The Filthy Rotten System


Icon of Dorothy Day

“Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system.” Dorothy Day

My thoughts turned toward the “filthy rotten system” and our acceptance of it as I read today’s readings from Jeremiah and Matthew.

Jeremiah contrasts the just person with the unjust person. In order to understand Jeremiah, I must remember that justice—right order, right relationships—is a requirement of the covenant whether it is the covenant of Moses or of the Christ. When the order, the structures, the system, is out of whack, the system in “filthy rotten.”

The just person in the kin-dom of the Christ is like a tree planted along a stream. The Risen Christ shows us what is possible when we act justly—the tree grows and prospers, puts out new shoots and new leaves which flutter gently in the afternoon breeze. By contrast, the wicked unjust person is like a barren bush in an arid desert—dead brittle branches with no hope of new growth. Let the poetry, the metaphor, of the prophet sink in. Visualize—imagine–a flourishing tree by a stream where the waters of justice are roaring down. The color of justice is vibrant green leaves reaching toward the sun. The sound of justice is roaring water and verdant green leaves rustling in the breeze. The taste of justice is the juicy fresh fruit produced by the tree. Visualize and savor justice. The sounds and color and taste of justice.

Now change gears. Visualize a barren bush in a burning desert. The sound is silence punctuated by the roar of a sand storm. The color is dark brown, brittle bark peeling from the water-starved bush. The bush and the sand are pale and monotone. The taste of the desert is the grit taste of sand in the mouth. The sounds and color and taste of injustice, wickedness.

Like Jeremiah, Jesus paints a picture for us. He tells us a story about justice. He shows us what justice and wickedness look like and the consequences of each. The rich unjust man robed in the finest garments—expensive purple clothing. Daily he feasts on medium rare prime rib and lobster and savors choice wines. He wants for nothing. His palatial house is full of all the toys and gadgets.

Then there is Lazarus, a poor man languishing at the gate of the rich man’s house. Hunger pangs are constricting his swollen belly. His starved eyes are sunken. Dogs are licking his sores.

Jesus goes on to paint the picture of Lazarus enjoying the blessings of heaven. He hungers no longer. Harp melodies surround him. Angels serve him. He is at peace.

Meanwhile, Dives is in a lower place and in great distress. Fire tortures him. He thirsts. He cries out for deliverance which is not forthcoming. Judgment has set in and he will pay the price that the 1% who amass inordinate while ignoring the misery of the Lazaruses of the world must pay.

Fast forward to 2012. I think again of Jeff Dietrich and the Los Angeles Catholic Worker ( Their soup kitchen—the Hippie Kitchen”–feeds over a thousand homeless people three days a week. They have hospice care for the sick and dying in their home. They know that they have to be with the Lazaruses of this world if they are to fully live the Gospel message. They, like the prophets of old, know that they must openly and bravely challenge injustice—the filthy rotten system—which allows the wealthy to prosper while Lazaruses languish at the gates.

If we listen to the prophetic voices of today as we should, then we must realize with great sadness that we too are complicit in the filthy rotten system. Lent is about conversion—change, metanoia, repentance. Metanoia is personal. What does repentance in a consumer society look like for me. What do I hear in the prophet’s call this Lent. Is the prophet calling me to sell all and follow in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth, Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, and Jeff Dietrich? Probably not but maybe. At the least, the prophet is calling me to make space in my life for living the kin-dom and proclaiming the Good News—Jesus the Christ is Lord and deserves my total allegiance. He will empower me through the Spirit to continue to blog about justice and to speak out on the Good News. Something other than the filthy rotten system is possible. I can imagine a world where the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the homeless are sheltered, prisoners are visited, the sick are cared for, and the Year of Jubilee, which eliminates unjust gaps in wealth, is just around the next corner. As I imagine the kin-dom, I can smell the lavender of joy and the savory taste of the finest fruit. I can ask the Risen Christ to open the eyes of my heart to imagine the kin-dom made real and the ears of my heart to hear the prophetic word and do something about it.

Thomas Merton is my anam cara and mentor here. Leaving the fleshpots of the world, he sought the solitude of the monastery at Gethsemani I Kentucky. As he discovered his true self—God–deep in the depths of his being, he also discovered his unity with mankind. He was one with all the people walking at Fourth and Walnut in Louisville. From that point, Merton heard the call of the prophet. He became an engaged mystic. He created and carved out a space for justice seeking. He corresponded with Dorothy Day and published articles in her newspaper, The Catholic Worker. He railed against consumerism and commodification. He realized that technology can get in the way of the authentic life if we let it. He wrote in his diary:

Last time I was in town–we had to drop something at the G.E. plant–Appliance Park. We came at the enormous place from the wrong side and had to drive miles all around it. Surrounded by open fields with nothing whatever in them, not even thistles, marked “Property of General Electric. No Trespassing.” The buildings were huge and go on forever and ever, out in the midst of their own wilderness. Stopped by guards, we signed in at the appropriate gate and promptly got lost in the maze of empty streets between the buildings. Finally came out right. What struck me most was the immense seriousness of the place–as if at last I had found what America takes seriously. Not churches, not libraries. Not even movies, but THIS! This is it. The manufacture of refrigerators, of washing machines, of tape recorders, of light fixtures. This is the real thing. This is America.

He fully understood that the system was filthy rotten and, from is monastic cell, he carved out a place to speak out against, consumerism, war, nuclear weapons, and racism. Merton teaches us to maintain a contemplative stance and practice as we challenge the “filthy rotten system.”

Leave a Reply