Monday, December 24, 2012

Preferential Options for the Rich

The budget negotiations which have taken place over the past weeks in Washington could not have arisen at a more ironically suitable time.  Set against a background of Yuletide trees and Mangers, they allow us to see that the ghoulish gamesmanship taking place in the nation’s capital has pushed the country off a moral cliff.

It is typically said that, at Christmas, those Christians, who have not delivered themselves unto shopping, celebrate hope, renewal and family. While those elements are not untrue, they have been turned into a kind of sentimental kitsch and moral treacle which obscure and soften the in-your-face challenge of the Christmas story. 

At the risk of being overly homiletic, I would to take a step back and contextualize the Nativity so as to bring out its more vivid colors and original impact. For what Christmas really commemorates is the birth of beauty in humility and poverty. 

Each of the Gospel writers emphasize different aspects of Jesus's life according to their audience. The story of Christmas comes to us almost entirely from the Gospel of Saint Luke and it is his account which has the Son of God being born of wayfarers in a manger.

Luke's biography of Jesus was written for the non-Jewish inhabitants of the Greco-Roman world. Not surprisingly, it followed the expected, standard-form pattern of classical biographies: noble lineage, portents at birth, prodigies in youth, career accomplishments, acts of generosity, interesting sayings, public works, portents of death and, if one happens to be an Emperor, an apotheosis, to sit among the gods on Olympus. 

Luke's account is clearly structured as a parody of the expected Roman biography.  But although he follows the form, he inverts the substance. The inversion first takes place in the emblematic Magnificat in which Luke has Mary announce her unexpected conception by saying,

“God has hath regarded the humility of his handmaid... He shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. (Luke 1:51-53)

No self-respecting Greek or Roman would have said such a thing.  The Greeks worshipped excellence and the Romans worshipped success.  Divinity manifested itself in the youth of noble bearing and in the magnus vir.  But Luke is unrelenting.

 “And while they were there, in Bethlehem, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger...” (Luke 2:6-7)

Although the Nativity Scene has benefited from the beautification of the world's most skilled painters, the naked facts are not pretty.  To all appearances Mary was homeless. She is first portrayed going "with haste into the hill country" where she enters Elizabeth's house to announce her pregnancy. (Luke 1:39-40)  According to St. Matthew, Joseph contemplated breaking off his engagement to Mary because she was pregnant by no known man. He changed his mind, and the couple are next seen wandering at night, in the middle of winter, 80 miles from Nazareth, while Mary is close to term. (Matt. 1:18-24)

St. Matthew adds that Mary and Joseph put up in a manger because there was no room at the “inn” making it sound to us as if it was all a question of missed reservations. (Matt 2:1-6) However, this is an inaccurate translation because, in those days, there were no inns.  There were no roadside restaurants or even rest areas either.  To travel was to camp out on foot, without the benefit of freeze dried scrambled eggs.  You managed with what you could bargain or carry.  If you were lucky, the locals might offer you hospitality -- a floor to sleep on, some shared morsels to eat. 

By all accounts, Joseph and Mary weren't very lucky.  They are not said to be travelling in a group.  They are living out of the "back of the burro"  and, just as they get to Bethlehem, Mary goes into labor and has to give birth in a cow stall.  What in the world did they use for water?

Luke makes no attempt to mask the wretchedness. Instead, he astonishingly proclaims that, on cue, the Host of Heaven suddenly appeared to a bunch of shepherds to announce the birth of "a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!" The shepherds take off running toward the stables, behold the infant Jesus and return hence “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” (Luke 2:8-14)

Two thousand years later, it is hard for us to imagine the kind of jaw-dropping astonishment with which  the average, everyday,  Gaius would have reacted to the story.

Luke foists his listeners on a series of contradictions.  Jesus is descended of nobility; but born in a filthy cow stall a probable bastard of homeless wanderers. As the Host of Heaven sounds its trumpets a Delegation of the Most Honorable Shepherds of the District comes to proffer their good wishes and salutations.  Not till Don Quixote does literature string together such a pile of absurdities.

But it is a pile of absurdities which ultimately transformed the fundamental values of western society.  Luke very intentionally turned the Roman Order on its head. Wealth and Power and Success do not ascend to an Olympus of elite heroes and gods but rather the Most Powerful God of the universe is to be found descended into the womb of failure and hunger and weakness.

It is this descent which became the cornerstone of the Christian creed: “...and He came down from Heaven....”  That filthy, homeless person with a cardboard sign, snivelling in the cold on the curb?  There is your god.

The Romans did not want for symbols of motherhood, family and prosperity.  The Augustan Ara Pacis or Altar of Peace depicts Mother Rome, nurturing her twin sons, flanked by symbols of prosperity -- sheaves of wheat, an ox, a sheep and the winds of commerce between East and West. Luke takes the symbolism and sets it in a cow-stall in one of the most insignificant towns in the entire Empire.

It is from this inversion, that the  Catholic Church derives its  doctrine of the Preferential Option for the Poor which states that in our thoughts and deeds God demands a preference be given to the well-being of the poor and powerless of society.  Saint Augustine, put it this way:

"God does not demand much of you. He asks back what he gave you, and from him you take what is enough for you. The superfluities of the rich are the necessities of the poor. When you possess superfluities, you possess what belongs to others." (Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 147, 12).


"Christ who is rich in heaven chose to be hungry in the poor. Yet in your humanity you hesitate to give to your fellow human being. Don't you realize that what you give, you give to Christ, from whom you received whatever you have to give in the first place."  (Commentary on Psalm 75,9)

This then is what Christmas is about.  It is about recognizing Christ in poverty and giving to the poor.

And yet, at this very Christmas time, what is the spectacle that Washington presents to the world?  It is the spectacle of powerful, well-stuffed, hypocrites arguing over preferential options for the rich.

House Speaker Boehner wants to limit tax increases to persons making over one million dollars a year, while the President is willing to “compromise” on incomes of $400,000.  What is seldom explained is that the “increase” is not on the full $250,000, or $400,000 or $1 million but only on the excess over those amounts.  In other words, a person who earns one million and ten dollars would only see a 2% increase on the ten dollars above the million.

While the Speaker and the President are haggling over how little to tax the rich and super-rich, House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, is busy telling people that her party has no problem with cutting back on so-called entitlements for the poor. 

In particular, Pelosi has no problem with reducing social security adjustments for inflation, so that, over a ten year period, the average monthly social security check would be reduced by 3%-5% per year. The “chained CPI” -- as the reduction is called -- means that as a person gets older his social “security” life support shrinks.  Last week Pelosi, whose net worth is estimated at 90 million dollars, stated that the chained CPI was not a “cut” in benefits. "I consider it a strengthening of Social Security,” she said.

Social Security does not contribute to the budget deficit which is the spawn of astronomical defense and war spending coupled with tax cuts for the rich.  But even if Social Security contributed to the deficit, the chained CPI “savings” would only amount to $122 billion.  Last year’s defense budget was $680 billion.

This Christmas we would do well to note that the face Washington presents to the world is that of a bloated, snarling, ogre.

©Woodchipgazette, 2012.