walls and reconciles all things by the bloodshed of the Beloved Son (Col. 1:20). No wonder the chief priests objected: “Do not write [graphe], ‘The King of the Jews’…” (John 19:21). Our God could never be such a King! Yet, He is.

Again, amazed. In this new covenant a strange divine economy unfolds, as men who cherish expediency, intending an innocent death to achieve their goals, unwittingly unveil the most profound mystery of God’s providence: His unfathomable mercy (John 11:49-51; Gen. 50:20). Like the Centurion who thrust his spear into the Heart of God in order to ensure His death, human malice only serves to provoke divine love to super-abound and unseals the fountain of life for all creation.  

This is the heart of the mystery of mercy.

My God.

How equally marvelous that Jesus would chose Saul, an enemy of the Way (Acts 9:4), to proclaim the Gospel of God’s mercy to the nations (cf 1 Tim. 1:16) and serve as the ambassador of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:20) whose core mission is to tear down the walls of hostility that stood between Jew and Gentile (cf. Eph 2:14).

How wonderful that God chose a blasphemer (1 Timothy 1:13) to serve as a vessel of biblical inspiration for nearly half the New Testament, and a murderer (Acts 9:1) to proclaim the Gospel of life.

St. Paul’s revolutionary encounter with the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus seared in his mind the merciful mind of Christ, who loves His enemies unto self-abasement (cf Phil. 2:5-11). The mind of the Word-made-flesh, who reserved His sweetest display of love for those who spat in His face and brutalized His body (Luke 23:24; Rom. 12:20-21; Gal 3:13).

“Such is our God, our God for ever and always” (Psalm 48:14).

All this to say that St. Paul was equipped in a singular way to proclaim the “word of the Cross” (1 Cor. 1:18). In fact, the Cross emboldened him to articulate the most radical expression of selfless love found anywhere in Scripture. These words still make me shudder whenever I read them.  Speaking of his fellow Jews who had rejected Jesus, as he once had, he said:

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race (Romans 9:3).

Read that one more time: “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.”

May Christ make me always gratefully aware that I also am, by His mercy, also an enemy-made-friend (Romans 5:10). O Lord, fill me with the courage to live daily out of the riches of that same mercy toward my most difficult neighbors. Amen.

But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. – Luke 6:27-28

Mary Consoles Eve

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This painting, entitled “Mary Consoles Eve,” by Sr. Grace Remington, OCSO, captures in a very striking way the relationship between these two women. As I prayed with it, three things came to mind: a brief story, the words of St. Irenaeus of Lyons and a poem by St. Hildegard of Bingen.

The story:

Back in the late 1980’s I heard an astonishing story preached by a priest in a Russian Orthodox parish. He said there was a woman living in the Soviet Union in the 1950’s who was pregnant with her second child. She was a Believer in an age of Soviet atheism. Late in the pregnancy her doctor warned her that her delivery could be life-threatening and recommended abortion, though he said even the abortion could be life-threatening. She refused the abortion, and during her labor and delivery suffered severe hemorrhaging and died. While delivering the baby, she held a Byzantine cross in her hand and clasped it so tightly that her hand bled. When she died, the blood-stained cross fell to the floor and her husband picked it up. After a pause, the priest said, “That was my mother, and I was that child.” Gasp. Then he took out a cross, and said: “This is her cross. And when I was ordained a priest my father gave this cross to me and said, ‘Your mother compressed all of her love and life-blood into that cross. So whenever you feel tired or lost, think of her.'”

St. Irenaeus:

The seduction of a fallen angel drew Eve, a virgin espoused to a man, while the glad tidings of the holy angel drew Mary, a Virgin already espoused, to begin the plan which would dissolve the bonds of that first snare. For as the former was lead astray by the word of an angel, so that she fled from God when she had disobeyed his word, so did the latter, by an angelic communication, receive the glad tidings that she should bear God, and obeyed his word. If the former disobeyed God, the latter obeyed, so that the Virgin Mary might become the advocate of the virgin Eve. Thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so it is rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience is balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience.

St. Hildegard:

Pierced by the light of God
Mary Virgin,
drenched in the speech of God,
your body bloomed,
swelling with the breath of God.

For the Spirit purged you
of the poison Eve took.
She soiled all freshness when she caught
that infection
from the devil’s suggestion.

But in wonder within you
you hid an untainted
child of God’s mind
and God’s Son blossomed in your body.

The Holy One was his midwife:
his birth broke the laws
of flesh that Eve made. He was coupled
to wholeness
in the seedbed of holiness.

MLK Prayer

Fr Josh. churchpop.com

After I finished some work today, I took some quiet time and wrote a ‘prayer for racial harmony’. I sent it to a priest friend, Fr. Josh Johnson, and he graciously sent it back to me as a prayer, in rap. Something I could never do! He graciously gave me permission to share it.

O God, Lover of the human race,
we raise our hearts to plead this grace:
heal our division, outpouring reconciliation
in homes, neighborhoods, and our nation;
for Jesus Christ, your Son, our brother
came living, proclaiming: love one another
tearing down walls of race and creed,
tending the fallen, all those in need
of mercy’s balm, healing compassion
understanding, generosity without ration.
So send now your Spirit, that unifying Gift
who bears salvation, mending every rift
that your Church only uplift and inspire,
casting out upon earth your Refiner’s fire
only to your glory, O Father and Son,
with Spirit blest: Thy will be done.
Amen.

MLK and the Cappadocian Fathers

Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese
and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Re-post from 2014

I am a huge fan of the scholar of religion, Dr. Albert Raboteau, whose work on African slave religion in America had a deep impact on me in my grad school years. When I taught a course in the history of Christian thought/culture at Florida State University, I would use his collection of essays  on the history of the African-American religious experience, A Fire in the Bones, to think about the intersection of faith and culture. He is a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and you can read the enlightening story of his journey to Orthodoxy here.

Professor Raboteau

In honor of MLK Day, I will share with you a selection from an essay he wrote on Martin Luther King.

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Martin Luther King Day memorials tend to celebrate King the Civil Rights leader, stressing his activism on behalf of interracial equality and reconciliation. We slight his emphasis on the link between racism and poverty and so neglect King the advocate of the poor. At the time of his assassination King was participating in the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ struggle to achieve a decent wage while simultaneously planning the Poor People’s Campaign. King’s sermons, speeches and writings echo ancient Christian teachings on poverty and wealth, which may still serve as a resource for the contemporary struggle to overcome economic inequality. He was a 20th century exemplar of a very old tradition.

Princeton Historian Peter Brown argues convincingly that “a revolution in the social imagination occurred between 300 and 600 C.E. closely associated with the rise to power of the Christian bishop. For the Christian bishop was held by contemporaries to owe his position in no small part to his role as the guardian of the poor. He was the ‘lover of the poor’ par excellence.” The 4th century bishops, St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus elucidated this novel virtue and its centrality to the community life of Christians. In 369 a severe drought followed by famine prompted Basil to preach a sermon on the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-18), the man who decides to tear down his barns and build new ones to hold his surplus grain. “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Basil elaborates:

“Who, then, is greedy? — The one who does not remain content with self sufficiency. Who is the one who deprives others? The one who hoards what belongs to everyone. Are you not greedy? Are you not one who deprives others? You have received these things for stewardship, and have turned them into your own property! Is not the one who tears off what another is wearing called a clothes-robber? But the one who does not clothe the naked, when he was able to do so — what other name does he deserve? The bread that you hold on to belongs to the hungry; the cloak you keep locked in your storeroom belongs to the naked; the shoe that is moldering in your possession belongs to the person with no shoes; the silver that you have buried belongs to the person in need. You do an injury to as many people as you might have helped with all these things!”

Basil enacted the Christian social vision he preached by establishing a hospice and soup kitchen for the famine victims and later developed a large complex to house the poor, tend the sick, and where the poor who could work were employed or trained in various trades. Around 369, St. Gregory of Nyssa preached on almsgiving: “Do not look down on those who lie at your feet, as if you judged them worthless. Consider who they are, and you will discover their dignity: they have put on the countenance of our Savior; for the one who loves humanity has lent them his own face, so that through it they might shame those who lack compassion and hate the poor.” In a sermon on the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46, in which care for the poor is the standard of judgment “for in as much as you did it [or did it not] to the least of these you did it to me.” St. Gregory of Nazianzus warns that we should fear condemnation if we “have not ministered to Christ through those in need … Let us take care of Christ, then, while there is still time: let us visit Christ in his sickness, let us give to Christ to eat, let us clothe Christ in his nakedness, let us do honor to Christ in his needy ones, in those who lie on the ground here before us this day.” .

In 1956, King preached a sermon that echoed Basil’s condemnation of greed: “God never intended for a group of people to live in superfluous, inordinate wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty. God intends for all of His children to have the basic necessities of life, and He has left in this universe enough and to spare for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth.” In 1962, King preached, “I see hungry boys and girls in this nation and other nations and think about the fact that we spend more than a million dollars a day storing surplus food. And I say to myself ‘I know where we can store that food free of charge – in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of people in our nation and in this world who go to bed hungry at night.'”

In 1961, preaching on the same text from Luke as Basil, King linked racism and poverty, “You see this man was foolish because the richer he became materially the poorer he became spiritually…. This man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others… Now this text has a great deal of bearing on our struggle in race relations… For what is white supremacy but the foolish notion that God made a mistake and stamped an eternal stigma of inferiority on a certain race of people; what is white supremacy but the foolishness of believing that one race is good enough to dominate another race?…And there was a final reason why this man was foolish. He failed to realize his dependence on God…because he felt that he was the creator instead of the creature.”