Justice as Love in Action

“Estoy jefe en la ausencia de Vincente (I am the boss, while he’s away),” my teacher explained to me, after Vincente interrupted the class briefly in order to pass this news along. Apparently, she explained to me, a man who carries the aguacate through the streets of San Pedro to the market had died that morning.

That explained why, a few minutes earlier, we had seen a woman and two niñas enter the garden where we held classes asking for Vincente. We had sent them around the corner to where he was working on some leather pieces in his shop. Apparently, they had born the news to him that this man, a family member of theirs, had died that morning and that they were in great need of money that day. Vincente was part of a community group that supported the mujeres pobres and so he jumped into action, handing over the reins of the school to my teacher and heading out into the streets of San Pedro to collect money for the bereaved family.

Vincente was an interesting man, with a long ponytail emerging high and animated off the back of his head like a the tail of the horse for which it is named, and a sprawling mustache – still in the process of deciding whether it wanted to be a beard. The school he ran, Casa de Rosario, was situated in a garden between a horse barn and a corn field in an undeveloped part of San Pedro, and the teachers taught at tables scattered throughout the garden.

Vincente himself spent most of his time in his leather shop, which was under a covering strung between two trees. The sole resources of the school were the beauty of the garden, a few ancient kayaks, some white boards for writing, and the experience of the teachers – who, as Mayan woman who spoke Tz’utuhil as their first language, knew first-hand the process of learning Español in school. Any money that came into the school went back out quickly to the community to pay for school supplies for local children or food for families in need.

At first, I thought this to be merely a delightfully organic and relaxed situation, but I was beginning to think that perhaps something more tragic lay behind the fact that Casa Rosario had no buildings and resources. At the edge of the water, where I preferred to take my mid-morning pause, I could see slabs of concrete only a foot below the water and the tops of trees sticking out all over the place. One day, my teacher came to fetch me and, pointing to a slab of concrete, explained to me that it had been the school’s bathroom; and that tree had been a place where students studied. She told me that the waters of the lake were rising and that probably by proxima año (next year), the place where I was sitting would be under water.

I could understand, then, why there were no buildings currently for Casa de Rosario, and why they chose not to build any new ones either. They decided, instead, to embrace their situation. Rather than apologizing for the outdoor atmosphere or resenting the rising waters of the lake, they celebrated the beauty of the garden and took delight in its proximity to the beautiful waters of Lake Atitlan. As Vincente says, “Water guarantees life.”

The students they attracted, likewise, were people who could celebrate the beauty and appreciate its value. Vincente knew what he needed and what he did not need, and the atmosphere of the school followed. They gave all they could to the community and Vincente’s friends and teachers were fiercely loyal.

There was something terribly valuable about that simple way of living that we have lost in Estados Unidas. As Vincente trotted off to collect money for the bereaved family, his ponytail bouncing energetically as its name would suggest, I could not help but wish that we lived that way in my nation. I could not help but wish that we had the desire to take care of the needs of others without question of whether they deserved it or not – the desire to meet a need simply because it was there. That kind of situation brings many words to mind – unconditional love – grace – mercy – care for the widows – mourning with those that mourn – judge not lest ye be judged.

Yet, unfortunately, as cities grow, we lose the ability to live as family and community. We lose the ability to trust. We see our resources as scarce and we attempt to determine how we will divide them by determining who is most deserving. Casa Rosario’s rule is simple – the one’s who are the most in need are the ones who are the most deserving. And if they need something that you have more than you need it, then perhaps it is really theirs. There is something very biblical about that.

Back in my nation, Los Estados Unidas, we have been having a debate raging all year about exactly this issue – can we live as a community when it comes to healthcare? Can we make sure that everyone is cared for? I am not interested in getting into a debate about whether the system is working, as a person without an address of residence and a fixed amount of money that is decreasing at a steady pace, I can understand that even after the new system the situation still feels impossible.

I am interested, however, in the attitudes that I sense behind many who oppose the system. You see, I have long had a problem with the “Protestant Work Ethic.” Since I was a teenager working minimum wage jobs, I could see among my colleagues that it did not work for everyone. I could see from an early age that the American Dream proved for many to be a myth, and at the same time learned in school that the system supposedly had the blessing of my religion.

For centuries the prosperity of Los Estados Unidas has been attributed to, among other things, the philosophy of the Protestant Work Ethic – which can be summarized as “work hard and you’ll get ahead.” There is some theology mixed in there – which makes my skin crawl – based in a misunderstanding of the scripture that those that do not work should not eat, but at its core it is the assumption that you get what you work for. Therefore those that have much have earned it and deserve it and should be permitted to keep it; those that have little bear the responsibility of their poverty alone. This is the philosophy behind Capitalism, and while it has led to success for many, I have strong suspicions that Jesus would not be a fan – handing his loaves and fishes out willy nilly.

I also feel that in practice, it simply does not work. Those with privilege have rigged the system, such that those who work the hardest often have the least and vice versa. Privilege and positions of affluence have been solidified and laws and systems put in place to prevent alterations in the order; escapes from our American caste system are exceptions when they should be the rule – if those who worked hard really received what they deserved. Thus, “Work hard and you’ll make it” becomes as ironic for many as the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” on the gates of Auschwitz.

What if instead the needs of some were the responsibility of all? What if we lived as community that prioritized justice over success? And when I say justice, I do not mean the Justice System or the laws of the land – because more often than not those are rigged as well. Justice should not be defined by who “wins” or who gets the most votes or who gives the most campaign money. Justice should be defined by what pleases the heart of God. So very often, we are far from that mark. Sometimes, listening to debates, it feels like perhaps the God of the Protestant Work Ethic is different than the one who drew lazily in the sand before saving the life of the woman caught in adultery. For God made flesh in the form of Jesus Christ, the law that the woman should be put to death was not the same as justice, and it was not the same as what would please his heart.

Justice means no one watches Lazarus starve at the gate of their fancy house. Justice means 5000 people were fed by Jesus, regardless of whether any of them deserved it. Justice is different from Capitalism and different from Democracy and different from the Justice System.

Justice is love. Justice is Vincente collecting money for the family of the man who was known for drinking far too much.

Justice is community. And community takes trust, but trust is a two way street. We do all need to do our best to pull our weight, and no one should be mooching off the kindness of others. But neither should those who possess wealth because of privilege, especially privilege of race or nation, ever assume that those who are in need are not deserving and are not working at least as hard as they are. Those who have the most need to trust those around them, rather than assuming that if they have little it is because they work little. Those with privilege need to stop assuming they deserve what they have, and need to stop using that as the foundational logic for their arguments about national and domestic policy… and church law for that matter.

A truly protestant work ethic, in the Wesleyan vein at least, would tell us that we are given much only so that we can give much away; and that we work hard so that we can have more to give, not so that we can have more to hoard. In that sense, I find Vincente and the teachers at Casa de Rosario to be delightfully Wesleyan.

As I told my teacher, a devout Roman Catholic, today: “Tu eres un muy buena Wesleyan.”

The cement slab and tree that once made up a part of Casa de Rosario
The cement slab and tree that once made up a part of Casa de Rosario

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