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Social commitment and the experience of faith: How to express them and link them together?
Alain Thomasset SJ

Rather than speaking in a theoretical way about the new relationship between faith, justice and culture, I would like to outline the way in which some Christians who are currently involved in a variety of social fields in France speak about the relation between their faith and their social commitment, and how, through that, they express a new understanding of their relation with God. It seems to me that the current difficulty in expressing the relationship between faith and justice comes partly from the lack of a vocabulary adapted to the new situation in which Christians live. Young people, in particular, do not find in the Church’s recent tradition an expression of their particular and unique experience. The question is thus at least as much cultural and theological as social or political.

For the last four years, we have invited Christians engaged in the social, economic or political field to speak at a research seminar organized by the Centre Sevres in order to express not only how their faith influences their work, but also how their commitment makes their faith develop. In a number of cases, the study of the testimonies revealed common structures. The life-narratives often hinge on existential crises lived as moments of truth, and as moments of transformation essential to their faith-journey. It may be said that their faith-itinerary is structured by two thresholds or moments of rupture. The first threshold, which can be called ‘moral’, corresponds to the moment when witnesses describe setting up a critical distance from their Christian background and from society. This moment is marked by certain radicalism, often directly inspired from the faith, characterized by a utopian vision of society, a strong and even exclusive militant commitment, and rather prophetic inspiration, in which the dimension of Christ’s call is strongly felt. A second threshold corresponds to a consideration of the tragedy of existence, and leads to an existence more rooted in a reality that is more relational, as well as to a humbler and more simplified faith. This is the threshold of ‘hope’ where the commitment privileged by the first threshold is moderated by a distance and a wisdom which does not cancel it, but in which it is lived differently, more prayerfully and in which the images of God are more marked by forgiveness, the Cross and the Resurrection. There is a move from an active engagement to an acquired trust in God, from a utopian and radical period to a period marked by tolerance and hope… This passage usually happens by means of a crisis which emerges from the ordeals of engaging with others, such as conflicts within the trade union, personal failures in relating to others, within the life lived by couples, the test of the life with the poor, political divergences and struggles, or conflicts within the company.

These encounters in truth are often the place of a revelation of God. It is the crossing of the experience of alterity or otherness which is an invitation to live a certain passivity or trustfulness, an attitude of listening and compassion. One of the witnesses describes her, as yet brief, itinerary and manner of seeing Christ as the passage from a ‘Che Guevara’ Jesus, who is a social prophet, to a Jesus who prays, enters into relationship with his Father and who invites the recognition of oneself as son or daughter in one’s own turn. Another quoted the narrative of the rich young man (Mt 19, 16-30). At the beginning of his testimony this passage is used to justify a radical detachment from his family and middle class comfort. At the end of the testimony, this passage is used again to illustrate, on the contrary, compassion with respect to this young man who goes away sad; it is, in this way, an invitation to a tolerant attitude with respect to those which remain locked up in their safety.

It should also be noted that this passage from a utopian stance to a relational one, marked by humility and compassion, is also accompanied by a certain disappearance of the images describing social reality. An ideal and global vision of the social life which animates them at the beginning (the struggle for justice, the reform of the society, the fight for the oppressed…), partly inspired by the Christian faith and an interpretation of the Gospel, gives way to an increasingly strong insistence on individual relationships, interpersonal relations, local solidarity, and care for the neighbourhood. This attention to personal relations and the conversion which it indicates, is no longer accompanied by a new manner of imagining society on a large scale. It is as if the representations and the words that express the importance of structural justice (the relevance of which remains) have become null and void and that no clear alternative arises. On the other hand, new images of the Church or more partial collective experiments can appear: for example, the communion of the people, the experiment of communities of solidarity, places of celebration of a meaningful human reality, the importance of the liturgical dimension to symbolize a still inchoative common feeling. For many of them, the relationship with the political dimension remains difficult. But the ‘social’, and not only the interpersonal world, remains the place of their commitment. Certainly no longer as an ideal construction but as a place itself always traversed by contradictions such as violence and injustice, which is also opened to a broader solidarity. In this breach, in this testing place, our witnesses discovered themselves invited to live a “presence”.

Finally, we have noted a difference between the younger generation (25-35 years) and the older one (45-55 years), in the particular in which they refer to the Word of God. In brief, older people seem to have an indirect relation with the biblical texts, while the younger (for which the experience of spiritual retreats is central), speak about these texts in a more personal and more direct manner. Admittedly the older people quote passages of the Bible, as inspiring their faith and their engagement, but it seems that they are quoting these passages to illustrate an attitude which finds its consistency elsewhere (for example, hospitality, as Jesus does when he eats with the sinners). Obviously a whole tradition supports them (in particular that of the ‘Catholic Action ’), where the Gospel already has a social interpretation and results in a commonly accepted way of being. For young people, on the other hand, for whom no tradition of social action is obvious in the evolution of their faith, everything occurs as if a strong spiritual experiment were necessary so that such social commitment can refer to the faith. At the same time, it is among them that we find ways of conversion where the faith is found in a new way through action. The itinerary of such or such young person is symptomatic of an “inductive” progression, where the faith is only really discovered as a personal experiment by means of a strong social commitment. For them, it would be, to some extent, justice which causes the faith rather than faith that does justice.

As we can see from these brief remarks, it is necessary to develop in a nuanced way; for these witnesses social practice brings meaning and provides a matrix for a new understanding of the mystery of God. This is especially the case when this social engagement is lived out in close proximity with people in such a way that the witness experiences also his or her own fragility. Social practice, which at the beginning could be lived as a natural consequence of the faith they have received , becomes the place of the revelation of a God who comes close to human beings in their vulnerability and their misery. The experience of a common humanity with the poor’ (with their weaknesses and their strengths) and the discovery of the face of Jesus Christ dead and risen are then perceived in correspondence with each other. One could even say that they really constitute the two faces of the same social reality lived in the faith. That suggests that a new manner of expressing the bond between social commitment and experience of faith is being born.

 

Alain Thomasset SJ
CERAS
14, rue d’Assas
75006 Paris
FRANCE