Thursday, May 26, 2016

Homily for the Second Day of Parish Novena 2016: "Feeding the Hungry, Giving Drink to the Thirsty, Clothing the Naked"

Preacher: Fr Simon Yong SJ
If you are here hoping for a litany of “how” you can perform the Corporal Acts of Mercy, you might be disappointed. Yesterday we focused on accompaniment as a sacramental expression of a spiritual act of mercy—consoling the sorrowful and comforting the afflicted. Today flying in our face is the concrete crisis of unequal distribution of food, limited access to healthcare and inadequate shelter.

Ever since Ethiopia and those of us old enough to recall 1984 “Do they know it’s Christmas?” and 1985 “We are the World”, we have in a way grown inured or are indifferent to the reality of world hunger, poor health and human displacement. A close analogy is to imagine travelling to work every day and taking the same road. The repetitive routine can have a dull and dumbing effect on us. It means that we pass by the same scenery so much that it ceases to be part of the foreground but instead, it fades unnoticed into the background.

Pope Francis, like many Jesuits, is trying to highlight this humanitarian crisis through his pastoral and even liturgical actions. One of the first things he did as Pope was to visit Lampedusa, a barren crop of an Italian island housing refugees trapped in a so-called no-man’s land and liturgically, he washed the feet of Muslim, Christian and Hindu migrants to highlight the plight of international homelessness.

In a world that believes in itself and is convinced of its capabilities, the headaches of hunger, health and homelessness have sparked a crisis of faith. This crisis is as old as the Epicurean pickle (no pun intended) or dilemma and it is connected to the relationship between a good God and the evil of suffering. Is God willing to prevent evil (or suffering) but He is not able to? Then He must be impotent. Or is He able to but unwilling? Then He must be a malevolent God. But, if He is able and willing, then where does evil or suffering come from? The overwhelming presence of evil and suffering and the apparent absence of God that precipitated this crisis of faith has sent us in many directions.

Before I continue, recall earlier that I stated that I was not interested in “listing” how to feed the poor, clothe the naked and house the homeless. I am interested in analysing the philosophical assumptions that prompts the different approaches to the humanitarian crisis and also to situate where our corporal acts of mercy should spring from.

One of the directions taken has been to cry wolf. How so? We have breached the 7 billion mark and we are constantly fed this alarming drivel that the world is over-populated. Our children are socialised into believing that the human family is over-taxing the world’s resources. A simple fact, probably unknown to many, is that the Pomfret Fish is swimming in the way of the Dodo birds. We have depleted the stock so much that eating an Ikan Bawal is truly a luxurious taste of extinction.

But, the question here that is never asked is our eating habits. Our appetite for the exotic is insatiable. Also, broadly put, our lifestyle in general has taken a more sedentary pace. As they say: Sitting is the new smoking. We need fewer calories but we continue to consume more calories than we need. In about two weeks’ time, the senseless gorging will begin when the Buka Puasa buffets descend on us.

When we say the world is over-populated, what is unsaid is that there is not enough and it begs the question if God were stupid for having created such a lousy world or is it because nobody asks about how we eat and more than that, where all our excess food goes to. The amount of wastage in our food industry is staggering. Just ask what happens to left-over whenever we have a function in Church.

Another path we have taken is the technological turn. Not enough food? Never mind. Let us turn to technology. This is good and laudable because made in the image and likeness of God, our intelligence affords the use of technology in problem solving. But, then again, if we do not challenge our level of consumption, then our use of technology merely masks an immoral maintenance of an unconverted lifestyle. Let me give two examples:

Biodegradable plastic bags for many people just means that one can use more because they are biodegradable. Or again, the increased usage of antibiotics and steroids in our animal feeds or pesticides on our fruits and vegetables may create adequate supplies for the present but at the same time, it sows the health complications for tomorrow. The present engine that mobilises our technology is still fuelled by greed and selfishness.

A failed path taken was the putative shift to politics. Even though this attempt flopped, it is important to note the reason for its failure. I am referring to the commendable collectivisation of private property in the service of the common good that took place in the early part of the last century. The communist tried this solution because they assumed that the presence of inequality was indication that God had failed and that Man ought to take matters into his own hands. What they failed to realise was that a world which may appear as perfect and exists along this principle “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need” is not heaven. No matter how perfect we can construct a society, without God it is hell. In fact, Pope Benedict’s first encyclical Deus caritas est has an appropriate answer against the accusation of God’s failure and taking matters into our own hands: An authentically religious attitude prevents man from presuming to judge God, accusing him of allowing poverty and failing to have compassion for his creatures. When people claim to build a case against God in defence of man, on whom can they depend when human activity proves powerless? Benedict is saying that when we blame God for the hopeless situation in the world and when we have tried everything and failed, to whom do we turn? Communism destroyed countless lives in their attempt to construct an equitable society without God.

The crisis of faith in a providential God finds its roots in selfishness and more than that, a forgetfulness that God is more generous than we credit Him for. The Communion of Saint expresses the generosity of God in the sense that whatever God may give, it is never given for the good of the person alone. In fact, the more He gives, the more we are to share. This is the beginning of any corporal act of mercy to feed the poor and to clothe the naked. It is not that God has not provided. Rather, our selfish lifestyle with its current level of consumption creates inequality and not the false assumption that there the world is over populated, that only progress and technology hold the key to adequacy and finally that the perfect system of distribution is a guarantee of heaven.

Do you know why we are obsessed with KPIs? On the face of it, we are concerned with excellence but hidden behind it is the same crisis of faith that has driven us to search for the “perfect” solution to whatever problems we have in the world. And for those who are fighting for justice, do you ever wonder why justice is almost merciless in quality? Our response to criminals is to lock them away and throw away the key. The punishment we want to mete out to criminals is almost vindictive; just short of lex talionis. Again, that is symptomatic of the crisis of faith where justice can only be found in this world. Why the restriction? Because we are fearful that when we die, there is nothing after death.

The solution we seek in performing the corporal acts of mercy is not in the perfection of the system even though we have the responsibility to transform this world and make it a better place. But, no matter how perfect we can distribute wealth in this world, we must remember that this is NOT heaven. However, this is no reason for us to despair but instead should inspire us to seek a deeper conversion even as we labour towards alleviating human suffering. At the same time, NEVER forget that we are made for a life which takes us beyond this physical and temporary world. The corporal acts of mercy must begin with an honest scrutiny of my own excessive consumption and my lack of conversion of heart. The different approaches we have taken may stem from taking matters into our own hands without realising the corresponding need for personal conversion. Conversion begins with living simply so that others may simply live. And if you have more, remember that what you have is God’s blessing for OTHERS.

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