During the Pope’s homily at the Ndolo Airport in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), he reflected on the meeting between the Risen Christ and the disciples. When Jesus appeared to the disciples in the upper room, they were afraid, ashamed, and confused. And so his first words to them were “Peace be with you.” Jesus conquered sin and death to bring peace and reconciliation, both with God and among human beings. As Christians, we are called to participate in Christ’s mission to bring true peace into the world.
How can we fulfill this mission? Pope Francis identified three wellsprings of peace from which we can draw: forgiveness, community, and mission. I found his reflection on community as a source of peace to be particularly interesting. He started by making a point that should be obvious, but which is often forgotten: Christianity is a fundamentally communal religion. Jesus appeared to his disciples when they were gathered together. He gave them his peace and sent them out to preach the Gospel to the world. As Pope Francis said, “There is no Christianity without the community.”
Pope Francis then drew attention to the mindsets of the disciples both before and after the Resurrection. The disciples had been physically walking after Jesus, but they had not been following him in spirit. Rather, they were hoping that the Messiah would bring them power and wealth. These worldly desires led to conflicts and disputes. After the Resurrection, by contrast, the disciples were united by their mission of selfless service to others. As a community , we can find peace and unity by following Christ. But if we pursue worldly wealth and success, we will lose our unity and our peace.
Wealth destroys community, and a lack of community leads to violence, both between individuals and between communities. While the old colonial empires have collapsed, Pope Francis has warned that the world is now dealing with an “economic colonialism” that is just as destructive as the old political colonialism. This economic colonialism comes in many forms: the extraction of conflict minerals in the DRC, the abuse of sweatshop laborers in Bangladesh, and the ongoing destruction of the Amazon are all driven by the consumerism and greed of the so-called “First World”. Slavery hasn’t disappeared; it has simply become less visible to those of us who benefit from it.
In a wider sense, all wealth is violent, particularly in today’s world. The Earth’s resources are limited, and what is taken by one individual is not available to others. Per capita, the inhabitants of the United States and other wealthy countries are consuming far more than their fair share. In doing so, we are stealing what belongs to the poor. This is clearly illustrated in an article published by Grist. The author asks us to imagine all the resources of the Earth being evenly divided, so that each person gets an individual mini-planet. It turns out that each little planet would have around six acres of land—most of which is unusable desert or tundra. If we’re not living within the constraints of our own planet, then we must be invading a planet that belongs to somebody else!
In Catholic Social Teaching, the Church recognizes the primacy of the universal destination of goods. God made the world for everyone. Private property is legitimate, but only if it does not conflict with the universal destination of goods. For this reason, giving alms to the poor is a matter of justice rather than charity; by giving away our surplus wealth, we are merely giving to the poor what belongs to them. On this topic, Gaudium et Spes draws on the wisdom of the Fathers: Feed the man dying of hunger, because if you have not fed him, you have killed him.
The violence of wealth tears apart and destroys communities. And if, as Pope Francis says, Christianity is a fundamentally communal religion, then wealth will tear apart and destroy the Church. We do not lack attempts at explaining the decline of Christianity in the “developed world”. But perhaps we are missing the obvious. The Christian community can’t thrive and grow if our wealth is destroying our unity, leaving individuals isolated and susceptible to every random ideology that comes along. We can have an affluent, individualistic society, or we can have the peace and unity that Christ offers to us. We can’t have both; we can’t serve two masters.
Our world desperately needs the new evangelization of the West called for by Pope St. John Paul II. It needs to be saved from the violence of the culture of death. Together, we can escape this spiral of violence. If we give away our wealth, we can come together as a community to fulfill the Great Commission given to us by Jesus. We can become, as Pope Francis said, a “conscience of peace” in our world, and become missionaries of the “mad love of God for each human being.”
Image Credit: Painting by Duccio di Buoninsegna; image in the public domain, from Wikimedia Commons
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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.