At Work & Public Square

Interview: Work, the Individual, and the Community

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Ismael Hernandez is the founder and executive director of the Freedom & Virtue Institute. He is an ex-Marxist Leninist from Puerto Rico. His father was a founding member of the Socialist Party on the island, and eventually Ismael joined the party with him. “America is the enemy of humanity,” was one of his father’s slogans.

Ismael’s mother, however, sneaked him off to Mass and fostered the development of a double consciousness in him. He later joined Jesuit Seminary, trying to make sense of these competing visions of the world.

After leaving seminary due to his inability to be sent to Sandinista Nicaragua, Ismael came to America. Here he eventually renounced Marxism and worked as the executive director of a Catholic ministry in the inner city for the Diocese of Venice.

Ismael founded the Freedom & Virtue Institute in 2008 to bring the ideas of individual liberty, limited government, self-reliance, and love for the poor to communities of color.

Ismael lives in Fort Myers with his wife and three children. He holds a Master’s Degree in Political Science and has lectured with the Foundation for Economic Education, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Acton Institute.

1. What does the intersection of faith, work, and economics mean to your life and your work?

The intersection of these things means something very different to me today than what it meant in the past. Growing up in a communist household and joining the party with a commitment to revolutionary activity, I thought that everything was about class.

Faith was collapsed into the foundation of class-consciousness, and work was integral to proletarian struggle. Work was what made the working class superior to the capitalist class. The latter was considered nothing more than a parasite feeding on labor. All aspects of human affairs were to collapse into the affairs and institutions of the state, as the embodiment of the quest for heaven on earth.

Having awakened from the nightmare of communist ideology, a story for another day, I see that faith, work, and economics intersect at the point of the human person.

The individual matters! Made in the image of God, the individual person is unique and unrepeatable, capable of moral self-realization, and called to actualize his or her dignity through work.

Work is a gift from God (Genesis 1:15) and economics is about the person actualizing that image. Faith is a sort of reminder of the wondrous work of grace in us and a voice calling us to live up to the meaning of what it is to be truly human.

2. Is the individual more important than the community? How should we think about individual dignity in relation to the Christian call to be one body of Christ?

The way the question is often presented offers a false dichotomy. One might better ask, what is the relative place of the individual within the community? Or, what is the meaning of living in community for the individual?

After all, there is no such thing as an unencumbered self, an atom that exists disconnected and disengaged. We did not drop down from the sky or pop up from the ground. From the beginning, the person is both unique and unrepeatable and a member of a social group.

Individuals simultaneously belong to a number of collectives. Our choices are our own, but they often have collective implications. Our dignity lies first in being made in the image of God.

The same God that knows our names individually made us with intrinsic capacities that must be actualized in relationship to others. That is why he invites us to be one with others in the body of Christ.

3. How does the Freedom and Virtue Institute live out a biblical understanding of faith, work, and economics?

The Freedom & Virtue Institute’s mission is built on the foundation of respect for human dignity, a dignity that is real because God is real and made us with his attributes embedded in our nature.

Created with reason and volition, we mirror a God who is both reason and creativity itself. Trust in the God who created us in such a magnificent way is the bedrock of our work with faith communities across the country.

Work is another gift bestowed on us by God:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it (Genesis 2:15).

Notice how work is given before sin enters into the picture. In the method of God’s design and government for man, work was seen as an essential feature. The word “economy” can be traced back to the Greek word oikonomos, “one who manages a household.”

Therefore, our institute believes in a God who created us with a dignity that is actualized through acts of creativity and stewardship. When man uses his hands and recreates his environment, he is managing the household of God.

4. How have you seen your Effective Compassion Trainings change the way a church helps the poor?

The first important change is in the renewal of the mind (Romans 12:2). People begin to see that the question, “What is poverty?” is not an important one. Instead, the key concept is human flourishing. Precisely because God has made us in his image, with dignity and creativity, we must begin to see the poor as subjects endowed with meaning instead of objects moved by outside forces.

A light is turned on when people ask the right questions and begin to see the poor not as victims but as agents of change.

When people are made aware of the facts about poverty, the history of the welfare state, and the values (or counter-values) that informed such a system, they are confronted with a decision: Are we to become faithful servants or the hired hand of the state? Are we going to join Pharaoh in keeping our people in bondage or assist in the journey toward the Promised Land?

Then it is rewarding as people explore the principles that informed Christian service for generations; the strength of our traditions and beliefs is there for the taking!

Finally, seeing people discuss how to bring about the changes necessary to move in the right direction through their initiatives is the most fascinating experience.

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