“Often the best source of information about waste, fraud and abuse in government is a government employee committed to public integrity, willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism…should be encouraged rather than stifled.”
These were the words of one Barack Obama when on the presidential campaign trail in 2008.
In an interview with an American online journal at the time, I cautioned Americans about expecting differences in foreign policy from the Bush era. When the almighty god of National Security takes over, humans are expendable, paranoia reigns, and the military-industrial-megamachine runs amok.
But I must admit that Obama has succeeded beyond my expectations in “outbushing” Bush. During his first term in office, six whistleblowers were charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 for disclosing classified information. That is twice as many as all previous presidents combined.
The threat facing whistleblowers has implications for media freedom. In the Internet and cell-phone age, journalists are no longer able to guarantee their sources’ anonymity. And if the sources dry up, so do the stories and we are left in the dark about what our governments are doing.
A 29-year old ex-CIA employee, Edward Snowden, recently leaked information on a secret US spy programme that harvests internet and phone records of US citizens and foreigners. Snowdon told Britain’s Guardian newspaper that he had leaked the details of the US National Security Agency’s surveillance programme to “protect basic liberties for people around the world.”
The merging of government and the corporate world is shown by the extent to which “national security” is outsourced to private contractors. Snowden’s company, which receives all its funds from the federal government, is in turn owned by the private equity firm Carlyle Group. (Republicans only dislike Big Government when the poor are the beneficiaries).
Snowden’s revelations are not new. What is interesting is the anger of many white Americans upon discovering that they are included in the objects of government surveillance. As long as surveillance focused on foreigners, or Americans with Arab or Pakistani appearance, there was no problem. The majority could sleep peacefully in their beds, free of the threat of “terrorism”.
In his book Collateral Damage, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman observes that “Security obsessions are inexhaustible and insatiable; once they take off and are let loose, there is no stopping them.”
The questions that every sane person should raise in the public arena, wherever he or she may happen to live, are surely these:
1. Can democracy survive if protected by undemocratic means?
2. Is a society that requires torture, indiscriminate surveillance, technological over-kill, and the sacrifice of other peoples’ rights and liberties for the sake of one’s own, a society worth defending?
Through this Blog I may well have become yet another “person of interest” to the CIA. After all, I have defended Bradley Manning who, instead of being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his courage in exposing war crimes, is being court-martialled for treason. I have also expressed disgust at the hypocrisy and double standards practised by American and British governments when it comes to democracy and human rights; and I have frequently condemned the immorality as well as illegality of the use of drones in non-combat zones in Pakistan and elsewhere.
In the United States, the massive surveillance apparatus built up since 9/11 is the domestic companion of the overseas drone killings. It spells the degradation of the liberal state. Unaccountable government is at one end of that spectrum of degradation, and an unaccountable financial sector at the other.
Iraq has already been forgotten by the American and British public, and so will Afghanistan. Bush and Blair have retreated to their private havens and lecture circuits, while the people of Iraq continue to suffer the aftermath of their destructive and illegal political actions. When on a single day last month 57 Iraqis were killed, it was considered a non-event in the Western media compared to the killing of a British soldier on a street in London. Yet the two atrocities are historically connected.
In the popular American television series Homeland, Sgt. Nicholas Brody is suspected of having been turned by a Middle Eastern terrorist organization. He is put under surveillance by CIA agent Carrie Mathison. Sitting in her apartment, she can watch every minute of Brody’s life at home in every room of his house. She’s trying to see whether something he says or does will reveal his affiliation with the terrorists. Mathison can see everything about Brody except in the one place hidden from the surveillance cameras: his garage. Away from his family, who would never understand his conversion to Islam, Brody goes to his garage, lays out his prayer mat, turns to Mecca, and prays.
Carving out such “sacred spaces”, free of the encroachment of governments, capitalist markets and intrusive technologies, and making those spaces the launching pads for the prophetic unmasking of national idols- surely this is the biggest missionary challenge facing the American Church. And it may well be unlikely “geek” heroes like Manning and Snowden, and those courageous Muslims who refuse to let their faith be domesticated or co-opted, who help that Church recover its integrity and nerve.
“Give a person a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. So runs a popular traditional adage about economic development.
But poor fishing communities don’t need us to teach them how to fish. They may have much to teach us about more sustainable fishing practices. We are not the ones denuding their lakes and oceans, or polluting them with our refuse. And what if they are unable to fish, not because they lack the skills, but because the fishing rights to their rivers and lakes have been sold by their governments to foreign corporations and governments as a way of servicing the nation’s external debt?
Libraries groan under the weight of academic theses and books analysing poverty and theorising about development. They have provided employment and financial security to economists. They have done precious little for the world’s poor. The biggest single obstacle to ending poverty is not the lack of economic knowledge but the lack of political will. Politicians who truly care for the poor will somehow find pragmatic solutions rather than being bound by ideologies of the right or the left.
One doesn’t have to be a high-paid consultant or “poverty expert” to know that, for instance, corruption robs the poor; that social class is the principal determinant of school performance; that nutrition, healthcare and education are more vital for a nation’s security and well-being than missile systems, national airlines and superhighways. Yet the rich states continue to sell arms to poor nations and invest in projects that benefit their businesses more than the poor. Kofi Annan recently stated that capital flight from Africa to banks in the West (including tax havens which are British and American protectorates) amounts to three times what is given as official development aid.
The individualistic approach to poverty is most evident in organizations that promote child sponsorship programs. Whenever I visit friends in the US or Europe I often notice pictures of African or Asian children pasted on their fridge doors. They pray for these children, whom they have never met but know by name, and support them monthly through a non-governmental organization. I am impressed by their concern for children in the Two-Thirds World. (Rarely, however, do I see pictures of impoverished children from their own cities!). At the same time I share my reservations with them and also try to give them a bigger picture of what hinders the development of poor communities.
No doubt child sponsorship is a near-perfect marketing strategy for raising funds. That is why it persists despite repeated concerns expressed by local people. If the money raised does go to support a specific child, then there is at least a financial integrity about the program. But it raises some difficult questions. Who gets chosen and why? What about the children in the village or slum community who are left out? Since the cost of living varies enormously, how does a child-sponsoring organization based in the US determine that (say) $30 per month will meet the needs of a child in South Sudan, the Philippines or Bolivia? Are local economists and educationists consulted in the process? Never, in my experience. Quite simply someone or some group in the donor nation is employed to work out how much an average donor is willing to donate each month and this suddenly becomes what sponsorship costs! It has little to do with real costs on the ground. It’s also a very expensive process to manage, which means a large fraction of the money raised is swallowed up in the bureaucracy of the organization.
Many child sponsorship programmes have long moved away from real child sponsorship, and the photos and stories of children boil down to a means of hooking people into funding community development projects in which the children in the photos are among the beneficiaries. At a local development level this makes far more sense. At the fundraising level I think it does raise issues of integrity. Are the donors informed that this is how their funds are being used? Whatever the style of sponsorship, the process also inevitably exaggerates the importance of the donor over that of the local people providing the care and training on the ground.
The biggest and best-known of the child sponsorship organizations promises its donors, largely drawn from conservative evangelical American churches, that they will “present every child with an opportunity to become responsible and fulfilled Christian adults”. For those of us living in societies largely hostile to Christian faith, and where churches working with the poor are often accused of using financial help as an incentive to “conversion”, such promises send shivers up our spines. Are parents and guardians consulted? Or does the promise mean that only orphans are helped, and that parents who oppose their children being taught Bible stories will be sidelined? This, too, raises ethical concerns.
Moreover, when a sponsor asks on the organization’s website questions such as “Should I visit my sponsored child?”, it is other sponsors who reply, not local people on the ground.
There is no shortage of Christians in poor nations who have learned the skills necessary to court donors from rich nations. They know what is the “flavour of the month” where giving by evangelical Americans or Singaporeans is concerned. That foreign donors need to be educated does not seem to register on their thinking.
My Danish brother-in-law has been unemployed for more than six months. The economic situation in Scandinavia, though complained about by locals, is not as grim as in southern Europe. Spain recently announced that more than one in four people were out of work. Youth unemployment in Italy runs at nearly fifty per cent. People all over the world are desperate for jobs. And those who have jobs are desperate to keep them, at whatever cost. Under the present regime of global capitalism, small businesses struggle to survive, and self-employment is limited in scope.
On the one hand we are told that we live in an era of unparalleled freedom of choice. On the other hand, there is a profound sense of resignation to fate. Managers complain that their decisions are controlled by impersonal “market forces”. They are compelled to “downsize” or move their operations elsewhere, otherwise they lose out. When profits dip, workers are laid off. Nobody thinks of a proportionate pay cut across the board. Thus the paradox we see today of prosperous stock markets and struggling economies.
The values espoused by capitalism are not optional for people who wish to remain employed. Worldwide, few labourers can choose to work part-time or with flexible hours in the interest of being available to their families. We are forced on to a treadmill of consumption in a 24/7 economy. Unbridled capitalism demands that we prioritize work over family, greed over generosity, shareholders over employees and neighbours. Like Marxism, this is a fundamentalist religious faith.
Thus it is not new technology per se that puts people out of work. Rather, technology that goes hand-in-hand with a particular mindset. According to the latter human beings are expendable, simply means towards the end of ever-increasing profit. The few who keep their jobs are highly paid but over-worked. The many who lose their jobs find that the social security network is simultaneously being dismantled. There also seems little opportunity for work outside regular employment.
A dysfunctional work environment where individuals are discounted also affects those who remain employed. A study in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet showed that workers who kept their jobs during a major downsizing were twice as likely to die from cardiovascular disease, perhaps triggered by work stress.
The wise employer, unlike the neo-classical economic theorist, knows that people don’t work just for money. Work is an important aspect of human fulfilment. Our self-esteem is bound up with what we do. As long as they perceive their work to be interesting and useful, men and women are usually willing to do it for less pay. Meaning is often more attractive than a bigger salary.
The best description I have come across of what forced unemployment does to sensitive men and women (of whatever age) is the following passage from the Chilean writer Isabel Allende’s novel Of Love and Shadows:
“His activities in the union were a stigma, in the eyes of the new authorities. First they watched him, then they hounded him; finally, they fired him. Without a job and without hope of finding another, he began to decline. Pale and wan, he shambled through nights of insomnia and days of humiliation. He had pounded at many doors, suffered long hours in waiting rooms, answered advertisements in newspapers and, at the end of the road, found crushing hopelessness. Without a job, he gradually lost his identity. He would have accepted any offer, however mean the pay, because he desperately needed to feel useful. As a man without employment, he was an outsider, anonymous, ignored by all because he was no longer productive, and that was the measure of a man in the world he lived in.
During recent months he had abandoned his dreams, renounced his goals, considered himself a pariah. His children could not understand his constant bad humour and unremittent melancholy: they looked for jobs washing cars, carrying shopping bags from the market, performing any task to bring home a little money. The day his youngest son put on the kitchen table the few coins he had earned walking rich men’s dogs, Javier cringed like a cornered animal. Since that moment, he never looked anyone in the eyes: he sank into total despair. He often lacked the will to dress and spent a large part of the day in bed. His hands trembled after he began to drink secretly, feeling even more guilty for draining much-needed money from his family. On Saturdays he made an effort to be clean and neat when he showed up at his parents’ home, in order not to distress his family further, but he couldn’t erase the desolation from his face.
His relations with his wife disintegrated; in such circumstances love grows weary. He needed consolation but, at the same time, reacted with fury at the slightest gleam of pity… Apathy enveloped him like a cloak, obliterating any notion of the present, sapping his strength, and stripping him of courage. He moved like a shadow. He ceased to feel he was a man as he watched his home collapsing about him and the light of love dying in his wife’s eyes. At some moment that his family was too close to perceive, his will snapped. He lost his desire to live, and decided to seek his death.”
This should be read by all politicians, business employers and armchair economists.
It has been fashionable in some Western intellectual circles to scoff at the 18th-century Enlightenment doctrine of Progress. Where Progress was understood as the inexorable march of freedom and rationality throughout the world, with Western industrial societies leading the triumphant march, such scoffing was (and remains) necessary. Two barbarous world wars, followed by several proxy wars, all emanating from the scientifically and technologically most advanced nations, surely put paid to that myth.
However, we are soon approaching the twenty-fifth anniversary of 1989- that remarkable year which was a huge rebuke to historical determinism, whether of the optimistic or pessimistic kind. That was the year when, with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the metaphorical Iron Curtain collapsed. A whole generation witnessed the truth that no power on earth is impregnable, nor is history closed to novelty, surprise and sheer reversals of direction.
Whatever the social and economic problems the nations of Eastern Europe continue to face, there is no denying that what they all experienced was genuine progress- and one not planned and engineered by human agency. Totalitarian regimes suddenly toppled at gathering pace. What had taken Poland ten years took Hungary ten months, East Germany ten weeks, Czechoslovakia ten days, and Rumania ten hours; and the Soviet Union disappeared soon after. With hindsight, we can say that this was the fruit of prayerful, faithful and unflinching witness in the face of terrible adversity. As the Czech dissident, Vaclav Havel often observed, this was a victory of the kingdom of truth over an empire of lies.
Anyone who seeks to discern the hand of providence in the events of history is taking on a gigantic challenge. This is why far more Christians prefer to pursue the natural sciences than become professional historians. The fourth-century church historian Eusebius hailed the conversion of Constantine as the culmination of divine providence. It was followed not long afterwards by the terrible persecution of Persian Christians in the East because they were now seen as belonging to an enemy empire. Perspective is all-important. It is why history-writing cannot be confined within borders.
Abraham Lincoln spoke of the American Civil War as God’s judgment on his nation for its acceptance of slavery. But the same surely cannot be said for the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide or the killing fields of Cambodia. Here the theologian can only confess the mystery of human corruption and the paradox of the “God on a Cross”. This is a God who is neither an absentee landlord nor a control-freak. He is found in the mess of history, overcoming human evil by bearing its full weight and planting seeds of a new creation in the midst of ugliness and death.
Some religious leaders are quick to pronounce divine judgment on everything that either baffles them or angers them. It would be better to remain silent and to wait upon competent historians and social critics to trace the causal threads and ramifications of cultural changes, social policies, technological developments and intellectual ideas on a society over several generations. Then perhaps- and only perhaps- may we be able to discern where God has been at work in judgment or in redemption. The apostle Paul’s depiction of divine judgment (in Romans 1) as a divine withdrawal or “handing over” of humans to their selfish wills may be a fruitful way of understanding the complexities of social evils. But much will still remain beyond our comprehension.
Thankfully, commitment to social transformation does not depend on our answering correctly the question “What is God doing today?’, but rather trusting the character and promises of a God known supremely in the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Desmond Tutu has testified: “Our own struggle for justice, peace and equity would have floundered badly had we not been inspired by our Christian faith and assured of the ultimate victory of goodness and truth, compassion and love, against their ghastly counterparts.”
In the midst of my own struggles, political and theological, I want to affirm that the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the dismantling of apartheid, the emancipation of women in many parts of the world, and the widespread recognition of human rights norms and international law are “eruptions” of the Kingdom of God in my own lifetime (along with much else). All these events have a flawed, fragile as well as incomplete side to them; but that is the nature of the “now-but-not-yet” redemption of creation that the Kingdom is all about. From the day of Pentecost the Church itself has been a deeply flawed, yet genuinely anticipatory, human community.
I once said publicly in an American university, in answer to a question, that I had no hope for my nation’s political future. I was immediately upbraided by a student who announced to the audience that Christians must always have hope! I explained that biblical hope was not to be confused with optimism, let alone “positive thinking”. I had hope in the promises of God, but I didn’t see the preservation of Sri Lanka, the US, Japan, or any other nation-state promised by God in the Bible. Even the nation-state of Israel has nothing to do with ancient, biblical Israel. All these may well disappear into the mist of history, as others have done.
The confusion of Kingdom hope with secular Progress has often been challenged. But the confusion with optimism over our own private projects, our nation’s prosperity or the numerical growth of the Church seems to be rarely addressed.
Much has been written in recent days of the simple lifestyle of the new Pope. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he shunned the archbishop’s palace and chose to travel in public buses. A few days after being installed as Pope, he celebrated mass with the Vatican City’s gardeners and refuse collectors; and has opted to perform the traditional foot-washing ceremony of Maundy Thursday, not in St Peter’s Basilica, but in a juvenile prison in Rome.
However much we may disagree with the Vatican’s views on priesthood, celibacy and lay ministry, we cannot deny that the Roman Catholic Church regularly provides more examples of incarnational servant-leadership than any other Christian denomination. A prominent evangelist, apologist or mega-church pastor who lives like Pope Francis would be as rare as a snowflake in hell. A lifestyle that revolves around self-promotion, business-class/first-class air travel, conferences in luxury hotels and convention centres – this is what we have come to associate with most “global evangelical leaders”.
The Roman Catholic church has, belatedly, come round to being a leading champion of human rights and social justice in many parts of the world, largely as a result of pressure from Latin American and Eastern European bishops and theologians.
The Reformed Church tradition can boast of a rich heritage of social transformation, resistance to political tyranny, cultural engagement and ideological critique. Paradigmatic twentieth-century figures here are Abraham Kuyper (Netherlands), Karl Barth (Switzerland), Alan Boesak (South Africa). In the US, political philosophers such as Richard Mouw and Nicholas Wolterstorff have helped recover the centrality of justice to the Biblical narrative and Christian discipleship.
This goes back to John Calvin himself. He spoke boldly of the “wounds of God” not only with reference to the cross, but in terms of human beings as icons of God. For Calvin, notes Nicholas Wolterstorff, to injure a human being is to injure God; to commit injustice is to inflict suffering on God. “Behind and beneath the social misery of our world is the suffering of God. If we truly believed that, suggests Calvin, we would be much more reluctant than we are to participate in the victimizing of the poor and the oppressed and the assaulted of the world. To pursue justice is to relieve God’s suffering.” [Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Wounds of God: Calvin on Social Injustice”, The Reformed Journal, June 1987]
Not only did Calvin vigorously denounce corruption in the church, but also tyranny in the polity and huge inequalities of wealth in the economy. In his Commentary on Habakkuk 2:6, Calvin claims that the cries of the victims are the very cry of God. The lament “How long?” is God’s giving voice to his own lament. One rarely finds such thoughts expressed in Calvinist circles today!
Was Calvin the first liberation theologian? He has as good a claim as any. He persistently fought the City Council of Geneva for the rights of poor refugees, persuading them to provide adequate social welfare. He himself was often exiled, experienced severe deprivation and other indignities, which must have made him particularly sensitive to the plight of refugees and the downtrodden.
How strange, then, to hear some influential pastors in the US and UK laying claim to be guardians of a “Reformed orthodoxy” while demonstrating little of Calvin’s heart. For these men (they are always men), the church’s mission is primarily one of proclaiming a message of individual salvation. Pastors are exhorted to “contend for the faith” (which usually amounts to contending with other pastors, and damning all who disagree with them), and “the faith” is taken to be a set of timeless “doctrines” rather than any distinctive Christian way of living.
But perhaps not so strange, once we recall that our personal experiences, social and political contexts, profoundly shape the way we read both Scripture and the world. That is one reason why we need to listen to each other in the global Body of Christ. Authentic Christian witness has to be ecumenical and trans-cultural.
We have a long way to go in developing such theological maturity despite all the deceptive language of “partnership” and “equipping”. Below is one example of the huge obstacles we face.
A group of North American pastors calling themselves The Gospel Coalition of International Outreach is engaged in what they call “a mission of Theological Famine Relief for the Global Church”. They state on their website: “We are partnering with translators, publishers, and missions networks to provide new access to biblical resources, in digital and physical formats. Our goal is to strengthen thousands of congregations by helping to equip the pastors and elders who are called to shepherd them.”
Sounds loving, until one asks: who decides who is theologically famished and who is not? who selects what “resources” to send the famished? who decides what constitutes “equipping” and who should be doing it? The answer is always the same. A small group of white, well-to-do American or British males. We have experienced such paternalistic, colonial “mission” before- others deciding what is the “Good News” for us, what is “sound doctrine”, which authors to read and whom to avoid, etc. They have exported their theological blind-spots and sectarian rivalries, reproducing carbon-copies of themselves in the global South rather than nurturing real leaders. The learning and theological traffic is all one-way.
Perhaps a day spent with leaders like Pope Francis or Desmond Tutu may be more useful for African pastors than all the “resources” from north America.
Can the North American Church become more Christian by learning from the history and politics of countries like India and Sri Lanka ?
Even to suggest this must come as bit of a shock to those small but highly vocal sections within that Church who believe they have nothing to learn from other peoples, even non-American Christians. In their political discourse, the USA is the bastion of liberty, democracy and prosperity, a beacon to the rest of the world. Somehow Christianity, the U.S Constitution and Supply-Side Economics are fused together. Economic libertarianism is identified as Christian freedom. That precariously-won freedom is now threatened by the likes of Obama, Muslims, the UN, Jim Wallis, George Soros and the IPCC.
How such a diverse crew ever got lumped together baffles me. This bizarre discourse trades on fears engendered by the changing ethnic and religious landscape of the U.S. This self-enclosed worldview, frequently invoking the rhetoric of “persecution” and the threat of Big Government is making strong inroads into the minds of kids brought up not only in the Bible Belt but Christian colleges and fundamentalist seminaries throughout the U.S. It dominates the ugly genre of fundamentalist apocalyptic and the new “conspiracy fiction” (e.g. David Kullberg’s sensationalist War Against God); pseudo news-media such as Fox and World Magazine, and parochial “academies” such as the InterCollegiate Studies Institute and the Acton Institute. There are many more, all massively funded by corporate America.
My first encounter with the tiny intellectual and social worlds of these “Tea Party Christians” (for want of a more accurate term) immediately reminded me of the Sinhala-Buddhist discourse in Sri Lanka and Hindutva (or Hindu Nationalism) in India. While the various schools of Buddhism comprise clusters of religious and ethical practices, beliefs and institutions (such as the sangha, or monastic order), what is labelled “Sinhala-Buddhism” is a political ideology. Sinhala is the majority language of the island, and all Buddhists here speak it. If I were to define the core elements that form the mental map of Sinhala-Buddhists, they would be:
1. Sri Lanka is historically a Sinhala-Buddhist country. All other ethnic and religious groups (Hindus, Muslims and Christians) live here at our sufferance. They must not aspire to equality but accept their proper place within the social and political hierarchy.
2. The high civilization of Sinhala-Buddhism is responsible for all that is good in our history. All that is evil comes from Hindu invasions and Western colonialists (Portuguese, Dutch and finally the British).
3. Even though we are, numerically-speaking a majority (65-70 per cent) on the island, we are threatened by powerful minorities who are aided, economically and politically, by “foreign powers”. Today Muslims, heavily funded by Saudi Arabia, are seeking to take over the state and impose their laws on us. Christian missionaries are in the pay of the CIA and other American powers that want to destroy our ancient civilization.
This is the mirror-image of “Tea Party Christianity”. This is not mere ethnocentrism, to which we are all prone. It is nothing less than racism. It thrives on one-sided national histories, ignorance of other people and their faiths, growing economic insecurity, and the fear of losing traditional privileges. And just as we seek to persuade our Buddhist friends to distance themselves from this distorted caricature of Buddhism, so it may be the role of Muslims, Hindus, atheists and others in the US to help “evangelical” Christians in the US to publicly distance themselves from such distorted caricatures of historic Christianity.
Indeed American Muslim migrants can learn from the Roman Catholic experience. For much of the nineteenth century, Catholics in America were the feared “religious other.” Not only did many not speak English, but some of their religious women- nuns- wore distinctive clothing. Their primary allegiance was to the Roman Catholic Church and not to the U.S Constitution. It took them more than a century to be accepted as equals by white Protestants. At the same time, however, American Catholics helped re-shape parts of their own Church. The Jesuit, John Courtney Murray, was decisive in helping the Second Vatican Council endorse religious freedom- so much so that, ironically, the papacy has become the greatest global champion of religious freedom today. Can Muslim migrants in the US, while not being intimidated by the phobias of the American “right”, still help to re-shape the politics of their home countries in the light of their more positive experiences of American life?
I do not doubt that discrimination against orthodox Christians has been increasing in American universities and the mass media. Those who oppose abortion or gay marriage are regularly pilloried and even excluded from public forums. But Christians betray their faith by their strident cries of “persecution” and lobbing grenades at people, even among their own ranks, from a safe distance. They can become more winsome and credible in their persuasive skills by being consistently “pro-life” (in ways that I have explained in other Blog posts), renouncing racism and nationalism. and being more willing to learn from others. And the place to begin is by switching off their pseudo-Christian media networks, taking their kids out of home-schooling, closing down their sectarian colleges and mono-denominational seminaries, living in ethnically and religiously mixed neighbourhoods, and joining the mainstream of cultural and social life. That is how the rest of us live.
Joseph Ratzinger, who steps down this week as Pope Benedict XVI, was not as popular, let alone as saintly, as his predecessor John Paul II. But he has acquired a well-deserved reputation as the “Green Pope”, making the Vatican the first carbon-neutral country in the world, putting thousands of solar panels of Vatican rooftops (a project which won the 2008 Euro Solar Prize) and committing the Vatican to having 20 per cent of its energy come from renewable sources by 2020.
Ratzinger has always been an animal lover. He practises the Church’s official teaching that we owe kindness to non-human animals and that it is morally wrong to inflict gratuitous suffering on them. In an interview with a German journalist, before he became Pope, he said: “Animals, too, are God’s creatures. Certainly, a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.”
In his first sermon as Pope he returned to this theme: “The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast. The earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction.”
The 40-day period of Lent in the liturgical calendar of the Church is intended to be a time of spiritual preparation leading up to Easter. But, in practise, Lent often degenerates into meaningless acts of masochism (from “I’m giving up coffee/chocolate for Lent” to ritual self-laceration in “folk Catholicism”). I’m often reminded of my Muslim neighbours who fast scrupulously during the day during Ramadan, only to feast sumptuously through the night.
If the purpose of fasting is to force us (well-to-do Christians) to be more attentive to the cries of the poor, to reflect on our self-indulgent lifestyles and to change direction, then instead of giving up (say) coffee for forty days, it would be better to use this period of Lent to study the conditions under which coffee is manufactured around the world, who gains and who loses out, and then perhaps to boycott gourmet coffee companies whose products we unthinkingly consume.
Indeed, food is a topic around which cluster numerous justice issues. Simply pausing to ask ourselves “Who makes the food on our table, and at what cost to the rest of creation and to future generations?” opens up a plethora of disturbing moral challenges. Here are just a sample:
1. Cruelty to animals. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to be appalled, like the Pope, by the horrific conditions under which many animals are bred and killed to meet the demands of a consumer society. Factory-farmed pigs, geese and ducks are treated as “commodities” (separated from mothers, artificially fattened and inseminated). Many of us in the Church participate in such structural sin by our silence.
2. Intensive fishing and farming practices. The use of massive trawler nets in the north sea has depleted fish stocks, and the same is happening in the Indian Ocean. South Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen attack each other almost every day around the island’s coast; the reason being that South Indian coastal waters have been denuded of fish by unsustainable fishing methods, forcing fishermen from Tamilnadu to poach in Sri Lankan waters.
3. Waste. According to the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, as much as half the food produced in the world ends up as waste each year. They blame this on unnecessarily strict sell-by dates, “buy-one-get-one-free” and Western consumer demand for cosmetically perfect food, along with “poor engineering and agricultural practices” and poor storage facilities in many developing countries.
4. Climate Change. Poor communities around the world suffer increasingly from severe climatic events and changing weather patterns caused by greenhouse gas emissions in the wealthier nations. Desertification, crop failure and major flooding are growing at a pace. Last year was the most arid in U.S history; while thousands of small farmers in India commit suicide every year because of failed monsoons, chronic indebtedness to loan sharks, and dwindling arable land.
5. Trade Injustice. Huge government subsidies paid to farms and agribusinesses in the U.S and European Union, combined with taxes on imported food, means that farmers in poor countries cannot compete and so give up agriculture altogether. While the jury is still out on the toxic effects of GM foods on humans and the environment, the question of who has access to GM seeds has a clear answer: only rich farmers who can afford to buy the seeds from giants like Monsanto. An unfair global system of patents worsens inequalities between and within nations.
The biblical prophets were scathing in their scorn at those who thought of fasting as a religious technique for getting God on their side:
‘Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not hide from your own kin? (Isaiah 58: 6,7)