“The preferential option for the poor,” or, What Work Is

I’ve been told, rightly or erroneously, that the Peruvian Dominican priest Gustavo Gutierrez actually formulated these words that were intended to encapsulate the best of Roman Catholic social teaching.  True or not, the Preferential Option is (or should be) a critical focal point for all Christian approaches to social concerns.  Sadly, many of the more prominent Christian denominations–especially Roman Catholicism and my own Anglican Communion–seem to spend inordinate amounts of time these days mulling over what people do with their genitalia.  In a sense some of the more vocal members have acquired a true venereal disease, a fixation on adult sleeping arrangements.

I digress.  Beginning in 2002 and continuing onward, I unwittingly slipped into a mindset of total self-absorption.  I need to make a living.  If that means I ignore you, if it means I ignore the carnage my country is causing elsewhere…well, that is too bad, but it’s not too bad for me, it’s just too bad for the Iraqi kid who had his legs blown off.  Oh well.

Yes, all the old canards: Bush is a moron, Cheney is a psychopath, we should not be there, blah-blah-blah. But I couldn’t see beyond my own image in the mirror, when I can see it at all.

It’s very sad to live that way. You risk disappearing up your own asshole like a William Burroughs character in Naked Lunch.

Some weeks ago I reached the depths of my shame.  I’d had a year of jobs in retail and service sector work.  I felt valueless.  I cared nothing about anyone but myself.  To put it this way: to hell with the legless kid in Iraq.  To hell with the soldier over there.  To hell with the psycho bosses from Hell.  To hell with the age discriminators, the he- and she-wolves of corporate America.  To hell and beyond with anyone who is not offering me a well-paying job.

To hell with me.

In sum, to hell with God.

Except I would not entirely renounce my faith. I wanted to die. I did not wish to continue to live. God was a presence but a figure of malevolence and caprice who might give with one hand but would take back with two. The good and evil are treated the same.

Life sucks and I wish I could die.

And then a friend of mine, a theologian, heard my words.  I finally summoned the courage to write them down and send them to her.  She was appalled.  Any number of things are “wrong” with me, but this was beyond illness.  It was turning my back on my own decency.  It was renouncing the things in which I used to believe.  It was the soul-sickness unto death. She mentioned a book called Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent by that same Peruvian theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez.

I owned the book.  I had forgotten I bought the book back in October 1999, had read some of it (it was partially underlined), but put it down because I was bored. Gutierrez is not an easy writer. But that’s no excuse.

I read it again.  I was trying to answer a question: if it’s not all about me, then what part is about me, and how do I come to re-view God when whatever evil I’ve done in my life–and there has been some–feels far outweighed by the torments visited on me in the last six years, but especially the last two.

I don’t need to catalog them.

“But Ken, you have a Ph.D.”  Yes, I do.  And the longer this went on, the more that came back to me.

I have a Ph.D. and why am I doing this crap?  When does God call off the dogs or let me be turned into Actaeon and have them tear me limb from limb?  When does the grief end?

The sequence is not punishment leads to reward.  As I confessed these things, my job prospects began to reverse.  And I was offered the kind of work I knew how to do for money I could live on.  Comfortably.  Was it arrogant of me to think “I deserve this”?  Sorry, but I deserve this, I have paid the dues, and I will do whatever I must to keep it.  I thought of myself as a middle-aged male Scarlett O’Hara at the end of Part I of Gone With The Wind, swearing I’d never be hungry again.

But there was more.  Reading Gutierrez on Job and on Job’s steadfastness even in suffering made me aware of my solidarity with those poor whose ranks I’d joined.  See, I got to leave.  The poor you will always have with you, sadly.  I am still not especially interested in our international stupidities.  I cannot do anything about those Iraqi kids.  I can’t desecrate American graves because the war is wrong.  Oddly enough, I really believe two wrongs do not make a right.

But it is the misery I shared for a year that may yet move me to solidarity and action.  It is the misery of the deli counter worker with a lying union rep, the WalMart worker with no union at all, the proofreader denied time from his desk because those standardized tests have to be gotten out the door now, the retail clerk who is entitled to no union and never to enough hours to get medical benefits, not because his manager is a bad guy but because the manager’s employer is tightfisted and exploitive.  And because WalMart sets the standard in this country for how retail work functions: like a slave ship on its way to Annapolis.

If you don’t like it, malcontent, then leave.  We can get someone out of the rehab or shelter to replace you.

Sitting where I am sitting now, even if my fate were something other than tenuous (for the world of work is always a dangerous place and it is chained to Fortune’s Wheel), my form of fighting back and giving back is to help those who reflect me and whom I reflect.  If not the guy making $7.50 an hour and working three jobs, but the downsized manager or professional who has been aged out of his job or on the end of a losing battle that might not even have involved him.

It doesn’t matter how much of a house you live in.  The equity goes, the savings go, the funds go, and then you go with them.  Some of us are more than two paychecks from the Unemployment office but it comes around sooner or later.

In that sense we identify not with the simple economically poor but with the poor in spirit…the broken and fearful and pained. If theirs–ours–is the kingdom of Heaven, then it’s our task and mine to comfort where comfort is to be given and found.


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