Quote of the Week: When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why people are hungry, they call me a communist. –Hélder Câmara
Brazilian Archbishop and liberation theologist Hélder Câmara committed himself fully to what he saw as a Christian mandate to protect the poor and oppressed from the evils of military dictatorship and economic inequality. He fought against Brazil’s military government, and at times even against his own Roman Catholic Church, to protect his flock from oppression. But Câmara’s mission was not a uniquely Brazilian one. His mission touches deeply upon the fundamental mission of the United States: the establishment of our City on a Hill.
When John Winthrop evoked the mission of our City in 1630 (a moment cited by American liberals and conservatives alike as a key foundation of our shared national ideology), he infused our nation with a liberal mandate to use all of our economic wealth to feed and care for those in need. This mandate came (in Winthrop’s sermon on Christian charity) not from a vague political or philosophical viewpoint, but from the teachings of Christianity. The City on a Hill calls for the foundation of America as a new, Christian nation – defined not by the faith of its citizens; but by the charity of its work, of its society and of its government. By definition, a “Christian nation” uses (that is, taxes) its wealth to feed, clothe, and house the poor; to provide medical care to all needing it; and to ensure individual safety and prosperity through shared public goods like education, transportation, and public safety. This is precisely what the City on a Hill, described by Winthrop, means. When American politicians refer to it, they are citing specifically what today we would call liberal values.
Câmara’s mission in Brazil also sought these objectives, within his specific fight to protect the poor from the oppression of his time. But Câmara points out a fundamental truth for our City: it is not enough to see individual points of need and darkness, and to assuage those points. We must move past individual welfare and charity, and push (as Winthrop commanded us in his sermon) to a collective, societal change, asking not merely what this or that person needs, but why that need exists at all, and how to prevent that need from arising in the first place.
Not “asking why people are hungry” is the first step toward accepting the failure of our City – to accepting the concentration of wealth and the permanence of social injustice. Instead, our City (and for the religious, their faith) endow upon us a liberal imperative to reshape our government, and our society; and to understand that a society only truly prospers so long as it ensures opportunity, comfort, and security to all its members, not just an economically predetermined few. We must feed the poor. But we must also ask why they are hungry, and then solve the problem discovered by that inquiry. That problem is poorly restrained capitalism and an acceptance of accelerating income inequality. The answers are a more efficient and progressive regulatory environment, and a more progressive tax structure that fulfills the nation’s oldest formative vision.
Câmara’s words, and his work, remind us of our liberal mission to build a City on a Hill. He also reminds us to ask why injustice exists, as the initial step toward solving that injustice. Together, Winthrop and Câmara remind us that building and protecting our nation, building the City on a Hill, are moral compulsions to liberal standards of political and social welfare, and to enact and solidify our City’s community of care.
Headline image of Archbishop Câmara, via Google Image Search, posted on a US Catholic commentary.