An blog by a member of the Catholic peace movement, Pax Christi, to explore the nexus between contemplation and resistance. "The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Infinite Greed




"The housing market is freefalling, setting new records every day for foreclosures, inventory, and declining prices. The banking system is in even worse shape; undercapitalized and buried under a mountain of downgraded assets. There seems to be growing consensus that these problems are not just part of a normal economic downturn, but the direct result of the Fed's monetary policies." - Mike Whitney, "How the Chicago Boys Wrecked the Economy"

Is this the end of the story? Not at all: "Your perspective is from the bottom looking up. But the financial model has been a great success from the vantage point of the top of the economic pyramid looking down. The economy has polarized to the point where the wealthiest 10% now own 85% of the nation’s wealth. Never before have the bottom 90% been so highly indebted, so dependent on the wealthy. From their point of view, their power has exceeded that of any time in which economic statistics have been kept." - Mike Whitney, "How the Chicago Boys Wrecked the Economy"

But have they won? It would appear so: "You have to realize that what they’re trying to do is to roll back the Enlightenment, roll back the moral philosophy and social values of classical political economy and its culmination in Progressive Era legislation, as well as the New Deal institutions. They’re not trying to make the economy more equal, and they’re not trying to share power. Their greed is (as Aristotle noted) infinite. So what you find to be a violation of traditional values is a re-assertion of pre-industrial, feudal values. The economy is being set back on the road to debt peonage. The Road to Serfdom is not government sponsorship of economic progress and rising living standards; it’s the dismantling of government, the dissolution of regulatory agencies, to create a new feudal-type elite." - Mike Whitney, "How the Chicago Boys Wrecked the Economy"

The Delusional Revolution




"The delusional revolution is my term for the development of sophisticated propaganda techniques in the 20th century (especially a highly emotive, image-based advertising system) that have produced in the bulk of the population (especially in First World societies) a distinctly delusional state of being. Even those of us who try to resist it often can't help but be drawn into parts of the delusion. As a culture, we collectively end up acting as if unsustainable systems can be sustained because we want them to be. Much of the culture's story-telling -- particularly through the dominant story-telling institutions, the mass media -- remains committed to maintaining this delusional state. In such a culture, it becomes hard to extract oneself from that story." - Robert Jensen, "The old future’s gone: Progressive strategy amid cascading crises"

That is precisely the essence of Christian resistance - to extract oneself from the story which the powers and principalities tell us about ourselves. It is the refinement of the stories, their consistent embellishment with all the trappings of sex, glitz, and great music that embeds in us ever more deeply the lie that we will be able to sustain the death march that underlies our life-style.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Original Gift




As a Catholic, there are two sources of basic Christian doctrine, the Bible first of all and then the teachings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, especially Saint Thomas Aquinas. So I'll use these sources to try and define what I think the basics of Christian economics are.

The foundation, I believe, is the Golden Rule: "You shall not oppress your neighbor...but you shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Lev. 19:13, 18) And the Bible actually has much to say about how to implement the Golden Rule in economic life. But before I get to that, a more fundamental assumption is that our goal as Christians is communion with God. Economic life should therefore promote communion with God by creating conditions that allow us to produce the goods we need for life in a way that promotes solidarity, sharing and compassion for the poor and weak.

St. Ambrose, one of the Fathers of the Church, and mentor to St. Augustine, stated, "God has ordered all things to be produced so that there should be food in common for all, and that the earth should be the common possession of all. Nature, therefore, has produced a common right for all, but greed has made it a right for few." (St. Ambrose, Duties of the Clergy, 1. 132). The implications of this teaching which is echoed in the most recent Catholic Catechism are very rich. "The right to private property, acquired by work or received from others by inheritance or gift, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise." Catechism 2403.

Notice that the emphasis is on production for sharing rather than survival and security. Of course, these are very important values, but the teaching implies that if we produce in order to share, then survival, security and many other such goods will be ours in abundance.

The inspiration behind this teaching are manifold, but let me cite one passage from Isaiah that anticipates the liberating words of Jesus, "Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh. Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am. If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not." (Isa. 58: 6 - 11)

I cite this magnificent passage because it epitomizes the "economics" of the prophets which Jesus brings to fulfillment. This passage, which informs so much of the teachings of the Fathers, proclaims that love of God can only be granted to us when we practice justice, especially to the poor and weak. What Isaiah is saying is not simply that we must be "charitable" to the poor, as if this were one of the many more or less equivalent duties we have as Christians, but that the love of God is inseparable from sharing the goods of this world with the poor, that communion with God cannot exist outside of solidarity with the oppressed.

The word that is normally translated as "charity to the poor" in the Old Testament is sedakah, which is literally translated as "justice". However, when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, the word was translated as "eleemosyne", or "almsgiving". This shifted the emphasis from what was originally a central command of Yahweh, that loving our neighbor as ourselves means freeing the poor from oppression, or more generally promoting an economics of sharing, to something extra, a work that is not really required for salvation, something that saints do, but not central to the faith.

Why is generosity to the poor and sharing of superfluous goods part of justice and not merely a good deed to be done or omitted according to the degree of our sanctity? For the answer to this, we must turn to St. Thomas Aquinas, who identifies well-being as follows: "For the well-being of the individual two things are necessary: the first and most essential is to act virtuously (it is through virtue, in fact, that we live a good life); the other, and secondary, requirement is rather a means, and lies in a sufficiency of material goods, such as are necessary to virtuous action." St. Thomas Aquinas, De Regimine Principum, chap. XV.

So the primary goal of an economic system should be to lead us to virtue which one day will be crowned by total communion with God. Secondarily, justice requires that all have a sufficiency of material goods so that all are materially capable of virtuous action. "...according to natural law goods that are held in superabundance by some people should be used for the maintenance of the poor. This is the principle enunciated by Ambrose..., "It is the bread of the poor that you are holding back; it is the clothes of the naked that you are hoarding; it is the relief and liberation of the wretched that you are thwarting by burying your money away..." St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, 66, 7

This leads directly to the principle that property rights are not absolute. Cardinal Tommaso Cajetan is considered one of the greatest commentators on St. Thomas Aquinas, and he commented on the Thomistic philosophy of property as follows, "Now what a ruler can do in virtue of his office, so that justice may be served in the matter of riches, is to take from someone who is unwilling to dispense from what is superfluous for life or state, and to distribute it to the poor. In this way he just takes away the dispensation power of the rich man to whom the wealth has been entrusted because he is not worthy. For according to the teaching of the saints, the riches that are superfluous do not belong to the rich man as his own but rather to the one appointed by God as dispenser, so that he can have the merit of a good dispensation." Catejan, Summa Theologica cum commentariis Thomae de Vio Cajetani, t. 6, II-II, 118, 3.

Note carefully that the reason the ruler has the God-given right to take superfluous wealth from the unjust rich person is to ensure "merit" for the wealthy person and thereby bring him or her closer to God.

I apologize for the length of this post, but I thought it might be useful to establish what I believe are the fundamental principles of economics according the Bible and the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Obviously, many books can and have been written on this topic and I would recommend in particular Christian Socialism by John C. Cort. For an ongoing commentary on current issues informed by the principles here enunciated, go to Nonviolent Jesus.

I close with Matthew 25: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?' And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.' Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.' Then they will answer and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?' He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.' And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Conscientizacion




The Latin American bishops at Medellin in 1968 laid great emphasis on conscientizicion, the growth in awareness of their social relations by rich and poor alike. Growth in social conscience was identified as an element in salvific work of the Church. The bishops stated, “The Christian quest for justice is a demand arising from biblical teaching. All men are merely humble stewards of material goods. In the search for salvation we must avoid the dualism which separates temporal tasks from the work of sanctification. Although we are encompassed with imperfections, we are men of hope. We have faith that our love for Christ and our brethren will not only be the great force liberating us from injustice and oppression, but also the inspiration for social justice, understood as a whole of life and as an impulse toward the integral growth of our countries.”

The idea of "conscientizicion" provokes much reflection in one who was taught from an early age that Christian life consists in an ever-deepening sensitivity of conscience. It suggests a constant struggle for greater depth of awareness, an inward growth that continually reflects on the spiritual implications of one’s inner and outer situation.

One description of what this conscientizicion consists of is provided by Paolo Friere, who wrote with characteristic directness, “Liberation, a human phenomenon, cannot be achieved by semihumans…The conviction of the oppressed that they must fight for their liberation is not a gift bestowed by the revolutionary leadership, but the result of their own conscientizacao…It is essential for the oppressed to realize that when they accept the struggle for humanization they also accept, from that moment their total responsibility for the struggle. They must realize that they are fighting not merely for freedom from hunger, but for…freedom to create and to construct, to wonder and to venture. Such freedom requires that the individual be active and responsible, not a slave or a well-fed cog in the machine…It is not enough that men are not slaves; if social conditions further the existence of automatons, the result will not be love of life, but love of death.” – The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Green Catholicism? An Examination, Part 1




"The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell:
the soil Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."

"...in summer 2007 the Arctic lost in a single week an area of ice almost twice the size of Britain." - John Simon, "The Moment of Truth - An Introduction", Monthly Review, July - August, 2008

The depth of the crisis is indicated by the response of Pope Benedict XVI. "In fact, environmentalism has emerged as perhaps the most distinctive new feature of Benedict XVI’s social teaching. Benedict touched upon the environment seven times during his July 12-21 trip to Australia, more often than he mentioned sexual abuse, the right to life, relativism, or any other social or cultural concern." - John L. Simon, "Catholic Environmentalism: Green teachings, initiatives take hold among Catholics worldwide", NCR, Aug. 8, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI has made the bond between human and natural ecology explicit in his Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace 2007, "In his Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II wrote: 'Not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given to him, but man too is God's gift to man. He must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed(6).' By responding to this charge, entrusted to them by the Creator, men and women can join in bringing about a world of peace. Alongside the ecology of nature, there exists what can be called a 'human' ecology, which in turn demands a 'social' ecology. All this means that humanity, if it truly desires peace, must be increasingly conscious of the links between natural ecology, or respect for nature, and human ecology. Experience shows that disregard for the environment always harms human coexistence, and vice versa. It becomes more and more evident that there is an inseparable link between peace with creation and peace among men. Both of these presuppose peace with God. The poem-prayer of Saint Francis, known as 'the Canticle of Brother Sun;, is a wonderful and ever timely example of this multifaceted ecology of peace."

The growing momentum of Catholic organizations toward ecological action cannot be doubted. But will voluntary efforts, no matter how sincere, be able to significantly impact the rapidly escalating crisis? First we need to uncover the true dimensions of that crisis.

James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the leading U.S. climatologist, wrote the following in an article on June 24, 2008 after his testimony to Congress on global warming, "Climate can reach points such that amplifying feedbacks spur large rapid changes. Arctic sea ice is a current example. Global warming initiated sea ice melt, exposing darker ocean that absorbs more sunlight, melting more ice. As a result, without any additional greenhouse gases, the Arctic soon will be ice-free in the summer. More ominous tipping points loom. West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are vulnerable to even small additional warming. These two-mile-thick behemoths respond slowly at first, but if disintegration gets well under way, it will become unstoppable. Debate among scientists is only about how much sea level would rise by a given date. In my opinion, if emissions follow a business-as-usual scenario, sea level rise of at least two meters is likely within a century. Hundreds of millions of people would become refugees, and no stable shoreline would be reestablished in any time frame that humanity can conceive. ... The tipping point for life on the planet will occur when so many interdependent species are lost that ecosystems collapse. The shocking conclusion, documented in a paper I have written with several of the world’s leading climate experts, is that the safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is no more than 350 ppm (parts per million), and it may be less. Carbon dioxide amount is already 385 ppm and rising about 2 ppm per year. Shocking corollary: the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation." - James Hansen, "Twenty Years Later: Tipping Points Near on Global Warming", Huffington Post, June 24, 2008

The conclusion is inescapable: This ecological crisis could soon result in the deaths and dislocations of hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings and the actions of our transnational corporations are directly responsible for it. What is equally inescapable is that depending on voluntary self-restraint cannot possibly meet the necessary goals for carbon reduction in the ten years we have left before the tipping point is reached and change becomes irreversible. In fact, we must ask "Can we make the necessary changes if the economic system that now rules the globe continues?"

Clearly, a crisis that has been caused by the massive economic forces brought into play by transnational corporations cannot be solved by planting trees. A systemic crisis requires a systemic response. The most widely promoted scheme for solving the crisis are market-based carbon abatement schemes. The underlying attitude is that only the power of markets can wield sufficient economic force to effectively impact the climate crisis.

James Hansen points to the culprits: "CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature. If their campaigns continue and 'succeed' in confusing the public, I anticipate testifying against relevant CEOs in future public trials." - James Hansen, "Twenty Years Later: Tipping Points Near on Global Warming", Huffington Post, June 24, 2008

Mr. Hansen blames these CEOs as if they were uniquely guilty, but they can no more break out of their economic preconceptions than can Mr. Hansen. Like them, he believes that the market will eventually correct this dire situation. These CEOs are simply acting as agents responsible to their stockholders, which is their legal obligation under the current economic system. That duty is to maximize the share value of the company. Share value can only be maximized by gaining the highest possible rate of return on the products they sell, which are based on fossil fuels. The more they promote the wide-spread usage of these fuels, the higher the rate of return to their companies. The less they have to pay for carbon abatement programs, the more will accrue to their bottom line. Therefore, their advantage will be achieved by pressuring governments to provide carbon credits for free or moving production to countries which do. Given the current economic crisis, pressurable countries will be lining up gladly to provide credits to transnational patrons.

And this is precisely what happened when the scheme was tried in the European Union, "When the European Union (EU) first established its emissions trading system, large numbers of carbon credits were handed out free to established emitters. When the oversupply of credits became obvious, prices collapsed. The right to pollute was now super-cheap, and all incentive to invest in cutting emissions vanished." - Renfry Clarke, "Can Markets Stop Climate Change?" GLR, Aug. 9, 2008

The "bottom line" that dooms all such plans is the necessity of continued, rapid growth in production and profits by transnational corporations. Our economic system cannot be sustained without such growth, so no plan can be acceptable unless it factors in such growth as part of its underlying premise. The carbon credit trading scheme is popular with governments for precisely this reason and unworkable for that same reason. There can be no solution unless we are able to subordinate profit to the values of human and planetary survival in a systemic way. Only an economic philosophy far different than the one which produced the crisis can address this moment of truth for the earth and human civilization.

The Economics of Climate Change, a massive study issued in 2007 commissioned by the UK Treasury Office provides the answer to why we cannot sustain growth and address the climate crisis at the same time. Hansen and his colleagues argue that carbon levels should be kept to 350ppm or below, but the study is "...very explicit that such a radical mitigation of the problem should not be attempted. The costs to the world economy of ensuring that atmospheric CO2 stabilized at present levels or below would be prohibitive, destabilizing capitalism itself. 'Paths requiring very rapid emissions cuts,' we are told, 'are unlikely to be economically viable.' If global greenhouse gas emissions peaked in 2010 the annual emissions reduction rate necessary to stabilize atmospheric carbon at 450 ppm, the Stern Review suggests, would be 7 percent, with emissions dropping by about 70 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. This is viewed as economically insupportable."

Such views are increasingly mainstream. James Speth served as chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality under President Carter, founded the World Resources Institute, co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council, was a senior adviser in President Clinton’s transition team, and administered the United Nations Development Programme from 1993 to 1999. In his most recent book, Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (2008), he paints the issue starkly, "Capitalism as we know it today," he writes, "is incapable of sustaining the environment."

Our failure is a failure to see outside the system that has produced our economic "success." We wish desperately to cling to what is destroying our world and ourselves. Will a Christian with true vision arise to speak of the God of life who can extract us from the lies in which we are embedded?

The Distinction of Planes




The Dominican priest Frei Betto was captured and tortured by the Brazilian military dictatorship during the 1960's and was taunted by his torturers for his Marxism. They asked him, "Have you forgotten that Marx considered religion to be the opium of the people?" He answered, "It is the bourgeoisie which has turned religion into an opium of the people by preaching a God, lord of the heavens only, while taking possession of the earth for itself."

I'd like to draw out the implications of this dichotomy by citing the "Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People", section 5: "Christ's redemptive work, while essentially concerned with the salvation of men, includes also the renewal of the whole temporal order. Hence the mission of the Church is not only to bring the message and grace of Christ to men but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel. In fulfilling this mission of the Church, the Christian laity exercise their apostolate both in the Church and in the world, in both the spiritual and the temporal orders. These orders, although distinct, are so connected in the singular plan of God that He Himself intends to raise up the whole world again in Christ and to make it a new creation, initially on earth and completely on the last day."

So I ask the same question as before: "What is the content of this humanization?" Does the renewal of the temporal order consist primarily of technological innovation, scientific discovery, or massive public works projects? These in themselves are not intensifications of our humanity, but simply applications of our current capabilities. The direction toward humanization is to become conscious agents of our own history, responsible for our own destiny. This growth in awareness of our agency, in our reciprocal impact on the world and its material and spiritual ecology leads to a more complete fulfillment of the Christian life because it more completely accords with the inner direction of human nature. The divine element in humanity is that which realizes our nature as creative beings, which is to say beings that constantly grow in spiritual freedom - freedom to love, to create and to become more responsive and aware of our connections to others in order to deepen our solidarity with all the living.

Interpreted in a personal sense, many Christians would probably endorse this viewpoint, but what is most commonly lacking today is a sense that “human beings are called to meet the Lord insofar as they constitute a community, a people.” - Gustavo Gutierrez, “A Theology of Liberation”. The current extreme emphasis on the individual meaning of salvation is an element in a larger social and economic strategy, the strategy Frei Betto alluded to in his statement to his torturers. The “heavenly” dimension of salvation, the relation of “the Alone with the Alone” (Plotinus), fits quite comfortably with the interests of those who wish to own the earth for their own profit. By keeping Christian attention rigidly focused on one’s own individual salvation the person’s embeddedness in his or her social matrix becomes secondary and in practice ignored as essential element in one’s spiritual life.

The phrase, “…the singular plan of God to raise up the whole world again in Christ”, makes the distinction between temporal and supernatural planes much more fluid than previously. It implies a new view of human action in history, and therefore of history become conscious of itself in humanity. “The building of a just society has worth in terms of the Kingdom, or in more current phraseology, to participate in the process of liberation is already, in a certain sense, a salvific work.” - Gustavo Gutierrez, “A Theology of Liberation”. We are saved not only by persisting in individual moral effort, but by recognizing and working toward the Kingdom on the social and political plane.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Fernando Lugo and the Rebirth of Liberation Theology




Paraguay, one of the poorest countries of Latin America, with a tragic history rarely mentioned in the reports on ex-bishop Fernando Lugo’s assumption of the presidency, was welcomed into the light on August 15 after the longest one-party rule anywhere in the world, 61 years of the repressive Colorado Party. To assess the meaning of this event, both for Paraguay and Latin America as a whole, it is necessary to uncover a tragedy whose long night may at last be lifting. According to Eduardo Galeano, “The woes of the Paraguayans stem from a war of extermination which was the most infamous chapter in South American history, the War of the Triple Alliance, they called it. Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay joined in committing genocide. They left no stone unturned, nor male inhabitants amid the ruins. Although Britain took no direct part in the ghastly deed, it was in the pockets of British merchants, bankers, and industrialists that the loot ended up.” Eduardo Galeano, “The Open Veins of Latin America”. Before the invasion, Paraguay “was the only Latin American country where begging, hunger, and stealing were unknown” (Galeano). In Paraguay in 1845, every child could read and write. Its economy flourished despite its landlocked confinement, “The economic surplus from agricultural production was not squandered by an oligarchy (which did not exist); nor did it pass into the pockets of middlemen and loan sharks, or swell the profits of the British Empire’s freight and insurance men. ..Ninety eight percent of Paraguayan territory was public property: the state granted holdings to peasants in return for permanently occupying and farming them, without the right to sell them…The lively encouragement of Jesuit traditions undoubtedly contributed to this creative process.” (Galeano). To those who say there is no alternative to savage capitalism, Paraguay before 1865 shines as a beacon of what is possible.

But the dangerous example of building a future “without British bank loans and the blessings of free trade” (Galeano) could not long be endured. President Solano Lopez of Paraguay soon became the Saddam Hussein of his day, “the Attila of America”; “He must be killed like a reptile” thundered the editorials. The war lasted five years. “It was a carnage from the beginning to end of the chain of forts defending the Rio Paraguay. The ‘opprobrious tyrant’ Solano Lopez was a heroic embodiment of the national will to survive; at his side the Paraguayan people, who had known no war for half a century, immolated themselves. Men and women, young and old, fought like lions. Wounded prisoners tore off their bandages so that they would not be forced to fight against their brothers. In 1870 Lopez, at the head of an army of ghosts, old folk and children who had put on false beards to make an impression from a distance, headed into the forest…When the bullets and spears finally finished off the Paraguayan president in the thickets of Cetro Cora, he managed to say: ‘I die with my country’ – and it was true. Paraguay died with him…When the war began, Paraguay had almost as large a population as Argentina. Only 250,000, less than one-sixth, survived in 1870. It was the triumph of civilization.” (Galeano). I have expanded on this episode because only in the full shadow of history can Fernando Lugo’s triumph be understood.

Shod in sandals such as St. Francis might have worn, Fernando Lugo wore the open-necked shirt known as the ao po’i, the garment that the indigenous Guaranis wear. For the first time in many decades, someone in power would notice the poorest in society. Beginning his address in the Guarani language, he gave living testimony that a President would finally speak to the people of the country rather than court their masters in Washington.

Naturally, the corporate media made no mention of Lugo’s enthusiastic support of liberation theology. Nicaragua’s poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal, the former minister of Nicaraguan culture, was in attendance, wearing an open-necked shirt and sporting his characteristic beret. After decades of dictatorship that turned Paraguay into one vast concentration camp, the first frail gestures of defiance against that form of sin known as capitalism were being raised.

There are many approaches to liberation theology, but Gustavo Gutierrez’s treatment, in the opinion of many, has yet to be surpassed. One of the central insights of liberation theology was formulated by St. Paul, "For freedom, Christ has set us free." (Gal. 5:1). What is the nature of this freedom? We are now free to love. "In the language of the Bible," writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "freedom is not something man has for himself but something he has for others... It is not a possession, a presence, an object, ... but a relationship between two persons. Being free means 'being free for the other,' because the other has bound me to him. Only in relationship with the other am I free." - Gustavo Gutierrez, "A Theology of Liberation". In other words, human freedom is freedom from all the social structures that reinforce our selfishness, as well as the personal decisions that result in a fixation on self.

The "freedom" which Paul speaks of is the primordial condition for the free development of humanity. Liberation theology sees human development as a field of grace, where we receive God's gifts through participation in liberating action, including growth in the awareness of the economic determinants of our ideological creations and therefore the freedom to reorder those determinants. In this perspective, temporal progress in the sense of greater control over natural processes, accompanied by an ever-deeper insight into how human societies repress their own potentiality for freedom, is seen as the continuation of the work of creation. The central project of Christian economics and politics becomes the overturning of the structures of sin, understood as those social structures which incarnate the spirit of selfishness, which reduce one segment of humanity to objects for another segment, which represent breaches in the solidarity that God wills for humanity, the humanization which is incarnate in Jesus Christ. According to Gutierrez, "...only the concept of the mediation of human self-creation in history can lead us to an accurate and fruitful understanding of the relationship between creation and redemption." - Gustavo Gutierrez, "A Theology of Liberation"

Humanization is the goal of liberation. "The human work, the transformation of nature, continues creation only if it is a human act, that is to say, if it is not alienated by unjust socio-economic structures." - Gustavo Gutierrez, "A Theology of Liberation". Liberating praxis is therefore the humanization of those socio-economic structures so that human beings can assume their own destiny. From this perspective, faith, far from being a hindrance to social liberation, actually sheds a new light on the process of liberation which would not be available without that faith. Progress is not simply a process of greater and greater control over nature through the application of reason, but is guided by an intelligence that pulses at the heart of the world, bending us toward justice in a way that lives beyond our material interests.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Humanization




Progressive political movements often speak about history as if it were a conscious agent. Marxists in particular personify history by making economics deterministic. But a materialistic viewpoint cannot really sustain a personified historical tendency because it cannot consistently attribute personal agency to what after all is simply transient conglomerations of material forces.

Those of us who are not materialists, however, can see an intelligent hand working in the midst of historical forces, bending the universe toward justice in the words of Martin Luther King. Those of us who continue to develop the insights of liberation theology use Moltmann's words as a guidepost, "...theological concepts do not limp after reality... They illuminate reality by displaying its future." And Gustavo Gutierrez, "...[Theology] is to penetrate the present reality, the movement of history, that which is driving history toward the future. To reflect on the basis of the historical praxis of liberation is to reflect in the light of the future which is believed in and hoped for. It is to reflect with a view to action which transforms the present. But it does not mean doing this from an armchair; rather it means sinking roots where the pulse of history is beating at this moment and illuminating history with the Word of the Lord of History, who irreversibly committed himself to the present moment of humankind to carry it to its fulfillment." - Gustavo Gutierrez, "A Theology of Liberation"

One of the central insights of liberation theology is formulated by Paul, "For freedom, Christ has set us free." (Gal. 5:1). What is the nature of this freedom? We are now free to love. "In the language of the Bible," writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "freedom is not something man has for himself but something he has for others... It is not a possession, a presence, an object, ... but a relationship between two persons. Being free means 'being free for the other,' because the other has bound me to him. Only in relationship with the other am I free." In other words, human freedom is freedom from all the social structures that reinforce our selfishness, as well as the personal decisions that result in a fixation on self.

The economic practice that incarnates this spirit of freedom is well summarized in the Communist Manifesto, "an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all." Or in words closer to the present, "Solidarity is for me to do well, I have to be concerned with others doing well and vice versa. The economy causes me to seek benefits in ways that benefit others too." - Michael Albert, "Parecon and Solidarity"

The "freedom" which Paul speaks of is the primordial condition for the free development of humanity. In contrast to those forms of Christianity that treat humanity as the passive recipient of spiritual gifts dispensed as heavenly commodities, liberation theology sees human development as the field of grace, where we receive God's gifts through participation in liberating action, in which growth in consciousness, the awareness of the economic determinants of our ideological creations and therefore, the freedom to reorder those determinants, is the outward expression of the inward transformation.

In this perspective, temporal progress in the sense of greater control over natural processes, accompanied by an ever-deeper insight into how human societies repress their own potentiality for freedom, is seen as the continuation of the work of creation. The central project of Christian economics and politics becomes the overturning of the structures of sin, understood as those social structures which incarnate the spirit of selfishness, which reduce one segment of humanity to objects for another segment, which represent breaches in the solidarity that God wills for humanity, the humanization which is incarnate in Jesus Christ.

The theological correlative of economic and social liberation is participatory salvation, a spiritual praxis in which human beings create their own salvation through growth in consciousness by reflection on liberating action. According to Gutierrez, "...only the concept of the mediation of human self-creation in history can lead us to an accurate and fruitful understanding of the relationship between creation and redemption." - Gustavo Gutierrez, "A Theology of Liberation"

"The human work, the transformation of nature, continues creation only if it is a human act, that is to say, if it is not alienated by unjust socio-economic structures." - Gustavo Gutierrez, "A Theology of Liberation" The praxis of salvation is therefore the humanization of those socio-economic structures so that human beings can assume their own destiny. From this perspective, faith, far from being a hindrance to social liberation, actually sheds a new light on the process of liberation which would not be available without that faith. Progress is not simply a process of greater and greater control over nature through the application of reason, but is guided by an intelligence that pulses at the heart of the world, bending us toward justice in a way that lives beyond our material interests.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Lord of Heaven and Earth




Recently, I came across an extraordinary statement in a comment on a Christian blog: "I don't think that Jesus was that concerned about life on the physical plane." This statement, which took my breath away, epitomizes a certain implicit and unBiblical attitude among Christians that I think is so widespread as to be rarely questioned or even made conscious.

While no one would dispute that Jesus cared primarily about our spiritual well-being, this concern cannot occur without caring about the facts of life on earth. To say that Jesus cares about our spirit, but is not that concerned about events on the physical plane is precisely the kind of specious dichotomy that is at the center of so much carelessness about issues of peace and justice among many Christians. Out of such dichotomies, wars are concocted, economies are ravaged, and the ecology of the earth laid waste.

God cares. He cares about us as spiritual beings. He cares about us as physical beings. In the Catholic tradition, the spiritual and physical parts of humanity are parts of a single totality which we call the "human being". This synthesis between the spiritual and earthly parts of man was made by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 12th century and I'd like to briefly recap it for those who may not be familiar with it.

St. Thomas asked himself the following question: "Since God is an incorporeal being and since our goal must be 'likeness to God', surely it must be said that the soul separated from the body is more like God than the soul united with the body." - Pieper, "Guide to Thomas Aquinas". This idea is so ingrained that even today it seems intuitively obvious to most Christians. Surely, no one could disagree with the idea that since God is a spiritual being that it is our duty to identify more and more closely with the spiritual side of our nature?

St. Thomas begs to differ. "The soul united with the body is more like God than the soul separated from the body because it (the soul in the body) possesses its nature in more complete fashion. Corporeality, therefore, is good." - Pieper, "Guide to Thomas Aquinas". This is a revolution in Christian thought whose consequences we have even now barely plumbed.

Let us draw out a few consequences. Sensuality is good, anger is good, sexuality is good. Each of these expresses the corporeal part of the human being which must be fulfilled in order for God's will for the complete human being to be achieved. For St. Thomas, "unsensuality", far from being something to aim at, is not merely a defect, but a moral deficiency.

Josef Pieper's Guide to Thomas Aquinas clarifies the central issue: "First, Thomas demonstrated that affirmative acceptance of the natural reality of the world and of the natural reality in man himself can be ultimately established and justified only in theological terms. The natural things of the world have a real, self-contained intrinsic being precisely by reason of having been created, precisely because the creative will of God is by its nature being-giving. That is to say that the will of God does not keep being for itself alone but truly communicates it (this, and this alone, is the meaning of 'to create': to communicate being). Precisely because there is a creation, there are independent entities and things which not only 'exist' for themselves, but also, of their own accord, can effect and affect." - Pieper, "Guide to Thomas Aquinas"

In other words, the physical part of creation shares in the creative potentiality of God. "The very autonomy and intrinsic effectiveness of created things proves the truly creative powers of God." - Pieper, "Guide to Thomas Aquinas" When we make scientific discoveries, pursue technical innovation, and transform unjust structures of sin, we are participating in the creative power of God.

Jesus Christ cares deeply about the physical creation. "What is, is good, because it was created by God; whoever casts aspersions upon the perfection of created things casts aspersions upon the perfection of the divine power." - Pieper, "Guide to Thomas Aquinas" Therefore, we are not called to flee the things of this world, but to redeem and perfect them through the complete development of our human potential.

Jesus Christ became flesh and demonstrated that flesh could be perfected. "One who believes that the Logos of God has, in Christ, united with the bodily nature of man, cannot possibly assume at the same time that the material reality of the world is not good." - Pieper, "Guide to Thomas Aquinas" The material reality of the world is redeemable in Christ.

Now let us draw out the consequences of the opposing attitude, the one that says that "Jesus is not that concerned about the physical plane." If Jesus is primarily concerned with the spiritual world, defined apart from the physical world, then the fact that billions live in oppression and destitution is not of ultimate concern. Perhaps God wills their destitution in some sense because their condition will be redeemed in (a purely spiritual) heaven in a way that might not be possible without the sufferings of this present life. Perhaps even the sufferings of those tortured in American prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan are necessary in order that their ultimate spiritual redemption might be achieved. After all, Jesus does not really care that much about physical sufferings as long as they lead to conversion and salvation. Is this not the typical "Christian" justification of the sufferings and injustices of this present world?

It is precisely this attitude that has so deeply alienated fighters for social justice from Christianity. And I believe that their angry reaction to this concept is more Biblical than its unthinking acceptance by mainstream Christians. For instance, when Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world" did he mean to say that his world was in a purely spiritual realm apart from this material world? To say this is to impute to Jesus concepts that were completely alien to the Biblical understanding in which Jesus was educated. The prayer that Jesus taught us says, "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." The implication is that earth is where humanity fulfills the will of God. In the words of the leading Biblical critic, John Dominic Crossan, "[The Kingdom of Heaven] is about the transformation of this world into holiness, not the evacuation of this world into heaven." - John Dominic Crossan, "God and Empire"

In Jesus' world, the distinction between spiritual and material in our sense of the terms did not exist. The kingdom of heaven is both a political and a spiritual reality, both simultaneously. This is the attitude that can unite fighters for social justice with Christians in a common battle to create a "civilization of love" in the words of John Paul II.

Xianity

I hate, I despise your choreographed worship services, and I take no delight in your megachurches. Even though you offer me your monthly tithes, I will not accept them, and the stock options of your fatted corporations I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your professionally trained choirs; to the melody of your hundred thousand dollar organ I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5: 21 -24)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Heart of a Heartless World



"For me, men are not divided into believers and atheists, but between oppressors and oppressed, between those who want to keep this unjust society and those who want to struggle for justice." - Frei Betto

The main task of Christians is to combat structural sin, whose primary form today is the heartless spiritual vacuum of globalized capital, sucking the life out of the poor to provide soul-destroying luxuries for the idle rich. Solidarity with the struggling masses is the primary expression of the love of God in a world such as ours.

The Brazilian Catholic Student Movement made the following declaration in 1960: "We have to say, without ambiguity or hesitation, that capitalism, historically realized, deserves only the calm condemnation of Christian consciousness. Is it necessary to justify this? It will be enough to recall here some of the alienations of human nature characteristic of the concrete capitalist situation: reduction of human labor to the condition of a commodity; dictatorship of private property, not subordinated to the demands of the common good; abuses of economic power; unbridled competition on one side, and monopolistic practices of all kinds on the other; central motivation as the pursuit of profit. The humanity of the worker cannot remain, in Brazilian society, submissive to the tyranny of money and of cruel competition, in short to the mechanism of capitalism."

The Latin American bishops at Medellin in 1968 laid great stress on the process of conscientizicion, the growth in awareness of their social relations by rich and poor alike. Growth in social conscience was identified as an element in salvific work of the Church. The bishops stated, “The Christian quest for justice is a demand arising from biblical teaching. All men are merely humble stewards of material goods. In the search for salvation we must avoid the dualism which separates temporal tasks from the work of sanctification. Although we are encompassed with imperfections, we are men of hope. We have faith that our love for Christ and our brethren will not only be the great force liberating us from injustice and oppression, but also the inspiration for social justice, understood as a whole of life and as an impulse toward the integral growth of our countries.”

Conscientizicion provokes much reflection in one who was taught from an early age that Christian life consists in an ever-deepening sensitivity of conscience. It suggests a constant struggle for greater depth of awareness, an inward growth that continually reflects on the spiritual implications of one’s inner and outer situation.

Perhaps the best description of what this conscientizicion consists of is provided by Paulo Friere, who wrote with his characteristic directness, “Liberation, a human phenomenon, cannot be achieved by semihumans…The conviction of the oppressed that they must fight for their liberation is not a gift bestowed by the revolutionary leadership, but the result of their own conscientizacao…It is essential for the oppressed to realize that when they accept the struggle for humanization they also accept, from that moment their total responsibility for the struggle. They must realize that they are fighting not merely for freedom from hunger, but for…freedom to create and to construct, to wonder and to venture. Such freedom requires that the individual be active and responsible, not a slave or a well-fed cog in the machine…It is not enough that men are not slaves; if social conditions further the existence of automatons, the result will not be love of life, but love of death.” – The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

"Have you forgotten that Marx considered religion to be the opium of the people?" - the Brazilian torturers asked Fr. Frei Betto, the Dominican priest.

He answered: "It is the bourgeoisie which has turned religion into an opium of the people by preaching a God, lord of the heavens only, while taking possession of the earth for itself."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Seek Ye First the Kingdom of Heaven




As Christians, we should target our economic vision using the fundamental truths revealed to us by the Bible, the saints and Fathers of the Church. St. Thomas Aquinas has shown us that the goal of a society should to create a field of virtue in which its members can pursue their salvation in solidarity. Well-being arises from two factors according to St. Thomas: "For the well-being of the individual two things are necessary: the first and most essential is to act virtuously (it is through virtue, in fact, that we live a good life); the other, and secondary, requirement is rather a means, and lies in a sufficiency of material goods, such as are necessary to virtuous action." St. Thomas Aquinas, De Regimine Principum, chap. XV. From this we see that the goal of economics is to provide sufficient material goods to form the basis for the life of virtue. Rather than making security or survival or constant expansion of material goods the goal of economic policy, Christian economics must be centered in promoting the exercise of those virtues which lead to salvation.

Today we see the beginnings of such a society growing in Venezuela. The Bolivarian Revolution is rapidly eliminating the raging poverty which the Venezuelan people have long suffered despite the oil wealth of their country, but beyond that it aims at creating an economic system consistent with the highest standards of human dignity.

Hugo Chavez, the leader of this revolution, is a genuine follower of Jesus Christ. He has put into practice the words of Jeremiah, "Woe to him who builds his house on wrong, his terraces on injustice; Who works his neighbor without pay, and gives him no wages. Who says, 'I will build myself a spacious house, with airy rooms,' Who cuts out windows for it, panels it with cedar, and paints it with vermilion. Must you prove your rank among kings by competing with them in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink? He did what was right and just, and it went well with him. Because he dispensed justice to the weak and the poor, it went well with him. Is this not true knowledge of me? says the LORD." (Jer. 22: 13 - 16)

True knowledge of God, according to Jeremiah, is to dispense justice to the needy and poor. Chavez has put love into action by reducing poverty by 38%, lifting up those who would never have had the slightest chance of education or real health care under the brutal oligarchy which flourished by the patronage of U.S. oil companies and is so desperate for the return of its unjust privileges.

A brief examination of the Bolivarian constitution shows that "human development" or what Aquinas would have called "the pursuit of virtue" must take precedence over profit: "In the 1999 constitution, Article 299, for example, emphasizes 'human development' as the cornerstone of social judgments and Article 70 states that the 'involvement of people in the exercise of their social and economic affairs should be manifest through citizen service organs, self-management, co-management, cooperatives in all forms, community enterprises, as well as other kinds of associations guided by the values of mutual cooperation and solidarity.'" - Michael Albert, "Which Way Venezuela?"

In other words, the development of the human person, through participation in collective decision-making, exercising mature social judgement, and learning cooperation through mutual support and empathy is the basis for the new society now blooming across the sea. In this way, the virtue of Christian solidarity is born through actual practice, through recognition of the dignity and capacity for of each person in collective action for the good of the whole. This new path is a stark contrast to the passive despair and brutalization that reigned where U.S. corporate interests dominate.

These beautiful goals have been accompanied by programs which have truly raised people from rampant poverty, unlike the trickle-down theories that have made poverty permanent wherever they were tried. What we see in Venezuela today are cooperative ventures incarnated in new social formations: "Another innovative feature of the Bolivarian project - or revolution - depending on your opinion - are the Socialist Production Units. These 'are companies run by the government and marked by extensive community involvement. UPS's are found predominantly in the agricultural sector, and they promote national agricultural sovereignty. Part of the profits of these companies is invested into community projects, which are identified jointly with local community leaders. In the long term, UPS's will ideally be handed over directly to the community and run as community enterprises.'" - Michael Albert, "Which Way Venezuela?"

Note that profits are made to be invested in community projects. Profits are shared in a way that builds community, that is aimed toward cultivating common interests. Such an economy does not condemn profits, but subordinates them to the good of the entire collective, rather than making them a goal unto themselves.

These are down-to-earth realizations of what I referred to in an earlier posting when I spoke about the difference between an economy that promotes solidarity and one which is based on creating divisions. The owners of capital in our U.S. economy profit more and get higher stock prices for their companies if 1) workers get less pay; 2) workers get fewer benefits; 3) workers work more intensely with less time off; and 4) workers are organizationally weak. These observations are not theories or the result of some emotional animosity to competition, but objective facts. Whether you are a buccaneer capitalist or a pacifist anarchist, these facts are widely admitted.

It is equally clear that such an economic system works directly against the Christian virtue of solidarity. Our primary social duty as Christians is to care for others, and grow in compassion. This growth in virtue can be fostered only by an economic system that vigorously rewards shared interests and common aspirations toward justice and equality. The current U.S. economic system not only works against solidarity, but makes those who obey their conscience less competitive.

Christian economics creates modes of production, allocation, and consumption that enhance ties among people. The Law of Reciprocity in economics means that in order for me to do well, I have to be concerned with helping others to do well. As I seek my benefits, economic forces pull me toward finding benefits for others. Fostering empathy and fellow feeling is the goal of a Christian economy, not efficiency, survival, security or any of the other idols of the capitalist economy. As Jesus proclaimed, "Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and all these things will be added unto you."

"Capitalism is the way of the devil and exploitation. If you really want to look at things through the eyes of Jesus Christ — who I think was the first socialist — only socialism can really create a genuine society." - Hugo Chavez

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Few are Guilty, All are Responsible




"Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual's crime discloses society's corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every man, crime would be infrequent rather than common." Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets

Much the same could be said of the state of the American soul. Every time a member of a Christian church fails to examine current policy concerning torture in the light of his or her Christian faith, he makes it that much easier for the torture to continue. And the longer it continues, the more established it becomes. Every time one of us refuses to stand up and protest an illegal, immoral war, such wars become a little easier to launch. Over time, we become responsible for what our government does, especially in a partially democratic society such as the United States.

Would George Bush and Dick Cheney be able to commit their war crimes with so little resistance if the spirit of society were different? For creating that spirit, we all are responsible.

The list of unjust U.S. wars is a long one: Vietnam, proxy wars against the people of Chile, Argentina, and other Latin American countries, and now Iraq and Afghanistan. We are responsible for several million deaths (three million Vietnamese, one million Iraqis, hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans), but we continue to look the other way.

Much could be said to qualify our guilt: a suspect electoral system which is dominated by moneyed elites who primarily serve their corporate masters; a carefully controlled news media which utilizes sophisticated propaganda techniques to divert citizens from real democratic action; mass-media industries dedicated to selling diversions to consumers and misinformation aimed at crippling meaningful political action.

But each in our own degree has contributed to the dire moral situation in which we find ourselves. And in the society around us we can recognize our own face. Many Christians will say, "But this world is not our lasting home - we are citizens of heaven." Then show yourself to be such by transforming the greed and inhumanity in which we wallow.

It is our fate to endure the guilt of an abundant life in an empire which is carelessly destroying the only home any of us will ever have. Not simply eviscerating the physical ecology, but primarily the moral and spiritual ecology that has kept hope alive through these centuries.

In the words of Robert Jensen, "We must hold ourselves and each other accountable, while knowing that the powerful systems in place are not going to change overnight simply because we have good arguments and are well-intentioned. We must ask ourselves why we don't do more, while recognizing that none of us can ever do enough. We must be harsh on ourselves and each other, while retaining a loving connection to self and others, for without that love there is no hope.

...

As Heschel put it, "the prophets endure and can only be ignored at the risk of our own despair." To contemplate these harsh realities is not to give in to despair, but to make it possible to resist." - Robert Jensen, "The prophetic challenge: 'Few are guilty, but all are responsible'"

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Sit Above the Stars




"Greed says: 'I snatch all things to myself. I hug all things to my breast; the more I have gathered the more I have.... When I have whatever I need, I have no worries about needing anything from someone else.' Simple sufficiency replies: 'You are harsh and devoid of mercy because you do not care for the advancement of others. Nothing is sufficient to satisfy you. I, however, sit above the stars, for all of God's good things are sufficient for me.... Why should I desire more than I need?'" - Hildegard of Bingen.

As a Catholic, there are two sources of basic Christian doctrine, the Bible first of all and then the teachings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, especially Saint Thomas Aquinas. So I'll use these sources to try and define what I think the basics of Christian economics are.

The foundation, I believe, is the Golden Rule: "You shall not oppress your neighbor...but you shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Lev. 19:13, 18) And the Bible actually has much to say about how to implement the Golden Rule in economic life. But before I get to that, a more fundamental assumption is that our goal as Christians is communion with God. Economic life should therefore promote communion with God by creating conditions that allow us to produce the goods we need for life in a way that promotes solidarity, sharing and compassion for the poor and weak.

St. Ambrose, one of the Fathers of the Church, and mentor to St. Augustine, said, "God has ordered all things to be produced so that there should be food in common for all, and that the earth should be the common possession of all. Nature, therefore, has produced a common right for all, but greed has made it a right for few." St. Ambrose, Duties of the Clergy, 1. 132. The implications of this teaching which is echoed in the most recent Catholic Catechism are very rich. "The right to private property, acquired by work or received from others by inheritance or gift, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise." Catechism 2403.

Notice that the emphasis is on production for sharing rather than survival and security. Of course, these are very important values, but the teaching implies that if we produce in order to share, then survival, security and many other such goods will be ours in abundance.

The inspiration behind this teaching are manifold, but let me cite one passage from Isaiah that anticipates the liberating words of Jesus, "Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers...Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh. Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am. If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not." (Isa. 58: 3, 6 - 11)

I cite this magnificent passage because it epitomizes the "economics" of the prophets which Jesus brings to fulfillment. This passage, which informs so much of the teachings of the Fathers, proclaims that love of God can only be granted to us when we practice justice, especially to the poor and weak. What Isaiah is saying is not simply that we must be "charitable" to the poor, as if this were one of the many more or less equivalent duties we have as Christians, but that the love of God is inseparable from sharing the goods of this world with the poor, that communion with God cannot exist outside of solidarity with the oppressed.

The word that is normally translated as "charity to the poor" in the Old Testament is sedakah, which is literally translated as "justice". However, when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, the word was translated as "eleemosyne", or "almsgiving". This shifted the emphasis from what was originally a central command of Yahweh, that loving our neighbor as ourselves means freeing the poor from oppression, or more generally promoting an economics of sharing, to something extra, a work that is not really required for salvation, something that saints do, but not central to the faith.

Why is this generosity to the poor, this sharing of superfluous goods, part of justice and not merely a good deed to be done or omitted according to the degree of our sanctity? For the answer to this, we must turn to St. Thomas Aquinas, who identifies well-being as follows: "For the well-being of the individual two things are necessary: the first and most essential is to act virtuously (it is through virtue, in fact, that we live a good life); the other, and secondary, requirements is rather a means, and lies in a sufficiency of material goods, such as are necessary to virtuous action." St. Thomas Aquinas, De Regimine Principum, chap. XV.

So the primary goal of an economic system should be to lead us to virtue which one day will be crowned by total communion with God. Secondarily, justice requires that all have a sufficiency of material goods so that all are materially capable of virtuous action. "...according to natural law goods that are held in superabundance by some people should be used for the maintenance of the poor. This is the principle enunciated by Ambrose..., "It is the bread of the poor that you are holding back; it is the clothes of the naked that you are hoarding; it is the relief and liberation of the wretched that you are thwarting by burying your money away..." St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, 66, 7

This leads directly to the principle that property rights are not absolute. Cardinal Tommaso Cajetan is considered one of the greatest commentators on St. Thomas Aquinas, and he commented on the Thomistic philosophy of property as follows, "Now what a ruler can do in virtue of his office, so that justice may be served in the matter of riches, is to take from someone who is unwilling to dispense from what is superfluous for life or state, and to distribute it to the poor. In this way he just takes away the dispensation power of the rich man to whom the wealth has been entrusted because he is not worthy. For according to th teaching of the saints, the riches that are superfluous do not belong to the rich man as his own but rather to the one appointed by God as dispenser, so that he can have the merit of a good dispensation." Catejan, Summa Theologica cum commentariis Thomae de Vio Cajetani, t. t, II-II, 118, 3.

Note carefully that the reason the ruler has the power to take superfluous wealth from the unjust rich person is to ensure "merit" for the wealthy person and thereby bring him or her closer to God.

I thought it might be useful to establish what I believe are the fundamental principles of economics according the Bible and the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Obviously, many books can and have been written on this topic and I would recommend in particular Christian Socialism by John C. Cort.

I close with Matthew 25: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?' And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.' Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.' Then they will answer and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?' He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.' And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Saturday, August 02, 2008

The Vision




"It is the vision of a society with the goal (according to Saint-Simon) of providing to its members 'the greatest possible opportunity for the development of their faculties', a goal to which Louis Blanc referred as ensuring that everyone has 'the power to develop and exercise his faculties in order to really be free' and of a society in which, according to Friedrich Engels, 'every member of it can develop and use all his capabilities and powers in complete freedom and without thereby infringing the basic conditions of this society'" - Michael Lebowitz, "The Spectre of Socialism for the 21st Century"

This is the dream that cannot die. The fundamental injustice of capitalism is that it subjugates the development of our human capacities, for compassion, for creativity, for spirituality, to the demands of the marketplace. It then mystifies a situation which is the conscious creation of committed ideologues as the natural state of fallen humanity. As Christians, we have the legacy of a vision of the rich human being, exemplified most clearly in Jesus Christ and lived by saints throughout the ages. The subordination of our moral and spiritual aspirations to economic brutalization, along with the military excursions which this requires, can no longer be tolerated.

The division between secular economic life and personal religious life is an historical artifact. The new economic order which arose in the sixteenth century found it necessary to separate religious concerns from economic "necessities" in order to extend its profitable reach. The legacy of this split is the impotence of Christians and other religious to speak with clear and consistent authority on economic practices that violate the fundamental moral truths that Jesus Christ died in bringing to us.

But new voices such as Leonardo Boff who speaks out for another kind of spirituality "based on an ethic of responsibility, solidarity and compassion; and a spirituality founded in care, in the intrinsic value of each thing, in a task well performed, in competence, in honesty and in transparency of intentions." - Leonardo Boff, "Essential Care: An Ethics of Human Nature"

Real wealth is the person who is rich in his or her own humanity, rich in qualities and relations. Real wealth is the development of human capacity, for invention, for creation, for the unbiased pursuit of truth, for an ever-increasing sense of solidarity with others, especially those most marginalized. Jesus has shown us the way to true wealth. He provides the spiritual underpinning of that "development of all human powers as such the end in itself", which Marx spoke of as the goal of liberated humanity. Instead of acting as disposable batteries for the expansion of the wealth of others, we rise up in our essential humanity and refuse to subordinate the rich potentialities which God has given us to that which is fundamentally immoral - the enrichment of the few through the enslavement of the many.

We stand at a point in history where our need for development must begin to take precedence over the dominance of global capital which is destroying the very earth that it leeches from. The means to provide a decent life free from hunger and treatable diseases for all the people of this world now exists. The fact that these means are not being employed to carry out this purpose is a shocking scandal to the Christian conscience. "Our goal, in short, cannot be a society in which some people are able to develop their capabilities and others are not; we are interdependent, we are all members of a human family. Thus our goal must be the full development of all human potential." - Michael Lebowitz, "The Spectre of Socialism for the 21st Century"

This implies that we are participants, not consumers. Our fully developed capacity for conceiving and implementing new social forms requires that we participate in the formation of our own social reality. The cynical passivity which sits at the end of the pipe of production and sucks down whatever is generated by corporations implies a severely stunted humanity. It is by producing that change ourselves that we become transformed and enliven the powers of transformation. Social change is not a gift bestowed from on high by Presidents, policy wonks, or Congressional representatives. It is a burning hunger within ourselves to participate in the shaping of our own political and economic world, shaping them according the spiritual standards that grow within our hearts as we grow in the love of God.

Our struggle - to love God and transform society - is the means by which we grow as human beings. This power is not something we find in the voting booth, but it can only be discovered as we struggle to become more human in our relationships with others and to reject the passivity which consumerism instills. Change in ourselves is the only path to social change.

Orthopraxis is the daily practice of reinventing ourselves as rich human beings. We live democracy by practicing democratic action in our work life, our schools, and in our families. We do not believe that Christ has called us to crippling, impoverishing labor that stunts our humanity in order to glut a tiny minority with enough worldly goods to feed whole countries, which are then frittered away in useless luxuries. If the right to private property permits this, then that right is a slap in the face of God's people.

The consumerist culture is not merely an expression of fallen human nature which we must resist privately by refusing sinful temptations to avarice and gluttony. It is a consciously cultivated ideology which produces alienated and fragmented human beings who must try to satisfy themselves by possessing and consuming things. It is a deliberately anti-spiritual ideology which stunts and truncates human nature in the interests of profit, often with the collusion of Christian churches.

While socialists are often accused, particularly by Christians, of instilling class hatred, the truth is that class hatred is a fundamental feature of this economic system. In this system, we relate to each other as competitors or customers. Thus in every social transaction, we are habituated to treating others as means to our own ends or as enemies. This applies particularly to the relations between owners and workers. The system is designed to objectify workers in the eyes of owners, reducing workers to mere expendable units to be discarded at the least expense when worn out. This is the root of class hatred, not socialist propaganda. Our relationships with others are rarely fulfilling because of the training in manipulation which we have all undergone, and which has left us fragmented and crippled human beings. Human beings torn apart and longing for a real unity with others that always eludes them are duped into a magical unity promised by megachurches.

So what is the alternative? The new Jerusalem, the original unity of the human beings and in the words of Augustine, the common destiny of the world's goods: "God willed that this earth should be common possession of all and he offered its fruits to all. But avarice distributed the rights of possession." The redemption of the world includes redeeming possession, so that all might share in the bounty of the earth.