First World Problems

September 9, 2018

I was present for the Royal Wedding earlier this year. Because of the miracle of television – and, quite frankly, the miracle of DVR – I had the best seats in the cathedral to see Prince Harry and Megan exchange their vows and unite in Holy Matrimony. I heard the lovely cello music and gospel choir in glorious stereo surround sound. It was sublime.

 

Through the magic of the Internet, I have all of the accumulated knowledge of the human race available to me by simply lifting my cell phone and asking some woman named Siri how many times has Paul Simon been married, and she will present me with the answer (it’s three, by the way).

 

We follow celebrities who are famous simply because we say they are, and they enjoy lives that we only dream of. We watch HGTV shows about buying and renovating homes that are impractical for first-time buyers, or travel shows about vacationing in the Maldives on a private island, knowing that there are people in the world who do that sort of thing.

 

We are privileged – some more than others, but we are privileged.

 

Throughout the last century, humanity has progressed exponentially. We can now fly around the world, communicate instantly with friends – no matter where they are – get coffee whenever and wherever we want – with whatever flavor we want – and fresh, clean water gushes from our kitchen faucets most of the time.

 

These things should be celebrated and relished. They are tributes to the ingenuity of the human mind. However, from our Christian perspective, they are not what define us. We cannot point to a “First World” or “Third World,” without the prick of conscience that those divisions exist in the first place. This has always been the Christian position.

 

St. James, writing to one of the first Christian communities, saw the dangers of such divisions and privileges for the Body of Christ. He tells us that if we make distinctions among themselves based on privileges, status, wealth, or any other outward difference, then we become judges with evil designs. His implication is that this is not the heart or mind of Christ – that Christians are not to be people who sit in judgment, but to be “hearers” and “doers” of the Word. The “evil designs [or “thoughts”]” are that a person is “worth” cultivating and valuing based on what they have to offer.

 

However, God does not choose based on these worldly appearances. Instead, as James says, God chooses those who are poor in the worldto be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him. What does this mean for me?

 

It means that all my privileges – like those I pointed to earlier – are simply “accidents” of my being born here and now. They do not touch on my human dignity, and they do not make me any better than anyone else. To say or to believe that they do is not only foolish, it is sinful. Human progress will continue; however, this progress cannot make us any better in God’s eyes, nor can it separate us from others in the Body of Christ.

 

To paraphrase one of my heroes: “Human progress isn’t measured by industry. It’s measured by the value you place on a life. An unimportant life. A life without privilege. The baby in the womb, the criminal in prison, the sick and dying in a nursing home, the inner-city youth struggling to get by, the refugee fleeing violence for our safe nation, those people’s value is your value. That’s what defines an age, that’s… what defines a species.” 

 

We have a long way to go – even in the Church Herself. When powerful men believe that their reputation or the image of an institution is more important than the safety of innocent children or that justice is a matter of what they define it to be, then we are making distinctions among ourselves and becoming judges with evil designs. It was true for James in the first century, it is true today, and it will be true forever. God does not want this.

 

Jesus Christ is the one who opens our eyes to see the will of God, who opens our ears to hear His just Word, and who opens our mouths to speak plainly of the love that we owe everyone. As we receive this Eucharist, may we, like that healed man in the gospel, continue to proclaim God’s justice and love to our world.

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