God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
(Serenity Prayer, Twelve Step Movement)
When it comes to dealing with suffering, injustice and oppression, there are three long, winding, well-trodden paths in Christian spirituality and praxis; each one grounded firmly in the Gospel message of Jesus, yet each in a certain tension with the other two.
One is marked by kenosis, self-emptying, and embracing the cross of suffering and pain for the greater good of one’s soul and that of others – see Philippians 2:6-11. The other is marked by denouncing injustice and oppression, working – with God’s blessing – to set prisoners free, to liberate those exploited and violated by the sins of brothers and sisters far and near – see Luke 4:36-46 and Matthew 25:36-46. Alongside these two is a third one: if the injustice and oppression suffered is too damaging to our very being we may, if possible, remove ourselves from the situation – see Matthew 10:11-15.
How can we accept the things we cannot change and pray for courage to change the things we can? When illness or disaster upsets our lives, do we feel powerless and paralyzed, or do we try to accept our lot with some grace and courage? When another’s behaviour puts our safety and physical well-being at serious risk, do we change what we can and remove ourselves? When our neighbours struggle to put food on the table, do we feel compelled to reach out and share our resources, to change what we can? Do we also encourage our neighbour to seek further help, or will we have the wisdom to know that our advice would be unappreciated?
Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4:17-18)
While Jesus turned over the money changers’ tables in the Temple, he did not flinch or try to run when condemned to death. While he said that the poor will always be with us, he did identify with the least of those in need. While Jesus advised not to push when we or our message are not received, he himself walked to his own death precisely because he and his message were rejected.
Certain forms of injustice are universally condemned; countless individuals work to alleviate hunger and poverty, violence and unemployment for millions of people around the globe. However, many situations are not clear-cut. A person feels put down at work. He is ignored; he lacks praise and encouragement. Is he to endure this as his cross or is this a sign that it’s time to find another job? Would we still tell a woman to stay with her abusive husband and work to make it better? That advice has created generations of permanently soul-wounded women and children.
St. Augustine of Hippo is quoted as having said: “Pray as if everything depends on God, and act as if everything depends on you.” Contemporary schools in psychology, sociology and psychiatry place great value in being your true self, standing in your truth, and being integrated both inside and out.
What if outside circumstances make this goal nigh impossible to achieve? How do we know whether to work to make a situation better, to accept that change is impossible so instead use the situation to grow a deeper spiritual maturity, or to shake the dust off our feet and go elsewhere in order to come to full bloom?
Some perceive situations of injustice and willful ignorance within the Church; this can inflict a deep permanent wound in a person or even in an entire parish. What response most reflects God’s will – fight and protest, run and seek other spiritual wells from which to drink, or embrace the pain as one’s cross, hopefully leading to deeper union with the crucified Lord?
How does one define ecclesial injustice anyway? If a parish is deprived of the Eucharist on a regular basis (the only “right” Catholics have), does that constitute injustice? Is it an injustice when girls cannot be altar servers? If a pastor runs a parish like a military boot camp, does that constitute injustice? If women feel treated in inferior ways, does that constitute injustice? Is it an injustice when a gay couple is refused the church’s blessing on their union? If a married man or a woman feel called to ordained ministry but the church refuses them, does that constitute an injustice? Is injustice a subjective or objective experience?
Probably one of the most vexing examples lies in the gender disparity in the church. It is an undisputed fact that women’s fundamental human experiences – her wisdom and her ways of knowing, perceiving and living – are structurally invisible in church governance and teaching. While women form the bulk of the volunteer workforce in every parish around the globe, women’s voices and perspectives – theological, liturgical and spiritual – are simply not in the room when church leaders hammer out ecclesial documents on subjects which are binding for all Catholics, both women and men. A growing chorus of voices is denouncing this omission as a grave injustice, an insult to God’s image and likeness in women, Pope Francis included. Others, regarding this as part of the way God ordered male and female functions, perceive no injustice whatsoever.
Same situation, two diametrically opposed interpretations. The one group feels compelled by conscience to fight in rectifying the perceived wrong while the other group, equally in conscience, calls for submission to God’s way of ordering male/female functions and relations. Both groups are faith-filled Catholics who love the Church; both can support their basic positions from Scripture.
Which way to God’s will? What type of liberation did Jesus bring? Can liberation be defined objectively, outside of the particular circumstances of those who experience oppression and injustice? Do those who experience injustice have the prerogative to define what actions, behaviours and choices bring liberation? And if yes, what to make of liberating choices which challenge Church teaching?
If there is to be a liberating movement in Christ’s message regarding gender roles and relations, this movement needs to lead to fullness of life for both women and men. If Jesus came to redeem fallen humanity then now in Jesus “there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)
In order to activate such a liberating movement each follower of Christ may well choose a different path: fight to rectify a wrong, leave for greener pastures, or embrace the cross and graft one’s pain to the crucified Lord. If we look at the Scriptures, we might see that Jesus may validate each of these choices, provided he guide us: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (John 14:6)
Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace.
Taking, as he did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that he will make all things right
if I surrender to his will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with him
forever in the next.
~ Reinhold Niebuhr
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