"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 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.

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