The Poor Church

Peter Berger over at The National Interest has some rather meandering musings about Pope Francis this morning. These struck me as the most interesting:

And then there is all this business about the poor. Just what does Francis mean by calling for a “poor church”? The simplicity of his lifestyle, which he recommends to all bishops, is both appealing and a little irritating. It reminds one of Gandhi in his loincloth and of a remark by the much more mundane Nehru: “Do you have any idea what it costs to keep this man in poverty?” This leads to the central question about the “preferential option for the poor”—Just what is good for the poor? The short answer is economic growth, with the state providing help for those left behind. A Franciscan lifestyle of chosen poverty may be an individual vocation, but not a social policy.

In my own experience the conversion to Liberation Theology of Sergio Mendez Arceo, the bishop of Cuernavaca in Mexico, is emblematic of what was right and what was wrong about LT. It is clear that Jesus had a special concern for poor, marginalized and oppressed people, and it is plausible that latter-day followers of his should share this concern. Mendez Arceo expressed the concern in his sermons. He was the only Mexican bishop who publicly condemned the government for the so-called Tlatelolco massacre, when police in helicopters fired machine guns into a crowd of peacefully demonstrating students. I was introduced to Mendez Arceo by his friend Ivan Illich, in whose eccentric think-tank in Cuernavaca I was staying at the time. We were talking about public statements by the Church. He said something that startled me: “The Church must never bless anything in the political sphere; she can only condemn.” This of course describes precisely his actions after Tlaltelolco: He condemned helicopters randomly shooting into an unarmed crowd; he did not recommend a radical reconstruction of the Mexican society.

While Berger writes that Areco later changed his mind, becoming a proponent of socialism, this statement of his from the late 1960s — The Church must never bless anything in the political sphere; she can only condemn — strikes me as right. And it echoes a sentiment I have long had in regards to the state, that the only things the church should be saying to the state are: “No. Don’t. Stop!”

The problem comes, I think, when the church becomes invested in social arrangements. In order. In the outcomes of political processes and the exercise of power. Because once we, as church, become focused on ends that are not ours, we forget exactly what the means do — and power inevitably crushes and destroys. Once we focus on ends, once we as church start saying (or shouting) “Yes. Now! Go!”, then anyone who gets in the way of the means effectively has it coming. We can no longer sit with those whose suffering we’ve tacitly (or explicitly) endorsed because their suffering either doesn’t matter (they are the wrong kind of people — people who got in the way), or because the ends we seek are simply too important. The bright, shiny new tomorrow is too important to let mere human beings get in the way.

And so we come to serve power. It put the exercise of power above the well-being of the weakest and the most marginalized.

What does it means to be a poor church? What does it mean to take the side of the poor? It is not upending the world, and somehow making the “poor” into the “powerful,” as if it is within our hands to change the way the world is arranged. So far, human attempts to do this have caused far more deliberate and purposeful suffering — and poverty — than they have solved, and have simply rearranged which empowered and privileged elites rule. This is a fact of human existence, and I have no reason to believe this will ever be different. No rightly guided collection of people is capable of actually changing this.

Ideally, a poor church would have nothing to defend — no property, no status, no privilege, no wealth. In times and places, along the ragged edges, this church actually exists. It should be our ideal, something we do not lose sight of. But the reality of the church is far from the ideal, and the church always has something to protect. This is inescapable, and it will even result in good sometimes. The sovereignty of God means that the work of proclaiming and living God’s grace and love is done even in the worst we do.

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