Being a Christian in a Secularized World Today
A Society Without Love
The central problem that is causing so much anguish in people’s lives today is the lack of love. Mother Teresa said it well:
“The greatest sickness in the West today is not tuberculosis or leprosy. It is feeling ourselves unloved and unwanted; it is feeling ourselves abandoned. Medicine can heal physical illness, but the only cure for loneliness, despair and the absence of a future is love. In our world there are many who die because they don’t have even a piece of bread, but even more die for lack of love.”
Really, we live in a society in which love is truly rare. All of us risk becoming a sort of orphan, no mother, no father, abandoned, each of us, to our fate. And even though this is a terrible state of affairs, we accept it meekly and even consider it normal. But can anything flourish in a desert? What can blossom in cities and countries that lack love like deserts lack water? Nothing but the bitter and poisonous weed of individualism that pushes us to go it alone, to try to save only ourselves. We grow up hearing everybody tell us “Take care of yourself.” Those words are like a “Gospel of the World.” that stands in opposition to the “Gospel of Jesus.” Jesus even heard it on the cross. In Chapter 23 of Luke’s Gospel we read that everybody (priests, soldiers, the people, and even one of the thieves crucified with him) screamed at him, “Save yourself.” That was the last temptation of Jesus. But how could he save himself when he really came to save others. Didn’t he say, “The Son of Man did not come to have service done him, he came to serve others, and to give his life as a ransom for the live3s of many.” (Mk 10:45). It is easy for us to concentrate on our own personal salvation, especially when uncertainty and danger surround us. Defending oneself, one’s personal space, one’s interests, one’s finances, becomes our most important, and sometimes our only, concern. The dream of society ever more united disappears and loneliness takes over. It sometimes looks like the march to a society made up of persons who are alone and unloved is unstoppable.
The Twentieth Century showed all its ferocity when it gave in to the exaltation of the ego, in individuals, in nations and in ideologies. It was perhaps the most tragic century in all of human history. Humanity had never been crimes so vicious or so widely destructive. And the century we have just begun continues to experience unthinkable horrors. It’s enough to remember the many conflicts that are underway, the thousands who die of hunger. While the market expands, the distance between rich and poor widens in a way that is unsustainable. In the outskirts of our cities we witness the drama of children who are abandoned and exploited mercilessly, the drama of young people who see their lives as lacking purpose and fall prey to violence and terrorism, the drama of the elderly who see themselves moved aside even as they live longer and longer, the drama of men and women in the prime of life who see jobs and their livelihood disappearing. In these circumstances we can understand what loneliness means for the poor, what abandonment means for the weakest among us, and what a tragedy it is to be force to leave one’s homeland.
Still, our need for love and protection is enormous, everywhere, at every latitude. We see a frenzied search for well-being, for protection, for safety, and let me say it, for fathers.
The greatest challenge we face is how to deal with the lack of love that runs through all of our society. A widespread feeling of insecurity has made everyone more fearful and often leads to a growing wall of mistrust. But fear never protects anyone. And a race to “save yourself” doesn’t save anyone. To build walls, to grow distances between people, to stay in inside one’s own little world, little city, little region, little country, little diocese, little community—none of this leads to salvation. And things get worse if we give up and think that the world cannot be changed. If we do that, we surrender to a merciless world and become partners with evil.
Once more, begin with love.
In a world like that, we have to go back and start from love. The crisis that we are living in is one of love more than of faith. There is just too little love in the world. And the lack of love makes both faith and reason weak. A faith without love is cold, and reason without love is like ice. Christians have a serious responsibility: without love faith becomes weak, but so does reason. And the world risks an ever-faster descent into an abyss. Without love, all peace is in danger, without love, the important questions of bioethics and the environment will never be dealt with adequately. Love it the way not only for a new evangelization but also for a new humanism. The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the Gospel stories that most clearly point out the way of love, the one that Jesus himself was the first to travel. He is the first and the true Good Samaritan and he shows us the nature of Christian love.
That Doctor of the Law who asked Jesus, “Master, what must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus answered by showing him the path taken by the Samaritan. Here it is: The Samaritan saw a man badly hurt and took pity on him. He didn’t think of himself or of his own concerns. He saw only a man in need. We would have thought that the priest and the Levite would look after the man, but no one would have been surprised if the Samaritan had paid no attention to the situation—given especially the reputation that Samaritans had. Indeed, being a heretic and a stranger, it would have been reasonable for him to avoid a situation that could have become dangerous. But he stopped, and in stopping he showed how it is possible to rise above oneself, one’s own affairs and projects, beyond one’s own group, one’s own ethnicity, one’s own nation. Everything started from compassion for badly hurt person. The Samaritan saw and was moved, he got off his horse, approached the man and “bound up his wounds, cleaning them with oil and wine.”
That was what the priest and the Levite did. Jesus didn’t say where they were going. Neither did he say anything about them possibly being becoming ritually pure if they touched a dead person. All he said was that the priest, “when he saw the man, passed by on the other side of the road” and that the Levite did the same thing. Both of them “saw the injured man but kept going. It is so sad to see those two phrases together “they saw” and “they kept going” Sadly, this is something that happens all too often. Hasn’t it happened to each of us when we cross the street to avoid a beggar who is asking for a handout? The priest and the Levite are just examples of an attitude that we have as well. We can all see ourselves in them, and it doesn’t make us look very good. But it is not just a question of missing a chance to help someone. There is a deeper meaning to be found in what Jesus said and it touches the very heart of Christianity, of being a Christian.
When He chose two Church officials as the “villains” in the parable, he wanted to express a clear condemnation of religion divorced from mercy, of piety divorced from love for the poor, of ceremonies unbound from love for the poor. What a scandal that it was two men dedicated to God’s service who abandoned a person so badly injured. Religion divorced from love is an impossibility. With his condemnation Jesus was following the ancient and unbroken prophetic tradition that calls unworthy any sacrifice offered to God but lacking in charity and justice. As far back as the eighth century B.C. the prophet Amos preached against Israel dn its leaders who honored God with solemn ceremonies but oppressed the poor and the helpless. “I hate your churchy feast days, I despise them!…When you put your sacrifices on the altar, I don’t accept them…Enough! Instead, see to it that your righteousness flows like spring water and your justice like a torrent in flood.” (cf. Amos 5:21-24) All of Church tradition rejects worship separated from love for the poor. These words of St. John Chrysostom to his flock are timeless: “If you want to honor the Body of Christ, don’t disrespect him when he is naked, don’t honor Christ in the Eucharist with silk vestments and at the same time you neglect that other Christ shivering in the cold and without warm clothes. Jesus who said “this is my Body” confirming with his words what he had done, also said: “ you saw me hungry and didn’t give me anything to eat” and “what you didn’t do for one of these little ones neither did you do it for Me.” The Body of Christ that is on the altar has no need for a cloak; it needs pure souls. The Body that waits outside the Church needs a lot of help. We must learn to think and to behave worthily toward these great mysteries and to honor Christ as he wants to be honored. God has no need of golden vessels, what He needs is hearts of gold.
The Samaritan lets himself be led by love, by compassion. It must be noted that compassion is not simply an awareness of the misfortunes of other. It is much more. It is the same sentiment of God that we see in every page of the Scriptures. It is the same feeling that God has for the poor. In the pages of Scripture God is never separated from the poor. From the very beginning, from when God preferred the sacrifice of Abel to that of Cain. “Abel” means “a breath”, nothing, absolute weakness. “Abel,” rather than being a proper name, indicates a condition, weakness, or better, “the weak.” God, the God of the Church Father and not the God of philosophers, is a God who is turned toward the one who is weak, who prefers the one who is poor. This is the God of Jesus Christ, a God who lowers himself in a way that is scarcely believable, just to be with the poor. On every page, Holy Scripture presents God as the defender of the poor and the weak, of the orphan and the widow. God does not appear as one who is impartial and equidistant. In a way, he is unjust because he prefers the poor.
In Jesus, the bond of preference between God and the poor reaches it extreme limit, identification. When at the Last Judgment, Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me to eat,” He identifies with the poor, and he considers that identification to be the norm for all of life, more so even that manifestations of “piety.” If the very being of God is revealed to us in the Word become man and identified with the poor, that is because the very being of God cannot be conceived of as a “fulness” turned in on itself, but rather always in a tension, a permanent exodus as it were, from itself toward the other. In this light, the almost uninterrupted tradition the Church of considering the poor, even more than the Pope, as the Vicar of Christ, takes on its full meaning. And God’s relationship with the poor is not something exterior to Him, not an add-on to his deepest being. It is part of his very life, his very being. It is part of the Trinitarian mystery itself. The history of love for the poor belongs to the very history of God who, through His Son, has become a brother to the weak and the poor.
The Church and Preferential Love for the Poor
Love for the poor is thus non something added on to the experience of the Church and of individual Christians. It is an integral part of that experience, it is, so to speak, its Gospel guarantee. A Church without the poor is a Church without God. An unbreakable covenant between Jesus and the poor is written in the pages of the Gospels, and is thus a covenant between the poor and all Christians. That covenant is of the essence of the faith and is the very content of the faith: the Lord God and His Son are not empty and abstract names; from the very beginning they are an “understanding” with the poor. Without the poor it is impossible to understand the God of Jesus Christ. Pope Francis—following the tradition of the Second Vatican Council—has pointed out to the Church at the beginning of this Millennium that love for the poor is the first step for the Church. In the Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium he writes: “For the Church, the option for the poor is a theological category more than one that is cultural, sociological, political or philosophical. God gives to the poor “His first mercy.” This divine preference has consequences in the faith life of all Christians, who are called to have “the same mind as Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). Inspired by that preference, the Church has professed an option for the poor understood as a “special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which all of Christian tradition gives witness.” This option, in the teaching of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “is implicit in the Christological faith in that God who has made Himself poor for us, to enrich us through his poverty.” For this reason, I want a poor Church for the poor. They have much to teach us. Beyond participating in the sensus fidei, through their own sufferings they know the suffering Christ. We must all let ourselves be evangelized by them. The new evangelization is an invitation to recognized the salvific strength of their existence and to put that existence at the center of the path of the Church. We are called to discover Christ in them, to loan our voices to them in their struggles, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to understand them and to welcome the mysterious wisdom that God wants to communicate to us through them.” (198)
If every Christian is to be like the Good Samaritan, can compare the Christian community to the inn mentioned in the parable. Several authors have done so. Christian communities are to be the places of rest and healing for the men and women of this world. An they mush be so particularly for the poor. St. John XXIII offers a beautiful definition of the Church: “The Church presents itself as it is and wishes to be: the mother of all and particularly of the poor.” Yes, every Christian community must be the mother of all and particularly of the poor. In this way we can compare it to the inn of the parable. Welcome for the poor is one of the key tasks of the Christian community. We have to compare ourselves with the splendid Gospel scene described in Mark: “In the evening, after sunset, they brought him all the sick and those possessed by devils. The whole city had gathered in front of the door.” (Mk 1:32) Shouldn’t the same thing be happening at the doors of our Churches? The poor understand this and for that reason come without stopping. And didn’t Jesus say: “Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” (Lk. 6:20) How much more then should our churches do? And yet, we are sometimes bothered by all this. Saint Augustine said: “Happy are those Churches that have beggars at their doors.!” And he added: “The remind us of what we are before God—beggars!” We can compare the inn to civil society as well, the city of mankind, which must be fermented by Christian love so that it can be worthy of mankind and become ever more like the “new earth” that the Book of Revelation speaks of. If there is doubtless a distinction between the Christian community and civil society, there is nevertheless no separation. Indeed, we could say that the community of believers must be in the world to be leaven in the mass, or as a light in a room. It is in that sense Christian that Christians know that they are at the service of a renewed humanity according the demands of the Gospel.
The Christian—Friend of the Poor
At the end of the parable, Jesus answers the doctor of the law, who had finally understood the idea of the word “Neighbor.” And Jesus, at this point, said the only thing that could be said: “Go and do likewise.” That invitation is clear: Do what the Samaritan did. He didn’t just offer help. He did much more: he opened his heart to a man whom he did not know. He overcame separation and established a bond. We can say that his concern went so far as to create a bond of friendship. The parable makes it clear that there was a personal relationship between the Samaritan and the injured man. We can further say that they became in a certain sense brothers. To show how important their relationship was, one commentator has said that the Samaritan “left his credit card” with the innkeeper to cover the man’s expenses, just as he would have done for a brother. This brotherly/sisterly love is what makes Gospel love different. The Samaritan doesn’t just lend a hand and then leave as if everything had ended. He chooses to the care for the unfortunate man whom he had met by chance but who had become a brother. That man was now part of his heart, of his affections. Christina love does not choose its friends. It welcomes as friends the poor whom it meets on its way. We can say that the poor have a right not so much to our help as to our friendship, and we have a duty not only to help them but to love them.
This is the most important lesson of the parable, and it is often the most neglected. One of the most evident gaps in the life of believers is the absence of a personal direct, friendly, and brotherly relationship with the poor. It is easy to think that it is the others, the experts, the officials, the volunteers who are to take care of them. The parable says no, it says that every Christian must stop like the Samaritan did. For the believer, the poor are not a social challenge to deal with. They are family and they have aright to be loved, and to have brothers and sisters, just like we do. That is why the relationship with the poor cannot be reduced to a simple activity or to an office. Every Christian must have a personal relationship with the poor, even with only one. An encounter with the poor must be a direct experience that every Christian lives out.
For this reason we can say the welcome for the poor is what best reveals God’s presence in the Christian community. Christian “piety” (and not only Christian piety) is the translation, pale and imperfect though it is) of the “Pietas” that is God Himself. Note however that the universal dimension of the Church’s savific mission given to it by God in the Gospel is not diminished by the “privilegium pauperum.” We have to say that the best beginning of the universal mission is beginning with the poor. From there the community can reach out to all. Christianity—as it appears from the Gospel—starts with the poor and goes forward to the whole world. In that sense the Church can (and must) be for all, but it does that by beginning with the poor. The primacy of the poor in the Gospel can never be done away with. That is seen, sometimes with difficulty, throughout all the twenty centuries of Church history. If the poor are either not welcomed or not considered as “brothers and sisters,” it is clearly seen that Christians have strayed from the Gospel. When the poor are close, God is never far away.
Finishing the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke passes immediately to describing the meeting of Jesus with Martha and Mary. A dear Waldensian friend of mine, Valdo Vinay, once told me that these two passages are always to be red together, never separately. He said that the reason for this is that we can never separate the meeting of Jesus and Mary from the meeting of the Samaritan and the injured man. In the Church we don’t have prayer experts in one group and charity experts in another. Every Christian is both a man or woman of prayer and a man or woman of charity. These two Gospel passages summarize well the task of the Church in the new Millennium: the Christian is one who is open to hearing the Gospel, as Mary did at the feet of Jesus, and who at the same time is a person of charity, as the Good Samaritan did when he saw, stopped and cared for the injured man. Every disciple, every Christian Community, is called to live out these two fundamental dimensions of the Gospel. Prayer and charity proceed from the same indivisible love of God. For this reason, disciples must sit at the feet of Jesus to receive from Him his love and to learn his mind. Thus they will love and be moved by all those who have need of help and consolation.
This is the path to Gospel joy for believers and for the poor. And Christians understand in this way the statement of Jesus related by the Apostle Paul: “There is more joy in giving than in receiving.” Whoever practices love experiences joy; and above all he sees the world being transformed. Christina love, indeed, is not a rule, it is not a command, it is a spiritual energy that changes the heart of whoever welcomes it, and it transforms the world. It breaks every barrier, brings close those who are far away, brings strangers together, makes enemies part of one family, bridges voids that humanly speaking cannot be crossed, enters into the hurts of society and carefully seeks to heal them. By its nature, Christian love is prophetic, it performs miracles; it has no limits; it does the impossible. And it spreads itself because it is the most beautiful and most attractive way to spread the Gospel. A Church that puts no limits on love, that has no enemies to fight, only men and women to love, is the Church that the world needs today.