The Oppressed

I am really struggling to get these words down.  I began with a disciplined effort to write casually on the sermon on the mount, but now I question why write about this at all?  For the past several weeks, I’ve felt stuck trying to write about those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  I know who they are, and I know I’m not one of them.  I would love to have things to say about this.  I could negatively define this beatitude through self-abasement.  I could write idealistically about who I hope to be.  But instead, I find just an honest emptiness.  A complete loss of words.  I don’t want to just skip it, either, and move on to the next beatitude, but the fact is, I feel, rather, that I have no place continuing.  I know this sounds strange, like something out of Kafka, or maybe I’m just lazy, but it’s like I’m mentally blocked from continuing until I learn something personally about this beatitude. 

What does it mean to hunger and thirst for righteousness?  What does it mean to hunger and thirst for dinner?  It means you’re hungry and thirsty.  It means you likely haven’t had dinner in a while (or, if you’re like me and almost constantly hungry and thirsty, a few hours).  If you haven’t had a dose of righteousness in a while, it’s very likely you’ve been oppressed by some form of injustice.  It isn’t, therefore, just that you don’t understand righteousness, or that you haven’t been living a righteous and morally upright life for a while.  It’s not that you’re indulging a little too much in something you know you shouldn’t either (i.e. you’re not righteous enough).  I don’t think Jesus is talking about that here. 

To hunger and thirst for righteousness means you aren’t hungry or thirsty for anything else.  We can really only be hungry and thirsty for one thing at a time.  English doesn’t offer us the luxury of describing intensity relative to the meaning of a word without the use of another word (a qualifier).  We get “very hungry,” or at the far extreme, “starving.”  But “hungry” is still a strong word.  Starving means literally dying – as in, if I don’t get food immediately, my body will shut down.  To hunger isn’t very far from this.  We use the word flippantly, because between the mild desire for food and the hunger pains of the start of starvation, English doesn’t give us any other word.  We have to qualify it with an adjective, which is inadequate.  It’s one of the bummer aspects of the English language, and why we should study other languages, even and especially dead languages like Latin or Greek. 

It’s important to understand this because we can’t really be hungry for more than one thing.  We are hungry for food.  Sustenance.  I can be ‘hungry’ for a pizza and for a hot dog.  I admit, I could wrap the hot dog in a slice of pizza and thus eat both at the same time (just covering all the bases of my argument here).  But the point is I cannot be hungry, eat a pizza, and then be hungry again for the hot dog.  The pizza sustained me.  The hot dog is dessert.  Indulgence, not sustenance.  We can only be hungry for one thing at a time.  After eating the pizza, I am no longer “hungry.”  I am something else in relation to the hot dog that English is inadequate to describe.

It’s the same here with righteousness.  We can “eat” and “drink” righteousness like we eat a dessert or drink a glass of wine.  These aren’t satisfying any needs, just a want on top.  I can volunteer my time, or join an organization, or do something good for someone else.  There’s nothing wrong with that, just like there’s nothing wrong with desserts or beverages as long as they’re taken with moderation and care.  It’s like having a slice of righteous pie (mmm…. pie).

But to hunger and thirst means you’ve gone without.  And I don’t have anything casually to remark on that from my own experience.  I’ve never been oppressed, or without justice.  There are many who might say I am therefore an oppressor.  Maybe simply through sins of omission – my failure to end oppression, for example.  I don’t know.  Can someone look at my life that objectively?  Can they draw that conclusion simply because I have stated that I am not a victim of oppression?  I’m not so sure.  I won’t argue otherwise, because I don’t think even I can look at my life that objectively and tally up all the missed opportunities I had today to end oppression.  Maybe my clothes were sewn by oppressed factory workers in Thailand, or Vietnam, or Mexico.  What if I can’t always find clothing that is “Made in the USA,” and even then how do I know my clothes were made by well-paid factory workers or not?  Am I, then, an oppressor?  Do I choose to hurt these people when I pay for the shirt?  Do I ignore their plight if I simply don’t know what to do to help them besides going shirtless for the rest of my life? 

I heard a wise person say recently that there is a very real moral dilemma presented when we are forced to choose either giving $1 per day to help one child out of poverty, or giving $1 per day to help support sustainable living conditions in a poverty-stricken village.  The one is just as valuable as all the ones who constitute the village.  Is it better for me to stop wearing t-shirts, or to help an organization that works to end injustice for factory workers (assuming such organizations exist)?  Is it better to buy clothes only from companies that are just in their dealings with factory workers (assuming you can find any), or to use your time and money to support ending poverty in the village in which the factory resides (assuming you could)?

But this is the difference that causes my writer’s block (or has caused it at least until now).  All this talk of t-shirts and dollar-per-day fundraisers; it’s all just dessert.  I’m not the one who is oppressed.  I may, in fact, be an oppressor, however unintentionally and against my will.  Jesus, however, is speaking to the oppressed.  And his message is, “they shall be satisfied.”  I can almost hear someone from the crowd mumbling, “When, exactly?”  Jesus doesn’t say.  “How, Jesus?”  He doesn’t say.  “In what way? Through Marxist revolution?  Through aid organizations?  Through a military coup followed by democracy?”  He doesn’t specify.  He only says that it will happen.  Righteousness will come.  Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow.  I don’t think it will be as Sam Phillips puts it darkly when she sings, “Help is coming / Help is coming / One day late / One day late;” though I’m sure it often feels that way.  At least, it won’t come like that from God.  It must take an incredible feat of faith to believe this, though, in the midst of oppression.  Something about the world and my experience in it tells me, though, that apart from the voice of God, probably no other person will offer satisfaction of this sort freely; without caveats or quid pro quos

Still, it must sound a bit like an empty promise.  I don’t know that I would have faith enough to believe that promise if I were the subject of oppression, but I suppose if faced with the choice of either looking to God for satisfaction, or looking to the world that is full of oppressors and ambivalent oppressors (like me), I guess I see the wisdom in Jesus’s statement that the oppressed who look to God are at least happier than those who look to the rest of the world for help.  The world, and that includes many well-meaning Christians (like me), isn’t known for being consistent on the follow-through.

“Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”