“You who are young, be happy while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 11:9a, NIV). I read that text in my class; the students rejoiced at the sacred author’s words. I also went on to read to my students some of the lyrics from “Time,” a song by Pink Floyd, on the album The Dark Side of the Moon (1973). For instance, David Gilmour and Richard Wright write,
Here are four false ideas, which your brain may send to your mind for consideration. First, “You are a loser!” Now, if anything can attack a person’s self-esteem, giving him or her an inferiority complex, it is believing that error! Of course, you may, at times, perhaps many times, lose. But losing is not you; so it does not define you. Rather, losing is an event, something that happens to you.
Win or lose, you are still somebody; still someone. Distinguish, then, your person, your inner life of being a self, from the events in your outer life; the things that happen to you. You are a person, not a loser.
Second, “You are worthless.” Simply reply to yourself, “I am not worthless; rather, the world is ‘worth’ — ‘less’ without me. That is how vital, how absolutely important, I am to life.”
Third, if your brain sends you the message, “You are nothing,” reply to that false idea, rejecting it as follows: “Indeed, I am ‘no’ — ‘thing,’ because I am someone, not something. I am a subject, not an object. I am a person!”
Fourth, If your brain ever says to you, “You are nobody,” reply to the message, “Since I have a body, I am somebody. I am, then, ‘weighty,’ significant or impressive. I matter as a human person, even if I may not matter to someone else.”
The human brain is always sending messages to the human mind. Not all of the messages are true. That is why the mind must be alert, responding to or refuting the errors a person’s brain sends to him or her.
Blessed to be a Blessing
The Lord says to Abram, “I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2b, NIV). That is precisely the point of life: The reason for receiving a blessing is to be a blessing to others. To paraphrase Viktor Frankl, the essence of human existence is self-transcendence, which is moving out of oneself to others, specifically, to help them. Life, then, is about both receiving and giving to others.
Men and women, then, are blessed or fortunate to help those who are less fortunate. Therefore, people’s talents and blessings are not only for themselves but also to help others. One reason America is in an economic crisis is many people want the blessings of life without being a blessing to others.
Privileged to Help the Underprivileged
An economic reality, a fact of life, is that some people are born into fortunate circumstances, being privileged; while others are born into unfortunate conditions, being underprivileged. There is nothing wrong with being privileged, that is, having wealth and nice possessions. However, as they enjoy their privileges, the privileged should consider it a “privilege” to help the underprivileged.
The privileged need the underprivileged; conversely, the underprivileged need the privileged. They need each other to become more fully human, that is, to lead a life that is truly befitting of human dignity. Squandering wealth, just as surely as living in abject poverty, is an indignity and, therefore, not worthy of the human person.
Jacob Marley: An Economic Personalist
In a scene of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, the ghost or spirit of Jacob Marley teaches Ebeneezer Scrooge, a wealthy businessman, a principle of personalism in economics, namely, that the accruing of wealth is not the most important aspect of business. Rather, the primary object of business, the ultimate goal of a company or corporation, its raison d’ tre or “reason for existence,” is the good of human persons. It is, in other words, directed toward the general welfare of human beings.
Ebeneezer Scrooge: A Radical, Economic Individualist
Before Ebeneezer Scrooge was visited by three ghosts, he was a radical, economic individualist, caring about making money for himself alone. He had no concern for increasing the income of his own employee (Bob Cratchit); nor did he care about the plight of the poor or underprivileged. He wanted, in his words, “to be left alone,” because he desired to keep his wealth all to himself. He sacrificed everything, including human relationships, for the sake of money and wealth.
The Moral Lessons of “Charity, Mercy, Forbearance, and Benevolence”
“Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business. Charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.”
Business, then, is directed toward the common good of human beings. After making a profit, a business is meant to give back to the community in the good works of “Charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence.” Therefore, a business exists to serve people and if it does not do that, then it is not a good business, regardless of how high its profits are.
Meeting the Needs of Others
Of course, having lots of money is not wrong. However, after men and women become wealthy and take good care of themselves and their families, then the next concern should be: What about meeting the needs of others? Radical, economic individualists would not ask that question. In the words of Scrooge,
“It’s not my business … It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly.”
Radical, economic individualists are concerned about accruing wealth for themselves and for those who don’t have it, “tough luck.” In an economy governed by self-centeredness and greed, the poor are, as it were, “thrown by the wayside.” If they die, to quote Scrooge, they will “decrease the surplus population.” That, of course, was what he believed until he was visited by three ghosts and had a “conversion,” a change heart and mind, resulting in a change of life, realizing that he must use his wealth to help those in need. As he said,
“I am not the man I was … I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
Thus, Scrooge prayed, thanking God and the moral lessons of Christmas (e.g., caring for others; showing concern for those in need and helping them; rejecting indifference, the love of money, greed and self-centeredness) for changing his life, saying,
“Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Jacob; on my knees!”
Due to the Coronavirus, there is widespread unemployment and hunger in America, with people not being able to pay their monthly expenses. Such factors “weigh” heavily on the human psyche, resulting in depression, anxiety, worry, despair and even suicide. The “conversion” that Scrooge had is sorely needed today in America by people who have the financial means to help others, so that they can care for themselves and their families, providing for their basic necessities as human beings, such as food, clothing and shelter. Come, O Spirits, come; “touch the hearts” of those with financial means to help others without means on Christmas. Amen.
Jesus of Nazareth’s Approach to Human Hunger
Feeding the hungry is about human beings helping other human beings with bodily needs. Today’s euphemism for it is “food insecurity,” which conceals the fact that during the Coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans are going hungry and cannot provide for their basic necessities.
Jesus, the Founder of the Christianity, while establishing an other-worldly religion of salvation, of eternal life with God in heaven, emphasizing the spiritual values of the kingdom of heaven, was also deeply concerned about moral issues pertaining to the earth, to the world humans now inhabit. In particular, Jesus was concerned about meeting the material or bodily needs of human beings, such as hunger.
Jesus’ Sacramental Approach to the Human Body
Jesus was sacramental in his approach to the human body. In other words, the outward human being makes contact with the inward human. For example, after Jesus healed a man, Jesus asked the religious leaders, “why are you angry with me for healing a man’s whole body on the Sabbath?” (John 7:23b, NIV). Jesus was concerned about a “man’s whole body.” The Greek may also be translated the “entire man” (NASB). For Jesus, body and soul form one human being, a whole person. He had compassion on people who had “nothing to eat,” feeding them (cf. Mark 8:1-9a, NIV). In feeding them, Jesus was doing “spiritual work,” for the way to a person’s soul is through his or her body.
Jesus’ Spiritual Presence in the Hungry or Needy
Jesus also taught that somehow, that is, spiritually or mystically, he is present in men, women and children that are hungry, in need of food, shelter and clothing, saying, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40, 45, NIV). The least of the brothers and sisters of Jesus are those persons who are vulnerable. They are the socially, psychologically or economically disadvantaged, such as the unemployed, the sick, the poor, the mentally and physically disabled. In Homily 50 on the Gospel of Matthew, St. John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople, shocked his people, appealing to Matthew 25:31-46, saying,
“Do you wish to honor Christ’s body? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not honor him on the inside [of the building] with silk garments and neglect him outside, where he is perishing from being cold and naked. For he who said, ‘This is my body’ (Matthew 26:28), … also said, ‘I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat’ (Matthew 25:42) and ‘Whatever you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me’ (Matthew 25:40). … What good is it if the [Eucharistic] table is overloaded with golden chalices, when your brother is dying of hunger? … Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left, you may adorn the altar as well.”
Many of Chrysostom’s own people, including his wealthy members, were offended by his sermons on poverty. They wanted to “get rid of him” and, eventually, they did, resulting in his exile and death. Like Chrysostom, Mother Teresa, now St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, cared for the hungry and homeless, referring to Matthew 25:31-46, calling them “Christ in a most distressing disguise.”
Faith’s Bearing on Human Concerns
Faith is not merely abstract or theoretical, believing all the right Christian doctrines to be saved. That would make faith purely passive, existing only inside a person’s head. Faith is also about life, living in the world in which human beings suffer, die and are in want of the basic necessities of life. James, an author of the New Testament, teaches that giving assent or saying “yes” to doctrinal truths is much easier than living those truths, putting them into practice. Faith, then, in order for it to be true Christian faith, is active in the world, doing good works; one of which is meeting the bodily needs of other human beings, such as feeding the hungry. In the words of Scripture,
“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:15-17, NIV).
The Human Issue of Feeding the Hungry
Feeding the hungry, far from discouraging work, encourages them to work. In fact, St. Paul tells believers that they “must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need” (Ephesians 4:28b, NIV). It is precisely, then, those who work that can “share with those in need.” Nor does Paul discourage feeding the hungry in his oft-quoted text, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (II Thessalonians 3:10b, NKJV), because there is a crucial moral difference between “will not” and “cannot” work. That is to say, disability, misfortune or widespread unemployment may prevent men and women from finding employment to support themselves and their families. In such circumstances, they may need help from other human beings of goodwill.
Jesus does not teach his followers to be so heavenly-minded, so other-worldly, that they despise truly human values or expressions of being human, such as compassion or sympathy, empathy, kindness to others, concern for them, helping them and selfless acts of service to the community. All such values are expressions of human love. Of course, Jesus builds on human love, elevating it, but Jesus never rejects what is truly human. And surely it is human, worthy of human beings, to care about people who are struggling economically, especially during a pandemic.
Feeding the hungry, then, is neither a liberal nor conservative issue; it is neither a Democrat nor Republican issue; nor is it socialism. Rather, feeding the hungry is a human issue and it is sanctioned by Sacred Scripture, especially by Jesus himself. That is why people of faith should care about feeding the hungry and so many other human issues, concerns pertaining to this world, including all the “corporal [bodily] works of mercy,“ keeping in mind the words of St. John of the Cross, “In the evening of our life, we will be judged on our love.”
The Origin of Intolerance: Fear of Different Individuals, Groups or Nations
It is usually normal for an organization, religion or government to be united in its purposes and ideals. However, uniformity (rather than unity) can be psychologically unhealthy, even dangerous, because it breeds intolerance, even fear, of those who are different. For example, in Germany during World War II, the Nazis demanded uniformity in their concept of German nationalism, racial superiority and political policies of extermination of inferior races. In other words, the Nazis did not tolerate dissent and opposition from Jewish and Polish people, even from Germans themselves.
In the Foreword of one of Viktor Frankl’s books, Swanee Hunt, formerly the United States Ambassador to Austria, said that the Nazi concentration camps were “created to annihilate those who were different.”1 Frankl suffered in the concentration camps, because he was different. His father, mother, brother and wife died, because they, too, were different.
False Tolerance: To Tolerate the Intolerable
There are true and false kinds of tolerance. First, the false kind is the simplistic notion of “anything goes.” That idea is wrong, because, for example, even in a pluralistic nation, such as the United States, people have a right to believe, say and live the way they want within the limits of reason. There are, in fact, many behaviors which a rational person should not tolerate. For instance, a sensible or reasonable person must not tolerate murder, pedophilia, rape, physical abuse and child abuse.
Not all ideas are tolerable, even in a pluralistic society. For example, “I am going to kill you;” “Abortion doctors should die;” “I am going to kill myself” and “Death to America” are intolerable statements and ideas. A person with common sense (which is becoming increasingly uncommon) will resist such statements by refuting or arguing against them. If that is not enough, then a person can call the appropriate legal authorities to intervene against threats to others, national security and oneself.
True Tolerance: To Tolerate the Tolerable
Second, true tolerance tolerates tolerable ideas and behavior. Frankl rightly observes,
“Tolerance does not mean that one accepts the belief of the other; but it does mean that one respects him as a human being, with the right and freedom of choosing his own way of believing and living.”2
That is to say, tolerance does not mean all ideas are equally true. Nor does it mean a person is wrong for believing that he or she is right. For example, in being tolerant of another person’s idea, that does not mean I give up my understanding of the truth. It only means that I cannot force others to accept what I believe to be true. Nor can I make others live the way I do, even if I understand that they are morally wrong.
Frankl teaches that the religious person, above all others, should actually be tolerant, because he or she believes that God created human beings with free-will, which involves “the possibility of saying no, for instance, by deliberately refusing to accept any religious … [world view].”3
A religious person, for instance, cannot always agree with the religious beliefs of others. Nevertheless, it is wrong for that person to attack verbally or physically those who differ from him or her. A religious person, then, believing that he or she is right and others are wrong, must allow them to have their own views.
Tolerance Presupposes Respect for the Dignity of the Human Person
Tolerance is really about respect for the dignity of the human person, that is, his or her autonomy and self-determination. In other words, a person should be able to direct his or her own life, which is autonomy, and choose his or her own way of thinking and living, which is self-determination. In tolerance, then, one person gives another the “space” to be herself or herself, to think his or her own way and live his or her own life.
Therefore, tolerance is not an absolute moral value. In other words, there are limits to tolerance. It is, of course, a virtue. However, a person who tolerates every idea and behavior has a weakness of spirit, failing to resist what is false or wrong or both.
1. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning (New York, N.Y.: Insight Books/ Plenum Press, 1997), p. 10.
2. ———-, Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1967), p. 85, footnote 13.
3. ———-, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning, op. cit., p. 62.
Kierkegaard’s Notion of the Self
Soren Kiegkegaard (1813 – 1855) has a great deal to teach university students about being themselves and, especially, resisting peer pressure. For Kierkegaard, every human being is meant “to be a self;”1 that is, to be spirit or a self-conscious, free and responsible person. 2
The Crowd in the Proper Sense
Of course, it is not wrong to belong to a group or worthwhile organization. In fact, psychologically speaking, the desire to belong is normal, because human beings, by nature, are social creatures, needing to connect with and by accepted by others. A group, then, is the answer to a human being’s natural need to belong to others.
Peer Pressure: The Crowd in the Improper Sense
However, when an individual within a group goes astray, even when the group itself goes astray, engaging in wrong kinds of behavior, then the “I,” the true self, must emerge, refusing to go along with the crowd.
For Kierkegaard, one of the important aims of being human, that is, a person, is “to be that self one truly is.”3 However, to go along with others when they are wrong, to succumb to the “weight” of being pressured by them, is to be untrue to oneself. The usual justification for giving in to peer pressure is “Everyone is doing it.” For example, “Everyone I know is a doing drugs; so why shouldn’t I?” Again, “Everyone close to me has lost his or her virginity; so why shouldn’t I?” Still again, “Everyone I hang around with is smoking; so why can’t I?” However, the Kierkegaardian response to such reasoning is
“‘I am not ‘everyone.’4 Rather, I am someone; that is to say, a particular, concrete, here-and-now, unique person. Therefore, do not expect me to conform to what everyone is doing.”
To Stand out from the Crowd
It takes, then, an authentic self to resist peer pressure. However, it is emotionally painful, because what a human being really wants and needs is to be accepted by others. That is why Kierkegaard laments,
“This I know and I also know what it has cost, what I have suffered, which [is] …: I was never like the others. Ah, of all the torments in youthful days, the most dreadful, the most intense: not to be like the others.”5
Therefore, a self needs — in the existential sense of the term — to exist (from the Latin existere), meaning to “stand out” or “stand forth.” To exist, then, as an authentic self, a person, is to be outstanding. That is why, sometimes, a human being is not meant to fit in with others but to stand out from them. In doing so, he or she becomes a true self, real person.
1. C. Stephen Evans, “Kierkegaard, Soren Aabye,” in Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology, ed. David G. Benner (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Book House, 1985), p. 622.
3. Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1941), p. 29. Italics are mine.
4. C. Stephen Evans, Faith Beyond Reason: A Kierkegaardian Account (Grand Rapids, MI.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), p. 121.
5. Soren Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 344.
We human beings are paradoxes, bundles of contradictions, full of inconsistencies. We humans have mysterious inner selves; we have the inner, unseen faculty of choice, the invisible potential, the inner capacity, of choosing to do good or evil to other human beings.
We can be so wonderful,
yet we can be horrible,
evil beyond all words.
We can be so gentle,
yet we have the inner capacity to be violent,
destructive of all that is good and right and holy.
We can be so loving,
yet we can be hateful,
choosing to destroy the reputation of others,
even murdering the innocent,
even killing millions of innocent, defenseless people.
We can be so kind,
yet we have the inner potential to be cruel,
the most cruel animals on earth.
We can be so compassionate,
yet we can be unfeeling,
like a stone, piece of wood or clod of dirt.
We can be so passionate about correcting injustice,
determined to see that right be done and wrong be opposed and overthrown,
yet we have the capacity to be indifferent to the suffering and murder of innocent human beings.
We can be so beautiful,
yet we can be ugly,
unrecognizable as human beings.
We can ascend to the life of a “saint,”
yet we can descend to the behavior of a “demon,”
a creature from out of “hell.”
We humans can transcend or rise above ourselves in acts of unselfish love for and service of others; yet we have the capacity to sink below ourselves, acting in ways which are unworthy of the dignity of human persons. Of the two options, of doing good or evil, we humans choose which one shall be ours. That choice is always left up to us – to be living wonders or living nightmares. We choose what we are and shall be!
Although the Book of Amos, a book of the Jewish Scriptures, was written thousands of years ago (ca. 760 B.C.E.), the words of the Jewish prophet, “the prophet of social justice,” apply to any government in which its officials or leaders live lavishly, while ignoring their own people as they struggle economically, living in poverty.
Amos is deeply concerned about a nation’s callous disregard for “the needy” (Amos 2:6, NIV), “the poor” and “the oppressed” (Amos 2:7, NIV). For example, Amos “speaks truth to power,” criticizing those who hold positions in government, the politicians or political leaders of his day, because they neglect the economically vulnerable and underprivileged, saying,
“Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria, you notable men of the foremost nation, to whom the people of Israel come! You lie on beds adorned with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph” (Amos 6:1, 4-6, NIV).
In other words, the political officials had nice homes (cf. 6:11) and placed in them the finest furniture that money could buy (cf. 6:4). They entertained guests with lavish dinners (cf. 6:4), music (cf. 6:5) and fine wines (cf. 6:6). The leaders were, in other words, “at ease in Zion” (6:1, ESV).
For Amos, religion is not to be confined to a temple (or church) but must be practiced in society. Religion, then, must be profane, which literally means “outside the temple.” That is to say, Amos teaches that religion applies to life, to personal and social ethics, to oneself and others. Far from shying away from government activity, because it pertains to the so-called “secular sphere of life,” or remaining neutral about the leaders of a government, for Amos (and Isaiah), religion focuses on human issues, on treating human beings justly and meeting the needs of the economically disadvantaged.
On 28 August 1963, in his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King, Jr. calls the government’s attention to the injustices suffered by African Americans, saying,
“We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”
Then King goes on to quote the Hebrew prophet Amos, with the preface
“we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream’” (Amos 5:24, ASV).
Dr. King, then, applies the Bible to the secular or civil issue of social justice.
Unfortunately, there are times in which the only way to wake up complacent leaders of a government, moving them out of their comfort zone, is to shock them. That is precisely what the prophet Amos does. He denounces them, because they are living in “their comfortable little worlds” and do not want to be disturbed by all the poverty and suffering surrounding them. Amos is an example for today’s “prophets” and “prophetesses,” for bold and courageous men and women to “speak truth to power” to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”
Faith and hope are existential terms and subjective powers, issuing from a person’s inner life, his or her choices in responding to life’s adversities. That is to say, faith and hope are not only directed to an afterlife but also to living in the here-and-now, this life. In particular, faith and hope are forms of suicide prevention, because they are necessary for human survival, for staying alive, for choosing to live rather than die, especially during the most inconceivable conditions of suffering, such as being in the concentration camp at Auschwitz.
In Night, the autobiographical book of Elie Wiesel’s experiences in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II, Wiesel remembered the most humane words which were spoken by a Polish man to the Jewish men upon their arrival at Auschwitz:
“Comrades, you are now in the concentration camp Auschwitz. Ahead of you lies a long road paved with suffering. Don’t lose hope. You have already eluded the worst danger: the selection. Therefore, muster your strength and keep your faith. We shall see the day of liberation. Have faith in life, a thousand times faith. By driving out despair, you will move away from death.”
Faith and hope, of course, do not constitute some kind of rational or logical argument, necessarily proving that the future will be better. However, without faith and hope, suffering can become intolerable, leading a person to despair, even suicidal ideation or suicide itself. It is, then, psychologically speaking, better to have faith in the future than to give up on life. Similarly, it is better to hope, hoping even again hope, than to live in a state of despair.