The Preferential Option for Myself
Social justice bloggers who imagine that they are among the poor are betraying the truly needy.
Read what some self-proclaimed “social justice Christians” are writing these days, and spilling on social media, and you’ll discover an odd phenomenon. The people we have in mind will grab a headline that somehow connects to poverty — perhaps a plan to inflate the minimum wage, or rein in welfare benefits, or deal with pollution in some underdeveloped country. They will take a reflexively far-left stance, siding instantly and moralistically with whichever side has the lower income, and then justify it by citing “the preferential option for the poor,” a term of art in Catholic social teaching — a complex series of principles that developed over centuries, which does not trade in quick, simplistic judgments.
What happens next is that the needs of the working poor or disenfranchised drop out of view altogether. The writer changes the subject to something of greater personal interest: himself and his own problems. The needs of the poor people he first talked about will give way to his own complaints about “capitalism,” and the day-to-day frustrations he faces. We will then learn all about the author’s burden of student loans, often piled up over years pursuing some unmarketable degree in a subject that happened to interest him — say, in literature, art or Classics. We will hear about the “warped priorities” of a society that rewards cheap hucksters and media personalities, while “starving” aspiring scholars like … the writer.
If the writer is married with children and facing financial troubles, we will learn that whatever wage he is earning (doing the job he was willing to take) is “unjust,” because it won’t let his wife stay home full-time. There are countless opportunities in America that would make this possible, for men who are willing to do jobs — for example, a useful, back-breaking blue collar job or a taxing managerial position at Home Depot or Hobby Lobby. The writer never, never takes any jobs like these, but instead does something “prestigious” and “cultural” like teaching college part-time, or editing manuscripts. The writer will quote Pope Leo XIII’s teaching in Rerum Novarum that oppressed, uneducated industrial workers deserve a “living wage,” and then apply it to himself — as if the pope had in mind people with Ph.Ds in the liberal arts who worked as adjuncts and refused to seek employment outside their specialties.
At this point, we might well learn that the writer accepts public assistance, and has for a number of years. To feed and provide health care for himself and his family, he relies on programs created to serve as short-term emergency aids to the least-educated and poorest people in America — whose paltry incomes he often matches, because philosophy adjuncts don’t get paid very much, and bloggers don’t get paid at all. So he signs up for the same programs used by poorly educated teen mothers who grew up in ghettos.
Some might call what this down-at-heels intellectual is doing “stealing from the poor,” but he doesn’t see it that way. He has begun to believe that he is one of the poor. He is “marginalized” by his lack of access to tenure. He is “needy” because the Volvo he bought on credit needs an oil change, which he never learned how to do. He is “oppressed” by the noisiness of his blue collar neighbors, who every day go to work, as do their wives, to pay the taxes that fund his life of relative comfort and privilege.
When a person like this makes complaints like these, the response online is often not what you would expect — a chorus of sarcastic laughter. Instead, such writers find hundreds of eager supporters, other highly-educated abstainers from the grubby capitalist economy, who join in his complaints and add their own. We have seen extended online exchanges that asked angry questions such as: Why won’t WIC benefits pay for organic kale at Whole Foods? Who says we shouldn’t be buying steak from grass fed cows with food stamps? Aren’t people who claim to be pro-life rank hypocrites, if they don’t want to boost spending on still more poverty benefits like these?
Christian concern is from its origins something wholly different from this. Christ did not preach concern for the poor as a means of organizing resentful political mobs. He certainly never meant for well-educated folks with enough to eat and plenty of options to think of themselves as needy people deserving government handouts.
The prophetic call to serve the poor demands that we forget ourselves and our mostly manageable problems, and look for those whom society has really overlooked: the mentally ill homeless person, the woman in a crisis pregnancy whose parents have thrown her out, the unborn baby she carries who has no legal protection. We are meant to look abroad, to other countries where hard-working people have no title to their property, no access to sell their goods, no right to compete in the market. We are called to serve the truly poor, not use the poor as the first words in a chorus of “Poor, poor pitiful me.”