"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.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Guilty in Defence

"I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie buried.
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh fair virgins and your flowering infants.
What is it then to me, if impious war
Arrayed in flames like to the prince of fiends
Do with his smirched complexion all fell feats
Enlinked to waste and desolation?
What is't to me, when you yourselves are the cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?
. . . why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes
What say you? Will you yield, and this avoid?
Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroyed?"

- Henry V

Thus Henry evokes the spirit of war, including how Christian Just War theory works in practice. Since we, for instance in the case of Iraq or Iran, represent the Christian power threatened by nuclear bomb-toting Muslims, our invasion is actually a work of charity. Despite appearances, they are the guilty party. Therefore the fact that we have wasted the entire infrastructure of the most modern Arab country in the Middle East, killed 1.2 million of their citizens, rammed through laws that guarantee scandalous profits to our oil companies for the next 30 years, and deliberately inflamed and armed Sunni/Shiite death squads, provoking ethnic cleansing and horrific tortures, is all eminently justified. It is justified by the righteousness of our cause while Iraqi guilt is confirmed by their ingratitude for the gift of freedom. Surely we have done enough for them, they now have the duty to reconstruct their own country. We have done all we could.

As a Catholic, I find myself compelled to support the "just war" case famously made by George Weigel before the Iraq invasion, where he stated, "When a regime driven by an aggressive fascist ideology has flouted international law for decades, invaded two of its neighbors, and used weapons of mass destruction against its foreign and domestic enemies; when that regime routinely uses grotesque forms of torture to maintain its power, diverts money from feeding children to enlarging its military, and rigorously controls all political activity so that effective internal resistance to the dictator is impossible; when that kind of a regime expands its stores of chemical and biological weapons and works feverishly to obtain nuclear weapons (defying international legal requirements for its disarmament), tries to gain advanced ballistic missile capability (again in defiance of U.N. demands), and has longstanding links to terrorist organizations (to whom it could transfer weapons of mass destruction) - when all of that has gone on, is going on, and shows no signs of abating, then it seems plausible to me to assert that aggression is underway, from a just war point of view." - George Weigel, "The Just War Case for the War"

As Jesus taught long ago, we become the mirror image of what we hate. The U.S. requires enemies for many reasons, some of them economic, some of them psychological, but the most important of them are related to the fact that creating enemies allows us to turn our gaze away from the mirror in which our own grotesque visage peaks out and cries for vengeance.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Madness and Shame

"Without struggle, there is no progress." - Frederick Douglass

"Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping in filth, this capitalist society stands. Not as we usually see it, playing the roles of peace and righteousness, of order, of philosophy, of ethics — as a roaring beast, as an orgy of anarchy, as pestilential breath, devastating culture and humanity — so it appears in all its hideous nakedness. A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means. This world war is a regression into barbarism." Rosa Luxembourg, The Junius Pamphlet

The legacy of capitalism for the 21st century consists of:

The breakdown of agricultural systems as a result of increased exposure to drought, rising temperatures, and more erratic rainfall, leaving up to 600 million more people facing malnutrition as a direct result of fossil fuel propaganda.

An additional 1.8 billion people facing water stress by 2080, with large areas of South Asia and northern China facing a grave ecological crisis as a result of glacial retreat and changed rainfall patterns.

Displacement through flooding and tropical storm activity of up to 332 million people in coastal and low-lying areas. Over 70 million Bangladeshis, 22 million Vietnamese, and six million Egyptians could be affected by global warming-related flooding.

Expanding health risks, including up to 400 million more people facing the risk of malaria.

Such is the legacy of 21st century capitalism, to name the beast. My tolerance has grown thin for a system that has destroyed the lives of 2 billion people in order to ensure the endless multiplication of Bill Gates' wealth. Christians, blinded by a mental myopia that cannot see beyond personal serenity, are deaf to the cries that multiply in compassion's void. Religion has failed to carry out the only task it has ever been truly charged with - to relieve the hunger, the despair, the grief of those without power.

These are the cries of Jesus Christ. Not for more religion, more illustrious liturgies, more consoling theologies - what does He care for these while his people lay starving on the garbage heaps of the planet of slums?

Each of us can hear His cries, but our will is frozen, we cannot respond.

The Seamless Garment

"I mistrust one's 'pro life' stance if he calls for one hundred years of war upon Iraq, or the use of nuclear weapons on Iran, or the maintenance of the U.S. imperial military force. If you care for the unborn, you will work for the abolition of war and nuclear weapons. You'll work for the creation of equality among women and men. You'll work for the elimination of poverty and despair -- all of them causes of abortion. A 'pro-lifer' will work for the institutionalization of nonviolence across the board." - John Dear, "Nonviolence and the presidential campaign"

The "institutionalization of nonviolence" requires deep thought about our current institutions, economic, political, and cultural. Yet those who truly care about nonviolence must make the effort to see all of God's creation as a seamless garment of beauty and peace. This includes economics. We are called to remake our economic system into one that reflects the love that should fill God's creation. We cannot wait for God to remake this world for us - he has given us the vocation to remake it with our faith.

Does this mean we must judge ourselves by our success in this endeavor? No more than we judge Jesus according to his worldly success. But what does God's economics look like? "The original blessing of Genesis was abundance, food, clothing, shelter for every human born, enough for every sensible modest need. Jesus is underscoring that original blessing, conferring it on ourselves. 'Live in accord with it,' he urges. The original blessing is the realm of God come to earth, the ethos that governs and binds creation." - Daniel Berrigan, "Living as Though the Text were True"

"Nonviolence is consistent -- ingenuous. It opposes anything that hurts another or takes life. A consistent ethic of nonviolence links all issues together. It finds a fundamental truth in the basic understanding that all human life is sacred. Violence is inconsistent -- tumultuous, chaotic. It assaults our minds with lies, confusion, and fears -- all of it to gain a free hand in killing and scapegoating." - John Dear, "Nonviolence and the presidential campaign"

Linking all these issues together, how can we feed and clothe ourselves without murdering half the planet? By building an economic system that thrives on solidarity and respect for human life, rather than making profit it's exclusive goal. This ethic is totally incompatible with the economic system under which we currently groan. All human life is sacred and must be privileged over any other consideration in the new economics, particularly the enrichment of the few. What about an economics in which no one is allowed to be wealthy as long as a single person is hungry?

"We restore the original blessing by living as if it were true." - Daniel Berrigan, "Living as Though the Text were True"

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Christian Moral Order

"Capitalist progress, he said, resembled a 'hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.' - Karl Marx, "The Future Results of British Rule in India"

The skulls of the slain lie in profusion across the Middle East where the U.S. and Israel revel in the wreckage of their shock therapy. What is becoming clear is that proposals for reforming the current economic and political system in order to preserve the lifestyle that we have grown addicted to have been rendered futile. The system will change, and if we fight the change, then it will change against our will. If we embrace the role of visionary, then perhaps we can change the world and live the visions of participatory democracy which have lain latent in our hearts since the upheavals and dreams of the sixties and before. The alternative is species extinction.

What is the record of the current triumphal economic and political system? "More than 250 million people, most of them civilians, were killed in the wars of extermination and mass atrocities of the 20th Century. This century continues that record: in less than eight years over three million people have died in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Third World, and at least 700,000 have died in 'natural' disasters." - "If socialism fails: the spectre of 21st century barbarism"

Most of that three million were murdered in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They lay rotting in their graves like a ghastly warning of what we have become. What is the nature of this economic system?

Too often Christians unthinkingly accept the assumptions of materialist economics. As significant as economic results and historical analysis might be, as Christians, I believe we have deeper commitments that economic practice must reflect. The perhaps unexamined assumption behind much contemporary religious discussion is that the primary purpose of an economic system is to produce an abundance of consumer goods. But what should the goal of an economic system be if we are to fulfill Christ's call to solidarity?

Here is a passage from Rerum Novarum (Catholic social encyclical by Pope Leo XIII) which is should be heeded by those who would praise Walmart: "Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice." What is this "dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man"? It is the Christian principle found in hundreds of Biblical passages, but which might be summarized in this passage, "Do not rob the poor because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord will plead their cause and despoil of life those who despoil them." (Prov. 22: 22 - 23). The implication of the encyclical passage is that it is the act whereby the employer keeps for himself a disproportionate share of the income of the business that is the root of the injustice. The further implication is that these workers are being permanently robbed with the support and approval of the prevailing legal system, of what is their due by natural right.

The Biblical principle on which this is based is that to give alms to the poor is to do justice. Note that this does not mean that charity is an extra good deed above and beyond what is necessary for salvation, but that charity is what is owed to the poor. A further implication is that justice does not simply mean paying just wages and providing benefits, the minimal definition of economic humanity, but that it must include an essential ingredient of generosity, the sharing of superfluous goods. Billionaires are not morally neutral according to Biblical teachings.

The Fathers of the Church were particularly passionate about this teaching. Jerome comments in this way about Luke 16:9 (And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings.): "And he very rightly said, "money of injustice", for all riches come from injustice. Unless one person has lost, another cannot find. Therefore I believe that the popular proverb is very true: 'The rich person is either an unjust person or the heir of one.'" Jerome: Carta 120 (PL 22, col 984). Many other such passages could be cited. For instance, Augustine describes the common destiny of goods as follows: "God willed that this earth should be the common possession of all and he offered its fruits to all. But avarice distributed the rights of possession." Augustine, De Trinitate, PL 42, col. 1046.

I conclude with the words of the Catholic Catechism that ring with hope that echoes through the centuries, "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.

Plot Goodness

Is capitalism really the bringer of economic gifts that most Christians believe it is? The conventional Christian viewpoint is well summarized by a blogger on the progressive CrossLeft site: ""I personally think capitalism is a neutral system, with its benefits and flaws. Adam Smith wrote that individuals who pursue their self interests in a competitive system often inadvertently create widespread social gains. In the 19th Century, the Industrial Revolution created a middle class of over 100 million people in the U.S. Free market reforms in the 1970s have given China a middle class of over 200 million people today. India has now a middle class of 200 million people due to its free markets."

But is it actually capitalism that brought these benefits? Or was it rather the spirit of creativity and invention that inspired thousands of talented people to enjoy the gifts God gave them? Were these not actually the motivating factors behind the growth of science and technology? Most great scientific discoveries and technical inventions were made by those who enjoyed these studies for their own sake. Closer examination reveals that capitalists feed off the creative activity of innovators in ways that suck them dry of most of the benefits such inventions might have made. A truly creative economic structure could have erected far more inspiring technological benefits than anything that capitalism, with its prematurely truncated vision of humanity, has been able to achieve. Profit, far from being an inspiration to invention, has muddied the sources of inspiration and stopped up the very possibility of a truly creative science and technology. What we are left with are the starved remnants, the stumps of possibility which capitalism has clear cut.

Catholic social teaching teaches us that the dignity of the human person is the measure of a moral society. The current economy system denies the dignity of the human person in a number of concrete and devastating ways.

Let's see what the economics of peace might look like. First, if I own the means of production and you work for me, our economic interests are opposed, as counter-intuitive as this may seem. Most think that since the success of the enterprise depends on both our efforts that our interests must be the same, but this is true only in the ideal. The fact is that the more I as owner retain as profit, the faster my business grows and the more other owners will want to purchase stock in it. That "more" comes partially from you the worker. Theoretically, I could use that "more" to pay you more, but by doing so, I make my business less attractive and lower its stock price. I have yet to detect the slightest granule of Christian moral teaching in this arrangement.

Christianity is about humanization, yet it would appear that Christians are incapable of the moral imagination necessary to transcend the utterly dehumanized vision of "economic man" that has been foisted on us for the past 2 centuries. An economy that thrived on empathy and mutual insight, that strengthened the bonds of charity, that cultivated shared rather than opposed interests appears to be simply inconceivable to most Christians. This seems due to the fact that spirituality has been defined in our culture as something fundamentally apart from daily life, a refuge from the world that cannot be contaminated with political and economic concerns.

The purpose of economics from a Christian viewpoint should not simply be to produce goods, but to produce ties between people. Centuries ago, we could have conceived an economy in which in order for me to do well, I have to be concerned with your well-being, rather than creating a world in which only the most heroic can transcend their self-interest. How could these behaviors be inscribed into the economic system so that we benefit ourselves by seeking benefits for others?

The division of labor also destroys mutual support. Solidarity dies when some are allocated creative, fulfilling tasks and others forced into subordinate and rote labor. Labor is not simply the means of obtaining the wherewithal to purchase iPods, paint thinner, and roller blades. It is one of the primary ways in which we grow as creative human beings, but this only exists for the materially fortunate in our society.

I conclude with the Good Samaritan, "If every time the Good Samaritan went down that road from Jerusalem to Jericho he found people wounded and did nothing about the bandits, would his love be perfect? Spontaneous, simple love, following the dictates of its own concern for persons in need, grows into a concern for the formal structure of society." Stephen Mott, Biblical Ethics and Social Change

Indeed, if love never grows beyond the immediate act of charity, then the very existence of that love becomes questionable. If Christians can't find it in themselves to think about why so many are poor and starving while the tiny few amass continent-sized chunks of wealth, then they do not in fact really care about the poor, but have their eyes firmly fixed on something far other than those Christ came to heal and save.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Other Edge of the Sword

"...the Dalai Lama is a jackal in monk’s robes and an evil spirit with the heart of a beast’ - a phrase from the Chinese Communist Party hardline party chief in Tibet, Zhang Qingli

A specter is haunting Chinese Communism. It is the specter of religious truth. Why are the Communists (actually some of the most uninhibited laissez-faire capitalists the world has ever seen), so afraid of the power of the spirit?

"Although the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] recently began to admit capitalist bosses to its ranks, it still forbids its members from practicing religion. This ban poses a serious obstacle to upward mobility for religious believers, since party membership is a virtual necessity for advancing into the higher ranks of government employment or business." - David Whitehouse, "The Struggle Over the Future of Tibet", May - June 2008

Underlying the violent repression of Tibet is a long history of Chinese religious repression, "The Communist Party, and the emperors who ruled before them, have often seen religious movements as potential threats to their authority. A central ideological task for the party, especially during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), was to establish its moral authority—in fact, to establish a monopoly on moral authority." - David Whitehouse, "The Struggle Over the Future of Tibet", May - June 2008

Why is religion more of a threat to Communist dictators than capitalism? Because it represents a fundamental moral authority outside the sphere of power enforced by the party or the market. In China, the party suppresses religion to crush a rival to its own authority. In the West, the market plays the same role toward Christian moral authority.

Whereas in the West the Christian religions have largely neutralized their own revolutionary potential to accommodate the material authority of the marketplace, the CCP still understands and fears the potential of religious revolution: "The CCP waged war on Confucianism during this period not just because it was a doctrine that supported Chinese feudal traditions, but also because it posited moral standards that were independent of the whim of any ruler. Likewise, Tibetan Buddhism became a target—and party loyalists in Tibet destroyed monasteries and persecuted the open practice of the religion—for the same reasons. Religious traditions that promote the moral authority of particular religious figures are still subject to special attack. Worse yet are those whose leaders are based outside the country and free from regulation, such as Roman Catholicism, Falun Gong, and Tibetan Buddhism." - David Whitehouse, "The Struggle Over the Future of Tibet", May - June 2008

While the West has consistently used Christianity to support its own moral authority, this source of support has been a two-edged sword. The aura of Christian moral authority, for instance in the George W. Bush administration, derives from adherence to a set of principles which are independent of the Republican party or the government. Though the officials who appeal to this source of legitimacy may deviate from its standards, as long as they consistently endorse them and pretend to live by them, the illusion of legitimacy can be maintained. But the other edge of the sword is revealed when those who accept the same source of authority use it to question those in power. Currently, questioning those in government according to Christian standards is considered widely acceptable in the U.S., though the nature of those standards is in dispute. What remains taboo is to question the legitimacy of our economic system on the basis of Christian principles.

Though Christians denounce "greed", it is conceived as a purely personal vice. Sinful social structures are simply the accumulated product of the behaviors of individuals. In the language of the Catholic catechism, "Thus sin makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them. Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness. 'Structures of sin' are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn. In an analogous sense, they constitute a 'social sin.'" Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1869.

Behind these words lies the demand for "concientizacion", the absolute moral requirement to form a Christian social conscience. "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." - Medillin documents, 1968.

Only by looking beyond the obsessively subjective focus of current spirituality can we see vistas of justice and thus rightly form our Christian conscience. This can release a power which no party or system of global capital can control.

Proclaim the Lord, you nations,
Praise the glory of God's power,
Praise the glory of God's name!
Bring gifts to the temple,
Bow down, all the earth,
tremble in God's holy presence.

Tell the nations, "The Lord rules!"
As the firm earth is not swayed,
Nothing can sway God's judgment.
Let heaven and earth be glad,
The sea and sea creature roar,
The field and its beasts exult.

Then let the trees of the forest sing
before the coming of the Lord,
who comes to judge the nations,
to set the earth aright,
restoring the world to order.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Advancing in Concert

"Since trade ignores national boundaries, and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down. Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process." - Woodrow Wilson, 1907

A recent heated controversy on the CrossLeft progressive Christian blog concerned whether capitalism is a neutral economic system that has been perverted by "buccaneer laisez-faire types" or is the institutionalization of the sin of greed. What most Christians believe was succinctly summarized by this poster: "I personally think capitalism is a neutral system, with its benefits and flaws. Adam Smith wrote that individuals who pursue their self interests in a competitive system often inadvertently create widespread social gains. In the 19th Century, the Industrial Revolution created a middle class of over 100 million people in the U.S. Free market reforms in the 1970s have given China a middle class of over 200 million people today. India has now a middle class of 200 million people due to its free markets."

What was striking to me about this description of capitalism by a Christian blogger was that the moral effects of the current economic system went unmentioned. The viewpoint which lies behind this conventional history is that Christianity has no direct relationship with the economic system in which its members live. One system may have its benefits and flaws, but economic systems are peripheral to the real business of Christianity, which is personal sin and salvation. The idea that economic systems could have an impact on a person's moral well-being was completely alien to his viewpoint.

From a Christian viewpoint, nothing in this world is morally neutral, particularly not the system by which we obtain the goods of life. The starting point of this view is this passage from Colossians 1: "For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father's good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven." (Col 1:17-20)

"Whether things on earth or things in heaven" - this includes economies, so how do we reconcile economics with the spirit of Christ? My response is as follows: "Without getting into semantic battles over concepts such as 'capitalism' and 'socialism', I'd simply like to look at the global economic system which has dominated over the last 20 years. My question is 'What kinds of human behavior does this system encourage?' Advertisements play a central role in this system and what is the message constantly blared from virtually all advertisements? It is this: 'You the consumer are grossly inadequate because you lack this never-before-seen incredible product. Once you get it you will be completely fulfilled.' The attitude which is constantly instilled is that only through the purchase of material goods or services can you obtain happiness. The corollary is that you must do whatever is necessary to gain the means to purchase these goods or else you will remain miserable. This does not seem to me to be a 'flaw' of this system, but part of its essential drive. The media, which is controlled by advertisers, amplifies this message through both its news programs and entertainment shows. The attitude instilled is that we must compete with each other to obtain the goods that make for happiness. Each of us is a buyer and a seller in the global marketplace and therefore each of us must strive to maximize our advantage vis-a-vis our competitors. We may form temporary alliances to compete with other alliances, but ultimately we must focus on maximizing our sales price and minimizing our buy price. Clearly, this attitude militates against any solidarity on the economic plane whether with fellow Christians or anyone else. Thus the influence of the economic system is toward anti-social behavior and this appears to be an inherent part of what makes the economy 'successful', not an abuse.

As heirs of the Acts of the Apostles, is is not possible to imagine an alternative economic system that would cause me to seek benefits in ways that benefit others too, rather than opposing my interest to their interest?"

The question endures. Are economic systems neutral from a Christian viewpoint? Or can there be economic systems that promote the Christian values of solidarity, compassion, and (real) care for the poor? So what should a Christian economy promote?

First and foremost, the virtue of solidarity, such that my striving for economic benefits brings benefits to others. Economics must promote shared, not competing interests. Production, allocation, and consumption must enhance our human bonds, not lead to isolation and hatred. Like the golden rule, for me to do well, I must be concerned that others do equally well. The reigning idea that my striving for selfish benefit without concern for others will magically bring benefits to everyone is nothing more than the self-justification of institutionalized greed.

When some own the means of production and others must sell their labor, this creates a situation in which the interests of the two classes are inherently opposed. Owners benefit when they pay workers less, provide fewer benefits, and when those workers have less leverage. Those owners whose conscience causes them to care for their workers by paying them well and providing more benefits cannot compete with those who do not, even when their workers respond to the care by working harder and with more enthusiasm. Owners who go too far in practicing Christian virtues toward their workers are exterminated by the marketplace.

The current economy systematically destroys the virtue of Christian solidarity in the interests of profits. This is only one of many Christian virtues it systematically undermines. Chastity, for instance, serves no profit-making purpose, while its opposite is one of primary generators of uncontrollable desires and therefore profits. Uncontrolled desire is the ideal toward which capitalism strives. The undisciplined sexuality of modern times has its origin not in free love radicals, but in profit making opportunities.

Christians, as reflected in the recent CrossLeft controversy (go to Greed as the basis of all evil to see the debate), have begun to feel these issues more deeply than before due to the current economic crisis. We Christians need not submit to an economic system that enslaves us to material desires, but must strive for release, to become free human beings, advancing in concert to a world where the benefit of each is truly the benefit of all.

Something Died at Guantanamo

"I am not a politician. God knows, it is enough in this day and age just to be Christian at some kind of serious and functional level. To the extent that I am Christian, though, it follows of necessity that what I write and what I say and the actions I take have political repercussions or consequences, for better or worse. I am not naïve enough to think otherwise. When I say I am not a politician, in other words, I simply mean to say that I have no knowledge of how to resolve all the contradictions and conflicts of interest that impede the easy execution of our common life, both domestic and foreign. I don't pretend, either, to have a professional's grasp of what all of those opposing forces are. I certainly don't claim the expertise that would be able to calculate accurately what the consequences might be of restraining any or all of those opposing forces for the sake of the common good of humanity and the on-going health of the Great Experiment.

What I do know, however, is that this July I am reading more and more about Guantanamo Bay and what we have done there. I can view again on the net pictures that have been taken in that place and understand to the depths of my soul, all over again, that something died there, that the Great Experiment was dealt something close to a fatal blow there, that the hope which birthed both the Marseillaise and the Star-Spangled Banner was mocked into impotence there." - Phyllis Tickle, "The Great Experiment and the Great Commandment"

Indeed, something died in America when we (you and me) permitted innocent men to be incarcerated indefinitely without charges and tortured for the sake of an unprovoked war of aggression to control Middle East energy resources. We allowed this because it was inconvenient to do otherwise. It would have interfered with our career growth path. It would have interfered with our personal fulfillment and enjoyment, so we didn't do anything or if we did, we did it knowing that it was not a serious enough act to really affect the crime that was being committed.

Those who created a revolution in 1776 were still capable of being inspired by something beyond their own self-interest. The mobs that stormed the ships during the Boston Tea Party were not concerned primarily with how that act would look on their resumes. They felt part of something larger than themselves, something that was threatened as a whole, not simply their particular piece of it. They felt that to be a human being meant to care about the community that one was a member of, not to cower behind electronic walls and "interact" with a faceless void.

Realities outside the self have become alien to us. The domination of consumerism disintegrates all communities other than affinity groups because the primary dynamic of consumption is isolation. The spirituality proper to such self-consumption is the New Age movement in which "...the soul, whose essence is self-abandonment, is cultivated as a project of self-fulfillment." - Joel Kovel, "History and Spirit"

The Mother of All Sins

"As much of the capital of capitalism derives to some large extent on the exploitation of the labor of others, this makes all who actively participate, guilty of the Mother of All Sins." - CrossLeft

Recently I was involved in a heated exchange on the CrossLeft progressive Christian blog about the nature of greed. The battle was between those who felt that capitalism was a "structure of sin" in the Catholic sense of the word and those who see capitalism as a neutral structure that can be perverted by the sin of greed. As one of the battles currently defining the nature of Christian witness against corporatism, I'd like to tease out the implications of a controversy that goes to the heart of what it means to be a progressive Christian.

The blog posting was titled "Greed as the basis of all evil" and the central notion was "...the major religions had no such illusions about greed. Greed, say many of them, is not only unambiguous, it is the Mother of All Sins." Indeed, all religions do agree about this, but what is the nature of this greed? The traditional understanding depicts greed as a personal behavior which destroys harmonious relationships by prioritizing the desires of the individual over the needs of the community.

While this describes the current economic system, the nature of this sin holds many secrets that should be exposed. The traditional view of greed as a purely individual sin falls apart as soon as it is seriously examined. Here, for instance, is John Paul II's analysis: "...it is not out of place to speak of 'structures of sin,' which...are rooted in personal sin, and thus always linked to the concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them and make them difficult to remove. And thus they grow stronger, spread, and become the source of other sins, and so influence people's behavior." Then, after considering the religious roots of these structures in the Ten Commandments, he continues, "This general analysis, which is religious in nature, can be supplemented by a number of particular considerations to demonstrate that among the actions and attitudes opposed to the will of God, the good of neighbor and the 'structures' created by them, two are very typical: on the one hand, the all-consuming desire for profit, and on the other, the thirst for power, with the intention of imposing one's will upon others. In order to characterize better each of these attitudes, one can add the expression: 'at any price.' In other words, we are faced with the absolutizing of human attitudes with all its possible consequences." He then demonstrates that sin is not limited to individuals, but that social units can sin by falling into mass idolatry: "Obviously, not only individuals fall victim to this double attitude of sin; nations and blocs can do so too. And this favors even more the introduction of the 'structures of sin' of which I have spoken. If certain forms of modern 'imperialism' were considered in the light of these moral criteria, we would see that hidden behind certain decisions, apparently inspired only by economics or politics, are real forms of idolatry: of money, ideology, class, technology." (SRS 36)

The pope states explicitly here that sin is not limited to individuals, but can also apply to larger social units. He also locates the sinfulness of these social units in idolatry. This idolatry has blossomed in an extreme form in the America of the early 21st century where the idolatry of money is actively and openly promoted by virtually all established institutions. The justification usually presented is that greed for material goods allows the economy to grow, thus providing jobs and benefiting rich and poor alike. This viewpoint was confidently trumpeted among many posters to this "progressive Christian" blog and no doubt reflects what most Christians believe.

The typical attitude is well characterized by this poster: "Capitalism is not the problem. In fact, it has caused a lot of good in the world. What is bad is the abuse of capitalism by buccaneer laissez-faire types. The answer is a return to a New Deal dynamic, one where a sturdy popular government balances the potential excesses of business. We liberals need to openly embrace capitalism to make it fair enough to give opportunity to everyone." But is capitalism actually a "neutral" economic system which, though it can be perverted by laissez-faire types, is not inspired by the sin of greed? Or is it not rather the institutionalizing of that precise sin?

In contrast, the Catholic bishops at Medillin in 1968 made the following statement about our current economic system: "The system of liberal capitalism and the temptation of the Marxist system would appear to exhaust the possibilities of transforming the economic structures of our continent. Both systems militate against the dignity of the human person. One takes for granted the primacy of capital, its power and its discriminatory utilization in the function of profit-making. The other, although it ideologically supports a kind of humanism, is more concerned with collective man, and in practice becomes a totalitarian concentration of state power. We must denounce the fact that Latin America sees itself caught between these two options and remains dependent on one or other of the centers of power which control its economy."

So the fundamental sin of the current economic system is that it prioritizes profit-making over the dignity of the human person. Is this perhaps a perversion of a system that is basically neutral and could be reformed if moral goodness flourished through the spread through the Gospel? Or is it rather the product of an institutional rejection of the Gospel?

One of the best posts was as follows: "My conclusion is that 'capitalism', particularly the global corporate kind that we have now, which some call 'hypercapitalism', is an example of a Structure of Evil. The basis of the system is to prioritize Money over every other value. I think it's not going too far to call that Idolatry. Roman Catholic social teaching is similarly critical of capitalism and capitalist ideology. Catholic Social Teaching, as set forth by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, seems far from compatible with the corporate world. Just listing the 7 key themes indicates the scope of the mismatch: Sanctity of human life and dignity of the person; Call to family, community, and participation; Rights and responsibilities; Preferential Option for the poor and vulnerable; Dignity of work and the rights of workers; Solidarity; Care for God's creation. None of that fits with the Bottom-Line Culture."

At this point, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the current economic system is a Structure of Evil. The implication is that greed cannot be combated effectively simply at the personal level, as most Christians believe. Rather greed, the mother of all sins, must first be fought socially by a revolution against an economic system which is institutionalized idolatry.

If you would like to weigh in, please go to Greed as the basis of all evil

Friday, July 04, 2008

Demonstrate the Gospel in Word and Deed

The story is so compelling, too compelling in fact - it is a script manufactured in the bowels of the corporate-fueled press, with talking points approved by the Pentagon. Government commandos descend into the jungle to release 15 hostages held by the demonic FARC for six long years. What rejoicing in the all-controlling efficiency of intelligence operations! The official narrative is well summarized in the God's Politics blog: "Glory be to (Colombia´s military) intelligence! Glory be to the army soldiers!" ... "God blessed (this rescue operative), but not just God, Uribe blessed it! Yes, long live Colombia ! We are winning the war!" - Janna Hunter-Bowman, "Good News from Colombia: Rescue of FARC Hostages"

It was an impeccable military operation. "According to news reports, Colombian intelligence infiltrated the FARC leadership and not a shot was fired in the rescue mission. If media sources are accurate, the Colombian military essentially tricked the guerrilla into handing over four of the highest profile kidnap victims and 11 soldiers and police." - "Good News from Colombia: Rescue of FARC Hostages (by Janna Hunter-Bowman)", God's Politics. So are we to celebrate our consummate deception?

Before we leap up in celebration of this brilliant intelligence operation, may we pause for a moment to consider why FARC took the hostages in the first place? You will look long and hard to find any statements from the FARC itself in the corporate media or even the Christian progressive media. The reigning assumption is that an organization run by violence-crazed, drug-dealing madmen couldn't possibly have anything of value to say to those genuinely interested in peace and justice. But a recent interview with Rodrigo Granda, the leading spokesman for the FARC, reveals surprisingly peaceful motivations for the kidnappings. In the following excerpt, he is asked by his French interviewer, Jean Batou, "How can the FARC–EP justify taking civilians captive?" He answers as follows: "Of course, it is common knowledge, that war of this kind needs funding. This war was forced on us by Colombia’s rich, so they are the ones that have to finance the war they unleashed. That’s why the FARC–EP holds people for whom a monetary payment is collected, which is really a tax. This money is set aside to maintain the apparatus of the people’s war. As you may know, we talk about constructing a new power, a new state. If in Switzerland, France, or the United States someone ducks out of their duty of paying taxes, then that person has to go to jail. The new state we are shaping has fixed the payment of a peace tax. That means that any individual or corporate body, and any foreign companies operating in Colombia and making profits of over a million dollars a year, have to pay a peace tax equivalent to 10 percent of these profits. Debtors are told they have to enter into dialogue with those who manage the FARC–EP’s finances to pay this sum. If they fail to do so, of course, these people will be arrested and taken to prison until they pay and fulfill their obligations toward those of us who are shouldering the responsibility of the new state, constructed and led by the FARC–EP, acting as the People’s Army." - "The Guerrilla in Colombia An Interview with Rodrigo Granda, Member of the FARC-EP International Commissio", Monthly Review, March 2008

In effect, the FARC is saying that the rich landowners of Columbia in justice should be subject the same tax policies that are prevalent throughout the civilized world. The evasion of their obligations to the people they have exploited for their private profit requires the enforcement of a just punishment, as is accepted by all Western democracies.

Now let us consider the parallel between the policies advocated by the FARC and the recommendations of Cajetan, St. Thomas Aquinas' greatest commentator: "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." - Cardinal Tommaso Cajetan, St. Thomae...Summa Theologica cum commentariis Thomae de Vio Cajetani. In other words, our goods are owned by God and given to us so that we can share in His goodness and mercy by freely sharing them with others. Does not class warfare arise from an economic system that contradicts the Gospel root and branch?

Is not the tax imposed by the FARC one that St. Thomas Aquinas would find eminently just? 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" and who more just a dispenser than the representative of those dispossessed by the government who fronts for the 37 families who control 50 percent of the arable land in Columbia? The FARC targets those whose economic situation is comfortable - those, in other words whose wealth is superfluous for life or state, whose wealth, in fact, is owed as a matter of justice to those who have been defrauded.

As is typical in the media today, our attention is focused exclusively on the personal drama of the hostages and their feelings of relief. The larger context of the struggle in Columbia is not even mentioned. Yet it is one that the Christian resistance in the U.S. could learn much from. The "democracy" we enjoy here in the U.S. could disappear quickly if the masses began to take it seriously. The strategy of global capital is well summarized by Rodrigo Granda, "In general, if we analyze the behavior of bourgeois states over time, we observe that they have various ways of applying what they call 'representative democracy' and that they combine practically all forms of struggle to exploit the people. The 'gringos' call it the 'carrot and stick approach,' which they practice in the following way: if they consider that the masses are meek, they can let them develop certain forms of restricted democracy for a time; if they consider that those masses are becoming radicalized, then they take troops into the streets and impose repression. But if they notice that those mass movements have already become radicalized, then they employ state terrorism, and wage genocide against their opponents and the extermination of the mass organizations. It is this terror at its most horrifying that was experienced by nearly all countries here in our America in the recent past and still persists in Colombia." Jean Batou, " The Guerrilla in Colombia An Interview with Rodrigo Granda, Member of the FARC-EP International Commission", Monthly Review, March, 2008

What is the Christian response to state terrorism? In practice, it is usually to look the other way and to tolerate violence repression rather than take the risk of informed resistance. An atmosphere of studied ignorance descends on the Christian mind. In this foggy atmosphere, there are no Palestinians struggling to survive, all resistance movements that are forced to take up arms are terrorists, and, above all, there is no Christian obligation to really understand the social realities of the world in which we live.

Christians who take their biblical responsibilities seriously realize God in the cry of the poor and the weak who seek justice. They are not satisfied with superficial slogans about "free markets" and "terrorism", but seek to understand why it is necessary for millions to starve while there is enough food to feed everyone. At the very least, it is the Christian obligation to support and publicize movements such as the Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó in Columbia, a "third way" nonviolent alternative to the current warfare in that country. The members of this group dedicated to peace have been murdered by government sponsored paramilitaries because no neutrality can be tolerated in Columbia. Instead, such massacres are met with holy silence, a silence which feeds the flame of atheism more effectively than secular propaganda ever could.

In the words of John F. Kennedy, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable." The collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of global capital have not altered this reality, but reinforced it. Though Kennedy asked us this question in the context of the Cold War, how many Christians have asked themselves why so many peasant-based insurrectionary movements continue to flourish long after the demise of the supposed sponsor of these movements, the Soviet Union? Could it be that there are objective social forces in globalized economies that these movements are responding to?

"It is not a matter of engaging in both the gospel and social action, as if Christian social action was something separate from the gospel itself. The gospel has to be demonstrated in word and deed. Biblically, the gospel includes the totality of all that is good news from God for all that is bad news in human life--in every sphere. So like Jesus, authentic Christian mission has included good news for the poor, compassion for the sick and suffering justice for the oppressed, liberation for the enslaved. The gospel of the Servant of God in the power of the Spirit of God addresses every area of human need and every area that has been broken and twisted by sin and evil. And the heart of the gospel, in all of these areas, is the cross of Christ." - Christopher J. H. Wright International director of John Stott Ministries (from Knowing the Holy Spirit Through the Old Testament)

If you feel called to understand the realities that lie behind the "spectacular rescue" in Columbia, a good starting point is the following article: The Real Operation to "Rescue" Ingrid Betancourt and US Mercenaries