In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mk 11:20-25)
When I have read these words in the past, I have taken them to mean that faith can move physical mountains and that I will get whatever I need if I have faith. The picture though is much larger. It has a social and political dimension. This is said in the context of the cleansing of the Temple. The event is sandwiched between the cursed fig tree.
The cleansing of the Temple was a symbolic action in Jesus’ campaign to nonviolently overthrow Roman domination and priestly privilege. The Temple practices exploited the poor and oppressed followers of Jesus. He had come to liberate them from the oppression of the Romans and the Temple. Simon Harak pointed out that Jesus’ presence in the Temple where he was teaching daily after he cleansed it was the reason for the Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. Jesus’ nonviolent campaign to liberate the oppressed ended with a teach-in in the Temple—the symbol of priestly power.
The fig tree, symbol of prosperity and goodness in Israel had no fruit to offer when Jesus was hungry. The curing of the tree was again a symbolic action. It gave Jesus the opportunity to tell his followers that faith could move mountains—not physical mountains but the mountains that were oppressing the people. In other words, faith can lead to structural changes which bring justice to the people.
Rose Marie Berger’s column in Sojourners alerted me to a valuable resource—Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus (http://www.usccb.org/lent/Walking-inthe-Footsteps-of-Jesus-Act-Reflect-Transform-essay.pdf). The authors in the Office of Peace and Justice this must have slipped it by the hierarchs. It contains a concise statement about charity and justice:
- Focuses on the needs of people
- Looks at individual situations
- Meets immediate needs
- Ameliorates symptoms of social problems
- Relies on the generosity of donors
- Focuses on the rights of people
- Analyzes social situations and structures
- Works for long-term social change
- Addresses underlying social causes
- Relies on just laws and fair social structures
Giving food to the food bank or contributing money to buy boots for migrant farm workers is charity. Justice is about changing the structures which keep people from having enough to eat or boots to work in the fields. Looking at structures might cause us to question free trade agreements which make it impossible for farmers to compete with subsidized American corn and causes them to have to cross borders to find work and money to support their families. Looking at structures might cause us to question global financial practices which impoverish developing countries impoverished.
Jim Wallis of Sojourners questions whether Tea Party libertarianism is based on Christian principles (http://blog.sojo.net/2010/05/27/how-christian-is-tea-party-libertarianism/). Two of his criticisms are apropos here.
1. The Libertarian enshrinement of individual choice is not the pre-eminent Christian virtue. Emphasizing individual rights at the expense of others violates the common good, a central Christian teaching and tradition. The Christian answer to the question “Are we our brother’s keeper?” is decidedly “Yes.”
4. The Libertarian preference for the strong over the weak is decidedly un-Christian. “Leave me alone to make my own choices and spend my own money” is a political philosophy that puts those who need help at a real disadvantage. And those who need help are central to any Christian evaluation of political philosophy. “As you have done to the least of these,” says Jesus, “You have done to me.” And “Blessed are those who are just left alone” has still not made the list of Beatitudes. To anticipate the Libertarian response, let me just say that private charity is simply not enough to satisfy the demands of either fairness or justice, let alone compassion. When the system is designed to protect the privileges of the already strong and make the weak even more defenseless and vulnerable, something is wrong with the system. [Justice requires us to work for structural changes.]
My first acquaintance with the Tea Party was that it arose initially to oppose health care reform in the area in which I live. “Do not spend my money to give people a basic right—health care.”
The selection from Mark also highlights a cornerstone of Christian faith—forgiveness. Coupled with love for one another, forgiveness dismantles structures which perpetrate injustice. It may erode the structures as gradually as water erodes rock but it will change them. Forgiveness in this context may also be a reference to Jubilee economics where debt is forgiven and land is restored to the rightful owners after others had exploited them to obtain their land unjustly.
While we are relying on faith to move structurally unjust mountains, others are proclaiming Christian “values” to maintain the structurally unjust mountains. As for me, I am going to side with Jesus and opt for just structures which enhance human life. Our principle is what we are doing for the least among us. We are called to acts of charity and acts of justice.