In some circles, the story is often told of a village of people who lived on a river. One day, their peaceful existence was interrupted by the body of a dying woman floating in the river.
The people of the village took her ashore and cared for her until her death. As time passed, more and more bodies floated down the river. Finally, one soul decided to go upstream to find and deal with the cause of this tragedy.
The point of the story is that it is far better to eradicate the root causes of suffering than to bandage up the victims of injustice. As far as it goes, this is an important point. There is much structural injustice in the world and part of loving one's neighbor is to change those structures.
But the story can also leave us looking down our noses at some of the great saints of our time. Why is Mother Teresa praised for tending to the dying beggars of Calcutta without questioning the structures which leave so many impoverished? Why did Cardinal Paul-Emile Leger abandon a position of power and influence to live with lepers in Cameroon? Why do we laud Jean Vanier for living with mentally handicapped people when, with his brains and contacts, he could have fought successfully for lasting improvements in living conditions for these people?
Why, indeed, did Jesus choose to heal some, but only some, of the blind, the lame and the sick in first century Palestine?
Were these people too naive to challenge the structures of injustice? Or were they, while seeing the injustice, perhaps trying to do something even more important?
By holding one person close, one of the least among us, these saints affirm the dignity of all. The worth of a person is not determined by how much he or she can contribute to or draw from the gross national product. Human dignity is totally unearned, it is the result of being a child of God. It is a gift.
It is a gift given to us because we are more than flesh and blood. A person, states the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is "not just something, but someone" (no. 357). Humanity "alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God's own life" (no. 356).
A person is not just a body. Nor is a person a soul hitched to a body, a body which prevents one from realizing his or her dignity. Rather, the unity of body and soul is "profound" — "it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body" (no. 365).
So the work of Mother Teresa is not so much that of patching up nameless bodies hauled in off the street. It is true that these are beggars who are not likely to rebound from their condition to write great musical scores, discover the cure for cancer or invent new home appliances.
But despite that, their human dignity is every bit as great as those who will do those things. Their dignity comes not from their usefulness, but because they are created in the image of the Triune God.
In fact, it is in our weaknesses that our dignity is most evident. This is the opposite of what we often think. When our pride and usefulness is stripped away, we stand naked before God in all our poverty and foolishness, but also in our glory as children of God.
Mother Teresa is not an advocate for social justice. She is something more basic than that — she is a witness to irreducible dignity of each human person, a dignity which itself is a testimony of the greatness of God.
But neither does the love of a Mother Teresa undermine the quest for justice. In fact, it makes justice a possibility.
The secular quest for social justice has too often mirrored that which it fights against — it has too often treated people as means to an end. The result has been new forms of violence and oppression. But justice rooted in love of each person and respect for each person's dignity will never resort to oppression.
My friend Joan went to work in the inner city many years ago. There, she came to know a six-year-old girl. This girl, let's call her Suzy, was a person of remarkable joy and spontaneity. But Suzy also suffered from neglect and abuse and came in contact with the child welfare system.
Joan helped Suzy deal with the neglect and abuse of that system as well as the difficulties of her family situation.
Today, Joan is an outspoken advocate for social change. She has gone upstream. But her advocacy is the fruit of her love for Suzy and others, not of ideology. She has bandaged the wounds of society's victims and continues to do so. And in doing so, her life is a powerful testimony to the love of God and the dignity of the human person.
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