American Idol

During my six-month sabbatical in 2010, a major ecological disaster struck the people of Louisiana, when, thanks to corporate greed and criminal negligence, an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, collapsed and sunk into the ocean. For months, millions of gallons of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico every day, threatening the livelihood of the fisherman and the delicate ecological survival of the costal marshes. I had the time to think about it…and pen these few words.

Our attitude toward the poor is linked to our attitude toward God. Sadly, our response to God’s saving love for us is reflected in our failure to love the poor and to serve and care for them without question and as our neighbors. The love of God and the love of neighbor cannot be separated; they are so mutually intertwined as to be one and the same thing. Jesus is not looking for us to give the poor our spare change; he is asking us to give our very lives. The radical message of Jesus clearly indicates that consuming more than we need is actually stealing from those in need, which is certainly a message our consumer-crazed society does not want to hear.

Jesus never treated people as beggars. Instead he entered into solidarity with the vulnerable, as he did with the man born blind. Jesus shows us that charity is not just about giving, but requires that the giver and receiver become engaged in a human partnership of human dignity, part of a continuing process of creation, a striving toward a completeness that ensures bringing everyone together in caring about mutual dignity and respect for all…regardless of race or religion.

The oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico during the summer of 2010 was a direct result of corporate greed, of putting profits ahead of safety. It still puzzles me how as Christians we are able to act in a way that is diametrically opposed to the way Christ wants us to act, that we put our hope and trust in money and turn our backs on the suffering poor.

A major contributing factor for the widespread existence of oppressive poverty is the inordinate, unbridled search for riches by so many. St. Francis of Assisi, while never criticizing the rich, espoused the ideals of voluntary poverty and a simple, moderate way of life. The foundation of St. Francis’ positive understanding of material poverty rested on humility and trust in God. But the saint objected to the kind of negative material poverty that is imposed upon people, not by God but by our selfishness, insensitivity and apathy; theirs is an unjust poverty that is bitterly endured, not freely chosen as an effective and proven path to God.

As so many did in Francis’ time, we wall the poor out, hide them from our sight and prevent them from entering our hearts. We see them as the unfortunate “other” and not as our sister or brother. Their misery is not our problem. We distract ourselves with nonsense: “Did you see American Idol last night?”

The American idol is a powerful narcotic; the American idol is money. Jesus overturned the money tables. Jesus identified Himself with the poor. And we cannot truly embrace Christ if we are not willing to also truly embrace the poor, to be with them, to suffer with them, to help liberate them. Christ still walks the earth; he walks dressed in the soiled, tattered clothes of a hungry, poor person. And we ignore Him, ignore the relationship between His presence in the Eucharist and His presence in the poor. But St. John Chrysostom, the great saint and bishop of the Eastern Church, never tired of reminding his flock of that vital relationship. In a homily, he said: “Would you honor the body of Christ? Do not despise Him in His nakedness, that is, in the unclothed poor; do not honor Him here in church clothed in silk vestments, and then pass Him by unclothed and frozen outside….What is the use of loading Christ’s table with gold cups while He Himself is starving? Feed the hungry, and then if you have any money left over spend it on the altar table. Will you make a cup of gold and withhold a cup of water? What use is it to adorn the altar with cloth of gold hangings and deny Christ a coat for His back? …Adorn your house if you will, but do not forget your brother in distress. He is a temple of infinitely greater value.”

St. Francis, while striving to combine a radical detachment with a loving care for the poor, wrote into his Rule for his followers that they should not judge or hate the rich. Nor did he criticize the Church for her many failures. Francis preached without words; he lived the Gospel. He inspired change in others by the example of the holiness within himself. This saintly living still happens today. I have been graced with the chance to film many hidden saints whose lives of selfless service is just as inspiring to us as it was to the people who encountered St. Francis as he walked on the margins of medieval Italian society.


1 Response to “American Idol”

  1. 1 aliceny April 26, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    Thank you for these much-needed reminders, Mr. Straub.
    It just occurred to me that many people do ‘give to the poor among us,’ but I think that we most often do it antiseptically. Do you know what I mean? We drop a few dollars in the church’s poor box, we write out a check and mail it, feeling good about ourselves for a while….I think we don’t want to see or smell the unwashed bodies of the poor or to touch them for fear of ‘getting something.’

    Why is it nearly impossible for us to see Jesus in them? Is it because we have become so corrupted (and inured) by ‘things’ and status? To soften one’s heart toward the poor and the suffering among us — to really see them and feel their misery — is a miracle – a gift – that can occur in one instant or it can take years of chipping away the hardness surrounding our hearts. All that is needed is to seek God’s Grace. He has plenty to give! It’s free, and is ours just for the asking.

    We need to acknowledge, too, that there are different kinds of poverty and neediness among people. We probably don’t often consider that spiritual poverty can be just as painful and damaging as one’s need for food and shelter.

    I’m glad that you included John Chrysostom’s homily here. He certainly tells it like it is — no euphesims needed here. Our Cathedral, an inner city parish – the bishop’s church – just underwent an exhorbitant structural and cosmetic makeover that cost several million dollars. Now they are asking for more money — to install air conditioning! Four million was the last figure that I heard for the job. And this is a huge Gothic structure with high ceilings that reach almost to the sky. Wonder what St. John would think of that?

    I am sending the bishop a copy of this posting. I think that St. John would approve. I’m not sure if your brother Francis would, but then again he might.


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