by Gerry McCarthy
Several months ago I attended a social gathering at a friend’s home. After the obligatory questions about our livelihoods were addressed, the conversation turned to our children.
The burning issue for one couple centered on their children’s plans for university. To my surprise, one parent expressed a deep reluctance to offer any advice to their children. The reason was clear: they were afraid to steer them into something which might not be lucrative.
Nowhere in the discussion was the issue of meaningful work, or the common good raised. Instead, the terrifying fear of people making under six figures a year hovered in the air like a black cloud.
I thought of this discussion recently when I noticed an item in the Catholic New Times about Cesar Chavez. The report explained that the founder of the United Farm Workers never earned more than $5,000 a year. But when Chavez died in 1993, “His funeral was the largest of any labour leader in U.S. history. People came in caravans from Florida to California to pay their respects to a man whose strength lay in his simplicity. Cardinal Roger Mahony who celebrated the funeral Mass, called Chavez "a special prophet for the world’s farm workers."
We have a breathtaking preoccupation with money in our culture today. This isn’t news, but the preoccupation appears to be intensifying. As Jean Bethke Elshtain writes in Who Are We? Critical Reflections and Hopeful Possibilities, “Our collective well-being is measured by how the Dow Jones has done on a particular day.”
This preoccupation with money is reflected in the news media frequently. For example, a recent article in Toronto Star reported on the “$20 million club” in Hollywood. This “club” consists of actors like Jim Carrey and Jack Nicholson who now receive $20 million a movie. Then there’s Martha Stewart. The New Yorker magazine pegs her wealth at 650 million. Finally, we have Ken Thomson. “Canada’s richest man,” according to The Toronto Star, has a personal fortune estimated at 23 billion.
This isn’t to suggest money isn’t important. We need resources. And we need to know how to handle financial matters. But increasingly our culture values little else but money.
Not too long ago, a social justice activist asked me about The Social Edge. “Can you make any money at that?” she inquired. I murmured something about surviving. Instead, I should have quoted the late Irving Howe who remarked that, when it comes to social justice, “the pay is lousy but it’s steady work.”
It’s hard to do brave things in a money-obsessed culture. But we must try. Particularly those on the verge of making career choices as they leave school.
I know there are students prepared to make brave career moves. I’ve met some. But whether they want to make documentaries, work with the poor, or teach in the Third World they’ll need our support, guidance, and mentoring. Otherwise the culture will corrode their idealism.
I realize it’s difficult to talk about money this way. More people are working harder just to keep the wolf from the door today. Working for social justice may seem like a luxury item. But our Christian faith should give us courage to stand up to the toxic idea that we can’t change the world.
In his book Conversation: How Talk Can Change the World, historian Theodore Zeldin writes: “The most rewarding discovery I have made in my study of history has been about the way people who do not think of themselves as brave forget their reticence, their hesitations and do brave things.” He adds that: “And since so many of those who have power and authority are failing to move the mountains on our behalf, let us see what we can do ourselves, using our own brains and our own tongues.”
When we trust in Christ’s love we can do brave things. But that means conflicting with our culture. As Benedictine Sr. Christine Vladimiroff writes in Spiritual Questions for the Twenty-First Century, “It is remembering the prophetic call to seek justice that has the capacity to move a generation, not only to feed the hungry, but also to dismantle the structures of greed that keep children malnourished. The prophetic word is a conflictive word. It will put us at odds with whatever is not the reign of God in this new century. Those of us who have grown in faith must model the way and bring the vision to the young.”
Gerry McCarthy is Editor of The Social Edge.