Call me a sucker for moral fervor and stinging rhetoric, but I'll admit it: After reading the first half of Mario Cuomo's new book, "Reason to Believe," I wished he were running for president. Cuomo is an unapologetic, hardball progressive politician who insists that an institution "of, by and for" the people can improve society . . . for everybody. Among his currently unfashionable political beliefs, Cuomo challenges progressive politicians to fiercely defend the legitimacy of a social safety net designed to "relieve the palpable suffering of human beings who are taking a beating out there on Main St. U.S.A." That's about as biblical as it gets, folks.
Most everybody I bump into these days, in and out of Unity, agree that one of religion's primary functions is to inspire you and I to cultivate a sense of values grounded in love and compassion rather than greed and self-indulgence. In a society where human worth is typically equated with accumulated fame and fortune . . . as in the Michael Jordans, the Mark McGuires, the Bill Gates, the Donald Trumps, the Madonnas, Mr. President, Newt, Rush, Jay, David, Jerry, Oprah, and all things Disney . . . the Bible provides a whole different set of criteria. Consider this.
When that element in Congress dedicated to making this land safe for the rich and the famous first spoke of dismantling the federal guarantee of health care for the children, the elderly and disabled, imagine what would have happened if every Christian and Jew in this land had called to remind them of this commandment recorded in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy . . . "For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I (as in God) command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy in thy land."
Anybody home? And if that didn't get the job done, a legislator would have to be totally clue-deficient to ignore Luke's injunction, "When thou makest a feast call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind." Remember, when Jesus found himself way out in the wilderness with 5000 hungry pilgrims, a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, He did not feed some of them . . . He fed all of them.
On his path to sainthood, God demanded that Saint Francis of Assisi embrace and kiss a leper, whom Francis considered the lowest of all humans. From St. Francis, God exacted compassion harshly: "Half of his putrescent nose had fallen away," Nikos Kazantzakis writes in "God's Pauper," a provocative retelling of St. Francis's life. "His hands were without fingers . . . just stumps; and his lips were an oozing wound. Throwing himself upon the leper, Francis embraced him, then lowered his head and kissed him upon the lips."
How many of us would similarly embrace a human being with AIDS or a homeless brother of sister who hasn't had the benefit of bath or shower for weeks? The story of St. Francis challenges each of us to honestly examine our willingness to "be there" for folks, especially when it requires an act of service way outside our comfort zones.
It brings us face to face with a question the Jesuits ask of themselves, "Do you live as a man or woman for others?." End game. The spiritual gauntlet is cast. Self indulgence or sacred service? How we treat the least among us . . . the least important, the least appealing, the least wanted . . . is a challenging litmus test for determining the spiritual integrity of the decisions we make about how we use our wealth, from personal incomes to our national tax revenue.
In an age of unchallenged capitalism, an awakened religious community's greatest responsibility may be to provide an alternative set of economic values. In the 1980s, for example, when the Catholic church did speak out on economic issues, it offered one of the most profound challenges to conservative economic doctrine and its celebration of profit and wealth. In the week after Ronald Reagan's landslide reelection in 1984, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops released the first draft of their pastoral letter on the economy. It was a chastening statement, a moving, beautifully written guide to Catholics "trying to live their faith in the marketplace." The bishops wrote to provide guidance for members of their own church. "No one may claim the name Christian and be comfortable in the face of hunger, hopelessness, insecurity, and the injustice found in this country and around the world." But the bishops also wrote to help shape the public debate on the economy. Every economic decision and institution, they insisted, "must be judged in light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person."
The current challenge facing progressive religious leadership in the United States is to hold the spiritual high ground of social and economic justice for all Americans without getting sidetracked into endless debate over the spiritually suspect agenda of Pat Robertson's foray into power brokering "in the name of Jesus!" The Christian Coalition's partisanship with Mammon is unabashed. While the little guys get fed to the legislative lions, Ralph Reed and friends have been up in the skyboxes with the movers and shakers cheering the fat cats on. Ahhh, to be there when their karma flattens their dogma.
Authentic spiritual values can and do play a fundamental role in determining what government provides and what it expects. Probably the most influential demand for President Clinton to veto the welfare reform bill came from that paragon of advocacy for children's rights, Marian Wright Edelman. In a stinging Washington Post op-ed piece addressed to the pre-Monica President she appealed to Clinton's "moral leadership," referring to God's mandate "to protect the poor and the weak and the young." "Do you think," she asked, "the Old Testament prophets Isaiah, Micah and Amos, or Jesus Christ, would support such policies?" In his heart he knew she was right. And so does Pat and Ralph and Newt and Bill . . . and you.
Cuomo knows. He not only knows, he has the spiritual chutzpah to say "nonsense" when a devolution devotee suggests we'll all be better off "getting government off our backs." Frankly, I'm quite thankful that a majority of Americans insisted that laws be passed that protect us from buildings that collapse, cars that maim, food that sickens, toxins that pollute, planes that crash, workplaces that kill and injure and corporations that exploit both human and natural resources, to mention a few. Other programs help Americans get through life's traumas - disability or disease, sudden job loss, crippling old age.
To each his own though. It's what makes America great. But let me suggest to all you truly dedicated "government downsizers" that you walk your talk if your house ever catches on fire. Don't be a hypocrite and call 9-1-1 or look for a public fire hydrant. Do the right thing and douse it with Perrier.
Sure, many entitlement programs have outlived their usefulness and need to be revamped or retired. An enlightened coalition of religious progressives could help facilitate the process by encouraging its members to honor the prime directive of their faith by getting actively involved in established programs or personal initiatives dedicated to ending human suffering whenever and wherever it becomes evident. Since leaving the presidency, Jimmy Carter has brokered peace, founded a center to work for democracy, and lent his name and hands to Habitat for Humanity. His example of a private citizen acting on his faith's call to action may prove to be a more lasting legacy than his presidency.
I'm sure the point is clear. Our God assignment is tough, but it's not a "mission impossible." It's a simple call to feed His flock . . . to "heal the sick and give the blind vision." It's an invitation engraved on every soul to experience the grace implicit in every act of selfless service. The richness of our lives is not to be found in the barren landscapes of acquisition and accumulation, but rather in our deepening commitment to the well-being of all God's Creation. As Mother Theresa puts it, "Our ordinary duty is to be holy."
So, let's hear no more talk of ending our collective efforts to respond to human need and suffering on a national basis simply because our efforts to date have not solved all our problems. That's kind of like arguing that we should scrap the Gospels because the Golden Rule still hasn't caught on completely. Keep the faith, dear Unitics, and remember . . . in as much as you serve the least of our brothers and sisters so you invoke the eternal Spirit of Christ compassion and bring delight to the great heart of our beloved Elder Brother and Wayshower.
Rest easy in the Grace and know you are well loved in this here heart. Chad