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Uncommon generosity, uncommon courage

There are two ways to be holy.

There are people who labor all day in the worst of conditions, for instance, for the neediest people in the world. Other people love them for it. Call them saints; call them courageous; call them the “salt of the earth.” Indeed they are. Then there are other people who see the conditions in which the neediest people in the world are left to live and they work to see that those conditions are changed. And people denounce them for it. Call them unrealistic. Call them enablers. Call them unfaithful to their country—and even to their church.

The recurring question about which is the greatest holiness, those who are doers—the martyrs—or those who are the changers—the prophets—is a seductive one. Which is better, people ask, to be prophetic or to be pastoral? Is it more important to do charity or to demand justice? Or better yet, they insist, Should religious people really be involved in politics?

It’s when we try to answer such empty questions that we find ourselves in a maze. At the end of discussions like that, all we have managed to do is to reduce the whole Christian enterprise to a series of false opposites. To pit one work against another only dims the real value of each.

However spurious the contest may be, it is nevertheless a continuing question.

Dorothy Day’s answer is prophetic. She did both. She refused to choose one over the other. She writes: “What we would like to do is change the world—make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, or the destitute—the rights of the poor, in other words—we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world.”

The hallmark of charity is its uncommon generosity. The ring of real prophecy lies in its uncommon courage. Both go far and beyond the normal measure of either. Both of them lead the way for others to follow. Both of them give witness to the world of another way of life, a better way of life for us all.

Charity without prophecy can serve only to make the world safe for exploitation. As long as the poor are being fed, why raise the wages it would take to enable them to feed themselves? It enables employers to go on underpaying and overworking the very people who have made them their wealth. At the same time, prophecy may disturb a society but it does not necessarily comfort it. In fact, it can remain at a very safe distance from the sufferings of the time. As a result, it runs the risk of intellectualizing the problems of the world, which the rest of us can then go on discussing to death.

As the poet Charles Péguy warns us, “We must always tell what we see. Above all, and this is more difficult, we must always see what we see.” When we fail to recognize the injustices of society—to smell them and bind them, to carry the lame and shelter the homeless, we will never bend our hearts to hear them and shout out their cries for all to hear. And change.

         —from The Time Is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage (Random House), by Joan Chittister