The Preferential Option for the Federal Government
You just heard from your doctor that you urgently need to lose 40 pounds, or else you will lapse into Type-2 diabetes. Your closet is full of “skinny” clothes that you can’t wear anymore, and you find yourself shunning mirrors. So what do you do? Here are some solid suggestions from the brand new Jones-Zmirak Health Plan:
Step 1: Start a fitness blog, collecting the best arguments you can find against obesity.
Step 2: Comb the Bible, Pope Francis’ Tweets, and the work of your fellow bloggers, for the choicest quotes on the deadly sin of Gluttony. Then post them in the comments threads of every article that seems relevant -- such as blatantly fattening recipes that foodies selfishly post on their blogs.
Step 3: Spend at least four hours on Facebook and Twitter each day, sharing links and memes on the importance of physical fitness. Post photos of celebrities who have fallen out of shape, with snarky comments about the likely effects on their health and their careers.
Step 4: Write your congressman, your senator, and the President about the need for national legislation restricting the use of high fructose corn syrup in foods, and healthier school lunches in public schools.
Step 5: Add witty pro-fitness bumper stickers to your car.
Step 6: Join an activist group that pickets restaurants which refuse to post calorie counts.
Okay, you’re done. You have fulfilled your obligations, and will no doubt feel like a much, much healthier person.
Have we missed anything? Is there some chance that our plan might not work? That our bodies might not respond to all our generous efforts, that we might not actually lose any weight?
Well the Jones-Zmirak Health Plan is every bit as effective at causing weight loss as the efforts of most social justice Christians are at addressing poverty. And it is exactly as pleasing to God.
In the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly orders his disciples themselves to care for the poor, the needy, the vulnerable. (In our day, the most vulnerable people on earth are preborn babies, followed closely by persecuted Christians in the Middle East; Americans trapped in multi-generational dependence on public assistance are on that list as well, but they are sadly far from the top.) Jesus warns all who will listen that their personal actions, the wealth that they personally share and the work that they do with their hands, will have eternal consequences. They will be judged for how much they have done.
Our Lord did not organize the local zealots into a pressure group, and use them to force the Romans to redistribute wealth to the poor. When he met with Pontius Pilate, he did not lay out a program of land reform based on principles of Christian distributism, demanding for every Jew forty acres and a mule. Nor did he advocate any other social legislation. What a missed opportunity! No doubt Jesus had other things on his mind. (It was a very eventful week.) But still, you might have thought that Christ would have used his few minutes of “face time” with the Roman procurator to put in a good word on behalf of a minimum wage, or higher taxes on the Sadducees. Those fatcats.
At least you might have thought that if you equated what Christians call the “preferential option for the poor” with a preferential option for the federal government -- if you thought that we could slough off our Christian responsibilities to the needy by voting for candidates who promised to force taxpayers to do our work for us. If you thought you could lose weight by blogging or voting for it.
The Church, for many centuries, organized private charities that were guided by Christian ethics, to perform what our grandparents knew as the Corporal Works of Mercy. Christians joined Jews at the walls of Rome to rescue abandoned infants. They ransomed slaves into freedom, and offered free Christian schooling to the children of unlettered peasants.
Christians also were guided in their duties as statesmen and citizens to support public laws that followed timeless principles of justice, which our unaided reason can see because God wrote them upon our hearts. (We may not justly impose laws on our unbelieving neighbors that rest only on truths of revelation, or messages from Fatima -- that would violate their God-given religious liberty, and leave us little better than the theocrats of ISIS.)
We are called by the virtue of justice to use our prudence, temperance, and fortitude to aid our fellow men -- and especially fellow citizens -- in protecting their basic rights and human dignity. That’s the bare minimum we owe our fellow men as part of the human family. So we must oppose laws that allow such crimes against justice as abortion, euthanasia, or slavery. Laws must prevent men from defrauding each other or working the poor to death in dangerous factories. Laws must protect our religious liberty, our freedom of association, our right to educate our children.
What Christ calls us to do is something much more demanding and particular. He calls on us to see in our fellow human beings an image of God and a “second Christ,” warning that whatever we did “to one of the least of these my brothers, you did… to me.” (Mt 25:40) That call is not one we can delegate to our congressmen, or impose upon our neighbors. On the day of judgment, when Jesus questions us on what we have done, we had better have something more to offer than our blog posts or voting records.
What Christians need to do, alongside passing laws to protect those who suffer the gravest injustices -- such as the preborn -- is to build up, reform, and expand the institutions which the churches have built for answering Jesus’ call to serve the needy. We must keep them true to their missions, even if that might mean refusing the money offered by a secular state with a hostile agenda. We need to reweave a “safety net” that protects the most vulnerable because it sees them as genuine images of God, as second Christs. Such a safety net would look very different from the “entitlement” programs that currently trap citizens in tangled webs of dependence on the government, making them wards of the state as a means of buying their votes. A truly Christian safety net would look much more like the work of New York’s Bishop John Hughes, who “saved New York’s Irish” (desperate, dysfunctional refugees from the Potato Famine) by treating them as fully human: He offered food, shelter, and jobs in return for sobriety, hard work, and chastity, conscious that these people’s souls mattered even more than their bodies. If we don’t really believe that, we ought to drop the “Christian” label altogether and just get on with running services for the poor along the lines of animal shelters, which focus on vaccination, spaying, and neutering. That’s the approach of liberal Democrats, and we will find plenty of willing allies.
Jason Scott Jones and John Zmirak are co-authors of The Race to Save Our Century: Five Core Principles to Promote Peace, Freedom, and a Culture of Life.