"No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have...
“No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God — for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.”
— the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador
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WASHINGTON — This is supposed to be the year when moral values dominated politics. On the eve of Christmas, let’s talk about values.
In any given city this Christmas, homeless people will not be looking forward to opening presents. They will be lucky to have a place to go at all. They will, by Archbishop Romero’s radical and demanding definition, be the true participants in Christmas. But it’s unlikely that the rest of us will think much about them. Isn’t that a question of values?
Unemployed parents who love their children as much as the rest of us love ours won’t have the same chance to show them materially the love they feel in their hearts. God willing, their kids will understand. But some kids, watching other kids in the television ads, might wonder: Why can those other parents give their kids all that stuff that my parents can’t give me? Isn’t that a question of values?
In the fall, I got the chance to moderate a post-election panel at Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture in New York City. Former Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska noted that on Jan. 1, the quotas protecting what’s left of the American textile and apparel industry will end. “Over a 12-month period,” he said, “three or four million jobs that are currently paying $8 to $10 an hour are going bye-bye unless those jobs are protected.”
“Now, I hazard to guess that most of those individuals will move into the ranks of poverty,” Kerrey went on. “They’ll move to minimum-wage jobs, which is 20 or 30 percent under poverty today. … If it’s a young woman who gets pregnant and says, ‘I don’t have health insurance anymore. I can’t — it’s expensive to raise a baby right today’ — that they’re more likely to choose an abortion even if Bush appoints anti-Roe v. Wade justices that overturn it, because they’re going to make what I consider to be a tragic choice out of economic necessity.”
Whatever you think of abortion or, for that matter, free trade, who can argue Kerrey’s central assertion: that the abortion rate is more likely to go up when economic opportunities for the poor are curtailed? (As Mark W. Roche of Notre Dame noted in The New York Times this fall, the abortion rate dropped by 11 percent during the prosperous years of the Clinton presidency.) Shouldn’t all who care about abortion be passionately committed to changing the economic circumstances in which women make their choices? Isn’t that a question of values?
In many parts of our country, parents who lack health insurance are wondering if they will be around for their children next Christmas. A mother has a lump on her breast and worries about the cost of having it checked out. A father has chronic chest pains but decides that seeing a cardiologist would be too expensive. They ought to get help. Isn’t that a question of values?
In Iraq, young men and women serving their country complain of equipment shortages and wonder why their leaders didn’t send enough troops in the first place. Could it be that acknowledging the true cost of the invasion at the outset might have endangered all those tax cuts — and might have reduced support for the war? Isn’t that a question of values?
Archbishop Romero was murdered on March 24, 1980, because he chose to stand with El Salvador’s poor against a repressive regime.
“Brothers, you came from our own people,” Romero told soldiers in El Salvador’s army. “You are killing your own brothers. … In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: Stop the repression.”
How many among the cardinals and bishops and pastors and preachers and televangelists who now enjoy favor in high places would have the courage to do what Archbishop Romero did? In fairness, how many of the rest of us would? Isn’t that a question of values?
A child was born in a manger because there was no room for His family anywhere else. Wasn’t that a question of values?
E.J. Dionne’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org