Living your faith in a down economy

Activist Frida Berrigan and her uncle – Daniel Berrigan. GNU Free Documentation License. Image via Wikipedia

I recently read a quote from Daniel Berrigan, an 89-year-old Jesuit priest and long-time peace activist best known for his unwavering opposition to the School of the Americas, currently known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The quote really struck me as profound, and then last night I heard a sermon about putting your life where your belief is and it brought Berrigan’s quote back to mind.

“Your faith is rarely where your head is at and rarely where your heart is at. Your faith is where your ass is at! Inside what commitments are you sitting? Within what reality do you anchor yourself?”

In other words, if you say you believe A, are you putting your body in that place? Are you committed and acting on that commitment? Are you on the frontlines of faith? The homily I heard was along the same lines. It was about Luke 14:26-27, where a no-Kumbaya-Jesus is quoted as telling his followers that they really aren’t his followers if anything gets between them and God:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Harsh words, the priest pointed out, and then told his own story of leaving a military academy when he was young and had decided it didn’t fit with the tenets of Christianity.  (This contention, of course, would be news to the many Christians who sincerely believe that working for the military dovetails with serving Jesus.) He went on to encourage parishioners to not be Christians in name only, but through everything you do in your life – much like Dan Berrigan has put his life on the line protesting the SOA (actions which irritate some of his Jesuit brothers, by the way, who have to keep bailing Berrigan out of jail and resent the fact that he doesn’t bring money to the order through a regular job…. but that’s another post).

Anyway, I’m as guilty as many lay Christians are in not putting myself in the game as much as perhaps I should. I want to focus on “lay Christians” here because folks who work for churches as priests, sisters, nuns or pastors are paid to live their Christianity.

In other words, it is easy enough to live a life of poverty when you don’t have kids to support. Or, it is easy to not to worry about where your next meal is coming from when you are paid by your parishioners, you don’t have to worry about rent, and you are guaranteed a job for life. (The latter does not apply to Protestant clergy, who, like most lay Christians, can be fired at a moment’s notice and often have families to support.) It is a little more difficult when you have bills to pay and mouths to feed and are one of the more than 500K Arizonans who are unemployed.

Still, a Christian should ask the questions: Is faith the driving force in my life? Is, as Berrigan puts it so spicily, my ass in the place Jesus would be? Am I at nursing homes every week visiting the sick and the lonely? Have I visited a jail recently? Do I protest abortion, war, capital punishment? Am I willing to go live in complete solidarity with the poor? (Honestly, no. And not just because I really like sleeping in a bed that doesn’t have fleas.)

Yet, in spite of inspiring sermons and the inspiring lives lived by some priests and sisters (you’ll note there are not 100s of Dan Berrigans or Sr. Helen Prejeans), I tend to think God must know life is not as black and white as we would like it to be.

For instance, I know two young people who recently graduated as engineers and both wanted to work in sustainable energy, partially because they felt it fit with their call as Christians (to take care of the earth). But reality set in when they couldn’t find jobs and one ended up with Raytheon, the largest private employer in Southern Arizona, and the other with a traditional (i.e. dirty) power company because there were no jobs in industries that would have fit better with their values. Is it was better for them to be employed or to be homeless?

Or what about my former colleague, a Christian woman who gives more time than God to her parish, who spent a year looking for work that dovetailed with her faith until finally accepting a job in the military industrial complex because, frankly, she was going to lose her home if she didn’t. (Note to Christian employers out there, especially the Catholic Church:  She applied for multiple openings, but was never offered anything close to a living wage.)

I’ve been unemployed for more than a year. I’m currently nearing the end of my teacher certification process – just in time to enter a job market that just shed 750 teachers. I’ve been told about a non-teaching job at the University of Arizona, Southern Arizona’s largest public employer, but since I covered that beat as a reporter, I know all too well that the job will be one of the first chopped if UA takes another hit from the state this year. Even if I were willing to take the risk, I also know that some of the research UA does skirts the bright line of ethics that usually burns in my mind — making me wonder if any “real Christian” should work there. Then again, see me in December, when I’m done with my retraining as a teacher, fully certified as Highly Qualified in journalism and English. If I don’t have a job in the K-12 educational system, I’ll probably take just about anything that I can get.

In other words, it is easier to live completely authentically as a Christian – to only work for pro-life industries, to never shop at Walmart, to only buy fair-trade coffee or eat food from local farmers – when the economy isn’t tanking, jobs are plentiful, you don’t need health care, you aren’t pinching pennies and (most importantly) you are single and have no one depending on you. It’s much harder when you’re spending Labor Day looking for jobs while others are out barbecuing and drinking beer (which was most likely brewed by a corporation that invests in dirty bombs.)

In spite of our truncated income over the past year, we’ve refused to stop contributing to the charities we give to. We’ve provided a home to exchange students, traveling doctors, and seminarians through our hospitality. I’ve spent vacations rebuilding houses in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, we comfort the dying and their caretakers, and we’ve sent money directly to families that are worse off than we are right now. (Our motto: At least we have a house and one job. Even if that house is too big for us now that our children are grown and we can’t downsize – something befitting Christian values – because we’ve only owned the home 10 years and have too little equity to sell and be able to afford even a much smaller home. Details, details.)

All Christians are not Daniel Berrigan – or, in Tucson, we’re not all my friend, Brian Flagg. In fact, truth be told, when we meet people who really do put it all on the line in the name of Christ, who give up everything to serve the poor or live among the lepers, we tend to think they’re just a little bit odd or we think they’re saints. Mostly, we think they’re crazy – in fact, I heard someone refer to Flagg with that word just this weekend.

But maybe we’re supposed to work toward being a little more like Berrigan and Flagg, even in small ways, if we really want to live our faith. Maybe we have count the cost of living as a Christian and decide to pay or decline the label of Christian.

2 Replies to “Living your faith in a down economy”

  1. The Hebrew word “hate” does not mean detest. Rather, it means to put behind all else. To make our last priority.

    Life is made up of defining moments.  It how we respond at those momemts of truth that matters.  Is G-d first and foremost?

    Does G-d Love the poor?  the weak?  the least of us?  
    Do you believe that G-d Loves you more than anyone else?

    Another non-Kumbaya-Jesus parable.

    The Master of the House was having a party. Her called everyone from the East,West, North and South. Many dressed in there finest attire. Excitedly they knocked on the door. When the Master of the House opened the door many were surprised by His response, “I don’t know you”.  They were turned away. 


  2. Great reflection!  The Berrigan quote is friggin awesome!  I first heard it at Re Congress three years ago… speaks to me daily.
    After reading your blog, made me think of a quote from Zorba the Greek that really gets me:  “Man needs a little madness or else he never dares to cuts the ropes and be free”!
    Thank God for those people who are mad, the Berrigans and the Flaggs who teach us how to cut the rope and be free.  Thanks Renee for this wonderful blog!   I pray that I be called “mad”  or crazy at some point in my life!  Who the hell wants to be well adjusted and normal anyway… our church is built on the foundation of mad and crazy men and women.


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