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We are living in a radical sociological experiment
Editor’s Note: This essay also appears in The Line Issue 10.8 (August 2023); subscribe here.
“Tell it to somebody who cares.”
Sadly, that could be the motto for many. If an activity does not give swift gratification or make a profit, many people lose interest.
It may be worth noting in this context that we are living in a radical sociological experiment today, one which seems to evoke little comment, although it has changed dramatically how people live. Two centuries ago, 1823, to pick one moment in time, the great majority of people dwelled in small rural communities, and lived primarily by farming or in providing services or goods to farmers. The food they consumed was mostly what they or their neighbors raised. They lived with, or near, extended family. Family or not, they knew virtually everybody in their town. Few traveled beyond the local area. Those who did, did so slowly, by horse or sailboat. The church community was simply a segment of the whole community. Often a single parish served the whole town. Cities were tiny by today’s standards, and industries mostly small. Caring was built in. Extended families saw a responsibility to care for their members, lifelong neighbors looked after each other.
The planet’s human population has grown at least eightfold in the intervening time between then and now. Mobility and emigration, industrialization and urbanization, means few people live by farming today. Most people live in tiny nuclear families in big urban clusters, surrounded by strangers and with little commitment to any sort of community. Whatever community exists is as likely to be global through technology, as local through neighborhood. Travel now is common and, at least in theory, swift.
The collateral damage in all this is still unfolding, but it already seriously impacts much of life. One of the greatest hits has been on how people care.
All this simply restates historical trends of the past several centuries in terms of how people care about others. It is relevant to us as Christians, because caring is at the core of our Christian faith and life. Christianity is uniquely a way of life in community, “where two or three are gathered in my [i.e. Jesus’] name” (Matthew 18:20). And the second of God’s two great Commandments is to love our neighbor, who Jesus interprets (in the parable of the Good Samaritan) as being everybody.
But caring is no longer a self-evident exercise of doing the obvious for those village family and neighbors in need, including caring for strangers who arrived in your community as well. It was, in fact, the Church community which traditionally offered hospitality to travelers and strangers. Monastic communities saw themselves as required by their rule to provide food and shelter to all who came to their door, and hospitals (note the word relates to “hospitality”) were operated by the Church.
The mandate to care for others, as expressed by Jesus vividly in Matthew 25, among other places, has not changed. It should go without saying that Christians care, without exception, for all. It should, but unfortunately it needs to be said. Church among us is rarely a village parish. In the urban environment, it is a consumer choice. Many churches market themselves as desirable because you will feel good if you attend. Because each one is an enterprise kept solvent through contributions, each has an institutional survival instinct, and a need to keep its “consumers” happy. The urban vestry’s motivation for evangelism is the realization that, without growth, the budget will not be met. Parish priests are judged by many of their peers on how well they have “grown” their church and budget. In all this, caring plays little role, especially caring for the needy who cannot contribute much to the numbers.
Jesus in his life and acts cares for his planet and people, enough to offer himself for us on the Cross. Along the way is a parade of incidents expressing his care for individuals through healing them, teaching them, feeding them, leading them. In short, he has manifested his great (and undeserved) love for us by caring, in little and big ways, from salvation to cooking breakfast for the disciples on the beach (John 21:12-13). Likewise we, as the Body of Christ on earth, are to organize ourselves as a caring community. The primary focus of that community is to gather around his Eucharistic Presence, and then to continue our liturgy in serving and caring for others throughout the week. To worship as the gathered community in the Eucharist and to care for others all the time is one seamless act, not two separate endeavors. “A life of faith … and a love for one’s brethren is … the true worship, without which external worship becomes an empty, indeed, repulsive force” (Joseph Ratzinger, 1967 [later Pope Benedict XVI]).
It is thus not an optional activity added to the parish calendar on occasion. It is at the essential Eucharistic center of the gathered Christian community to care for others. The only questions are those of strategy, finding the best way to express that care.
It begins by understanding that, since Christians are by definition in community with each other and their Lord, care for all in that community is basic. The Christian community, the family of the baptized, is to be treated as family (the ideal family, not the dysfunctional ones we experience). When parishes are too big to know everyone, how can you express care? This is where the needs of love conflict with the needs of an institution. A community smaller than, say, one hundred people, is obvious if you are going to genuinely and individually care about everyone. But institutional churches define their viability by financial success, not by success in love and care. The rector and other staff need incomes reflecting their professional status, and beyond the parish, the diocese must pay its bishop a salary worthy of his executive status. Buildings and programs must be constructed and maintained.
But Jesus functioned only with love and care. That does not mean it is evil to own buildings or pay the clergy. It is all in the priorities. If love and care are central, permeating the entire community, paid clergy and owned real estate can even be helpful. But be careful, because institutions and those who thrive in them have a way of warping the priorities into institutional self-survival. Love and care become decorative extras, a veneer with no depth. The ministry of Jesus can be lost.
It is important to be specific. A caring community is one where everyone knows each other and where real help is there when needed. A caring community also is one which looks outside of itself. What are the needs of your neighborhood? Equally, what are the needs of those far away? You know the places. Today it is Ukraine, Palestine, South Sudan, the U.S.-Mexican border, Haiti, and more. My personal preference is to locate someone personally and direct all aid through them, so that it reaches the intended recipients, without overhead and misleading information.
There are no contemporaneous paintings of Jesus. Perhaps that is part of the Divine plan, so we do not know what he looked like. As a result, every face is the face of Jesus, icons of his Presence, as he himself makes clear in Matthew 25. We thus come full circle back to our Eucharistic offering of our selves and our material goods, offered through the poor, oppressed and suffering, to the loving Lord.