"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.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Cost of Silence

$170 billion is now spent each year on the wars in the Middle East, yet our bishops sit mute or denounce women’s ordination as ultimate sin. $170 billion could bring so much relief to those who suffer without hope, bring enlightenment to minds, soothe to bodies in pain, give light to eyes dulled by poverty and hunger, yet our bishops share meals with Pentagon officials and remain mute when a word from them to the incoming Obama administration could set consciences alight. They share meals with war lords while Fr. Roy Bourgeois faces excommunication for following his conscience. If I could I’d like to amplify your price tag by adding what the banker bailout funds could mean for creation’s groans. Just as the violence of war is a lie so is the violence that steals hope from the billions in order to pamper those suffering discomfort due to gambling losses.

A recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies called Skewed Priorities: How the Bailouts Dwarf Other Global Crisis Spending puts the bankster bailout in perspective. The following is from an article called, “Bailouts Dwarf Spending on Climate and Poverty Crises” from the IPS:

• RATIO OF FINANCIAL BAILOUTS TO DEVELOPMENT AID: U.S. and European governments have committed approximately $4.1 trillion to aid struggling banks and other financial institutions. That's more than 45 times the sums they spent on development aid last year.

• RATIO OF FINANCIAL BAILOUTS TO CLIMATE FINANCE: Although the climate crisis poses catastrophic risks to the global economy, U.S. and Western European governments have committed 313 times more to rescuing financial firms than the $13.1 billion in total new commitments made to help developing countries respond to the climate crisis over the next several years.

• U.S. CONTRIBUTIONS TO CLIMATE FINANCE = $0: The U.S. Congress hasn't approved any contributions to the developing world's climate change efforts, in part because the Bush administration insisted such financing be channeled through the World Bank, an institution with a poor environmental track record.
If Fr. Roy Bourgeois deserves excommunication for supporting women’s ordination, what do the bishops deserve for failing to speak out about $4.1 trillion spent to comfort the richest people on earth while hundreds of millions starve?

No salvation outside the poor.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Banking Crisis and the Love of Money: A Christian Response

The idols of finance capital are starting to topple. As Christians, we are in a unique position to advocate the transition from a profit-centered system of worship to one centered on the primacy of human development.

What is the beast within that Christians so constantly and often futilely struggle with? It is well-described by Paul in the first letter to Timothy:
“Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains. But you, man of God, avoid all this. Instead, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.” (1 Tim 6: 9 -11)

While it is easy enough to rail against “greed” as the root of the current crisis, do we not, as Christians, possess a more far reaching critique of the goals of the current economic system? What does the love of money consist of? It is an idolatry in which one worships an object of human invention in place of the creator who made both the worshipper and the thing worshipped. But the critique of Paul against the Money God goes much deeper than simply idolatry.

Trust in God means more than verbal profession or mental act. It means that something changes in the way we operate in the world. With respect to the community of the world, there is a hidden unity created by God which we call the common good. Pride separates us from this community and makes solidarity with the people of God impossible. “Pride means the breakup of this bodily unity and its bodily expression is money. Money is the body of the antigod, just as the liberated body for Paul is the body of Christ. This is why one cannot trust in God without really doing away with hoarded wealth. This must occur in an external and not merely an internal fashion.” Franz J. Hinkelammert, “The Ideological Weapons of Death”, p. 141.

When we worship money, we lose the “solid capital” (1 Tim:6:18) of life in the Spirit to the false liberation promised by money. The love of money is not simply a moral deficiency, it is a loss of faith in God. The world organized around the love of money is the world of death, it is the system in which the Antichrist flourishes.
The current economic crisis is irreversible because it is part of the inherent nature of capitalism. The basic drive of capitalism is toward constant expansion. Without the constant development of new sources of profit, it cannot survive. It must devote enormous human and material resources to conjure new, artificial needs. Consumerism is not the unfortunate result of abuse that can be cured through moral exhortation, but part of the dynamic that keeps the system working. The deep human satisfaction that comes from serving others or contemplating the glory of God is the true fulfillment we long for. The artificial needs necessary to keep the capitalist engine roaring are incapable of meeting our real needs, but feed a constant grasping for more commodities in order to keep us in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction. This economic system cannot endure without selling us more and more of what cannot satisfy.

While most American Catholics have been carefully shielded from this teaching of the Church, John Paul II denounced the system of consumerism so severely that he compared it to Nazism, a system he suffered in his own flesh: “Before our eyes we have the results of ideologies such as Marxism, Nazism and Fascism, and also of myths like racial superiority, nationalism and ethnic exclusivism. No less pernicious, though not always as obvious, are the effects of materialistic consumerism, in which the exaltation of the individual and the selfish satisfaction of personal aspirations become the ultimate goal of life. In this outlook, the negative effects on others are considered completely irrelevant.” – John Paul II, World Day of Peace Message, Jan. 1, 1999.

Consumerism destroys the soul of those who succumb to it along with the victims in the poorer countries whose lives must be sacrificed to maintain it. Unfortunately, while the Church continues to denounce “consumerism”, it is treated as personal moral deficiency that can be corrected through voluntary behavior changes, rather than a central pillar of our current economic system without which it would collapse. Until now, the Church has been unable to see the systemic roots of this moral chaos.

When Catholic social teaching approaches crises such as the present financial meltdown, the categories it uses are most often taken from prevalent economic theories rather than basic Christian principles. We hear much about the need for high growth rates to guarantee jobs, but little or nothing about the universal destination of goods which is supposedly the fundamental Christian economic principle. This principle has been well described in the Catechism in the chapter on the seventh commandment, a commentary that is intensely relevant to the current crisis: “In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits. The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race.” Catechism of the Catholic Church p. 2402.

“The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race.” That is the principle on which all Christian economics must be founded. Gaudium et Spes illuminates the principle in this way, “God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in like manner. Whatever the forms of property may be, as adapted to the legitimate institutions of peoples, according to diverse and changeable circumstances, attention must always be paid to this universal destination of earthly goods. In using them, therefore, man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others.” – Gaudium et Spes, 69.
Therefore, Christian economics are not based on the metrics of contemporary economic theory, but on the principle that all people have a right to the goods of the earth. The clear implication is that the attempt to monopolize those goods is a grave sin against this fundamental human right.

St. Thomas Aquinas describes the right of ownership in this way, “The temporal goods which God grants us, are ours as to the ownership, but as to the use of them, they belong not to us alone but also to such others as we are able to succor out of what we have over and above our needs. Hence Basil says [Hom. super Luc. xii, 18: ‘If you acknowledge them,’ viz. your temporal goods, ‘as coming from God, is He unjust because He apportions them unequally? Why are you rich while another is poor, unless it be that you may have the merit of a good stewardship, and he the reward of patience? It is the hungry man's bread that you withhold, the naked man's cloak that you have stored away, the shoe of the barefoot that you have left to rot, the money of the needy that you have buried underground: and so you injure as many as you might help.’” St. Thomas Aquinas, ST II-II, q. 32, a. 5, ad. 2

Capitalism must be judged in the light of this principle. If it is truly the system that promotes the right to a decent life for the billions of our fellow humans, then and only then can we accept it as God’s will for our economic practice. Notice that I am not, for the moment, asking what are the practical alternatives which the current situation affords us. I am asking what the guiding principle of Christian economic practice, whose moral rule is love of neighbor, teaches us in evaluating economic systems including the current one.

The history of the last two hundred years have plainly revealed the effects of the triumph of global capitalism. In a world where two billion people live on less than a dollar a day and a tiny minority in the developed countries own a huge percentage of the wealth, it is clear that this is not a system friendly to the universal destination of goods. The growth of wealth and technology promoted by capitalism has not led to the end of hunger, universal health care, or a decent living for all, which the productive forces unleashed have made possible. Nor will it ever - for the simple reason that these are not the goals of our economic system. Its goal is to maximize profits for a relatively small ownership class. Goals which conflict with this goal will be swept aside. Neoliberal economists can present their ideology as one that promotes the universal good through the selfishness of each, but the results which stare back at us on the evening news are hard to argue with.

Friday, November 14, 2008

War Among the Gods

Effective struggle for social justice cannot be carried out without the sword of the spirit. The divorce of progressive struggles from the the righteousness of a loving God emasculates their spiritual roots and eviscerates their power to move hearts.

"For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places." - Ephesians 6:12 "The People's Bible"

Progressives often wonder why those who live in the spirit of peace and justice are constantly harassed, incarcerated, and murdered by the power of the established societies while those who violate every rule and principle of those same societies flourish and are lavishly rewarded. We are constantly perplexed by those like the Iraq war boosters whose every projection was demonstrably false, yet who continue to be receive the most prestigious positions in media and government. The same phenomena is even more pronounced in the current meltdown of finance capital. Those whose greed-driven irresponsibility with the lives of billions, all of whose bets came up bad, are awarded, despite massive and systematic fraud, with hundreds of billions of taxpayer revenues to make good their depredations.

As a Christian, we know that these are grave sins against justice, but what is the social mechanism which causes them? The answer must be sought in the spirituality represented by the institutions of those societies. Walter Wink has referred to this spirituality as the "powers", which the quote from Ephesians above invokes. These can be thought of as the spiritual personalities existing behind institutions such as Wall Street or finance capital more generally, which represent those forces which are decisive for the lives of virtually all human beings on this planet. This is not the spiritualization of a conspiracy theory, but a scientific description of how the power of finance and its instruments constrain the options within which we all must choose. Financial objects, such as commodities, become agents which control the fate of billions. The institutions which manage these objects are the subjects of the spiritual forces which these objects embody.

The result is that those who submit to the spiritual forces in heavenly places can break all laws and destroy all institutions while enjoying the rewards of those same institutions, while those who violate this spirit must suffer and be nailed to the cross though they scrupulously obey every law established. Wall Street bankers are a classic example of the former. Iraq veterans who oppose the Iraq occupation are sterling examples of the latter.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Why the Bailout will Fail according to John Paul II

“We must emphasize and give prominence to the primacy of man in the production process, the primacy of man over things. Everything contained in the concept of capital in the strict sense is only a collection of things. Man, as the subject of work and independent of the work he does--man alone is a person. This principle is an evident truth that emerges from the whole of man's historical experience.” – John Paul II – Laborem Exercens, 12.

The fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching is the priority of the human person over the means of production, that persons, their labor and their solidarity must always be preferred over things. More philosophically, being takes precedence over having. The bailout of the banks on Wall Street signifies the triumph of the opposite principle, the victory of what is described by John Paul II as “This gigantic and powerful instrument-the whole collection of means of production that in a sense are considered synonymous with ‘capital’” – John Paul II – Laborem Exercens, 12. It is the triumph of capital and its financial machinery over the needs of people and respect for the common good. In fact, it is even worse because the means of production at least represent a concrete potential for bringing benefits to humanity. This triumph is the triumph of financial speculation over productive enterprise, in which those who make the bets get to keep all the winnings, while distributing their losses to the public.

Again, Pope Benedict XVI put his finger on the nub of the issue in his “Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation”, “The priority of work over capital places an obligation in justice upon employers to consider the welfare of the workers before the increase of profits. They have a moral obligation not to keep capital unproductive and in making investments to think first of the common good. The latter requires a prior effort to consolidate jobs or create new ones in the production of goods that are really useful. The right to private property is inconceivable without responsibilities to the common good. It is subordinated to the higher principle which states that goods are meant for all.” No. 131 The financial players require vast amounts of unproductive capital in order to lay their bets, and the concept of the common good is meaningless to them.

The priority of the Bush administration has always been capital over labor, and in its final days, we are seeing a final massive Treasury heist. “When the Bush administration announced it would be injecting $250 billion into America's banks in exchange for equity, the plan was widely referred to as ‘partial nationalization’--a radical measure required to get the banks lending again. In fact, there has been no nationalization, partial or otherwise. Taxpayers have gained no meaningful control, which is why the banks can spend their windfall as they wish (on bonuses, mergers, savings...) and the government is reduced to pleading that they use a portion of it for loans.” – The Bailout: Bush’s Final Pillage, Naomi Klein, Oct. 31, 2008.

Catholic social teachings once spoke loud with the voice of justice, “If certain landed estates impede the general prosperity because they are extensive, unused or poorly used, or because they bring hardship to peoples or are detrimental to the interests of the country, the common good sometimes demands their expropriation. Vatican II affirms this emphatically. At the same time it clearly teaches that income thus derived is not for man's capricious use, and that the exclusive pursuit of personal gain is prohibited. Consequently, it is not permissible for citizens who have garnered sizeable income from the resources and activities of their own nation to deposit a large portion of their income in foreign countries for the sake of their own private gain alone, taking no account of their country's interests; in doing this, they clearly wrong their country. “ – Pope Paul VI, “Populorum Progressio”, no. 24.

The same principle applies even more emphatically to those who have looted the Treasury to protect Wall Street bankers from suffering the results of their bad bets. The common good demands that the property of those who have stolen the fruits of the people’s labor should be confiscated and returned to the people whose labor created the value in the first place. “The exclusive pursuit of personal gain is prohibited.” This traditional teaching of the Church is openly mocked by the bailout. We have become numbed to the organized lovelessness upon which this economic system is based.

The thesis that the bailout was critically necessary to prevent a “financial meltdown” is conclusively disproven by the use to which a significant part of the money has been or will be put. About half the bailout money will be used for mergers and acquisitions of other banks, not making loans. As to another significant chunk, “According to the Guardian, salaries and bonuses for top executives and employees at major banks and investment firms will add up to $70 billion this year. So 10 percent of the $700 billion that Congress committed to ‘rescue’ Wall Street will end up ‘rescuing’ the bank accounts of some of Wall Street's richest players.” – Alan Maass, “What’s so Funny about Peace, Love and Spreading the Wealth”, CounterPunch, Oct. 31, 2008.

The fundamental lie of this economy is that those at the top have earned their position by the wealth they have produced. “A hedge fund does not make money by producing goods and services. It does not advance funds to buy real assets or even lend money. It borrows huge sums to leverage its bet with nearly free credit. Its managers are not industrial engineers but mathematicians who program computers to make cross-bets or “straddles” on which way interest rates, currency exchange rates, stock or bond prices may move – or the prices for packaged bank mortgages. The packaged loans may be sound or they may be junk. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is making money in a marketplace where most trades last only a few seconds. What creates the gains is the price fibrillation – volatility.” – Michael Hudson, “America’s Own Kleptocracy”, Sept. 20, 2008.

I end with a quote from the Catechism on the seventh commandment, “Even if it does not contradict the provisions of civil law, any form of unjustly taking and keeping the property of others is against the seventh commandment: thus, deliberate retention of goods lent or of objects lost; business fraud; paying unjust wages; forcing up prices by taking advantage of the ignorance or hardship of another. The following are also morally illicit: speculation in which one contrives to manipulate the price of goods artificially in order to gain an advantage to the detriment of others; corruption in which one influences the judgment of those who must make decisions according to law; appropriation and use for private purposes of the common goods of an enterprise; work poorly done; tax evasion; forgery of checks and invoices; excessive expenses and waste. Willfully damaging private or public property is contrary to the moral law and requires reparation.” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 2409. Let the reparation begin.