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Christianity in the Public Square: Literature of Politics, Protest and Social Justice

by Anthony Grasso, CSC

If you live in Chicago, your presence at St. Sabina by listening to the pastor Father Michael Pfleger would assist you in understanding the literature of politics, protest and social justice. He understands how to direct a person to live a truly Christian/Catholic life and shares that with his congregation. Added to this is the icing on the cake which is the book by Father Anthony Grasso. The writings in the book are part of a conference that took place at King’s College in Pennsylvania. The authors are people who are academics or people who work in the political public arena. I will review several of the pieces in the book to give you a taste for the information provided. In the piece entitled “Against a Discourse of Division: Marilynne Robinson’s Politics of Grace” by Mary Beth Baggett. Baggett uses the depth of the work of Robinson to make her points. Baggett states: “As we know, political discourse tends to be one dimensional, partisan, oversimplified, especially when conducted in today’s 24-hour news cycle where participants vie for ratings through sensationalism and discord. But in Robinsons’ work the lie –and detriment – of this oversimplification comes to light.” Baggett discusses Robinson’s book Gilead which centers on racial tension in the 1950’s. Baggett acknowledges the breakdown of humanity’s relationships and offers grace that binds people in spite of the natural schisms. Baggett points out how Robinson calls attention to our obligation to others, the demands of contingency. She wishes to make room for conversation. Her work attacks the myopia that currently animates politics and its supporting media structure. This is a powerful piece that needs to be read in its entirety.

The second piece is “Piers Plowman and the Christian Impulse to Social Reform” written by Sister Brigid Brady, OP from Cladwell College. In this reflection the social pendulum of Piers Plowman swings to the conflict between honest labor and entitlement to the benefits of social charity. The story goes forward after Conscience brings about the repentance of the seven deadly sins, all set out determined to discover the way to the Tower of Truth. The company is frustrated to find that no one knows the way. Piers the Plowman offers to lead them if they will all first help him finish plowing his half acre. As in all things some work and some don’t. When Piers threatens those who don’t work, they feign disability. Piers doesn’t buy it. Piers sees through the hoax. Waster threatens Piers, who turns to the knight. -The knight’s courtesy is wasted on Waster, so Piers send for Hunger, who beats Waster and the braggart Breton, and the fakers turn to diligent work. Hunger’s cure for all things, including fraudulent physicians, is labor and temperance. Once again, the vision shows no other way than necessity to press the indolent into working or to control the bullies among them. “The malfeasance of the professional classes, alluded to in passing by Hunger in his observation about fraudulent physicians, comes fully into view in the description of the Master of Theology, a friar at dinner in the house of Conscience in the 14th passus, the fourth dream…..he preaches penance but practices none….It is hard to imagine a wave of protest arising against overly mild penances; however, the complaint about some friars being inappropriately intimate with their penitents certainly strikes a contemporary chord in our own times that have seen protest over similarly inappropriate acts of intimacy by members of the clergy.” To sum up the meaningfulness of the piece written in the 14 hundreds: The advice of Lady Holy Church is surprisingly analogous to Dr. Martin Luther King’s description of the steps in a non-violent direct action campaign: observe and discern the presence of injustice, attempt to negotiate, purify yourself, and give non-violent testimony to the injustice. The only step Lady Holy Church omits is the negotiation. None of this suggest that Piers Plowman was intended to incite violent uprising, nor that it’s primary purpose was to address fourteenth century social evils. It does indicate that the Christian should be alert to the presence of evil in his world, avoid being drawn into it, and maintain the peace and charity of his own heart in responding to it.”

The third piece for review is “Christian Principles and Social Critique in Lois Lowry’s Giver Series” by Anna Ramirez, Ph.D. from Neumann University. I read this book at the same time my sons read it for their English class. I was somewhat delighted and amazed. The depth and insight of the book left me glad for a new look at literature and the politics of choice. To begin, the Giver is about the future where there is no suffering, hunger, unemployment, prejudice, not loneliness, but also no love, individual choice, diversity, color, nor music. “All the children in this society look forward to the Ceremony of Twelve when the formally receive their career assignments from the Elders. The young protagonist Jonas finds he has been selected to be the next Receiver of Memories to advise the community leaders, but he is disturbed upon opening the list of rules in his work folder: He must go directly to the house of the current Receiver after school each day and may not speak about his training to anyone else.” He is allowed to lie. He wondered if all his classmates received the same message. He would ask his Father but would he lie. When Jonas meets the Giver, he is impressed by the number of books in the Old Man’s rooms. After he is introduced to many different memories, he realizes that it is better to gain knowledge and wisdom than to live in his previous state of thoughtless conformity. The next part of the story deals with the complications of memories, how they are stored, dealt with and with ‘bearing the knowledge alone’. The Giver and its sequel have focused not only on the presence of disturbing scenes such as the infant’s death that so horrified Jonas, but also on the fear of young minds being influenced to resist authority figures. Lois Lowry’s young adult novels have much to tell us in the global village of the twenty-first century, provoking serious thought as we take the responsibility of voting for those in leadership positions. They that have ears, let them hear.”

The fourth piece for review is “The Radical Example of Dorothy Day as a Living Response to Matthew’s “Rich Young Man” by Robert P. Russo from Lourdes University. Dorothy Day’s life and her journey towards God, fascinates some members of society, while many others simply turn away. Perhaps this is because of her sinful nature before her conversion to Catholicism, or the fact that once she saw the light of Christ she lived in a state or the fact that once she saw the light of Christ, she lived in a state of true otherness, placing the welfare of the poor over and above her own needs as a radical response to Jesus’ instructions in Matthew’s “Rich Young Man”. Day lived in the awareness of others over the self for nearly the last fifty years of her life. Day intimately understood the deeper meaning behind Jesus’ exchange with the “Rich Young Man” Her life was not one of storing up earthly treasures, but the equitable distribution of such, in a Christ-centered community of oneness. In other words, her awareness of the other led Day to take radical action for their benefit, but not necessarily for herself.

The above are just four examples of some wonderfully inspirational pieces concerning the life of politics, protest and social justice. It is a book that needs to be read by all in the midst of politics that is far from being one that ‘looks at the other’, reaches out to the immigrant and the marginalized and seeks their success and justice for all. If we could reach for the equitable distribution of wealth to those who need it to make their lives better, let’s start today!


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