Compound Interest or Preferential Option for the Poor?

By Claire Bischoff

My relationship to my Catholic identity has been a rocky one, at best. I oscillate between thinking I am crazy to align myself with this church and stubbornly refusing to leave because I do not want to let the earthly powers that be define who counts as a true Catholic. A few years ago I came to a relative truce with my Catholic identity, and then I got pregnant and an entire new set of questions emerged. Thinking only about aspects of the tradition that frustrate me, I wondered if it was fair to claim an identity for my son that has caused me so much grief. Did I really want to raise him Catholic?

Recently my husband and I were reading one of my son’s favorite bedtime stories, One Grain of Rice, an Indian mathematical folktale by Demi. Rice is about a raja who believes he is a fair ruler, even though he keeps almost all of the people’s rice for himself. When famine comes, the villagers have nothing to eat but the raja orders feasts for himself. One day a local girl named Rani comes upon an elephant carrying rice for the raja, but the rice bag is leaking. Rani catches the falling rice in her skirt, but rather than keep it for herself, she honestly returns it to the raja. To reward her, the raja offers to do whatever Rani asks. Being a clever girl, she tells him that she wants one grain on the first day, and then for thirty days for him to give her double the rice he gave her the day before. So one grain, two grains, four grains, and so on. The raja thinks this is a good deal at first, but by the end of the month he has given Rani over a billion grains of rice and has none left for himself. Rani agrees to feed all the hungry people and then to leave a basket of rice for the raja as long as he promises never to take more than he needs again.

After reading the story, my husband (who grew up believing in the Protestant work ethic and American capitalism) explains the moral of the story to our son: “This story is about the importance of compound interest. If you start to save a little now, it can pay off big in the end.”

And I think, “Sure, the story does illustrate the wonder of compound interest.” (Admittedly, I have even double checked the book’s math, not sure that one grain could possibly become one billion in a month!) But I was raised in a Catholic household and so I explain a different moral of the story: “This story shows how God often uses those without power to teach a lesson to those who are using their power unjustly. It also reminds us not to seek to have more than we need, especially when having more than we need means our brothers and sisters go without.”

I read this story to my son and I want him to be able to see it through Catholic eyes. It will be awhile before he can say “preferential option for the poor,” but already he can learn to think about how his actions affect others and how he can give back to a world in which he already has so much. In all my complaining about the Catholic church, it is easy to forget the things I love about it: the sacramental worldview, Catholic social teaching, the shared emphasis on our human individuality and sociality. And it is these things I love that lead me to want to raise my son Catholic.

Claire Bischoff is a stay-at-home mom and Ph.D. candidate in religion at Emory University in religious education and practical theology. She co-edited My Red Couch and Other Stories on Seeking a Feminist Faith.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: