In today’s Gospel reading at Mass, Jesus is driving out those who are buying and selling in the temple area. Many years ago when I prayed this imaginatively, I imagined an open plaza in front of a religious temple in which vendors were selling T shirts, the way that often we find vendors at street festivals or like events. Some of these T shirts had political slogans on them, reflecting divisions in the church over controversial issues of public policy. For me, the T shirts symbolized partisanship of the sort where one’s own identity is found in taking sides, rather than working for genuine dialogue. It’s easy to identify with a particular political group not only because we have thought through a particular issue, but also because it gives us a sense of belonging, or being on the side of the “good guys” in a particular conflict. In my imagined prayer, Jesus threw everybody out–the vendors for being commercial in a place of worship, and the folks in the church wearing the T shirts for seeking partisanship instead of working for unity and community in God.
We live in a commercialized society in which consumerism can often take precedence over concern for just relationships with others. The liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, OP, wrote years ago that it is a mistake to understand development only as economic development.* Perhaps the GNP is rising, and the country as a whole is wealthier than ever, but the gaps between the wealthy and the poor have made it harder than ever for those who are poor. Is that development in its fullest sense? Or a country in which people endlessly consume the newest technology or latest fashion while leaving their neighbors hungry is not developed in a fully human sense. Several years ago on an immersion trip in Nicaragua, I encountered a great deal of material poverty—which should be remedied—but also a richness in relationships and generosity among community members that is less common in the more individualistic suburban neighborhoods of the US. Many of those who had little shared what they had. “Development” must include the development of just communities in which we work together to ensure the development of individual persons.
In the process of working out the means by which we arrive at this sort of a goal, we have to be careful to avoid falling into those easy divisions between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” when the temptation in our current political climate is first to blame social ills on the other political party. It’s better to start from a standpoint of greater humility: where am I, my family, my city, or my community needing to live differently in order to live out the Gospel? Or, what do I not know about a particular political problem that eludes my capacity to know how to solve it? “Not knowing” what to do is an uncomfortable state but an important place to be when that stage is realistic with respect to our own limits.
That’s not to say that we will never take sides in political issues, but if our starting point is how the “other” political party is to blame, then it is easy to fall into passive complaining and blaming rather than political or individual action. We also can miss out on how the other side might have a legitimate point to make–for example, maybe it is both the case that a higher minimum wage is needed for full time workers to pay for housing, and a sudden rise in wages would adversely affect inflation. If so, then we can look for creative solutions.
*See, e.g., Gutierrez, Notes on a Theology of Liberation