A London newspaper once sought written submissions on the question, "What is wrong with the world?" The famous author G.K. Chesterton submitted a two-word essay in response: "I am."
It is relatively easy to pontificate on the great evils of the world wrought by powerful institutions, conspiratorial forces and anonymous men in black hats. It is enormously difficult to get enough of a grip on oneself to make one's own life an ongoing offering of love for God and other people.
At least, it's enormously difficult for me. I spend precious little time thinking about how to love -- even then my thoughts are typically waylaid by self-centred concerns -- and even less time actually doing things born out of love.
Mother Teresa recommended doing small things with great love. What made her remarkable was not that she said such a thing, but that she lived it. Look at the great fruit her life bore. If I and 100 others could live with her degree of faith and love, the Lord would use that love to transform the world in a way that it would be scarcely recognizable.
It is true that there are unjust social structures which must be changed. But we too easily assume that there is an inevitability to injustice. There's a sort of laziness which leads us to become tacit Marxists who assume the grinding poverty experienced by more than half of the world's population stems from the inexorable march of historical forces over which we have no control.
There is such a thing as a social sin. The bishops of the world talked about it at their 1983 synod. But the perpetrators of social sins which create structures of injustice are not anonymous forces or faceless institutions. Pope John Paul wrote that social sins "are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins. . . . At the heart of every situation of sin are always to be found sinful people" (Reconciliation and Penance, 16).
Sins of greed and overconsumption have created that enormous disparity between the rich North and the poor South which the pope so loudly denounced when he spoke north of Edmonton in 1984. The political and economic structures which strengthen this injustice must be changed. But so must the hearts of individual people who tacitly support this injustice by consuming an unfair proportion of the world's resources.
"We must find a simple way of living," the pope told a crowd in Yankee Stadium during his first visit to the United States in 1979. If personal sins have created social injustice then personal virtue can make a significant contribution to bringing it to heel.
Faith is too often separated from life. Faith can be conceived too narrowly as that which promises pie in the sky when we die but which does not enlighten or direct life on this earth.
We should be wary of anyone who promises heaven on earth. But we should try to live out Christ's promise to give the fullness of life and try to see Jesus in others, especially the least of our brothers and sisters. The sacraments should enable us not to escape from life, but to live it more justly and with greater love for all.
In 1976, the Canadian bishops issued a statement, From Words to Action, which admirably brought together the Christian duty to share our material resources with our social responsibility to challenge the social injustice in our world. The bishops proposed six guidelines to help us be converted to the task of building a more just social order:
We need to frequently examine our consciences to see how well we live up to those guidelines. By taking them seriously, we will be converted away from individualism and toward solidarity with others. And if enough of us are converted we will have a profound effect on our society. We cannot eliminate the sins of others, but we can tackle our own sinfulness and together work for a world where the scars of social injustice are being healed.
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