A little over a year ago, we received Sara* into our program at the Valley Community Center. She is now 8 years old and in the second grade. An only child, Sara lives with her parents, who are unofficially married, in the home of her paternal grandmother. Their home is in a neighborhood that is cut off from the rest of the city by the railways. Still, the family is fortunate to have electricity and running water.
Just last year Sara’s father was released from prison, where he had served a 3 year sentence for theft. Those three years were very difficult for Sara’s mother, who had never been to school, had no job, and was trying to care for Sara all by herself. Although her parents are now together, they are still unemployed and work odd-jobs when they manage to find them. From time to time, they receive some financial help from a brother who is working abroad. Otherwise, their only consistent income is Sara’s school stipend, which amounts to about $22 per month.
One morning, a few weeks into this school year, Sara told her mother that she wanted to bring some money to the Community Center to give to the poor. Sara’s mother protested, asking, “What? Do you think we are rich?” Sara replied, “Yes, we have a house. There are other people that live on the street.” Since then, all of our second grade children decided to save half of their milk money every day in order to give to those in need.
One day, Bobby, another one of our second graders, took out his money to put in the donation box, while Sara registered the money in the notebook. It seemed that Bobby was struggling to live up to his commitment to be generous. Still, he put his money in the box. Lenutsa noticed this and praised Bobby for his sacrifice. But words were not enough for Bobby. He quickly turned to Lenutsa and asked, “Yes, but what about you?”
The generosity, the sacrifice and the initiative of these children have challenged us. These kids live in dilapidated houses. Some of them are squatting in parts of abandoned buildings. Most have no running water or electricity. And yet they notice others with greater needs than their own. What is more, they want to help them.
Every day on their way from school to the Community Center, the children pass by a family that is living in make-shift tents. The family was evacuated from their home after it was re-privatized and returned to its pre-communist owner. But since the family has nowhere else to go, they have set up camp in an open lot. Last week, the children took their collection of funds and decided together that they would help this family.
As they gathered the money and were preparing to go, Sara’s dad arrived early at the Center to pick her up. As Sara got her backpack and left to go home, she started to sob. Although her father is a pretty tough guy, he stopped to ask her what was wrong, but Sara was crying too hard to talk. So, he asked Lenutsa, and she explained what they had been planning. Sara’s father smiled and said he would wait.
Sara’s tears quickly dried, and the kids walked together to visit the homeless family. Sara was the spokesperson and asked them if there was a way that they could help. The grandmother, with weathered and wrinkled skin, said, “No one has asked us what we need or how they could help us.” Sara and her classmates took their money and bought some bread, cheese and cold-cuts. To protect the dignity of the family, Sara and Lenutsa returned by themselves to discretely give them the groceries.
This is a sample of the lessons of generosity that we are being taught by those living in scarcity. A child challenges the assumption that gift-giving is the privilege of the powerful and that the needy are objects of our philanthropy. Sara and her classmates show us that sacrifice and a shared commitment can become a profound gift that meets desperate needs and touches neglected hearts.
*Names have been changed to protect their identities.
În comunitatea Cuvântul Întrupat din România, am stabilit o paradigmă nouă, adică, o mentalitatea pe care o încercăm să realizăm. Necesită multă strădanie, dar lucrăm ca s-o implementăm. Aceasta este Nouă Paradigmă:
What is the goal of advocacy? We have said it’s “raising awareness.” Others who advocate say “to create change” or “to acquire justice.” I think we are saying, “to create relationships.” This is not “networking” – as I don’t really like the mechanistic language – but it is connecting people. We are a channel that connects the non-poor to the poor; we help create space where the voice of the poor is heard. Here too advocacy implies justice, but we understand justice as a relational category.
Here is a brief sketch of what I think is a good trajectory for the kind of advocacy we’re talking about:
The OT word for redeemer is “Go-el”. We read this word today as “personal Savior”, the One who has purchased us by His blood and given Himself as a ransom for all. That’s fine and good, but it’s bad exegesis to impose contemporary usage on concepts formed in a different historical context.
Go-el meant “kinsmen redeemer”. It means that the next of kin, the closest family member, is obliged to buy back property or to buy out of bond-slavery. See Leviticus 25:25ff. The whole chapter is about the jubilee, the context of redemption, reconciliation and redistribution. See also Lev. 27:13ff.
Justice isn’t just positive for the poor; it is negative for the perpetrator. So, Go-el also means “avenger”. If your family member was murdered, the kinsmen redeemer would kill the murderer. If the murder was not intentional, the kinsmen redeemer would still seek compensation for the family. See Number 35:18ff and Deuteronomy 19:6ff. This is not, then, simply legal justice but relational justice that seeks restoration.
The word “Go-el” is close to the verb “ga-al” which means to liberate, to redeem, to ransom. The Go-el, then, is the one who pleads justice and does justice; he/she is the avenger, arbiter and redeemer. The goal is familial freedom and restoration.
If there is no kinsmen redeemer, then the Lord is the kinsmen redeemer. See Numbers 5:8.
In Job, he calls God his Go-el (19:25). “I know that my redeemer lives and that he shall stand on the latter day upon the earth.” Here there is a hint of resurrection and new creation.
Ruth is the best narrative on kinsmen redeemer because Goaz plays this role and redeems Ruth. Read chapter 4.
God is also called the kinsmen redeemer in Exodus. He hears the cries of His people and redeems them.
We can draw a lot from this and I think it fits well within the frame of awareness, worship and action.
– Family – We cultivate community among the poor, creating familial relationships, and take on the obligation of kin. God also calls the poor family and names Himself as their kinsmen redeemer. If He is our Father, then His family is our family. So, we also are kinsmen redeemers. It’s about being family to one another.
– Justice – We put justice in relational categories not legal ones. Raising awareness means creating relationships. We work towards modeling communities of liberty, restoration, reconciliation, and redistribution. Doing justice might be hard and even ugly, as the cross is hard and ugly, but it beautifies.
– Voice – The vulnerable are not voiceless; their voices are marginalized and silenced. We hear the cries of the poor and respond.
Listen to the audio of Esdrianne Cohen and Rich Nichols sharing the story or read the story below as told by Ben Miller.
Several years ago Lilia Marianno gave the WMF Brazil community simple black rings made from the fruit of a palm tree. With her gift, she shared a story.
She told of a bishop, who in a meeting with the leaders of the Tapirapé people, an indigenous tribe, was awed by their faith and resilience. He asked for their forgiveness for the treatment of their people by his, and more importantly, for forgiveness for the church’s complicity in the oppression of their people over the centuries.
The bishop took off his gold ring, the symbol of his office, and presented it to the chief, saying “We cannot return all the gold we took, or restore all the lives we destroyed. But we long to try and make things right. Take this ring as a symbol of my desire for what the church will be – no longer taking, but giving.” The Tapirapé chief accepted the ring, and reciprocated by removing his black tucum ring and giving it to the bishop as a symbol of their forgiveness and solidarity.
The ring, made from the fruit of the tucum palm tree is a difficult plant to cultivate due to its long, thin, sharp thorns. The rings, made from the fruit’s hard shell that surrounds the seed, are made by hand – typically taking over an hour per ring. The sawing, cleaning, and polishing are done by family members, creating opportunities for work for those who would not normally have it.
The symbolism of the black ring has changed over the years – in the 1800s the ring was a symbol of marriage for the slaves and natives, who could not afford to buy gold. The ring was also a symbol of friendship, and of resistance to the established order – the freedom fighters.
In the words of the bishop, Dom Pedro Casaldáliga: “… This ring is made from a palm tree in the Amazon. It is a sign of alliance, of solidarity with the indigenous peoples and with the lives of the people (the least of these). Anyone who wears this ring, normally, is saying they will accept the weight of this struggle, and also its consequences. Will you accept the challenge of the ring? Many, because of this commitment, were faithful until death …”
Today, the black ring of tucum has come to symbolize solidarity with the poor – a pledge to defend the Gospel on the path with the poverty-stricken – engagement with the poor and excluded of society – defending the poorest – aligning oneself against the rich and powerful and with the poor, marginalized, and forgotten – those who cast their lot with the poor of the earth – those who long for the freedom of Christ to reach into the lowest depths and most broken places, and are willing to sacrifice their lives for Him and the least of these.
Now, many of us in WMF wear these rings as a symbol of our solidarity with the poor. We hope to wear it well and this is the charge and prayer we offer when passing it on to others.
In the year 1215, Pope Innocent III called for a great reform of the Roman Catholic Church – the Fourth Lateran Council. The Pope opened the Council by recalling the Old Testament image of the TAU as taken from the Prophet Ezekiel (9:4):
‘Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of those who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.’ (NRSV)
“We are called to reform our lives, to come into the presence of God as righteous people. God will know us by the sign of the Tau on our foreheads.” (Wycliffe)
Although the Pope was probably recalling the Hebrew text of Ezekiel from a Greek translation of the Bible, the allegorical imagery as taken from the two different sources, was powerfully significant all the same.
In Old Testament times the image of the TAU, as the last letter for the Hebrew alphabet, meant that we were admonished to be faithful to God throughout our lives, until the last. Those who remained faithful were called the “remnant of Israel,” often the poor and simple people who trusted in God even without understanding the present distress or hardship in their lives.
This symbolic imagery, used by the Same Pope who commissioned the Order of Friars Minor a brief five years earlier, was immediately taken to heart by Saint Francis, who was in attendance at the Fourth Lateran Council.
The TAU, shaped like the letter “T” in the Greek alphabet could easily be identified with the cross of Christ and therefore, instead of signing his name, Francis would use the sign of the TAU as his signature and he painted in on the walls and doors of the places where he stayed. It was a further external gesture of his complete immersion in the passion of Christ. Francis honored and embraced the TAU cross as a reminder of his Crucified Lord and of his love for us. He instructed them to not only let that serve as a reminder, but also as an active symbol for them to be a walking crucifix in their lives.
Saint Bonaventure in his Legenda Major 4-9 sees the connection between the text from the prophet Ezekiel and the mission of Francis: “…according to the text of the prophet, in signing the TAU on those men who cry and weep as a sign of their sincere conversion to Christ.”
Another connection of Francis with the sign of the TAU is his service to the lepers and the Brothers of St. Anthony the Hermit who administered the lazzaretos. From the 3rd century, St. Anthony is known for carrying the TAU cross and is often pictured as having a staff surmounted by a TAU and on their habit was sewn the emblem of the TAU. The TAU of the Antonians, servants of the lepers, reminded Francis of that special moment in his conversion when he embraced the leper and he was devoted to that symbol of the “love of Christ, who willed to be considered a leper for our sake” (Fioretti 25).
Today, followers of Francis, as laity or religious, would wear the TAU cross as an exterior sign, a “seal” of their own commitment, a remembrance of the victory of Christ over evil through daily self-sacrificing love. The sign of contradiction has become the sign of hope, a witness of fidelity till the end of our lives.
În anul 1215, Papa Inocent III a convocat o reformă majoră în Biserica Romano-Catolică prin Sinodul Lateran al patrulea. Papa a deschis Sinodul prin reamintirea imaginii TAU din Vechiul Testament, găsită în proorocul Ezechiel 9:4. Papa a spus, „Suntem chemați să ne reformăm viețile, să intrăm în prezența lui Dumenzeu ca fiind oameni neprihăniți. Dumnezeu ne va cunoaște prin semnul TAU care este semnat pe frunțile noastre”.
Ezechiel 9:4 – Domnul i-a zis: „Treci prin mijlocul cetăţii, prin mijlocul Ierusalimului, şi fă un semn pe fruntea oamenilor, cari suspină şi gem din pricina tuturor urîciunilor, cari se săvîrşesc acolo. (traducerea Cornilescu)
Ezechiel 9:4 – Şi i-a zis Domnul: Treci prin mijlocul cetăţii, prin Ierusalim, şi însemnează cu semnul crucii (litera “tau” care în alfabetul vechi grec avea forma unei cruci) pe frunte, pe oamenii care gem şi care plâng din cauza multor ticăloşii care se săvârşesc în mijlocul lui”. (traducerea bisericii ortodoxe române)
Cu toate că Papa folosea textul ebraic al lui Ezechiel pornind de la o traducere greacă a Bibliei, imaginile alegorice luate din cele două surse lingvistice diferite au totuși o semnificație puternică.
În Vechiul Testament imaginea TAU, fiind ultima literă din alfabetul ebraic, ne îndeamnă să fim credincioși lui Dumnezeu de-a lungul vieților noastre, până la sfârșit. Cei care au rămas credincioși erau numiți „rămășița din Israel”, de multe ori fiind oamenii săraci și simpli care s-au încrezut în Dumnezeu chiar atunci când nu înțelegeau strâmtorarea și greutățile prezente în viețile lor. Imaginea această simbolică, folosită de același Papă care a consacrat Ordinul Fraților Minori cu doar
cinci ani mai devreme, a fost preluată imediat de Sfântul Francisc care a participat la al patrulea Sinod Lateran.
TAU-ul, care are forma literei „T” din alfabetul grecesc, a fost identificat ușor cu crucea lui Cristos și, de aceea, de atunci, în loc să dea o semnătură, Francisc folosea semnul TAU-ului ca semnătură. De asemenea, a pictat-o pe pereții și pe ușile locurilor în care a stat. A fost un gest exterior al cufundării lui în pasiunea lui Cristos. Francisc a cinstit și a îmbrățișat crucea TAU ca o amintire a Domnului Răstignit și a dragostei lui pentru noi. Francisc i-a îndemnat nu doar să o ia ca o amintire, ci și ca un simbol activ pentru ca ei să fie un crucifix viu prin viețile lor.
Sfântul Bonaventure, în Legenda Majoră 4-9, vede legătura între textul din Ezechiel și misiunea lui Francisc: „conform textului proorocului, prin semnarea TAU-ului pe cei care plâng și jălesc ca un semn al convertirii lor sincere la Cristos”. O altă legătură cu Francisc și semnul TAU era slujirea celor cu lepră. La lazzaretos, unde slujeau frații Sfântului Anton Pustnicul, Sf. Anton, care în secolul 3 purta crucea TAU, este pictat cu un toiag încoronat cu un TAU și emblema TAU este cusută pe îmbrăcămintea fraților. TAU-ul fraților Antonieni, slujitorii celor cu lepră, îi aminteau lui Francisc de clipa aceea deosebită a convertirii lui când el a îmbrățișat un lepros și s-a devotat acestei imagini a „dragostei lui Cristos, care a voit să fie socotit un lepros de dragul nostru” (Fioretti 25).
Astăzi, urmașii lui Francisc, cei laici și cei religioși, poartă semnul crucii de TAU ca un semn exterior, un „sigiliu” al angajamentului lor, o amintire a biruinței lui Cristos asupra răului prin dragostea care se sacrifică zi de zi. Semnul contradicției a devenit un semn al speranței, o mărturie a fidelității până la sfârșitul vieților noastre.
As I mentioned in the last post, another important revolutionary reform that still affects the church today is the basis for individual rights.
The idea of individual or subjective rights arose from the social conceptions of feudalism. The landholders had ‘rights’ which were coextensive with their ‘dominion’. These were not only individuals. Not only barons, but monastic secular chapters, city corporations and guilds, all with their estates, asserted their several rights and looked to royal and papal government to uphold them.
But the Franciscans subverted the grounding of subjective rights in property. Through their commitment to poverty, the mendicants, though owning nothing, could still eat and drink and claim the necessities of life. They grounded subjective rights on the ‘right of natural necessity’ (Bonaventure) or on a ‘right of use’ (Ockham). Thus, individual rights were claimed by a broader segment of society.
Although rights were dissociated from real property, as O’Donovan points out, these subjective rights still carried proprietary overtones. Gerson invoked the term ‘dominion’ to describe this right of self-preservation, and, indeed, initiated the tradition of conceiving freedom as a property in one’s own body and its powers.
It is not difficult to see the trajectory from the Franciscans to liberation or feminist theologies. But even to these post-modern movements, Francis has a prophetic witness as Francis based his subjective right in God’s affirmation of his person, body and power. His path or relinquishment and renunciation for the sake of others challenges any claim to rights for oneself without the other.
The Porziuncula is a good symbol of Francis’ revolutionary impact on the church – though the word “revolutionary” might not be the most precise. Contrary to revolutions that change regimes or constitutions, Francis led a revolution of the identity and essence of the church. And because this revolution happened in and with the church, it may be better called a “reform.” Two important revolutionary reforms that still affect the church today are the basis for authority and the basis for individual rights.
Drawing on Augustinian thought about the ‘two cities’ and on the Aristotelian influence regarding the ‘nature-grace’ duality, medieval theologians spoke of two distinct realms that wield authority: the sacral (spiritual) and the political (secular). The church held that spiritual authority (for example, theories and claims to justice) had to have priority over secular authority (for example, the application of justice).
In Francis’ day, the basis of authority for both realms was property. In the sacral realm, the Pope, it was claimed, owned all property, not ‘in particular’ but ‘universally’; we might say, all property rights that others exercised were grounded in his authority. The chain of equivalences that legitimized authority went like this: property meant power; power meant jurisdiction; jurisdiction meant authority; and authority meant a determinative role for the church in shaping society under the law of Christ (O’Donovan, The Desire of Nations, 206).
Franciscan friars confronted Papal authority with the possibility of absolute poverty. This provoked some intense questioning of what it meant to possess ‘spiritual authority’. The threat which the Franciscans posed to current doctrines of the papacy was far more serious than that vague discomfort which poverty always poses to wealth. By vowing to poverty, Francis subverted the traditional claims to authority, which risked unraveling the whole garment of Christian society.
Out of the long controversy came an attempt to articulate a different concept of spiritual authority, one based on the authority of the word. This was the work of the imperialist theologians who took up the Franciscans’ cause. Their role was, of course, ambiguous, serving at the same time the church’s interest in recovering a truly spiritual authority and the secular rulers’ interest in having an uncontested field. Their most important contribution lay in the principle that a word of Gospel truth has its own distinct authority, different from the authority of threat or command (O’Donovan, The Desire of Nations, 207). In this, it is easy to identify Francis’ influence on the Reformation.
Of course, today the authority of the word is debated and contested. Retreating to modern propositional stances and risking fideism, the church attempts to root its authority in the infallibility word of the Pope (Roman Catholic), the inerrant word of the Bible (Protestant) or the infallible word of Tradition (Eastern Orthodox). And those outside the church attempt to root authority in the doubting subject (Descartes) or “erase” any claim to authority altogether (Derrida). Francis points to a different way. In his commitment to absolute poverty, he detaches intrinsic authority from extrinsic power. He grounds authority in love, dependence and brotherhood rather than domination, coercion and prestige. Authority is offered, not imposed. It speaks to Augustine’s notion of authority as “trustworthy.”
Ultimately, the authority promoted by Francis was not rooted in word but in God, God who communicates to humanity not only in human language but also in human flesh. He who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:6-11).
Francis grasped that this high authority, as Jesus shows us, is revealed at the bottom. Following this authority, Francis sold his possessions, begged his bread, and, with the stigmata on his hands and feet, he died naked on the ground at the Porziuncula.
There are some icons that are, paradoxically, iconoclastic. This is most obvious in the cross. It is also true of the Porziuncula. The Porziuncula was among those churches that Francis rebuilt after he heard the Lord speak to him before the San Damiano crucifix: “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” We know that Francis initially understood this as a commission to buy bricks and to restore the churches in disrepair. But later he realized this as a call to restore the spirituality of the church. Still, there is something important and prophetic in Francis’ selling his father’s wealth in order to buy bricks and mortar so that he could renovate church buildings.
When we think about building churches, we may think of structures large enough to hold the inhabitants of a parish or having enough room for the congregation to grow. In the last few decades, one of the dominant models of church growth is the mega-church. This large, programmed model was not Francis’ – although he had a mega impact on the church and the surrounding cultures. The Porziuncula is tiny. It is only 40 feet long by 13 feet wide by 18 feet high. There is room for 20 to sit and maybe 10 to stand before the altar. This is the place where Francis and the first friars lived, prayed and died. This small, insignificant chapel that stands in the shadow of Assisi was the place where this amazing and reviving movement began.
Today, however, the Porziuncula is the center piece of a large ornate church. In the midst of marble and gold, the Porziuncula is an obstruction. The view of the altar is impeded by the Porziuncula for those sitting in the back pews. Its walls of old rock and its faded icons stand in contrast to the shine of the church that encases it. And so the Porziuncula, almost 1000 years later, continues to speak prophetically and powerfully about who God is and how God works in a world and even in a church that is entangled by greed, power and grandiosity.
Although the Porziuncula speaks against the church when it succumbs to these entanglements, it also speaks of Francis’ commitment to follow God in and with the church. He never rejected the church; rather, he only proceeded in ministry in as much as he had the blessing of the church.
The Porziuncula is an iconoclastic icon. It is an image that subverts attachment to images. It is an attraction that contradicts our notions of attractive. It invites the church to worship through renunciation and sacrifice, and yet it is inviting.