A paradox that I live daily, actually one we all live daily, is holding the tension between our individual, personal spirituality–and our lived faith on a communal level. How do we maintain a sense of the contemplative, while also navigating how to appropriately discern when we are standing toe to toe with injustice and must speak up?
I’ve learned much from the life and work of Father Greg Shaffer in this regard. A man of deep prayer, whose actions were never short-sighted or rooted in emotional outbursts or anger at injustice, but rather were rooted in faith, prayer, and the conviction that each and every human being is an expression of God’s presence on earth. The incredible work that he did for the people of San Lucas Tolimon Guatemala was accomplished by living what he called “The Four Pillars of Christian Social Teaching.” I know for myself, that when I seek to balance these four things, my life is far more peaceful and I am able to navigate and discern my life with greater thoughtfulness. I offer them to you to think about in light of the concept of living a life of “Contemplative Action.”
1. Dignity of the Individual
3. Common Good
Dignity of the Individual If a culture does not in some way value the special nature of human life-then we are in trouble. This is because as Christians we believe that “all humans are made in the image and likeness of God.” We are essentially extending the belief in individual human dignity into the realm of our social existence. So we are expected to speak out against inequality when we encounter it in our lives. BUT this goes beyond our acts! It has its roots in our very attitudes toward life and others in the world. It calls us to live, but also to believe that there really is no slave/free, Jew/Gentile, Man/Woman. I think we read that scripture today, and it doesn’t quite have the effect on us today that it would have then. No slave or free? No Jew or Gentile? This was a radical notion when Paul was saying it! So I should probably say to you today that there is no gay/straight, republican/democrat, conservatives/liberals. There are only humans and we are ALL equal in the eyes of God. And thus we are called to treat one another that way. But this can’t boil down to semantics or bickering or interpretation. It has to take root in our hearts, that just in being a human, every person, even the ones we don’t like who really make our skin crawl: reflect back to us the sanctity of creation. And the image and likeness of God.
Solidarity Fr Greg used to explain the concept of solidarity as walking ALONGSIDE the people: not in behind them pushing them forward, and not in front of them pulling them along, but standing in solidarity with them. Solidarity is the Yin to the Yang of the prior concept of “Dignity of the Individual.” Because with the rights that we have as individuals…come responsibilities! In America we struggle with a sense of rugged individualism, whereby any of us can have anything we want if we just work hard enough…and even to go a step further; we think we have a RIGHT to it! The principal of solidarity says that all the rights we enjoy as Individuals, are matched with, or balanced appropriately, with what we are responsible to give back to our communities and world IN RESPONE TO these rights that we enjoy.
And here’s the thing, whether we like it or not, we live in interdependent communities. In America it sometimes seems like we can just take care of ourselves, and keep our nose clean and we don’t really affect the people or the world around us. But the reality is that we live in interdependent communities. All of our biological and social needs are met in the complex fabric of social life. “Solidarity” means we recognize the reality of human interdependence not only as necessary-but as positive! We aren’t able to recognize our full potential as human beings and the full meaning of human life ALL alone. This is where the language of “the body of Christ” comes from. None of the individual parts is the whole.
Common Good The people of San Lucas Tolimon would come to Fr Greg with their expressed-felt needs, and his answer would consistently be “let’s try.” But in the next breath, he would remind us American volunteers that “our job is “make it possible” NOT “do it for you!” At the Second Vatican Council, which was a one of a kind meeting, Bishops from all over the world, were together in one place. And they were hearing stories of each other’s struggles in their parts of the world, and in hearing the drastic differences between the theology coming out of first and third world, were inspired to come together as a church. This is where the concept of “missions” in our church came from, where a diocese in a developed nation will reach out in partnership to a bishop in the developing world. And in doing so they are working for “The Common Good.” Working for the Common Good means trying to keep a balance of ensuring that our social conditions enable humans to live in solidarity with one another. And also that we are free and readily able to live to our fullest potential as individuals.
But to do this, we need equal participation by all members of society. This means we have both the equal right to participate in the ways we see fit- but also the duty/responsibility to contribute to the life of society. There are two kinds of sin: personal and social. In America we tend to focus on the idea of personal sins that we seek forgiveness for. But rarely do we talk about communal or social sin, and the ways in which we live our lives and contribute to unjust social systems by participating in them in our day to day lives. completely unconsciously. Because that’s complicated, there are no easy answers, and worst of all, it might require changes in our daily habits of living that we aren’t very comfortable with.
Subsidiarity literally means “assistance” This is the sum total of the last three. It’s about how the Dignity of the Individual, Solidarity, and the Common Good, play out working together, and how the various levels of society should relate to and assist one another, to bring about the best outcomes for all people.
Christian Social Teacing lays this out by saying that we should rely AS MUCH as possible on the solutions that are closest to the people (think Community Supported Agriculture), and should respect the natural grouping of people and avoid involving larger bodies unless there is some felt need (immense/complex tasks not possible without assistance). Essentially “you should have ONLY the government you need, but ALL the government you need.”
Nothing about living this way is clean-cut or easy to explain. In fact, each of us as individuals might live and balance these four pillars differently. But I do think that it’s interesting to consider life in San Lucas Tolimon, and the way that society and programs there work within this framework. What would happen if our social framework and lives were lived this way? How do we navigate these pillars in a contemplative way?