Socialism’s Specter Revives in China’s Belt and Road Initiative

The Chinese are coming! The Chinese are coming! This time they’re here to spread socialism not by war and invasion, but by good example, economic development and cultural exchange. And in the process, they are eating our lunch. They are demonstrating that it is possible for poor and troubled economies to develop as quickly as China’s by following the latter’s example of mixing the best elements of capitalism and socialism to benefit working class people rather than primarily the rich and elite.  Their efforts are showing every sign of success.

Progressives should take heart. Socialism’s specter is once again on the prowl.  

Specifically, I’m referring to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that actually looks like a Chinese version of a new Marshall Plan for countries representing 65% of the world’s population. Many of the countries involved would otherwise be unable to afford such development.

Particulars of the BRI include Chinese export of construction materials, especially iron and steel and their use to erect a huge power grid with wind and solar focus. The materials are being used to construct highways, rail facilities and sea ports to the benefit of Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. The BRI will also include cultural exchanges and educational assistance. It will eventually account for 40% of the world’s domestic product.

That’s the impressive swath China’s trillion-dollar infrastructure-based development strategy that has been in place for the past six years – since it was announced by the country’s president, Xi Jinping in 2013. In his words, the Belt and Road Initiative is “a bid to enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future.”

However, many in the west are not buying that rosy description. To them the BRI seems like a new form of colonialism. Since much of it is based on loans, critics have even described it as a “debt trap” intended to create dependency in order to reduce participating countries to the status of vassals of an imperial Chinese state.

Ironically, such criticisms actually reflect the patterns of western colonialism and neocolonialism whose “foreign aid” has in fact intentionally continued the traditional underdevelopment of the former colonies in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia. The critique also overlooks the fact that the Chinese plan is based on Marxist principles which are inherently anti-colonial and international rather than imperial and national.

In practice, all of this has yielded a system often described as state capitalism. That is, the Chinese state (like every other economy in the world!) has a mixed economy that (as I mentioned earlier) incorporates the best elements of capitalism and socialism. This gives the Chinese a huge publicly- owned sector along with a smaller, but still large private sector strictly regulated by the state. Crucially, however, and unlike our own mixed economy, the Chinese version aims at mixing its economy not in favor of the elite, but in favor of the working classes.

This is in strict accord with Marxist theory, which recognizes that capitalism is a necessary stage in the history of economic development. It cannot be skipped, because capitalism is required for the development of productive forces that are sine qua non preconditions for the transition to full-blown socialism.

Moreover, the whole world has been watching. We’ve seen China’s implementation of a worker-friendly state-capitalist form of economy as responsible for 80% of the poverty-reduction the world has experienced over the past two or three generations. That is, China has been more successful in reducing poverty than capitalism or any country subscribing to neoliberalism’s trickle-down model. The latter, of course, favors the 1% and expects 95% of the world’s population to endure austerity measures in order to pay the social costs for capitalism’s dysfunctions. None of that is lost on denizens of poor countries.

And now through the Belt and Road Initiative, those same less developed former colonies as well as the poorer countries of the EU are given opportunity to follow China’s example economically and even politically.

Regarding politics, the Chinese example and initiative are demonstrating that a one-party state like China’s might work better at least in some contexts than what we in the west understand by “democracy.” Surprisingly, for the west (where there appears to be a tacit agreement never to allow us to hear anything positive about competing systems) the Chinese version of political organization has proven to yield governance far more meritocratic, flexible and legitimate than our own.

Its meritocracy insures that no one will rise to national leadership in China who has not come through the ranks and demonstrated outstanding leadership capabilities at each step along the way. The whole process takes about 30 years. This means that by Chinese standards, someone like George W. Bush or Barrack Obama (much less Donald Trump) would not qualify to govern even a small province in China. They simply lack the experience and resulting knowledge that in China are prerequisite for assuming greater responsibilities.

Such leadership has made the Chinese system far more flexible in terms of reform than our own. Thus, in China the revolution began with the country following the Soviet model of development. That changed with the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) which extended the revolution’s benefits to rural populations. This in turn was followed by Deng Xiaoping’s opening to the west around 1977, by entrance into the World Trade Organization years later, and now by Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Every one of those changes was profound and quickly made. Western capitalism has proven incapable of similar flexibility even in the face of climate chaos that threatens planetary life as we know it.

Moreover, in terms of public approval the Chinese system is proving much more legitimate than western models based on periodic elections. Increasingly, those latter models are corrupted by money. As in the United States, often inexperienced politicians (even comedians and reality show personalities) are elected by pluralities below 50%. A month or so after elections, their approval ratings can sink below 40%. This is because those elected prioritize the needs of their corporate donors rather than those of the people they’ve theoretically been elected to serve. As a result, we’ve increasingly lost faith in democracy-as-we’ve-experienced-it. In many elections, only a minority of Americans even bother to vote.

Meanwhile in China, Pew polling has nearly 80% of the population satisfied with the country’s direction. An even greater majority expects their lives to get better in the near future. Those numbers are testimony to government legitimacy far beyond what we experience in the United States.

So, while western governments and their economies lionize the past and strive to implement 18th century free-market policies, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is offering a different option.

And it’s doing so under the principles of internationalism and anti-colonialism based on sound Marxist theory. That theory has not only taken huge strides towards lessening world poverty; it has provided the world with an example of unprecedented economic dynamism. It’s no wonder that socialism these days is getting a new lease on life. It’s no wonder that its’ specter is once again haunting the world.

Marx and Jesus: The Trouble with Prophets

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Readings for 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Jer. 1: 4-5, 17-19; Ps. 71: 1-6, 15-17; I Cor. 12: 31-13; Lk. 4: 21-30

I remember when my ideas about prophecy changed – when I really began to understand the term’s implications. I was a graduate student in Rome – already a priest – and completing my doctoral studies at the Academia Alfonsiana on the Via Merulana there in the “Holy City.” I was taking a class in I’ve forgotten what. But my professor (a German Redemptorist as I recall) got my attention during one of his lectures by referring to Karl Marx as “the last of the great Jewish prophets.” That was in 1970 at the height of the Cold War, and I had been reading Marx and about the then-flourishing Marxist-Christian dialog. I realized that my professor was right.

Marx of course was a Jew like Jesus, and Jeremiah who are centralized in today’s liturgy of the word. Like them, Marx was totally absorbed by questions of social justice for the poor and exploited. He was pretty much penniless, like most prophets, and spent his time thinking, writing, speaking, and organizing workers against exploitive employers. He was also highly critical of organized religion and its idols.

Marx’s insight (shared with the biblical prophets) was to realize that both Judaism and Christianity worshipped idols more often than the God of Israel. And by that he meant “gods” who not only justified an oppressive status quo, but who anesthetized the workers and unemployed to the fact that they were indeed oppressed by the capitalist system. Marx called such idols “the gods of heaven.”

We’re all familiar with what he meant. These idols are worshipped each Sunday – usually from 11:00 to 12:00 in what a theologian friend of mine used to call the “be kind to God hour.” You can encounter the “gods of heaven” any day at any hour on Cable television’s Channel 3 or in most Catholic Churches any Sunday morning. “God” there is concerned with correct worship, with bows, genuflections, and with correct terms such as “consubstantial,” “chalice,” “with thy spirit,” “under my roof” and so on. The stories or mythology upholding such idols have to do with “Jesus as your personal savior,” with “going to heaven,” and with avoiding hell.

Marx was also critical of what he called the “gods of earth.” They’re what people worship all those days and hours when they’re not in church. They include Capitalism, “America,” Nationalism, National Defense, Homeland Security, the Military, Money, and Profit. The issues of this God focus on sexuality: contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. This God is a War God – always on the side of “America.” He’s celebrated in songs like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Proud to Be an American.” He is the protector of “religious freedom” understood as privileging Christianity over other faiths while preserving tax exemptions worth billions each year. He blesses the bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” concerned as it is with protecting such benefits.

Marx’s prophetic work made him extremely popular with working classes. It was not uncommon for a worker to request that he be buried with a copy of “The Communist Manifesto” placed on his chest.

At the same time, Marx was vilified as the devil himself by factory owners, businessmen, bankers, and the professors and politicians representing their interests. Defenseless against such “education,” most of us have accepted such defamation of this last of the great Jewish prophets.

You see, that’s the trouble with prophets like Marx, Jesus and Jeremiah. They have to take on the “powers and principalities” of their cultures. They must swim against the torrential stream of public opinion.

In today’s first reading, Jeremiah is informed of his lot. But he must “man-up,” he’s told. He must steel himself to confront the “whole land,” along with kings and princes, priests and people. All of these, he’s warned, will fight against him. Nevertheless, God will make of Jeremiah a ‘fortified city,” a “pillar of iron,” and a “wall of brass.”

I suppose God followed through on those promises. But that didn’t prevent Jeremiah from being imprisoned, tortured, and left for dead.

Of course, the same thing happened to Jesus from the beginning to the end of his public ministry. He was vilified, demonized (literally!) and defamed.

That process begins for Jesus in today’s selection from Chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel. As we saw last week, he returns to his hometown of Nazareth and criticizes his neighbors’ narrow nationalism. In today’s episode his neighbors try to kill him. Later on, of course, Jesus goes more public. Like Jeremiah, he takes on his nation’s priests and scribes, princes and king. Ultimately his words and deeds threaten the Roman Empire itself which classifies him as a terrorist. Together those powers and principalities (national and international) not only defame Jesus the way Jeremiah and Marx were defamed; they actually kill him just as so many prophets have been killed from John the Baptist and Paul to Martin Luther King and Gandhi.

All of them – Jesus, Jeremiah, Gandhi, King, Paul and Marx – followed the same “prophetic script” whose inevitable directive prescribes that no prophet is accepted in her or his native place. It’s easy to see why. It’s because their “native place” bears the brunt of their prophetic words.

Meanwhile, it’s easier for outsiders to recognize prophets. The “outsiders” who concerned Jesus were the uneducated, poor, and unclean. However, even those seem to turn against him this morning. It’s unlikely that there were any rich or powerful resident in Nazareth – a place scripture scholar Ched Myers describes as “Nowheresville.”

Few of us are rich and powerful. Yet we’ve been schooled by those entities to reject prophets who speak in our name and defend our interests – those belonging to our “native land” to use the words of this morning’s gospel. It’s as though we’re looking at reality in that “darkened mirror” Paul wrote about in today’s excerpt from his letter to Corinth. The darkened mirror not only turns things backward, but it’s smudged with the fingerprints and dirt of ignorant and/or perverse propagandists.

The trouble – the trouble with prophets – is that most of us have bought into all that anti-prophet propaganda. So we hate Karl Marx without realizing that he’s on our side and speaks for us. We honor the Martin Luther King who has been reduced to a “dreamer,” but not the MLK who described the United States as the most violent and destructive country in the world. We don’t remember the King who was slandered as a communist and encouraged to commit suicide by the FBI and the COINTELPRO program.

We’re willing to stand by while Wikileaks journalist Julian Assange is persecuted by the governments of Great Britain and the United States. We presume that Chelsea Manning is guilty of treason because our government, (despite its record of lies and heinous crimes) says so. We wonder what all the fuss is about Aaron Swartz and Edward Snowden.

These are the prophets of our time who, like Jesus, do not find a sympathetic hearing in their native place. It might be time to embrace them as our own and see what difference that makes in the way we look at the world and our country. The examples of Jeremiah, Jesus, and Paul — and the hopes of the world’s poor and victims of U.S. wars — beg us to do so.

Christianity is the Enemy of Humankind (Reflections on the Historical Jesus)

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Last night I concluded a Lenten series of classes on the historical Jesus. As always, the course had its ups and downs. But it was faithfully attended by about 25 soul mates who, like me, remain fascinated by and somehow in love with Jesus of Nazareth.

At last evening’s final meeting, one of the participants – a fierce unflinching seeker of truth, asked the question in the back of everyone’s mind. “So what?” she asked. “If, as we have learned here, Jesus has been distorted beyond recognition by the early church (and especially by Paul and Constantine) why should we believe any of it?”

What a good question! It has forced me to pull together (for myself!) what I have learned from this latest round of studies of the historical Jesus. Let me express them in as clear an unvarnished a way as possible both positively and critically.

First of all, my positive learnings . . . . The study forced me to face the fact that the historical Jesus, un-obscured by later developments is the touchstone for authentic Christian faith. That is, the Jesus of history (vs. the Jesus of later doctrines) trumps all other conceptualizations in terms of being normative for Christian faith. The teachings of the historical Jesus were extremely simple: God is love. God is bread. Salvation consists in sharing food – bread and wine. A world with room for everyone (the Kingdom of God) is entirely possible. Empire is the anti-thesis of love and sharing. It uses religion to enslave. It finds Jesus message of liberation abhorrent. Empire is the enemy.

Second of all, my critical learnings . . . . If anything the Christian Testament makes it extremely difficult to locate the normative historical Jesus. In fact, the canonical gospels often contradict the basic revelations of Jesus. When this happens, those contradictions have to be faced, learned from, and set aside as merely illustrative of the way history and religion are routinely distorted by the rich and powerful. It is evidence of what people either used to believe before Jesus’ revelation, or what they came to believe when the faith of Jesus subsequently interacted with and was domesticated by other cultures and times.

More particularly, examination of the gospels makes it abundantly clear that following the destruction of Jerusalem in the Jewish-Roman War (66-73), the Jesus of history increasingly receded from Christian perception. In his place a Jesus of faith came to prominence. The two are at odds with each other. The Jesus of history strove to liberate the poor. The Jesus of faith became the servant of empire and the rich who run it.

The Jesus of history was a mystic, prophet, teacher, healer, and movement founder. He was intent on reforming Judaism whose leaders had sold Judaism’s soul to the Roman Empire transforming it into a religion of laws, rituals and obedience to the powerful. This Jesus called himself the “Son of Man,” not the “Son of God.” He was perceived by the poor as a “messiah” who would deliver his people from Roman domination. He proclaimed a new social order which he referred to as the “Kingdom of God.” There Rome’s domination model of social organization would be replaced by a sharing model. In God’s kingdom everything would be reversed: the rich would be poor; the poor would be rich; the first would be last; the last would be first; prostitutes and “the unclean” would enter the new order before priests, the rich and the famous.

And although he shied away from accepting the conventional messianic identity associated with “The War” (against the Romans), Jesus’ program of “Good News for the poor” along with his healings and exorcisms confirmed that identification in the eyes of the marginalized and oppressed. It did the same for the Romans and their collaborators to such an extent that they ended up executing him as an insurgent.

The memory of this Jesus of history was preserved and celebrated by the Jerusalem community called “The Way” before its eradication in the horrendous Roman-Jewish War of 66 to 73CE. In obedience to Jesus, they adopted a communal life where food, drink, and material possessions were shared and held in common. Following Jesus’ death, some were even hoping for his “second coming” in their own lifetimes to complete the task of empire-destruction his execution had prevented him from fulfilling.

This prophetic Jesus was replaced by the Jesus of faith who emerged in the post-war world after the Jerusalem church and its leadership had been slaughtered by Rome. At this point, “The Way” (Jesus’ version of reformed Judaism) was replaced by “Christianity.” This religious movement was non-Jewish. It derived from the teaching of Paul of Tarsus (in Turkey) who never met the historical Jesus, and who thought of him in terms of God’s unique and only Son. Paul was a thoroughly Romanized Jewish rabbi intent on acquainting non-Jews with the Jesus he experienced in the visionary psychic experience recorded as his conversion on the Damascus Road.

By ignoring the Jesus of history, Paul’s experience and subsequent preaching laid the foundation for an understanding that centralized a Jesus understood as God’s only Son – a divine being who would have been (and was!) completely unacceptable to the fiercely monotheistic Jews. At the same time, this domesticated Jesus was not threatening to Rome. In fact, he was completely familiar to Romans resembling the “dying and rising gods” of Roman-Greco culture who offered “eternal life” beyond the grave rather than an anti-imperial Kingdom of God in the here and now. In other words, the Jesus of history was co-opted beyond recognition by the Roman Empire.

So what’s the take-away from the study of the historical Jesus? I think the following extremely important lessons:

1. History is unreliable. It has been distorted and manipulated by the powerful to suit their own needs. (If taken seriously, this in itself is an invaluable lesson.)

2. Hard work is required to find historical truth – not just about Jesus but about what happened yesterday!

3. Empire is the enemy. It is a system of robbery whereby the rich and powerful steal resources from the poor they oppress. It is entirely contrary to the will of God (the Principle of Life). It represents a “preferential option” for the rich and powerful. It is absolutely ruthless in its eternal war against the world’s poor and in falsifying history for its own benefit.

4. Those who resist empire can expect to be tortured and assassinated. Nonetheless, from time to time courageous and insightful prophets arise from the non-rich and non-powerful with Good News for the poor. Their very simple message: fullness of life is to be found not in empire, but among the poor and simple of the world (God’s people). Salvation, these prophets teach, consists in sharing the simple realities of bread and wine. In effect: God is Bread.

5. Among the west’s best known prophets of Jesus’ God are Moses, Jesus himself, Gandhi, Bartolommeo de las Casas, Karl Marx, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Dorothy Day, and the nameless martyrs (so many of them women!) inspired over the last fifty years by liberation theology.

6. Most people are in denial about these simple facts. They are powerfully assisted in their denial by politicians, scholars, priests, and the media who make the teachings of the prophets extremely complicated. They have transformed the prophets’ message about sharing bread and fullness of life in the here and now into “religion” and a promise of life after death. As such, religion is the enemy of humankind. Christianity is the enemy!

7. Those who accept these learnings should leave institutionalized “religion,” band together, internalize the teachings of the historical Jesus and change the world!