What does it mean to be a Christian Changemaker in our world today? What are we trying to change and why? I’m going to talk about three changes for us to reflect on tonight: change of hearts, change of minds, change of policies.
“Where is the love?” is an opportunity to reflect on the work we need to do—each of us, individually, to experience conversion towards the other, to prioritize the needs of those who are suffering in our midst. Recall that “compassion” means to “suffer with” someone. When, in Luke’s gospel (Lk 10), a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, he and Jesus have a conversation about the love commandment—Love God, Love Your Neighbor as Yourself. “But who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells the parable of the good Samaritan to answer this question—and in that story, the Samaritan’s response begins with pity for the suffering person, beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. He cannot simply pass by. He must act. His empathy doesn’t just stay as a felt feeling but leads to action. He cares for the suffering man, and Jesus tells those listening that they should “go and do likewise.” So all of us today are asking, “Who is my neighbor? What does it mean to love my neighbor?” These questions require some soul-searching from each of us. And those of us who identify as Christian know that this road leads, ultimately, to the cross. There is no way to bypass suffering. Instead, we must figure out how to become more vulnerable as our brothers and sisters are suffering, how to “suffer with” them, how to bring conversion to ourselves and others through a process of witness, compassion, and mercy in which we commit to sacrifice and suffer with those who are suffering, in order to experience conversion and to initiate conversion in others. “Because they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
Change of Minds
The second kind of change we might seek is change of mind. By this, I mean that we ask ourselves what we know, how we know it, and what we don’t know, and why. Because the truth is that there is a lot we don’t know. Changemakers need good data. But this isn’t easy.
Did you know that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that more than 46,000 migrants have lost their lives since 2000? Around the world, at least 7,500 migrants lost their lives in 2016, and many more are unaccounted for. (https://missingmigrants.iom.int/latest-global-figures)
Did you know that the US govt reports that 240 migrants died crossing the US-Mexico border in 2015, and that some human rights groups estimate that as many as 10,000 have died in the desserts of the American Southwest in the past twenty years? (http://www.borderangels.org/about-us/)
Did you know that the US Catholic bishops have called for a series of reforms to the broken US immigration system? These include: 1) policies to address the root causes of migration, such as poverty; 2) reform of our legal immigration system, including an earned legalization program and temporary worker program with appropriate worker protections and greater efficiency in handling family-based cases; and 3) restoration of due process for migrants. Our own Bishop Robert McElroy has critiqued the recent Presidential Executive Orders as “the introduction into law of campaign sloganeering rooted in xenophobia and religious prejudice.” Bishop McElroy has said that Catholics “cannot and will not stand silent.” So what will we do then? How we will proceed? Bishop McElroy and other Catholic leaders encourage a careful effort to balance the needs of security with our commitment to welcome refugees amidst the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. Changemakers go beyond he soundbytes to get the data, data which can persuade, data which can change minds.
Ultimately, we can start with change of hearts (conversion, listening) and change of minds (openness to new data)—but what we seek is a change of policies. We need to find ways to work together to transform unjust social structures. There is no easy, quick-fix solution. This is going to take all of us working together, in messy, complicated ways.
To work together, we need to be able to dialogue. Dialogue has been a major theme of Pope Francis, and is something he talked about when addressing the U.S. Congress in 2015. There, he told Congress of the importance of a “spirit of cooperation,” and of the need to “cooperate generously for the common good.” Indeed, he told the politicians before him that day that politics is about “building a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.” What a challenging message in times of deep divisions today.
For me, key themes that guide my thinking about how to transform unjust structures are human dignity and preferential option for the poor. The principle of human dignity says that “All human persons are made in the image and likeness of God.” Human life is sacred from conception to natural death. All people—no matter their age, race, creed, abilities, wealth, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship—are equal in the eyes of God and must be treated with respect. People are more important than things; relationships are more important than possessions. Tonight each of us can ask ourselves what we are doing, every day, to live this out. Do you treat every person with respect? Public policies—about health care, immigration, education, taxation, and everything else—should be rooted in this principle of respect for all persons.
In his 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII said that every human person has rights and obligations that flow from his/her very nature: the right to life and a worthy standard of living; the right to share in the benefits of culture; the right to worship God according to one’s conscience; the right to freely choose one’s state in life; the right to work without coercion; the right to form social unions; the right to emigrate and immigrate; and the right to participate in public affairs (8-27). In that document, the pope argued that “the fact that one is a citizen of a particular state does not detract in any way from his membership in the human family as a whole, nor from his citizenship in the world community.” (par. 25).
What powerful words in our own context! The pope’s argument here invites all of us to consider our common humanity as prior to any identification of national identity, citizenship, or social location. So often this kind of analysis is written off as idealistic rhetoric that fails to take into consideration the reality of contemporary nation-states. But aren’t those nation-states constructed by humans in particular historical contexts, with particular histories of power and narratives of control? We can do better. We should try to do better.
That brings me to my second guiding principles, the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. (Centessimus Annus (11) This principle says that we have a moral responsibility to care for the needs of the economically poor and those most in need. Drawing on the Scriptures, this principle says that God takes sides. God is on the side of the poor against the injustices they face. So whose side are you on? God has special concern for those most marginalized. Following the example of Jesus, Christians are committed to resisting injustice, oppression, exploitation, and marginalization of people by identifying causes and building solutions. Acts of charity are important but not sufficient; attention must be paid as well to social structures that dehumanize marginalized persons.
The work we must do will not be easy. Change of hearts, change of minds, change of unjust social structures. Tonight let us commit to that work, individually, and together. Let’s support each other when it seems too difficult, challenge each other when complacency sets in, celebrate small victories when we achieve them together. Because we are all in this together. Thank you.
Dr. Emily Reimer-Barry is an Associate Professor at USD's Theology and Religious Studies Department.