Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Luke 11:14-32) transports me back fifty years to the slums of Recife in northeast Brazil. 1963 was a year of hope in Brazilian history. President João Goulart introduced his populist plan for basic reforms, including investments in education to combat illiteracy, progressive tax reforms, extension of voting rights, and land reform. Supporting these efforts was a Catholic bishop, Dom Hélder Câmara, who was bringing together Third World bishops from all over Latin America to form the “Church of the Poor” and address the growing gulf separating the rich and poor worlds. All hopes for a more peaceful and just world were quickly dashed and the populist movement for reform came to a screeching halt when President Goulart was ousted from power in a military coup the following spring. The day after his ouster, Dom Câmara became Archbishop of Recife, where he took up the mantle of populist reform and began preaching for peace and economic justice. Foreshadowing some of the symbolic gestures of Pope Francis, he avoided wearing the archbishop’s sash, traded in the comfortable life of a suburban palace for an humble inner city residence, ate his suppers at the taxi-drivers stall, and hitchhiked instead of riding in the official car. The symbolism was matched by real gestures of reform: he gave away church property to provide settlements for the landless poor, set up a credit union, and established a system of theological education that trained priests alongside laity, preparing both for ministry and justice work among the poorest of the poor. That, along with his consistent criticism of the military coup and its ongoing reign of violent terror, got him in hot water, with both the Brazilian and Vatican governments. One of his assistants was assassinated by a government hit squad, and he was officially censured and became a “non-person” for a decade, with all references to him banned from public view. His voice and authority could not be silenced, though, as he traveled the world and published works continuing the call for non-violent social change and policies that would reinforce God’s option for the poor. He resigned from his post in 1985, the year the military relinquished control of Brazil. Câmara was replaced by a conservative traditionalist who promptly set about to dismantle the work he had acommplished in the Church of the Poor. The Dom, as he was affectionately known by his parishioners, is perhaps most famous today for a quote about the way his critics demonized his work: When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.
When I read through the gospels, it occurs to me that Jesus foreshadowed the leadership of Dom Hélder Câmara. While Jesus was never appointed archbishop, he did carry the mantle of Messiah, and like the Dom he rejected all the visible trappings of his role. No sashes, no palace, no official carriage. He renounced the systems of violence at work in both the Roman occupation and the Temple governance. He called for justice, and he became a voice of hope for the masses. In short, he quickly became seen by the powers that be as a dangerous threat. If he had only been content to busy himself with private charity work, with individual deeds of goodness, no one would have bothered to give him the time of day. If he had only given food to the poor, they would have called him a saint. But he questioned the authorities, he challenged the spirits of domination and oppression that were possessing the country, he gave voice to the muted poor, and for that, he got called their version of a communist. People began their smear campaign, whispering to one another, he must be demonic, in league with Beelzebub, (literally translated Lord of the Flies), the way he has command over these spirits. Jesus was quick to respond, revealing the lack of logic in their argument. He continued his populist speech with a parabolic reference to binding the strong man. The strong man was the image of the system of oppression at work in their land, and Jesus was making the bold claim that he was there to bind the strong man, that the finger of God was at work transforming the systems of violence and greed and oppression, replacing them with the governing values of the kingdom: peace, contentment, liberty, and justice.
Those among us who are most invested in the contemporary versions of the strong man, in our world’s systems of greed and violence, those who have the most to lose when the model prayer “thy kingdom come” is answered and the strong man is bound, are still quick to resort to the smear tactics of Phariseeic powermongers and Brazilian military dictators. As long as you feed the poor through private acts of charity, you’re ok, a veritable saint. But dare to question the systems of injustice and start working on real reign of God reforms: investments in education, access to health care, progressive tax and land reform, giving voice to the muted minorities through voting rights, do all this and be ready for the labels of socialist and communist to fly. Be ready for the demonizing, be ready for associations with the Lord of the Flies. You’ll be in good company. As the centering prayer song encourages, remain in the company of God. And keep on doing the work, with the finger of God guiding you and pointing you toward the justice work being accomplished in the Church of the Poor.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.