In his book The Foundations of Christian Faith, theologian Karl Rahner asks us to think about a man engaged in the simple act of buying a banana at the grocery store. For the one making the purchase, everything you need to know is contained in that one transaction. He gives the clerk the money and leaves with the banana. End of story.
Rahner reminds us, however, that the interaction is not actually so simple. That banana did not just appear in the grocery store by magic. It has a history. The banana took a journey from its home country to the shelves of the store, and along the way, that banana got caught up in centuries-old commercial policies between the United States and South and Central America. The banana has passed through relationships that involve inequity and injustice toward the pickers and the packers of the fruits we eat.
Buying the banana is not a sinful action. At the same time, the banana is a focal point for these social and systemic forms of sin. It is sometimes too easy for us to ignore these wider connections that attach to the things we buy and sell.
Two centuries before Karl Rahner wrote of these things, the Quaker John Woolman arrived at similar insights. As early as 1762, Woolman and others refused to purchase goods produced by slave labor. Later in his life, Woolman became known for dressing in grey clothing, for he refused to wear clothing that had been dyed with pigments that were carried over on the same ships that carried human beings intended to be sold as slaves.
Broadening Our Perspectives
In Matthew 23:23, Jesus admonishes the Pharisees and scribes for their scrupulous attention to public righteousness while “neglect[ing] the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity.” In other words, Jesus is reminding us that Rahner’s banana, Woolman’s clothing, and so many other simple everyday items and actions must be viewed in their relationship to the wider web of justice within God’s kingdom.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us of these wider connections when it says: “A good intention [for example, that of Hidden Costs helping one’s neighbor] does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered . . . good or just. The end does not justify the means. Thus, the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means of saving the nation. On the other hand, an added bad intention [such as vainglory] makes an act evil that, in and of itself, can be good [such as almsgiving]” (1753).
I thought about this paragraph when Jeff Bezos of Amazon donated $15 million to various Catholic charities. On the surface, this is a wonderful and generous gift, and as Sister Marjorie Hebert, president and CEO of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, put it, “This grant will be critical in helping us continue to provide a comprehensive network of social services that connects our clients to resources and acts as a springboard to self-sufficiency.”
However, over the past two years there have also been numerous credible reports that Amazon does not treat its employees with dignity, subjecting them to dangerous working conditions. They have fought to bar workers’ compensation and medical reimbursements. Is there not a social and systemic sinfulness to be found in such actions?
If a banana can be problematic, if a suit of clothing can be problematic, is it not possible that a pile of money can be problematic? No matter how much good it promises to bring into the world, we have to ask how it connects to these webs of social and systemic relations. Even when the transaction—especially when the transaction—benefits our interests, we need to be looking with scrutiny at these weightier things of the law: judgment, mercy, and fidelity. These we must do—and not leave the others undone.