Classic Literature Reveals Timeless Truths

February 1, 2010
A Reflection on The Grapes of Wrath

Does this sound familiar? It could be a story about home foreclosures, or farm worker raids or factory layoffs in any town in the United States today.

But it’s not.

It is a passage from the classic American novel, The Grapes of Wrath, written by John Steinbeck and published 1939.

Not long ago I watched the movie starring Henry Fonda and though I had seen it before, I was struck by the parallels of Depression Era American history and today’s economic, environmental and immigrant realities.

I decided to reread the novel with these insights in mind.

In 1939, the United States was faced with a domestic crisis: a deep, decade-long financial depression following the stock market crash of 1929, the agricultural mid-west devastated by the Dust Bowl and high internal migration.

Internationally, Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, launching what would become World War II.

Today we face the same challenges: a collapsed economy, climate change wreaking havoc around the world, a broken immigration system and a war on terror.

Violence, destruction, and greed have once again damaged the lives of millions.

Catholic Social Teaching tells us that people come before profits, strangers are to be welcomed, and that creation is a gift from God.

As we face these challenges today we have the opportunity to respond with love and compassion.

John Steinbeck wrote, “you see, a bank or a company can’t do that, because those creatures don’t breath air, don’t eat side-meat.

They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money.

If they don’t get it they die the way you die without air, without side-meat.

It is a sad thing, but it is so.

It is just so.” Decades later Steinbeck’s words ring as true today as they did when they were first written.

But as faith and hope-filled people, we can reject the assertion that “It is just so.” We can choose economies that are fair.

We can choose to welcome the stranger, and we can choose to live more lightly on the earth.

As people of faith who believe in the Kingdom of justice and peace, we are called to choose life over death, people over profits, creation over destruction.

Whether it’s a microenterprise of indigenous women in the Philippines, an organic farm in Peru, advocating for comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S., or the countless other ways that we strive to be instruments of God’s love, Columban missionaries are a witness to the Kingdom that is both here and yet to come.

By living more simply, by welcoming the strangers in our midst, by caring more for creation we can all be missionary in our families, communities and as a nation.

As we begin this season of Lent, a season of asking for forgiveness, we can share in Christ’s Passion, a journey from life to death to life anew.

May we remember those who suffer because of the structures that keep people economically poor, the earth wounded and the migrants living in the shadows of society.

Amy Woolam Echeverria is the director of the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt
Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold.

And all of them were caught in something larger themselves.

Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshipped the mathematics because it provided refuge from thought and from feeling.

If a bank or company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank–or the Company–needs-wants- insists-must have-as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling which had ensnared them.