August 03, 2019

Saturday of the 17th Week in Ordinary Time

Kitchens are hot rooms full of sharp edges that bestow burns and cuts on anybody who spends much time in them. I got a new stripe this week.

I am glad I did not drop the hot baking pan that gave me this 4-inch red line gently curving down my forearm: It is worse to be burned and also lose the food than to just be burned. Anyway, I required no medical attention, and was given material for reflection.

Work possesses an impressive power to transform the world. Human labor, whether compensated or not, reshapes landscapes, implements technology, disseminates ideas, enacts structural and physical changes, and distributes many of life’s necessities to those who need them. The potential of work is marvelous.

Looking at my new stripe though, I could not help but consider how we ourselves are reshaped by our work, regardless of whether we desire or even intentionally accept such changes. Sometimes these sneak up on us suddenly. Teachers are well placed to notice the toll exhaustion takes on our health and temperament. Because we get to start fresh each year, we are able to notice how much easier it usually is to be patient in September than in March. Most jobs however, don’t have a refresher built into their annual cycle, leading to a more enduring effect from accumulating stressors.

My dad’s high blood pressure medication became unnecessary after he retired from work; he actually had to discontinue them in order to avoid low blood pressure. This shows that the sacrifices he made to support our family could not only be measured in time and effort, but also by the impact upon his health. Think of those who work in more recognizably hazardous conditions. Is there truly any way to make a coal mine safe, not just from dramatic disasters but also from long-term ill effects such as black lung?

Contemporary economics speaks of ‘externalities’ that describe the difference between the price of a good or service and its true cost. Sometimes the cost for our cheap coffee is paid by the poorly compensated grower who lacks market access without the intervention of a larger company. When we pay an artificially low price for oil, those who lose their homes and livelihoods to the consequences of carbon emissions pay what we don’t. The aforementioned coal miners subsidize our electricity by bearing the cost with their risky work conditions and resultant health hazards. Yet, much of this country seems intent on viewing them as enemies of environmental sustainability rather than as casualties of our lifestyle.

I have certainly asked friends and family to undergo inconvenience for my sake at times, and I have made sacrifices for others as well. That is part of loving relationship. Although I would never ask a stranger to suffer for my benefit, it is impossible to escape the fact that this indeed happens regardless, not only when public servants offer themselves up for the common good, but also whenever my standard of living rests on the backs of the imprisoned, exploited, or disenfranchised.

Christian theology teaches that we have been healed by Christ’s wounds. Somehow though, when considering his arrest, torture, trial, and execution, we imagine ourselves to be among his loyal disciples. We may be tormented by grief and perhaps by despair, but we certainly don’t imagine ourselves to be complicit. What difference can it make though if I recognize that I am not only Barabbas the liberated prisoner and Peter the inconstant friend, but also Judas the self-seeking opportunist, Caiaphas the calculating conspirator, and Pilate the aloof authority? Don’t neglect, callousness, indifference, and ignorance lead me to assume each of these roles at times? Is cynical resignation my only option or is there some way of changing the script?

I got a burn on my arm this week because I was cooking at our Marist summer camp for sick children. I did not choose to be burned, but it was an insignificant cost to pay for them to enjoy being kids for a week. I would do it all again. Unlike myself though, many who are harmed by their work are actual victims whose blood cries out. What can I do with my uncomfortable comfort?


This week’s “ear candy” is another classic from the great Christian humanist and prison minister Johnny Cash. In “I Got Stripes” he puts himself in the place of the inmates he sings to, inmates who incidentally produce finished products for our marketplaces and are rarely compensated by anything resembling a just wage. The “brain food” this week is a 2019 piece arguing that ending the military draft in the USA may not have been a great idea after all. The author states her own reasons for thinking so… I would add that the volunteer military leads to a situation in which the poor with few other options disproportionately risk their lives and well-being for the rest of the country. Whose lives do we value and whose are we willing to risk?

Ear Candy: “I Got Stripes” by Johnny Cash

Brain Food: “Ending the Draft Will be Considered Unthinkable 50 Years from Now” by Jennifer Mittelstadt

Come back next Saturday for a new post!