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Starting Point

The perils of Afghanistanism


Back before I discovered the Catholic church, I was going to be a journalist -- a chip off the old Dad. I took a few journalism classes at the University of Oregon, the institution where I wasted my father’s money until he came to his senses and made me start paying for it myself and I came to my senses and stopped wasting my life. But that’s another story.

In one journalism class, I learned the term “Afghanistanism.” It refers to the questionable editorial policy of reporting the bad news from far away and ignoring the troubles in one’s own community.

I was thinking about how outdated that term is now. “Far away” is getting closer all the time.

It’s easy, and maybe safer, to ignore the troubles at home. And yet the message in the gospel stories these past weeks seem very pointed, as if Jesus is looking at us -- at me -- right in the eye and saying, “Do you see? Are your eyes open yet? Do you see my people?”

Jesus tells us of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. Too often we interpret this parable to mean that God is unyielding and we have to wear him down with our repetitious prayers like drops of water on a rock. But is this how we picture our God? How Jesus speaks of his Abba? I don’t think so. The point of this parable is that those to whom Jesus is speaking -- the poor, the disenfranchised, those who count little in society -- should not grow discouraged because God does hear the cry of the poor.

Or consider the story of the Pharisee and the sinful tax collector who pray in the temple. Oddly, Jesus says that God counts the prayers of the humble tax collector as more sincere than the oh-so-righteous observant Pharisee. Or the passage later in Luke about the poor widow who gives only a penny in the collection and yet God counts it as more than lavish gifts of the rich from their surplus.

Yes, injustice close to home is very uncomfortable. But in my parish, there are people who work hard, very hard, and do not make enough money to rent their own apartment. And who pays these wages? Members of the same parish.

I just finished the new book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America. The author, Barbara Ehrenreich, is a journalist who went “under cover” and worked at entry-level positions in three cities in the United States. She worked as a waitress, an assistant in a retirement center, a cleaning woman and a clerk in Wal-Mart. Her goal was to just get by, to rent an apartment and eat. She couldn’t do it. She worked alongside women who didn’t consider themselves homeless because they had a car to live in. Seven dollars an hour is just not enough money anymore. It was when I was young. I lived on $50 a week and had my own apartment and even went to the movies once in a while.

But times have changed. The disparity between rich and poor is growing all the time, both throughout the world and at home. What are we going to do about it? We kneel down together at worship. We hear the same gospel and receive the same Jesus in holy Communion. What are we going to do about making sure that we obey not just the letter of the law as we pay minimum wages, but that we follow the teaching of this man Jesus? Jesus, who seems to be looking at us -- at me -- right in the eye and saying, “Please! Open your eyes and see my people.”

Paige Byrne Shortal is a pastoral associate in a parish in rural Missouri.

National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2001