Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Monday, November 28, 2011

We are All Tentmakers: The Duty to Work and Contributive Justice

IT IS AN UNFORTUNATE REALITY that we tend to think of "social justice" only as something that relates to what people ought to get. Short shrift has been given to what people ought to give. In other words, we pay a lot of attention to distributive justice, but very little is heard about contributive justice.

No one is excused from contributing to the extent of his abilities to the greater society in which he lives. This means that we all have to work to the extent we can, first to support ourselves, next to support those that are "our own," i.e., our families and communities, and finally to support the greater common good.

In fact, as Christians we are to go beyond that and work so that we can give to the poor, to the needy in an exercise of charity. How, asks St. Basil in his commentary on his monastic rules, is one to minister to the Christ who comes in the form the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless stranger, the naked, and "Our Lords" the sick? How are we to perform the works of mercy if we have no means?

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is rather blunt about it: "No Christian, in light of the fact that he belongs to a united community, should feel that he has the right not to work and to live at the expense of others." (Compendium, No. 264) Freeloaders, who are to be distinguished from the truly needy, are anathema; they are parasitically unjust to those upon whom they rely for support.

We need to inculcate in society the spirit of St. Paul who worked (he was a tentmaker) so as not to be a burden to his congregations. He told the Ephesians that "these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions." (Acts 20:34)

While in Corinth, he stayed with the Jewish couple Aquila and Priscilla and "stayed and worked with them" mending and making tents to support himself. (Acts 18:1-3) Any other way of living--to eat food free, to fail to work "so as not to burden any of you"--St. Paul considered "disorderly" and unseemly.

He instructed the Thessalonians while among them "that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should one eat." (2 Thes. 3:10).

St. Paul had a well-developed notion of contributive justice.

Sts. Paul, Aquila, and Priscilla Making Tents in Corinth

The early Christian church anticipated the second coming of Christ (what is called the parousia) as imminent. They were taught that "the form of this world is passing away." (1 Cor. 7:31) Even so, they were expected to work to support themselves and to meet the demands of contributive justice so as to be, as St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, "dependent on nobody." (1 Thes. 4:12) Not only would this comply with contributive justice, but earning money through work also allowed the Christian to supply charity to "those in need." (Eph. 4:28)

In other words, Christians were expected not only to work so as not to take from the common good and therefore act unjustly. They were expected to work so as to be able to give to the common good in charity.

Idleness was viewed with great disfavor. Witness the declamations of St. John Chrysostom against idleness:

Which is the useful horse, the pampered or the exercised? which the serviceable ship, that which sails, or that which lies idle? which the best water, the running or the stagnant? which the best iron, that which is much used, or that which does no work? does not the one shine bright as silver, while the other becomes all over rusty, useless, and even losing some of its own substance? The like happens also to the soul as the consequence of idleness: a kind of rust spreads over it, and corrodes both its brightness and everything else. How then shall one rub off this rust? With the whetstone of tribulations: so shall one make the soul useful and fit for all things.

Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, XXXV.3

In the time of the Apostles, the Graeco-Roman society--fed in large part by the institution of slavery--tended to view servile work as demeaning, inferior. Pitting themselves against the social mores of the day, the Apostles--following the example of Christ the carpenter--taught that all labor is good if done for the glory of God. (1 Cor. 10:31) This was not difficult for them, as the majority of them had been simple fishermen. None owned slaves. None were wealthy. None were born of royal or even noble blood.

All are called to contribute to the increase of the world. "By his work and industriousness, man--who has a share in the divine art and wisdom--makes creation, the cosmos already ordered by the Father, more beautiful. He summons the social and community energies that increase the common good, above all to the benefit of those who are neediest." (Compendium, No. 266)

And if one seeks perfection, as St. Basil told his monks, one will not work for oneself, but for others. "Human work, directed to charity as its final goal, becomes an occasion for contemplation, it becomes devout prayer, vigilantly rising towards and in anxious hope of the day that will not end." (Compendium, No. 266)

There are many Saints who gave of their property and their work to the most needy. Of the many we could cite, we might point to the banking heiress St. Katharine Drexel (1858-1988) who contributed her entire vast estate (estimated at $20 million) and selflessly dedicated her entire earthly labor for the education of the Black and Native American peoples who had been such victims of social oppression and racial injustice.

We do not all have the resources of St. Katharine Drexel. Some of us are mere tentmakers and fishermen. But whether we are poor tentmakers or wealthy banking heiresses, we have a duty in contributive justice to work toward the common good.

Indeed, as Christians, we have a duty to go beyond mere contributive justice and give of our plenty to those who are most in need. We are haunted by Christ's words: "Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me." (Matt. 25:45)

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