If I define my neighbor as the one I must go out to look for, on the highways and byways, in the factories and slums, on the farms and in the mines - then my world changes. This is what is happening with the "option for the poor," for in the gospel it is the poor person who is the neighbor par excellence. - Gutierrez, The Power of the Poor in History
Fr. Gutierrez refers to this systemic complexity as "structural sin" (Farmer calls it ‘structural violence’) noting that sin is not contained within the heart and mind of the individual but is inherent within the socioeconomic structures that allow the wealthy to get richer and the poor to get poorer, certainly references to the political corruption and dire poverty of his Peruvian homeland.
The poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence, the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order. - Gutierrez, The Power of the Poor in History
Dr Farmer recounts a story about his time in Haiti working alongside a young Haitian physician who lamented how much he hated his work and compared it to a "mediocre medical factory." Farmer notes that this young doctor also made no effort to change anything about his circumstances.
Not yet thirty (years old), the doctor had been socialized for scarcity and failure...even as I [Farmer] had been socialized for plenty and success. In other words, poverty had worked its way into the doctor's life too, even though he was not poor. This is exactly what is meant by the concept of structural violence: inequity that is "nobody's fault," that is just "the way things are," that we live with because we cannot or will not or do not know how to address the conditions that create unequal outcomes for rich and poor. (p.16-17) italics mine
We (me included) have used this statement many times about a myriad of situations and issues, some of which matter very little and others that matter a great deal. Yet, this statement says so much more than the five words uttered. “It is what it is” acknowledges the realities of the situation around us (or at least how we perceive those realities) that we either unknowingly or knowingly acquiesce to. There are things we can change and there are things we cannot…so why bother with the latter. “Give us the wisdom to know the difference” ends a famous prayer – the Serenity Prayer - that addresses this tension we all live with trying to leave the world a better place than when we found it. This tension infiltrates every corner of our lives – our relationships, our health, our politics, our religion/theology, our finances, etc. ‘That’s just the way things are.’ ‘That’s just how he/she is. They can’t help that.’ ‘It is what it is. Deal with it.’
Discerning what is under our control and what is not isn’t an easy matter. Many problems (i.e. global poverty, human trafficking, sexism, racism, etc) are so large and complex that we instinctively label them ‘out of our control’ because they are what they are – problems that require so much time, effort, and sacrifice that it is often easier to convince ourselves they are permanent fixtures of our world and ask God for the serenity to accept them rather than the courage to face them. We pacify our unwillingness and/or inability to act - whether from uncertainty about the next step, lack of courage, or whatever reason – with the same attitude as the young Haitian physician with Dr Farmer. "It is what it is" is the mantra of 'structural sin & violence.' It is a victory cry for the status quo. It is a profession of our fundamental priorities and values and a pledge of allegiance to maintaining a world where injustice, in whatever form, is allowed to persist. Farmer argues, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.” Certainly our attitudes are well within our control.
Such an attitude is most disappointing, however, when it is found within the church. The central message of Jesus’ teaching was the presence of the kingdom of God – a kingdom where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven with justice, love, generosity, and peace for all, particularly the powerless and oppressed. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection redeemed the effects of sin – both individually and structurally - and in so doing offered the world an alternative to ‘it is what it is.’ We are free to see the world as He sees it, not as it is. Thankfully we have many examples of those who have courageously and humbly confronted injustice on behalf of the marginalized, poor, and oppressed - Martin Luther King Jr, William Wilberforce, Mother Teresa, etc. However, there are countless others (me included) who have for too long bought the lie that ‘It is what it is’ is an acceptable answer in the face of staggering injustice affecting our/my neighbor(s) rather than offer an alternative of justice, dignity, and love. For that I repent…