"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, July 11, 2008

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

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