There are two ways to be holy.
There are people who labor all day in the worst of conditions, for instance, for the neediest people in the world. Other people love them for it. Call them saints; call them courageous; call them the “salt of the earth.” Indeed they are. Then there are other people who see the conditions in which the neediest people in the world are left to live and they work to see that those conditions are changed. And people denounce them for it. Call them unrealistic. Call them enablers. Call them unfaithful to their country—and even to their church.
The recurring question about which is the greatest holiness, those who are doers—the martyrs—or those who are the changers—the prophets—is a seductive one. Which is better, people ask, to be prophetic or to be pastoral? Is it more important to do charity or to demand justice? Or better yet, they insist, Should religious people really be involved in politics?
It’s when we try to answer such empty questions that we find ourselves in a maze. At the end of discussions like that, all we have managed to do is to reduce the whole Christian enterprise to a series of false opposites. To pit one work against another only dims the real value of each.
However spurious the contest may be, it is nevertheless a continuing question. We like our religions served calm. We call quiet “unity.” We avoid discussions about issues that have two sides to them, both defensible, both with a valorous history. Like soldiering and conscientious objection as Christian concepts. Like the role of women in the home and the place of women in the public arena as fully human behaviors. Like ministering to heterosexuals or to the LGBTQ community, for instance. Dorothy Day’s answer is itself prophetic: She did both. A key figure in the Catholic Worker Movement, she refused to choose one over the other. She writes:
What we would like to do is change the world—make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, or the destitute—the right of the poor, in other words—we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world.
Dorothy Day brooks no misunderstanding. She was out to change the world. She was also out to feed and clothe and shelter people—“the worthy and the unworthy poor.” And she would fight to get it done while she created little oases of peace everywhere. Then, she said, one little space at a time, she would encircle the globe with this new way of being alive. That’s charity to the ultimate. It is also a world-changing prophetic statement about the Christian lifestyle.
Set in such stark terms, it is easy to see that both dimensions of ministry are strengthened by involvement in the other. What is the use of feeding the hungry without advocating for better social services? What is the use of demanding higher wages for physical labor while omitting the need for childcare for working mothers?
Or, on the other hand, what is the use of prophetic vision while the living poor go hungry? As the world waits for the legislative insight it will take to restructure social services or raise wage levels, a family can starve. Intellectual concern is no substitute for the food a family cannot afford despite the fact that they work two jobs. The truth is that charity is laudable and seldom considered dangerous. It is the sign of the nice person, the one who unloads the trucks or sets up the temporary housing units.
Prophecy, on the other hand, has ragged edges. It sets out to deconstruct the present situation. It critiques social structures to which many have given their lives or in which they have status. They are invested in its continuance. They have something to lose if the world listens to the cries of the prophet for change.
Where the hallmark of charity is its uncommon generosity, the ring of real prophecy lies in its uncommon courage. Both of them go far and beyond the normal measure of either. Both lead the way for others to follow. Both give witness to the world of another way of life, a better way of life for us all.
Nevertheless, charity without prophecy can serve only to make the world safe for exploitation. As long as the poor are being fed, why raise the wages it would take to enable them to feed themselves? It enables employers to go on underpaying and overworking the very people who have made them their wealth.
At the same time, prophecy may disturb a society, but it does not necessarily comfort it. In fact, it can remain at a distance from the sufferings of the time. As a result, it runs the risk of intellectualizing the problems of the world, which the rest of us can then go on discussing to death.
The great prophets both comfort the wounded and work at changing the structures that embed the wounding to the point that we all come to take it for granted. When that happens, there’s little hope of change.
— Joan Chittister from The Time Is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage
— Rachel Held Evans from A Year of Biblical Womanhood