This is Chapter 26 of my novel, The Pope’s Secret. For previous chapters, just scroll down.
This is Chapter 13 of my audio book, The Pope, His Chamberlain, the Jinetera, and Fidel: a novel about Cuba, prostitution and the Catholic Church. (For previous chapters, please scroll down.)
The Catholic Church returned to national focus over the last month. During that period, two distinct versions of Catholicism have taken center stage.
The first was the Republican, pre-Vatican II Catholicism of Judge Amy Coney Barrett who was interviewed for a lifetime position on the bench of the nation’s Supreme Court (SCOTUS).
The second version of Catholicism displayed last month was the post-Vatican II form of Pope Francis who pointedly issued his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (“Brothers All”) exactly one month to the day before our country’s general election on November 3rd.
Let’s take a look at both forms of Catholicism for purposes of highlighting aspects of Pope Francis’ encyclical that many commentators have overlooked and that Judge Barrett explicitly rejects.
Judge Coney Barrett’s Catholicism
Judge Coney Barrett’s form of Catholicism is the one which (thanks to a pair of reactionary, restorationist popes – John Paul II and Benedict XVI) most non-Catholics (even 55 years after the Second Vatican Council) still identify with the church of Rome. It comes off as a weird, backward-looking cult mirrored in Catholic organizations like Opus Dei and the People of Praise fundamentalists long embraced by the SCOTUS nominee.
This version of Catholicism insists that men are the heads of households, and that women are their husband’s “handmaids.” Its spiritual practices reflect nostalgia for Latin Masses and ostentatious clerical costuming. The practices centralize specifically Catholic customs like abstention from meat on Fridays, reciting the rosary, and rejecting the salvific value of Protestant denominations and, of course, non-Christian religions. In its latest incarnation, this type of Catholicism goes so far as to preach a Catholic version of the prosperity gospel celebrated by white American evangelicals.
However, Judge Coney Barrett’s Catholicism goes even further. As a dyed in the wool Trump supporter, hers represents a particularly Republican understanding. It focuses on reproductive issues. This means that despite the Church’s pedophilic scandals, it continues to grant to discredited celibate males the moral authority to pronounce on issues such as abortion, same sex marriage, in vitro fertilization, and contraception. Under some versions, it would also refuse communion to divorcees. (Of course, none of these concerns are addressed anywhere in the Bible).
Meanwhile, as a Republican supporter of President Trump, the faith of the Supreme Court nominee allows her to endorse the extreme nationalism reflected in Trump’s MAGA preoccupations. This entails underwriting anti-immigrant policies including refugee concentration camps, baby jails and separation of families at our southern border. It rejects Black Lives Matter and the African American community’s call for reparations while valuing blue lives as more important than the victims of police violence. It supports U.S. wars, increased military spending, torture, extra-judicial executions, and capital punishment. It denies anthropogenic climate change. Its model of God’s Kingdom is an economic technocracy, where the country is run “like a business.” Hence, it supports privatized, for-profit health care. Its overall economic approach is top-down, since it believes that the wealthy rather than the poor deserve subsidies, bailouts and outright welfare on the disproven theory that such government largesse might eventually trickle down to the less deserving.
Pope Francis’ Catholicism
All of Judge Coney Barrett’s specifically Republican understandings of Catholicism are not only directly contradicted by Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti; they also ignore the Church’s long history of social justice instruction that stretches back to at least 1891 and Leo XIII’s publication of Rerum Novarum (“Of Revolutionary Change”).
Even more, Coney Barrett’s restorationist version of Catholicism directly contradicts the teachings of Vatican II which remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church. In a sense, then, her People of Praise understanding represents what has traditionally been classified as “heretical” belief.
With all of this in mind, consider the teachings of Fratelli Tutti on the essence of Christianity, its relationship to other world religions including Islam, and the position it takes on immigration, capitalism, populism, violence, war, capital punishment, and abortion. (All references below are to the encyclicals numbered paragraphs.)
Then imagine how different Ms. Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing responses might have been – and their effect on national consciousness – had she embraced the official positions of the Church with which she so insistently claims to identify, but whose authoritative teachings she and other Republicans evidently reject. As delineated in Fratelli Tutti, those teachings address:
- The Essence of Christianity: Pope Francis finds the essence of Christian faith captured in Jesus’ parable of “The Good Samaritan” to which the pontiff devotes an entire chapter entitled “A Stranger on the Road.” In Jesus’ story, a non-believer rescues a victim of violence who has been ignored by religious professionals. The rescuing Samaritan is a humanist, Francis says, who recognizes that everyone is his neighbor (86). That recognition represents the heart of Christian faith.
- Christianity and Islam: In fact, according to Pope Francis, all the great religions of the world properly understood acknowledge this truth. Francis makes this point in the final chapter of Fratelli Tutti, which he entitles “Religions at the Service of Fraternity in Our World.” Moreover, throughout the encyclical, the Pope goes out of his way to underscore this point precisely about Islam. He does so by repeatedly referencing his collaboration with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb when they met in Abu Dhabi in 2019 (5, 136, 192, 285). Their joint declaration affirmed that all human beings are brothers and sisters with the same rights, duties, and dignity (5).
- Immigration: That dignity along with accompanying rights and duties belong to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers (37-41). Borders are of secondary importance in the face of human need (99, 121, 125). We must never forget that immigrants’ needs are often generated by not only by their own unrealistic expectations, but also by wars, persecution, natural catastrophes, drug traffickers, human traffickers, coyotes, loss of culture, dangers of their journeys, and separation from children (38). As citizens of a world commons, immigrants deserve a new home even when they are simply seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families (36).
- Immigration Reform: Indispensable steps in response to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers include: (a) increasing and simplifying the granting of visas, (b) adopting programs of individual and community sponsorship, (c) opening humanitarian corridors for the most vulnerable refugees, (d) providing immigrants with suitable and dignified housing, (e) guaranteeing personal security for them and access to basic services, (f) insuring adequate consular assistance and the right to retain personal identity documents, (g) affording equitable access to the justice system, (h) creating the possibility of opening bank accounts and the guarantee of the minimum needed to survive, (i) offering freedom of movement and the possibility of employment, (j) protecting minors and ensuring their regular access to education, (k) providing for programs of temporary guardianship or shelter, (l) guaranteeing religious freedom, (m) promoting integration into society, (n) supporting the reuniting of families, (o) preparing local communities for the process of integration (p).
- Capitalism: Yes, the world belongs to everyone – but to the poor primarily. The right to private property is not absolute or inviolable. It can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the principle of common ownership. Its purpose is to serve the common good (120). If anyone lacks what is necessary to live with dignity, it’s because another more powerful or dishonest person has stolen it. Put otherwise, the world’s poor are victims of robbery no less than the one saved by the Good Samaritan (119).
- Populism: In today’s world populist politicians address such victimhood by presenting themselves as populists. Unhealthy populism appeals to the lowest and most selfish inclinations of certain sectors of the population. It vilifies rather than helps society’s most marginalized. Genuine populism is guided by a clear vision of human dignity and the common good. It starts from addressing the needs of the least powerful (159, 167, 188, 193, 194, 215, 235).
- Violence: Ignoring the poor inevitably leads to violence (219). For instance, disrespecting the rights of indigenous people is itself violent (220). Those whose rights and dignity have been violated should not simply roll over before their oppressors. They have to strenuously, but non-violently defend themselves (241). This means that in dealing with injustices committed on both sides of a given conflict, we must avoid false equivalency. Violence perpetrated by the state using its structures and power is far worse than that of groups resisting excessive use of official power (253). Religious violence comes from misinterpretation of traditional texts. But it is also connected to policies linked to hunger, poverty, injustice, and oppression (283).
- Reparations: Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting, denying, relativizing, or concealing the injustices of exploiters (250). The Shoah must never be forgotten (247). The same is true of the crimes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as those of the slave trade, other persecutions, or today’s ethnic slaughters (248). “For God’s sake!” the pope exclaims, we cannot simply turn history’s page. “For God’s sake, No!” (249). Impunity offends the spirit of forgiveness itself (241, 252). In fact, true forgiveness demands that criminals at the highest-level answer for their crimes (241).
- War: Given the destructiveness of modern weaponry, the only viable policy option is “War Never Again” (258). Nuclear weapons must be eliminated completely. After all, they are incapable of responding to the challenges of terrorism, cybersecurity, environmental problems, and poverty. The trillions now spent on weapons must be diverted into ending hunger and fostering development. The hard work of diplomacy and dialog informed by considerations of the common good and of international law as outlined in the UN Charter represent the only acceptable means of resolving inevitable international conflicts (262).
- Capital Punishment: The death penalty is absolutely inadmissible in civilized society; it must be abolished worldwide (263). All Christians are called not only to oppose capital punishment, but to improve conditions in prisons whose point is to reform and reintegrate even the guiltiest of criminals back into human society (265, 269). Hence, even lifetime imprisonment (a concealed form of the death penalty) is abhorrent (268).
- Abortion: Abortion goes virtually unmentioned in Fratelli Tutti. The closest Pope Francis comes to mentioning it occurs in his first chapter section under the heading “A ‘Throwaway’ world.” There he simply observes how we waste food, disposable products and “useless” people like the unborn and elderly (18).
The Second Vatican Council’s lead document, Lumen Gentium — its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church – affirms that the Pope’s “supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him” and that “loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given” to his teaching (Lumen Gentium, 25). In other words, Fratelli Tutti is not simply an expression of one man’s opinion. Rather, along with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, it represents the official teaching of the Catholic Church.
Regardless of what one might think of such top-down declarations of external authority, the fact remains that the encyclical carries far more weight than contradictory interpretations formulated by rich Republican politicians led by President Trump and embraced by his acolytes such as Amy Coney Barrett. In fact, as noted above, there is no more apt juridical term for such uninformed dissent than “heresy.”
Even more to the point, Fratelli Tutti’s affirmation that the world belongs to everyone, that it should be run like a family rather than like a business , that human dignity must be preserved at all costs, that private property must serve the common good, that the poor have been robbed, that reparations must be assessed, and that the supposed sanctity of borders must be subordinated to human welfare, all reaffirm not only the Church’s long-standing social justice tradition, but the very teachings of Jesus himself and of the Judeo-Christian tradition as a whole.
Imagine if Judge Barrett had been able to make those points at last week’s hearings.
Three years ago, I posted this must-see video. It’s Joyner Lucas‘ hip-hop dialog between a white man and a black man. When I reviewed it again in the current context of uprisings against police violence, I couldn’t help seeing its continued currency and the need to post it again.
See what you think.
I only wish that there had been a third participant in the dialog — someone who might helped the principals see that their anger is misdirected. They are not each other’s enemies.
No, the real enemy is the system of capitalism run by the 0.1%. Its underlying ideology of extreme individualism, and vicious competition keeps everyone’s eyes off the ball by pitting blacks and whites against one another. Meanwhile, the system enriches the few while failing miserably to provide adequate jobs, wages, education, housing and health care for the majority.
This is an example of the system’s “divide and conquer” strategy that works every time.
Through your comments, please share your reflections.
Like every other basketball fan, I’ve just finished watching ESPN’s ten-episode series, “The Last Dance.” It was about the 1997-’98 championship year of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ – their sixth such triumph in eight years.
The series took on special meaning for me, since at the same time, I was reading the late Allan G. Johnson’s book, The Gender Knot: unraveling our patriarchal legacy. Johnson’s analysis made me realize that I was witnessing in the Jordan video saga the stark exposure of the same system Johnson was explaining in his book. Feminist scholar, bell hooks, calls it the “white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist patriarchy.” That’s the oppressive paradigm in which all of us – men and women alike – live and move and have our being. Hooks and Johnson agree on that point.
But Johnson goes further. He suggests guidelines for escaping the paradigm to make room for its replacement. Following Episode 10 of “The Last Dance,” I found myself wishing Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls had followed their direction. If they had, we might today be living in a very different world.
Before I get to that, consider first The Gender Knot, and then “The Last Dance.” Together they reveal our patriarchal dilemma.
The Gender Knot
The main thought of The Gender Knot is that every one of us is influenced by a powerful force called patriarchy. It represents our culture’s fundamental paradigm – its unspoken social arrangement and set of assumptions – this one driven by men’s fears and their need to control. It promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified, and male centered. It’s what undergirds capitalism, racism, classism, and, of course, sexism.
For Johnson, patriarchy sets the rules of the game. It’s like we’re playing “Monopoly” barely aware that its instructions force us to adopt attitudes and activities that would be disturbing in other situations. “Sorry to drive you into bankruptcy,” we might find ourselves saying, “but those are the rules of the game.”
Understood in this sense, patriarchy governs the jokes men tell, our banter with other men. It governs male self-images as we compare ourselves with peers, competitors, co-workers, friends, characters in movies and on the field of play. It also governs workplace interactions between labor and management.
For many, that thesis in itself might be familiar. What was not as familiar (to me at least) is Johnson’s more penetrating insight that patriarchy is not primarily about men’s fearful and controlling relationships with women.
Instead, patriarchy is chiefly about relations among men. Psychologically, it’s about men justifying and protecting our “manly” and strong self-image before other men whose scrutiny hovers over every aspect of life – on the athletic field, at the bar, in the stadium, in the bedroom, and on the job. In all of these venues, we judge ourselves through a patriarchal gaze. At the deepest level, then, it’s other men we fear – how they might threaten, ridicule, replace, or even rape us.
Economically, it’s about how they might fire us from our jobs after our work has made them rich.
Jordan’s Last Dance
Those watching “The Last Dance” with such analysis in mind can see it played out in the series.
It brings us into the hyper-male context of locker room, court, fawning reporters, and fans. (Virtually no women have significant roles in any of the episodes.) It’s an entirely man’s world and so provides a kind of petri dish for observing and testing Johnson’s theory about men’s fears and desire to control. It also provides a context for analyzing the bigger patriarchal issue of white supremacist capitalism.
At the psychological level, “The Last Dance” displays situations where males must continually prove their fleeting manly worth through attitudes and activities that would be disturbing in other situations. The rules of the basketball world turn them into super patriarchs – openly, proudly (but also fearfully) competitive, aggressive, greedy, self-promoting, belligerent, domineering, vengeful, trash-talking, and preening – again, in an exclusively man’s world completely devoid of women and children.
All of that is true especially of Michael Jordan, the principal focus of the ESPN series. Under the threat of inevitably waning powers and the advent of younger rising stars, he’s driven to constantly prove he’s the best by vanquishing and humiliating all comers. He has to defend his position as GOAT (greatest of all time) by winning more scoring championships, All Star Game nominations, MVP awards, Olympic gold medals, and (above all) NBA championships than any other player.
And that brings us to the economic aspect of “The Last Dance” and its unwitting depiction of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. . .
Though universally admired, Jordan’s a kind of tyrant on the job. In labor terms, he’s the ultimate foreman. As a result, grown giants of men – Michael’s teammates – alternately cower and obsequiously smile under M.J.’s judgmental gaze. His leadership style embodies the fear and control Johnson identifies as patriarchal system’s underlying values. So, he berates his teammates, makes fun of them, gets up in their faces, laughs at them, calls them names, and (on one occasion at least) punches them out – all for the sake of more efficient production.
Ironically, Jordan is particularly hard on his boss, Jerry Krause, the General Manager of the Chicago Bulls. Jordan constantly taunts him for being fat and short – at 5’6, a full foot below his tormentor. But like a kid bullied in the school yard, Krause too does the sheepish smiley thing, rolls over and takes it.
However, beneath it all, Krause, perhaps the most unathletic person in the story, is actually its most powerful patriarch. Yes, he’s fat, short and white in a world of giant African American supermen. Yes, they make fun of him and resent his taking credit for the Bulls’ success and for his vendetta against Phil Jackson, the team’s popular coach.
But in the end, it’s Krause along with Jerry Reinsdorf (the Bulls’ owner) who’s the boss – the one who finally decides to break up the greatest basketball team of all time. And this despite his “workers’” desires and those of millions of fans.
And the reason? In episode ten, Reinsdorf explains why. It’s the money. It’s profit. Referring to some of his frontline players, he said, “Now after the sixth championship, things are beyond our control, because it would have been suicidal to bring back Pippen, Steve Kerr, Rodman and (unintelligible). Their market value was going to be too high. They weren’t going to be worth the value they’d be getting in the market . . . So, . . . I realized we were going to have to go into a rebuild. . .”
In other words, the reason for not pursuing a seventh world championship was that that the organization would have to pay the workers too much. So, white ownership and management (Reinsdorf and Krause) bit the bullet. Or, rather, they forced their African American workers and the consumers of their product to do so.
But that’s the point. It’s the way the racist capitalist patriarchy works. It delivers to a few (usually white) men absolute power over the many. If it were up to the workers, if it were up to the consumers, the Bulls would have gone on to compete for and probably win a fourth consecutive championship. But it wasn’t profitable to the powerful few. So, it didn’t happen.
So much for consumer sovereignty. So much for workers’ rights.
Lines of Greatest Resistance
Confronted with such dynamics both psychological and economic, Johnson’s Gender Knot asks its central question: What would it take to shift the entire paradigm even as so clearly depicted in “The Last Dance?” What can be done to transform the white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal paradigm both psychologically and economically?
Johnson’s answer: take the line of greatest resistance. That’s because, like all paradigms, the very purpose of patriarchy’s system is to shunt all of us towards lines of least resistance. Its intention in all spheres is to make it easy for us to go along to get along.
On the other hand, effective resistance means:
- Following Gandhi and embodying the paradigm we’d like to see the world adopt.
- Realizing that most of humanity’s 250,000 years were lived under matrifocal, matrilineal, non-capitalist societies.
- Therefore, rejecting the myth that patriarchal capitalism is somehow inevitable and permanent.
- Giving up the comforting idea that there’s nothing we can do to synchronize our lives and decisions with history’s ineluctable paradigm shift.
- Rejecting the related myth that change is meaningless or irrelevant unless we’re around to see it. (We can’t use our human lifespan to judge social progress.)
- Embracing in every sphere every chance to interrupt the flow of “business as usual.”
- Daring to make people feel uncomfortable.
- Beginning each day with the question, “What risk for change will I take today?”
- To that end, adopting the slogan “Organize, organize, organize.”
The great Larry Bird once described Michael Jordan as “God pretending to be Michael Jordan.” Indiana Pacers legend, Reggie Miller, called him “Black Jesus.” Such transcendent references make me think. . .
Imagine if the collection of black workers called the Chicago Bulls led by their highly driven and charismatic foreman had shared the consciousness explained in The Gender Knot. What if they had organized, interrupted the flow of business as usual, and taken (admittedly large in their case) risks for change in the white supremacist system of capitalist patriarchy?
What if Michael Jordan had used his charisma and marvelous talents in the service of Johnson’s suggestions? What if the Bulls had not simply rolled over for the two Jerrys — Krause and Reinsdorf? What if they had employed their unprecedented status and star power in the eyes of millions worldwide to similarly raise public consciousness about the patriarchal paradigm that oppresses us all.
What if Jordan and company had just said “No!? We’re embracing and appropriating our own power. What’s more, we’re going to organize the NBA Players’ Association into a collective worker-owned cooperative run by us, for us, and for our fans? After all, you owners need us more than we need you. You’re history!”
It would have been revolutionary – and not just for the NBA.
That’s what might have been. But it’s not just fantasy. Changes like that are entirely possible. The fact is that workers united have far more power than Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls ever had.
And as both The Gender Knot and “The Last Dance” suggest, the white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy is more vulnerable than it seems.
Readings for 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time: AM 8: 4-7; PS 113: 1-2, 4-6, 7-8; 1TM 2: 1-8; 2 COR 8:9;LK 16: 1-13
Last weekend, comedian, Bill Maher, and film-maker, Michael Moore, got into a shouting match on Maher’s show “Real Time.” Their point of contention was capitalism vs. socialism. Moore argued for socialism; Maher was against it. Their boisterousness reminded me of dinner-table arguments which (I’m ashamed to admit) I’ve been part of myself.
I bring all this up because the debate is intimately related to this morning’s liturgy of the word. Though the readings obviously pre-date the emergence of the modern system, they all criticize what has historically become “the spirit of capitalism.”
In any case, the Maher-Moore debate is worth considering not only because it manifests the relevance of the Jesus tradition to arguments like theirs. The argument also demonstrates the counter-productivity of the squabble itself. It’s counter-productive because its terms fall into a trap congenial to the enemies of the biblical tradition. The trap frames alternatives to our present economic system in terms of “socialism” instead of in terms of social justice, mixed economy, and “preferential option for the poor.”
That’s a simple distinction I never tire of making, because (as I point out in my book, The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact and fake news) it’s absolutely key to the discussions of capitalism and socialism that will inevitably characterize the election season we’ve just entered – especially following the eventual selection of any Democratic candidate. No matter who the candidate turns out to be, s/he will be predictably vilified for advocating socialism pure and simple – an economic system that simply does not exist.
Maher and Moore both missed that point. The rest of us shouldn’t. In fact, I recommend avoidance of capitalism-socialism framing altogether. I’ll explain what I mean, and then elucidate the connections with today’s readings.
To begin with, Moore’s mistake was to represent as “socialism” his advocacy of Medicare for all (Maher was against it), free college tuition, college loan-forgiveness, and the Green New Deal. In reality, those programs notwithstanding, each of them represents elements of mixed economies – the only form of economic organization that exists in our present context. And a mixed economy always has three elements (1) Some private and some public ownership of the means of production, (2) Some controlled markets and some that are free of control, and (3) earnings limited (usually by progressive income taxes).
Every economy in the world has those elements. There are no exceptions.
Mixed economies contrast with the three elements of capitalism as well as with those of socialism. Capitalism’s three points are (1) Private ownership of the means of production, (2) Free and open markets, and (3) Unlimited earnings. None of the world’s economies embodies those elements untempered by planning.
Meanwhile, socialism’s three points are (1) Public ownership of the means of production, (2) Controlled markets, and (3) Limited earnings. Like untempered capitalism, such economic arrangement exists nowhere (including in “communist” China or Cuba).
For his part, Maher’s defense of capitalism was also a defense of mixed economy. He agreed with many of Moore’s points. So, Maher’s “capitalism” was no less mixed than Moore’s. The difference was that Maher wanted more market and less planning in economic policy.
This is not to say that all mixed economies are equal. (And this point is essential to keep in mind). The crucial question with them is “Mixed in favor of whom?” Those who mistakenly identify themselves as “capitalists” tend to advocate economies mixed in favor of the rich. They do so on the belief that wealth trickles down; a rising tide lifts all boats, etc.
Those who (equally mistakenly) identify as “socialists” want economies mixed more in favor of the working and unemployed classes. They recognize that unregulated markets respond primarily to those with the most money. Economies therefore have to be controlled to include those with limited (or no) resources.
With all of this in mind, Moore and Maher might have resolved their argument by recognizing that the choice before them is not between capitalism or socialism, but between an economy mixed in favor of the rich or one mixed in favor of the poor. And the formula for doing so might be: As much market as possible, with as much regulation as necessary (to assure a decent standard of living for everyone on the planet).
Now, a formula like that not only avoids “the socialist trap;” it is also highly compatible with the biblical social justice tradition that’s expressed so clearly in this morning’s liturgy of the word. As I’ve translated them below, today’s selections point out the injustices inherent not only in the economies of the ancient world, but in today’s neoliberal order. Both, the readings imply, were and are rigged in favor of the rich and against the poor. Check the readings for yourself here.
This is the way I interpret them:
AM 8: 4-7
Money makes the rich
Exploit the poor.
It leads the wealthy
To distort religion
Put thumbs on scales
Sell shoddy products
And underpay workers.
But never doubt:
They will one day reap
PS 113: 1-2, 4-6, 7-8
For God will lift up
From the dirt
To live in.
Will one day
Become their own
1 TM 2: 1-8
In the meantime,
Pray that the powerful
Might change their ways
For God cares
Even for them.
Pray that they
Might know God
As revealed in
The poor man
Jesus who died
For them too
Despite their bitterness
Lies and self-serving
2 COR 8:9
Yes, don’t forget:
In the poor
Not in the rich.
God’s Preferential Option
For the Poor
Is the only way
LK 16: 1-13
The poor man, Jesus,
Laughed at the rich
Who can’t use a shovel
To save their lives,
But blame the beggars
Their own policies have created.
The rich are so crooked,
That they even admire
Shrewdness in those
Who end up stealing from them!
Their own small larcenies
So they cannot be trusted.
Restitution is therefore in order.
But don't worry
About the bankers:
Their “generous” loans
Can easily be written off
Without in the least
Their basic mistake
Is believing that
Differentiating wealth and God
Are somehow compatible.
They are not!
Don’t you agree that sentiments like those favor economies mixed in favor of the poor? (That’s the way they appear to me.) The readings imply that if mixed economies are all we have, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to fall into the trap that ensnared Moore and Maher. Instead of arguing about non-existent “capitalism” or “socialism,” we should make sure to embrace the principle “As much market as possible, but as much planning as necessary (to insure a dignified life for all).”
But to avoid pointless shouting matches, it will be necessary to carry around in our minds those clear and easily understood ideas about what capitalism and socialism are. To repeat: capitalism’s essential elements are (1) private ownership of the means of production; (2) free and open markets, and (3) unlimited earnings. Socialism’s defining points are just the opposite: (1) public ownership of the means of production; (2) controlled markets, and (3) limited earnings. Once again, those two definitions make it clear that mixed economies are all we have.
Finally, we should be emphasizing the incompatibility between the Judeo-Christian tradition and the spirit of capitalism as characterized in today’s readings. Excessive wealth on the one hand and God on the other are not compatible. Or, as Jesus put it, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
Despite our culture’s claims to the contrary, that’s the faith we “People of The Book” (Jews, Muslims, and Christians) are called to embrace.
Readings for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: ECC 1:2; 2:21-23; PS 90: 3-6; 12-14; 17; COL 3: 1-5; 9-11; MT 5:3; LK 12: 13-21
Marianne Williamson shone brightly again during the first night of the second Democratic debate. This time, with only nine minutes of exposure, she had the whole country talking.
As with her first appearance, her name was the most Google-searched among her nine debate rivals. And afterwards, the Washington Post, for instance, noted her contributions with headlines like “Marianne Williamson Had A Big Night in the Democratic Debate,” “Marianne Williamson Made the Most of Her Limited Time . . .,” “Marianne Williamson Makes the Case for Reparations in her Breakout Debate Moment,” and “I’ve Worked for Marianne Williamson. She’s No Kook.”
Additionally, “Democracy Now,” the following day gave more time than ever to Marianne’s remarks about the Flint water crisis, and about reparations, though, in the process, Intercept columnist, Mehdi Hasan felt compelled to dismiss her (without explanation) as “a little bit kooky, let’s be honest.”
Meanwhile Cody Fenwick writing for AlterNet favorably included Marianne’s comments about reparations among his “Nine Best Moments” of the primary debate. However (significantly for our focus here) his article, “Here Are 9 of the Best Moments and 7 of the Worst from the 2020 Democratic Primary Debate,” created a special category for what her campaign considers her most significant remark. Fenwick classified the following as a “Moment that Defied Category.” He wrote, “In the course of a rousing speech about the shameful government-triggered water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the author’s speech took a bizarre turn: ‘If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.’” Without further comment, that statement concluded his article.
Thinking it somehow “bizarre,” Fenwick was evidently confused by the reference to a “dark psychic force,” even though Williamson immediately explained its meaning. She was referring to “the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country.” His confusion resulted, I think, from Williamson’s entry into unexplored debate terrain as she attempted to drive the conversation deeper than the clichés and normalized insanity that characterized many of Tuesday’s exchanges (like Steve Bullock’s disagreement with Elizabeth Warren about first use of nuclear weapons).
What “dark psychic forces” did Williamson have in mind? Judging from her books Healing the Soul of America, and The Politics of Love, they are habits of mind and spirit inculcated by a culture that tolerates, if not celebrates:
- The collectivized hatred she specifically referenced
- The mind-set that actually considers first (or any!) use of nuclear weapons as acceptable
- White supremacy and white nationalism
- American exceptionalism
- Imperialism and neo-colonialism
- Child abuse at our borders
- Regime change wars
- An all-encompassing gun culture reflected not only in law, but in our films, novels, newspapers, and magazines – and especially in military policy
That’s just the short list of the dark forces in question. But for Williamson, all of them can be synopsized in the single term “fear.” Systemically, they can be summarized in the term “capitalism” and the terror-filled interlocking systems of individualism, competition, and greed that system inspires.
And that brings us to the theme of the liturgy of the word for today’s 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time. On my reading, all of them present a light-hearted critique and rejection of the underlying spirit of capitalism. But see if they speak to you in that way. Take a look at them here.
In any case, what follows are my “translations”:
ECC 1:2; 2:21-23 (A Book of Hebrew Wisdom)
Working hard to get it
Worrying about it
Losing sleep over it . . .
Is all foolishness.
And in the end,
You can’t take it with you.
How silly to fret
PS 90: 3-6; 12-14; 17
So, soften your heart.
Life is short
Like the seasons
You might even die
In your sleep tonight.
Instead, enjoy life NOW.
Be happy and kind
In whatever you do.
That’s true prosperity.
COL 3: 1-5; 9-11
As St. Paul says,
Use your Christ consciousness
To look beyond
True wealth –
Your invisible life
Has nothing to do
With idolizing money
Or pleasure, or deceit.
It’s all about
The consciousness of Jesus
That all humans
(wherever they come from)
Are sisters and brothers.
MT 5:3 (Blessed are the poor in spirit)
Are the exact opposite
Of the world’s.
LK 12: 13-21 (Parable of the wealth-obsessed rich man who dies in his sleep)
So, don’t be foolish
Inheritance and money
You didn’t even work for.
Life’s not about
How much you have.
Laugh with Jesus
At fools who spend
Focused on mammon
Only to die
Before they’ve had time
To enjoy the rich Life
God has given
Notice how the readings lament and make fun of lives based on greed and focus on material accumulation. Such goals produce anxiety, sleeplessness, jealousy, and frustration. They end with a completely wasted life and early death.
As opposed to the Prosperity Gospel, this is what Jewish Wisdom Literature, the prophets, Jesus of Nazareth, and leaders like Marianne Williamson have to say about excessive material wealth. It's not the point of life. Instead, love, justice, and the inner peace and community they produce is what fullness of life is about.
Readings like today's remind us of the gloomy and literally unspeakable (i.e. off-limits for discussion) forces that drive our culture. They are encapsulated in our economic system that emphasizes individualism, competition, violence and fear. The system is capitalism-as-we-know-it.
By bringing that up and in terms of "dark psychic forces," Williamson places herself beyond normal political discourse. To mainstream commentators, that makes her puzzling, bizarre, weird, and "kooky," even kookier than those advocating the omnicide of nuclear war.
However, to those of us seeking escape from business as usual, it made her the best candidate on last Tuesday's stage.
The favorable reaction to Williamson's statements there shows that increasing numbers are recognizing her truth.
Readings for 5th Sunday of Easter: Acts 14: 21-27; PS 145: 8-13; REV 21: 1-5A; JN 13: 31-35
The readings for this fifth Sunday of Easter centralize Jesus’ New Commandment, to “Love one another as I have loved you.” He also identifies the criterion for distinguishing his true followers from those who are not. He says, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” – again, “as I have loved you.”
So, the question becomes how exactly did Jesus love those he interacted with? Was his love confined to the inter-personal sphere, or was it somehow political? And even if it was, is a politics of love practical? Or are we condemned to the political status quo based on fear and greed which our “Christian” culture has ironically convinced us is much more realistic than the love and compassion that Jesus seems to recommend?
The answer to all of those questions was captured in our liturgical readings several weeks ago in Jesus’ first sermon as recorded by the evangelist called Luke. Jesus described his program in this way: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
That final phrase “the year of the Lord’s favor” is key to answering the questions I just posed. It’s a reference to the Jubilee Year enshrined in Israel’s ancient tradition. That tradition, if nothing else, was highly political. As economist Michael Hudson has reminded us recently in his And Forgive Them Their Debts, Jubilee referenced a political and economic practice common not only in Israel, but throughout the ancient Middle East. It had kings and emperors (usually on the occasion of their assuming power) periodically creating a clean slate for everyone, especially the poor. During Jubilee, debts were cancelled, land was redistributed, slaves were freed, and amnesty was extended to prisoners. Jubilee prioritized the needs of the poor, not the rich. Its unfolding in Jesus’ public life involved non-violent resistance to temple authorities who had aligned themselves with Roman imperialism.
In other words, the unmistakable conclusion here is that if Christians are to love one another precisely in the way that Jesus loved them, their love must be unapologetically political and anti-imperial. They must practice a politics of love that prioritizes the needs of the poor, sick, indebted, imprisoned, and of those victimized by oppressors of all kinds.
In our own day, don’t you think that at least gestures towards the spirit of the Green New Deal as opposed to continuation of the status quo? I do.
But, you might ask, is a politics of love practical? Or given the fallenness of the human race, isn’t it more realistic to practice our familiar politics based on fear and greed – to run the country like a business instead of like a family. Isn’t it more sensible to appeal to self-interest, money and the bottom line?
In response, Marianne Williamson would ask, “Well, how’s that working out for you?”
In case we’ve forgotten, (and please notice the dollar figures in what follows) by prioritizing the values of fear and greed, our “leaders” have :
- Committed to a program of perpetual war that’s costing us about $2 billion per day
- Spent $2 trillion in just one of those wars (Iraq) while slaughtering hundreds of thousands of civilians (and perhaps more than a million) and creating ISIS in the process
- Prevented refugees created by our wars and economic system from finding refuge in our country where all but a hand-full (Native Americans) are descended precisely from immigrants, refugees, and slaves forced by the rich to work here against their wills
- Created a society in which 3 men own as much as the bottom 50% of the country
- Given $2 trillion in additional tax breaks mostly to those men and their colleagues in the richest 0.1%
- Decided to commit mass suicide by hanging on to an economic system that is destroying our planet despite our claims to love our children and grandchildren
- Asserted proudly that, all evidence to the contrary, our system of political-economy somehow “works”
And that’s just the short list of the craziness of our culture’s commitment to fear and greed rather than to a politics of love and compassion that prioritizes (as did Jesus) the needs of the poor, education, health care, debt forgiveness, and anti-imperialism.
Clearly, we can do better than that. Clearly, it’s time to try something else.
But where, our culture asks, would the money come from to eliminate poverty and save the planet? Practically speaking, where would we find the money for a Green New Deal, for universal health care, for higher wages, for forgiving student loans, to remedy the epidemic of homelessness?
“Don’t make me laugh” says Marianne Williamson in her Politics of Love. She writes:
“How would we pay for all that education and culture, health and safety” ask those who have no problem whatsoever paying for ill-begotten wars and tax cuts for the extremely wealthy. Such a question should be met by laughter from those who were never consulted as to how we would pay for a $2 trillion war in Iraq (which, among other things created ISIS) or a $2 trillion tax cut for the wealthiest among us (which, among other things, is already adding tour wealth inequality).”
No doubt, the Jesus of Jubilee would join in Williamson’s ironic laughter. Where will we get the money?
Please go back to the dollar figures I asked you to note above. Then allow me to count the ways. They include moving quickly to an energy economy not based on fossil fuels, and then:
- Saving trillions when the energy-switch enables us to stop fighting and threatening wars fought for oil (think Iraq, Iran, Venezuela). Stopping those energy wars would enable us to cut the Pentagon budget in half.
- Revoking the recent tax gifts to the rich. That too would provide trillions
- Revising the tax code’s highest bracket to 75% annually freeing up billions in the process
- Cutting off all subsidies to oil companies. That as well would save millions each year
- Imposing the death penalty on Exxon and seizing its assets as a penalty for concealing and lying about its climate research. That alone would go a long way towards paying for any Green New Deal
- Returning to workers the wages stolen by their corporate employers who for the past 40 years have kept the fruits of skyrocketing labor productivity for themselves while practically stiffing their employees.
- Recovering from corporations like McDonalds and Amazon the cost of food stamps and other federal aid programs accessed over the years by their underpaid workers.
- Identifying the beneficiaries of 250 years of unpaid slave labor and assessing penalties on the families and corporations involved for the wages not paid for all that forced labor. The money could be used to build respectable housing and palatial schools in black communities.
- And here I’m probably only scratching the surface.
According to my way of looking at things, implementation of the above policies would actually pay for the Green New Deal without raising taxes on any but the super-rich whose extravagant lifestyles will remain mostly unaffected.
In any case, the point is that the politics of love highlighted in today’s readings is the only realistic way of saving our planet. And Marianne Williamson is the only presidential candidate willing courageously to say so.
Again, as Marianne puts it, (just as in the past) love is the only answer to our current problems. “It was love that abolished slavery, it was love that gave women suffrage, it was love that established civil rights, and it is love that we need now.”
(P.S. Marianne Williamson recently achieved the 65,000 unique contributions required for her to appear on the debate stage with other Democratic presidential candidates. But now that more than 20 are running, it’s necessary for her to poll at 1% in national opinion polls. She’s close to achieving that goal too, but needs financial help to get her name and identity before the public. Please help her by donating here. She only has till June 12th to reach this goal.)
As I reported recently, I spent my Christmas vacation tracking down and studying France’s “Yellow Vest” movement. In December, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman did something similar. However, as expressed in his piece, “The End of Europe,” his conclusions mirror old threadbare thinking about social transformation. Most tellingly, while honoring the voices of the Yellow Vests as grassroots activists, Friedman’s responses exclude the very democratic input the Yellow Vests demand. Instead, he looks to government and business leaders to save what he termed “the idea of Europe.”
My own conclusions are the reverse. I see the Yellow Vests as advocating a democratically radical, comprehensive and bottom-up approach to what distresses our world. In fact, the issues and demands of the Yellow Vests suggest proven reforms that are clearly feasible, since they’ve worked in the past. The economic and political restructurings implicit in their working-class demands could save our planet and create the other world that all progressives sense is possible. Consciously or unconsciously, the Yellow vests propose a program worthy of support by us all.
Friedman & the Yellow Vests
According to Friedman, France represents the last barrier against the disintegration of Europe itself. Across the European Union (EU), England is committing collective suicide (because of Brexit), Germany is turning inward, and Italy (along with Greece) is in full rebellion against EU austerity measures. Meanwhile, the United States incipient withdrawal from the world increasingly leaves the continent without its traditional life insurance policy against “predatory threats from the East.” That insurance is needed now more than ever in a world where Russia is again asserting its power, and where China promises to become the center of the world.
However, Friedman says, the Yellow Vest Movement reveals that France itself is in danger of disintegration. The movement has arisen because the country’s working poor and anxious middle class have not benefitted from the liberal order of political-economy characterized by globalization, technological development, and mass migration of workers from the former Soviet Union and from France’s colonial empire. In the face of such developments, the poor have been completely marginalized, while robotics, artificial intelligence, outsourcing and competition from Chinese imports have made it increasingly difficult for middle class wage-earners to sustain accustomed life styles.
For France, all of this has been complicated by the ineptitude of its president Emmanuel Macron. On Friedman’s analysis, Macron has done the right things, but in an arrogant top-down, “let them eat cake” manner. The right things have included giving tax breaks to the rich, while imposing austerity (and job re-training programs) on workers. Austerity has meant raising taxes on diesel fuel, reducing pensions, and making it easier for employers to fire their workers.
In other words, Friedman approves of the very policies that have given rise to the “Yellow Vests” in the first place. For him, it’s just that austerity’s necessarily bitter pill wasn’t administered with the proper bedside manner.
And, according to the New York Times columnist, there is no apparent alternative. In the face of globalization, he holds that old solutions (simply cutting or raising taxes) cannot work. Instead, he vaguely calls for cities and local leaders to become “more nimble.” In his words, that means forming coalitions of business leaders, educators, and small entrepreneurs who can compete locally, regionally, nationally and globally.
That’s it. That’s Friedman’s analysis and solution.
Entirely absent from his considerations is any mention of “Yellow Vests” (i.e. working class) involvement in the solutions he finds so elusive. That is, Friedman’s own approach, like that of Macron is entirely top-down. Like Macron he seems tone deaf to the “Yellow Vest” demand for inclusion in decision-making processes.
Necessary Changes in Consciousness
But what would such inclusion entail?
It would first of all necessitate changes in the very consciousness exhibited in the Friedman piece. These changes would include recognition of:
- The Fundamental Failure of Capitalism: Friedman begins his article by celebrating capitalism. He writes “Ever since World War II, the liberal global order. . . has spread more freedom and prosperity around the world than at any other time in history. . .” Granted, such triumphalism might have been defensible (for those ignoring, for example, U.S. interventions in the Global South) before the dawn of the climate and immigration crises. However, today its uncritical hubris is embarrassing as the system’s train of destruction stretching back to capitalism’s dawning are seen as threatening the very continuation of human life as we know it. We can now see that capitalism has not really been successful. Quite the opposite. Persisting in lionizing the system while ignoring its run-away destruction prevents serious analysts from imagining the fundamental changes necessary to address the system’s basic failure. Apparently, it prevented Friedman from doing so.
- Yellow Vest Criticism of Neo-liberalism: What consciously or unconsciously irks the international working class about neo-liberal globalization is the fact that the reigning economic model accords rights to capital that it steadfastly denies or severely restricts in the case of labor. It grants capital the right to cross borders wherever it will in pursuit of low wages and high profits. Meanwhile, it insists that labor, an equally important element of the capitalist equation, respect borders and/or severe restrictions on its mobility. Evidently, this is because the authors of the system (politicians, corporate boards, and lawyers) realize that freer movement of labor especially from the East or Global South would outrage constituents and consumers within industrialized countries in the developed world. The “Yellow Vests” prove that such outrage has taken hold in France and threatens to spread across the continent as workers from Europe’s former colonies extend and appropriate for themselves the logic of “free trade” heretofore acted upon only by capitalists and denied to labor. The immigration crisis is the result.
As noted earlier, the Friedman article throws up its hands in surrender before the changes he describes as perhaps signaling the end of Europe. He writes, “Here is what’s really scary, though. I don’t think there are national solutions to this problem — simply cut taxes or raise taxes — in the way there were in the past.” So (to repeat) our author is left with the standard neo-liberal policies earlier described – trickle-down tax cuts for corporations and austerity for workers – implemented by the usual suspects with no mention of worker input.
None of that will work for the Yellow Vests. They want their voices heard. They want democracy at all levels. Such democratic ideal suggests changes far beyond the tired nostrums offered by Friedman – or perhaps even imagined by the French protestors themselves. These might include:
- Democratized International Trade Agreements: Trade agreements like the European Union or NAFTA for that matter need to be negotiated with workers taking part. That means that the real EU question isn’t whether or not Great Britain should renegotiate its Brexit. The real issue is the reformulation of the EU Charter itself. The whole thing has to be rethought with the circle of negotiators widened to include all stakeholders. This means going beyond politicians, corporate heads, and lawyers to include trade unionists, environmentalists, indigenous peoples, educators, social workers, women, and representatives of children. In the process, each stake-holding group must have equal votes to complement their intellectual input. The same holds true for NAFTA.
- Democracy at Work: Workers like the Yellow Vests spend most of their lives at work. Hence, their demands for democracy suggest, that any concept of self-governance must be broadened from the exercise of voting franchise every few years to include democracy at work. In its most effective form, democracy there takes the form of worker-owned cooperatives, where workers decide what to produce, where to produce it, and what to do with the profits. Enterprises of this type would never elect to pollute their neighborhoods, to pay outlandish salaries to administrators, to move their firm to a foreign country, or to lay off workers because of technological advance (all Yellow Vest complaints). Introducing such change is entirely possible. For instance, since 1985 Italy has taken steps to favor cooperative ownership. According to the country’s Marcora Law any company going out of business must extend to workers the right of first refusal in the case of a firm’s transfer of ownership.
- Democratization of the New Technology: Democratic movements like the Yellow Vests need not be Luddite vis a vis the introduction of new technology. Instead, they might welcome any “labor saving” technologies. However, the point of such introduction would not be to down-size the labor force, but to shrink time spent on-the-job. For too long computers and artificial intelligence have been used by employers to cut labor costs and increase profits rather than to expand worker free time. By contrast, worker-friendly technological policies could make widespread job-sharing possible to eliminate unemployment. Four-hour workdays could replace present overwork. It could become possible to work only 6 months per year, or to take sabbaticals every few years without any reduction in pay.
- A Green New Deal: Part of eliminating unemployment entails implementation of a Green New Deal (GND) to address climate chaos in ways that mirror Roosevelt’s original New Deal to combat the disastrous effects of the Great Depression. Prominent among the GND’s provisions must be the contemporary equivalent of the old Civilian Conservation Corps – this time to accomplish the environmental ends that the economy’s private sector is unwilling or unable to achieve.
- A Marshall Plan for the Former Colonies: To reverse the influx of immigrant workers, the former colonial powers must stop the wars and environmental policies that end up creating refugees and migrants in the first place. This means, first of all, ending their resource-wars and the failed war-on-terrorism. Secondly, however, the old colonists need to implement a New Marshall Plan in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia, where centuries-long resource-extraction policies have created the very poverty, hunger, and unemployment that has transformed the Global South from a natural paradise to a cauldron of social inequities. Besides being a remedy for the migration crisis, a grand Marshal Plan for the Global South is a matter of reparations.
- Implementation of the NIEO: Specifically, reparations should entail something like the implementation of the New International Economic Order (NIEO) demanded by the Group of 77 within the United Nations in 1974. The New Order would grant Global South countries the power to control multinational investments within their borders. Recognizing that no country has ever achieved “development” as a mere supplier of raw materials to already industrialized countries, the order would require the latter to make large transfers of capital to the former colonies in the form of money and technology. It would also guarantee stable prices for raw materials from previously colonized nations in exchange for finished products (like tractors and computers), with the prices for the latter indexed to the established value of the raw materials.
- Implementation of A New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO): As recognized by the UNESCO McBride Report in 1980, the former colonies need not only a new economic order, but one in which special attention is given to the international flow of information. The Global South needs a world information system that gives its inhabitants themselves the ability to portray and understand their own reality rather than being dependent on their former keepers for information about their lives, cultures and politics.
- Deep Cuts in Military Spending: All of this would be financed by higher taxes on the world’s 1% and by developed world cuts in military spending. Such increases and cuts would (1) recognize that the present war on terror is an utter failure, and (2) divert money now spent on attacking countries in the less developed world to constructive projects there such as rebuilding homes, schools, hospitals, power plants and water purification systems. Arguably, this would do more to combat terrorism than wars and bombing campaigns which many see as aggravating the problem of global terror. Again, this is a question of reparations.
The elegance of the just-listed responses to France’s Yellow Vests and to the crisis of the neo-liberal order the protestors are rebelling against is that they are not new. In the cases of the New Deal and Marshall Plan, they enjoy a proven track record. At the same time, the prescriptions are much more detailed than the abstract cliches reflected in Thomas Friedman’s endorsements of neo-liberal austerity and “more nimble” decision-makers drawn from the professional classes.
Instead, the suggestions just listed have been with us since the 1930s (in the case of the New Deal), since the 1940s with the Marshall Plan, and since the mid’70s and early ‘80s with the proposed NIEO and NWICO. For their part, as Richard Wolff points out, worker co-ops have been hugely successful, for instance in the Mondragon Corporation in Spain and throughout the world, including France and the United States. Across the globe, worker cooperatives already employ 250 million people and in 2013 represented $3 trillion in revenue. Meanwhile, a huge body of literature from the 1960s and early ‘70s described a world in which computers and robotics would be used not to one-sidedly increase corporate profits, but to provide lives of leisure and enjoyment for ordinary people.
None of this is unrealistic, dreamy or impractical. In other words, we have the Yellow Vests to thank for helping us recall that another world is not only possible, but that we’ve already experienced it!
Democracy Now recently reported surprising results from a new Gallup poll about evolving attitudes in this country about socialism. The poll concluded that by a 57-47% majority, U.S. Democrats currently view socialism more positively than capitalism.
Let me offer some reflections sparked by those poll results. I offer them in the light of some pushback I received over my related blog posting about the capitalism vs. socialism debate. These current reflections will emphasize the faith perspective that has not only shaped my own world vision, but that should mobilize Christians to be more sympathetic to socialist ideals.
To begin with, the Gallup poll results are themselves astounding in view of the fact that since after World War II all of us have been subjected to non-stop vilification of socialism. As economist and historian, Richard Wolff, continually observes Americans’ overcoming such programming is nothing less than breath-taking. It means that something new is afoot in our culture.
On the other hand, the Gallup results should not be that shocking. That’s because since 2016, we’ve become used to an avowed socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, being the most popular politician in the country.
On top of that the recent 14-point victory of another socialist, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, grabbed everyone’s attention. Recall that Ms. Cortez defeated 10-term congressional incumbent, Joe Crowley, in her NYC race for the Bronx and Queens seat in the House of Representatives.
Socialist candidates seem to be sprouting up everywhere. They advocate a $15 an hour minimum wage, Medicare for all, and tuition free college education.
Such promises seem to be somehow awakening Americans (at least subconsciously) to the reality that at least since WWII, similar socialist programs have become quite familiar. We’ve all experienced their efficacy since Roosevelt’s New Deal. We expect the government to intervene in the market to make our lives better.
In fact, since the second Great War, there have been no real capitalist or socialist economies anywhere in the world. Instead, all we’ve experienced are mixed economies with huge elements of socialism that we’ve all taken for granted.
Put otherwise, economies across the globe (however they’ve identified themselves) have all combined the three elements of capitalism: (1) private ownership of the means of production, (2) free and open markets, and (3) unlimited earnings, with the corresponding and opposite elements of socialism: (1) public ownership of the means of production, (2) controlled markets, and (3) limited earnings. The result has been what economists everywhere call “mixed economies”: (1) some private ownership and some public ownership of the means of production (exemplified in the post office and national parks), (2) some free markets and some controlled markets (e.g. laws governing alcohol, tobacco and fire arms), and (3) earnings typically limited by progressive income taxes.
What has distinguished e.g. the mixed economy of the United States from the mixed economy, e.g. in Cuba is that the former is mixed in favor of the rich (on some version of trickle-down theory), while the latter is mixed in favor of the poor to ensure that the latter have direct and immediate access to food, housing, education and healthcare.
My article also went on to argue that the socialist elements just mentioned have enjoyed huge successes in the mixed economies across the globe – yes, even in Russia, China and the United States.
“All of that may be true,” one of my readers asked “but how can you ignore the tremendous human rights abuses that have accompanied the “accomplishments” you enumerate in Russia and China? And why do you so consistently admire socialism over capitalism which has proven so successful here at home?”
Let me answer that second question first. Afterwards, I’ll try to clarify an important point made in my recent posting’s argument about the successes I alleged in Russia and China. That point was in no way to defend the horrendous human rights abuses there any more than those associated with the successes of the U.S. economy which are similarly horrific. But we’ll get to that shortly.
In the meantime, let me lead off with a that basic point about faith that I want to centralize here. Here my admission is that more than anything, I’m coming from a believer’s perspective.
That is, without trying to persuade anyone of its truth, I admit that my Judeo-Christian faith dictates that the earth belongs to everyone. So, boundaries and borders are fictions – not part of the divine order. Moreover, for some to consume obscenely while others have little or nothing is an abomination in the eyes of God. (See Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus (LK 16:19-31).
Even more to the point of the discussion at hand, it is evident that the idea of communism (or communalism) comes from the Bible itself. I’m thinking of two descriptions of life in the early Christian community that we find in the Acts of the Apostles. For instance,
Acts 2:44-45 says:
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Acts 4:32–35 reads:
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had . . . And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”
Jesus’ identification with the poor and oppressed is also important for me. He said that whatever we do to the hungry, sick, ill-clad, thirsty, homeless, and imprisoned, we do to him. The words Matthew attributes to Jesus (in the only biblical description we have of the last judgment) are:
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
There is much, much more to be said about this basic faith perspective. But for now, let that suffice.
Now for the second point about human rights:
• To repeat: no one can defend the obvious human rights abuses of Russia or China. They are clearly indefensible.
• In fact, they are as inexcusable as the similar abuses by the United States in countries which are or have been U.S. client states. I’m referring to Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Vietnam, and countries throughout Latin America and Africa. In all the latter, it has not been unusual for freedom of press to be violated, for elections to be rigged (think Honduras just recently), for summary executions to be common, for journalists to be assassinated in large numbers, and for dissenters to be routinely imprisoned and tortured. Christians advocating social justice have been persecuted without mercy. (Recall that infamous Salvadoran right-wing slogan, “Be a patriot; kill a priest.”)
• Moreover, while we have been relatively free from such outrages on U.S. soil, the events of 9/11/01 have been used to justify restrictions of freedoms we have historically enjoyed. Here the reference is to wiretappings, e-mail confiscations, neighbors spying on neighbors, and other unconstitutional invasions of privacy that seem to violate the 4th Amendment of the Constitution. It is now even permissible for the nation’s head of state to identify the press as “the enemy of the people.”
• 9/11 has also been used to justify the clearly illegal invasion of at least one sovereign country under false pretenses (Iraq) with the resultant deaths of well over a million people (mostly civilians). Other countries have also been illegally attacked, e.g. Libya, Yemen and Somalia without due congressional authorization. 9/11 has further “justified” the establishment of “black sites” throughout the world, the “rendition” of prisoners to third countries for purposes of torture, innumerable (literally) arrests without charges and imprisonments without trial. It has even led to extrajudicial killings of U.S. citizens.
Such observations make the general point that when countries perceive themselves to be under attack, they implement policies both domestically and abroad that defenders of human rights correctly identify as repressive, cruel, criminal and even homicidal. Russia, China, and Cuba have been guilty of such policies. But so has the United States in supporting friendly regimes throughout the world and by implementing increasingly repressive policies here at home.
Now consider the pressures that led Russia, for example, to implement its own indefensible repression:
• As the most backward country in Europe, its people had suffered enormously under an extremely repressive Czarist regime. [Czarism, in fact, was the model of government that most Russians (including criminals like Stalin) had internalized.]
• Following its revolution, Russia was invaded by a vast coalition of forces (including the United States). It was forced to fight not only the invaders, but Czarist sympathizers and anti-communists within its own population.
• The country had twice been invaded by Germany through Poland and saw itself as needing a buffer from its implacable enemies to the west.
• Its people had fought heroically against German invaders and though suffering 20 million deaths and incredible infrastructure destruction, it managed to defeat the German army and largely be responsible for winning World War II.
• During the Cold War, Russia found itself under constant threat from western powers and especially from the United States, its CIA, and from NATO – as well as from internal enemies allied with the latter.
My only point in making such observations was not to defend Russia’s indefensible violations of human rights (nor China’s, nor Cuba’s); it was, rather, to make my central point about the efficiency of economies mixed in favor of the poor vs. those mixed in favor of the rich.
As shown by Russia (and even more evidently by China), economies mixed in favor of the poor develop much more quickly and efficiently than economies mixed in favor of the rich. While both Russia and China became superpowers in a very short time, the former European and U.S. colonies in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia have remained mired in colonial underdevelopment. The latter’s organizing principle of “comparative advantage” has proven ineffective in enriching them, since it locks them into positions of mere suppliers of raw materials to industrialized countries. No country has ever reached “developed” status by following such principle. In other words, Global South countries are still waiting for that wealth to “trickle down.”
So, readers shouldn’t mistake the argument made by Wolff and others. It was not to defend the indefensible. (Even Khrushchev and Gorbachev recognized and denounced the crimes of Josef Stalin.) The relevant point is about capitalism vs. socialism. It was to indicate that the vilification of socialism overlooks the achievements of that system despite (not because of) restrictions on human rights that are common to both systems in egregious ways that no humanist or follower of Jesus should be able to countenance.
My conclusion remains, then, that it is up to people of conscience (and especially people of faith) to oppose such restrictions and violations wherever we encounter them – but especially in our own system where our voices can be much more powerful than denunciations of the crimes attributable to “those others.”