The Boston College social ethicist and regular columnist for America magazine Thomas Massaro, SJ, has an excellent column in the current issue of America (“The Unkindest Cuts“), which draws attention to the relevance of the Gospel passages we hear this week (although the daily readings of this cycle come from Luke and not Matthew) in which Jesus chastises the Jewish religious authorities for their hypocrisy and injustice. In considering the current state of the economy and the political debate that surrounds it, Massaro notes the often-overlooked issue of race as a constitutive element in the unfair budgetary response of some political leaders.
In chapter 23 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus directs a series of “woes” at the scribes and Pharisees. The list of damning charges includes the hypocrisy by which they pay lip service to the prophets of old, even erecting tombs in honor of the social critics of earlier times, but by their present complicity with injustices prove themselves to be “the sons of the prophets’ murderers.” These are harsh accusations, hardly an easy springboard for a pleasant sermon on a sleepy Sunday morning.
But, as with all scriptural warnings, we are wise to keep this one in mind and to be vigilant against the possibility of falling into the very errors we decry. As we ponder our national policies and our collective responsibility for them, we have to ask: Is American society guilty of tolerating a large gap between the values we profess to champion, on one hand, and deplorable policy outcomes we allow to persist, on the other hand?
What’s at stake, Massaro reminds us, is the issue of racial justice and fairness. Massaro keenly notes the economic impact of the recession and other problems in recent years disproportionately affects people of color more than it does other populations. In what seems like a simple “universal problem,” which affects all but a few US citizens (the so-called 1% of the most wealthy who have actually benefited throughout the economic slump), the remaining 99% has not suffered equally.
If you seek evidence of disproportionate burdens falling on segments of our population, the best place to look is in aggregate statistics. New Census Bureau findings document the wide and growing gap between whites and the rest of Americans in social indicators such as unemployment, childhood poverty and inadequate health insurance. The current unemployment rate for blacks is 16.7 percent, nearly double the rate for white non-Hispanic Americans. To oppose measures addressing the jobs crisis is tantamount to turning one’s back on the serious struggles of the black community, even if such a stance is not explicitly motivated by racial bias.
Other studies reveal that the most serious losers in the recent economic turmoil have been those with the fewest resources, the most modest savings and the highest personal debt. These are disproportionately members of racial minorities, whose annual incomes and stocks of wealth lag behind those of others. The deeper and longer the mortgage and credit crises run, the more these groups bear the lion’s share of financial harm, as they fall further and further behind in the struggle to save for college and retirement. Budget deals that favor spending cuts (especially on programs that serve low-income Americans) over raising revenues (most taxes come from the upper brackets) certainly add to the problem.
Race and other sensitive and unpopular dimensions of social inequality are rarely raised in the public square, despite the hype of a presidential election in the United States on the horizon. This column and the discomfort it likely evokes in so many readers is exactly what is needed today. We cannot let ourselves fall into the rote roll of the Pharisees and Scribes, although we are complicity in that crowd as it is, but instead consciously strive to address matters of discrimination, social inequality and injustice our or communities, society and world. It begins by addressing these matters in our hearts and then doing something about it.