Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for the ‘General’ Category

For many peoples around the world- in countries as diverse as Britain, India and Sri Lanka- the political landscape for the new decade is bleak. Racist nationalisms, right-wing economic fundamentalism, outdated left-wing rhetoric, and the corruption of public media have suffocated political culture. Collective moral imagination seems to have atrophied. The recent Madrid COP 25 summit showed, yet again, how governments pay only lip-service to tackling global warming. National interest, so narrowly conceived, always outweighs human rights and the global common good.

It has been left to non-state actors, mainly students and other young people (the so-called “millennials”) to champion publicly the rights of vulnerable peoples, whether women suffering domestic abuse in France (the Nous Toutes campaign), poor communities threatened by climate change (Greta Thunberg and her numerous followers), dissidents facing arbitrary detention and deportation (Hong Kong) or ethnic and religious minorities (India). In our digitized world, protesters in Ecuador and Chile, Sudan, Lebanon and Tunisia have been learning from each other as they stand up to tyranny or fight for more economic equality.

If these millennials can move beyond single-issue politics to embrace a broader vision of social and cultural transformation, grounded in a political narrative more expansive than mere self-interest, they may provide the seeds of hope for the new decade. But that is a big “If”.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights speaks of us being “members of a human family”. But the Declaration assumes that national states will be the protectors and promoters of those human rights. That has not been the case in the seven decades since the Declaration was written and accepted by the members of the UN. States, not least the permanent members of the Security Council, have been the biggest violaters of the natural rights that attach to every human person on the planet.

While the USA has postured itself as the global champion of human rights around the world, not only has it protected and armed to the teeth some of the biggest rogue regimes, but human rights language has had comparatively little purchase within its borders. Congress passes resolutions expressing solidarity with the protestors in Hong Kong, but turned a blind eye to the brutal suppression of the Occupying movement by the police in many American cities. It condemns the harsh repression of the Uighurs by the Chinese regime and of the Rohingiyas by the Burmese. But it totally ignores the massive cruelties of the American criminal justice system, with its racist biases, disproportionate sentencing, and permanent disenfranchisement and social stigmatization (in many American states) of those who have served a prison sentence.

In a perceptive essay, written some two decades ago, the social anthropologist Talal Asad compared the language invoked by the militant activist Malcolm X in the 1960s with that used by the Rev. Martin Luther King. In a famous speech criticising the civil rights movement, Malcolm X called on his fellow African Americans to resort to human rights as a way of transcending the limitations of the American state.

“We need to expand the civil-rights struggle to a higher level- to the level of human rights. Whenever you are in a civil-rights struggle, whether you know it or not, you are confining yourself to the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. No one from the outside world can speak out in your behalf as long as your struggle is a civil-rights struggle. Civil rights come within the domestic affairs of this country. All of our African brothers and our Asian brothers and our Latin American brothers cannot open their mouths and interfere in the domestic affairs of the United States. And so long as it’s civil rights, this comes under the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam.”

“Human rights,” continued Malcolm X, “are something you were born with. They are your God-given rights. Human rights are the rights that are recognized by all nations of this earth. And any time anyone violates your human rights you can take them to the world court.” By expanding the civil-rights struggle to the level of human rights, Malcolm X held out the hope of bringing the plight of African Americans before the UN General Assembly and a world court.

This was never realised, of course; but as Talal Asad observes, the language is remarkable because of its faithful commitment, unlike so much Western liberal practice, to the conception of human rights. Such rights do not receive their legitimacy from states, although it is states that are their principal guarantors.

Although Malcom X’s appeal had little impact on American society and its political culture, another language that overlapped with human rights discourse was deployed by Martin Luther King to greater effect. This was the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible coupled with the popular founding narrative of the American nation. However sceptical King was of the supposedly “Christian” origins of the nation and the faith of its founders, he could still publicly draw on the language of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and the narrative of liberation that went with them. Addressing fellow African Americans, he declared: “One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, and thus carrying our whole nation back to the great wells of democracy, which were dug deeply the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

Unlike Malcolm X’s purely secular conception of legal justice, King’s political discourse envisioned the regeneration of the nation as a whole. He sought what he called the “Beloved Community”, a reconciliation that went beyond justice for his own people without bypassing it. While confronting the guilt of white oppression and repentance were necessary, the healing of relationships was the ultimate goal.

Needless to say, King’s vision also failed. But it had a greater initial impact because it embedded the language of rights in a larger narrative framework, one that struck chords in American society and stirred the consciences of a white Christian population that had lost its foundational identity.

I wonder whether the contemporary political challenge remains the same? How do we defend and promote human rights, not as abstract concepts and without resorting to merely legalistic language, but as imaginative visions that are embedded in counter-narratives that tap into the (largely religious) cultures of our respective nations?

My admiration for Bernie Sanders was badly dented last week by his faux pas: calling for population control by the world’s poor as a way of curbing climate change.

No doubt the poor need better health education and access to reliable contraceptives, but not because in this way we can control climate change caused by anthropogenic global warming. And, as Sanders well knows, if the poor raise large families it is because children are a means of livelihood. So talk of birth control cannot be divorced from addressing the root causes of endemic poverty. And climate change, rather than being caused by the poor, is becoming a major factor in perpetuating poverty in nations as much as in families.

Those people who suffer most from global warming and the resultant severe climatic events, are the ones least responsible for it. One-sixth of the world population is so poor that they produce no significant carbon emissions at all. Yet they are unfairly being blamed because their breeding rates are higher than those of the rich. The issue is not population but addictive consumption and unsustainable energy-generating practices by the rich.

Even though the rate of population growth in Bangladesh is 50 times that of Britain, every new British consumer uses up 45 times more fossil fuels than every Bangladeshi. Households in India earning less than $65 a month use a fifth of the electricity per head and one-seventh of the transport fuel of households earning $65 or more. Those who sleep on the street use almost nothing. The British environmental activist George Monbiot once pointed out that an owner of a super-yacht does more damage to the biosphere in 10 minutes of sailing than most Africans do in a lifetime.

The horrific destruction of the Amazon and other rain forests which are the “lungs” of the planet only sporadically make the world’s news headlines. Even as I write over 15,000 fires are raging in the Amazon forest alone. Governments in the region have failed to heed warnings by environmental groups over many years. Ignorant peasant cultivators fell forests to grow soya (sixty per cent of the soy farming in Brazil is funded by three American agribusinesses); and huge mining and logging conglomerates given carte blanche by the current far-right government in Brazil. These forests morally belong to humanity as a whole and not to any nation-state, but we have no mechanisms of global governance to enforce this.

For poor communities all over the developing world who are already struggling with inadequate wages, environmental degradation and poor infrastructure, the higher frequency of dramatic climatic events means less time for recovery and a faster spin on the downward spiral of poverty. Poor communities are already adapting to climate change. But they are not fully aware of the speed at which the climate is changing or how that will directly affect them. This is where outside actors can assist with developing their disaster preparedness.

Classical Christian teaching on sexual chastity is often mocked by liberal elites today, as it was in the days of the early church. But, while recognizing that a well-ordered marriage was preferably to a badly ordered celibacy, some of the greatest theologians of the church encouraged celibacy not as a virtue in itself, but because it brought to a halt the endless cycle of social reproduction. In his magisterial The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, the eminent historian Peter Brown pointed out the radical challenge of celibacy to the taken-for-granted world of civic and class competition and dynastic continuities. (So this was a message of “no sex” addressed to the well-off, not the poor!) Consider, for example, the famous 4th-century Cappadocian brothers, Basil and Gregory Nyssen.

Both came from a high-born class of Cappadocians and knew acutely “the power of the ancient, civic urge to pile up wealth, to gather kinsmen, and to beget descendants.” Basil and Gregory knew what it was to struggle with such drives. It was to tame these, and only incidentally to tame the sexual urge, that Basil had given detailed rulings on the distribution of wealth, on the abandonment of marks of status, on uniform codes of dress that would mark his monastic ‘brotherhoods’. Gregory, for his part, lingered not on sexual temptation, but on the tragic root of pride, avarice, and family honour in the human condition since the fall. “Both believed that through the new, reformed social life of a monastic brotherhood, individuals set free from the demands of a family-based, conventional society could create a Christian society in miniature beside the city. The main effort of the ‘brotherhoods’ would be less to tame sexuality in the few… than to create an example of the husbanding of resources in the light of the needs of the poor. They wished to open the hearts of a small-town gentry so that the river of Christian charity might flow again, from the doors of the rich into the hovels of the destitute.”

Similarly, their (rough) contemporary John Chrysostom, tolled the death knell of the ancient city of Antioch in his powerful sermons. His aim was to rob the city “of its most tenacious myth- the myth that its citizens had a duty to contribute to the continued glory of their native Antioch by marrying. Instead, he repeatedly told his Christian audiences that their bodies belonged to themselves, and no longer to the city.”

Chrysostom’s great hope was the creation of new form of urban community through the reform of the Christian household. “The two great themes of sexuality and poverty, gravitated together, in the rhetoric of John and of many other Christians. Both spoke of a universal vulnerability of the body, to which all men and women were liable, independent of class and civic status.”

Christian men and women were urged, by John, to “extend the heightened awareness of their own bodies so as to embrace with compassion the bodies of others. They must learn to see the faceless poor as sharing bodies like their own- bodies at risk, bodies gnawed by the bite of famine, disease, and destitution, and subtly ravaged by the common catastrophe of lust.”

Here, then, are narratives of “Sex and the City” very different from the shallow fare served up by American TV for global consumption.

It is a week since the terrible bombings of hotels and churches in Sri Lanka and the ensuing heavy loss of life. The economy, too, will take a long time to recover, dependent as it is on tourism and foreign investments.

Questions of motivation in suicide attacks like this always defy rational explanation. And speculation has been suppressed by a blackout of all social media in the country.

Such a blackout was sensible in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy as a measure to prevent anti-Muslim violence which has been a feature of Sri Lankan society in recent years (see my Blog post of 17 March 2018- ‘“Religious Violence” Sri Lanka-Style’- and the warnings I issued to the authorities in a newspaper article).

But the longer it continues, along with the sweeping emergency powers under which any criticism in print publications of the government and security forces is forbidden, the greater the danger to the political health of the nation. We fear a return to the dark days of authoritarian rule and the suppression of valid criticism. And, given an understandable zeal to redeem themselves, the security forces (now armed with powers to detain suspects without following due process) are likely to over-reach.

So the less I say the better.

As Israelis go to the polls, the world needs to remember that Israel is not a democracy by any modern understanding of that term. It officially declares itself to be a “Jews-only” state. Arab Israelis are second-class citizens; and as for the indigenous Palestinians, they are a beleaguered and oppressed population in their own land.

So Israel is no more a democracy than South Africa was under apartheid.

Theodore Herzl, the Austrian journalist often credited with the label “founder of the Zionist movement”, was rightly concerned that assimilation and sporadic persecution were destroying Jewish culture in Europe. The Jews need a “home” where they could preserve their traditional way of life. Herzl was not thinking of Palestine as the Jewish “home”- for Judaism had for the past two millennia reconfigured itself around the study of the Torah rather than the Land and Temple. He initially toyed with the idea of Uganda as a safe haven.

It was “dispensationalist” Christians in the US and UK following the teachings of John Nelson Darby, Henry Irving, the Moody Bible Institute- and later- the Texan Cyrus Scofield’s commentary on the Bible, who influenced the Zionist movement and the British colonial authorities to settle the Jews in Palestine. Wrenching Old Testament texts out of their historical contexts, they taught that the return of Jews to Palestine was foretold in biblical prophecy and would usher in the parousia, or “return” of Christ.

The creation of a Jewish state in 1948 witnessed what today would be called “ethnic cleansing”: from December 1947 till the early 1950s, a well-organized military campaign by the Jewish minority (numbering 660,000 out of a population of two million) destroyed five hundred Palestinian villages and eleven urban neighbourhoods, expelled seven hundred thousand people and massacred those who refused to give up their homes. Those expelled became permanent refugees, unable to return to their ancestral lands. But Jews anywhere in the world who have no Semitic ancestry and no ancient claim on the land are able to migrate to Israel and are granted automatic citizenship. (See Ghada Karmi and Eugene Cortran, eds., The Palestinian Exodus, 1948-1988)

This is what Palestinians remember as Nakbah– catastrophe. And if all moral persons should be horrified by attempts at Holocaust-denial, should we not also be horrified by Nakbah-denial by the Israel state and pro-Israeli academics and church pastors?

Israel continues to flout international laws with impunity (for instance, erecting permanent structures on lands seized by invasion). It does so because it enjoys the diplomatic and military protection of the United States.

The military occupation of Palestine encroaches on every area of peoples lives: restrictions on travel, high youth unemployment, poor healthcare and educational facilities, forcible annexation of houses and land.

More Jews live outside Israel than within it, and many are outspoken critics of the Zionist project. There are also courageous rabbis and human rights activists within Israel who are opposed to the abuses heaped on the Palestinian people by the Israeli army and right-wing Jewish colonists. So to be anti-Zionist is not to be anti-Jewish.

There is a single ray of light in the tragic history of Anglo-American Christian involvement in the affairs of Palestine. Henry King was the President of Oberlin college, a Christian liberal arts school in Ohio which was the first college in the US to admit women and also played a leading role in the abolitionist movement. King was a personal friend of President Woodrow Wilson. After the First World War he served with the YMCA in Paris. At the Versailles Peace conference in 1919, Wilson asked King to head a commission of enquiry to ascertain the aspirations of the indigenous Arabs in Palestine. Wilson knew that the British and French were eager to seize hold of the remnants of the Ottoman empire. In the Wilsonian vision of breaking up empires, the Arabs, too, were entitled to liberation and the independence denied them by four centuries of imperial rule under the Turks.

What became the King-Crane commission discovered that the majority of Palestinians were fearful of a Zionist presence and a British or French mandate. They wanted either independence or to be part of a Greater-Syrian Arab state. The King-Crane report troubled the governments in London and Paris. The report was shelved when Wilson became seriously ill and collapsed later that year. With it died the liberal vision of national self-determination.

This was the first and last time that any attempt was made, as one historian puts it, “to build a new Middle East according to the aspirations of the local population rather than those of Washington and its allies.”

I tell my British and American Christian friends that they can never be part of the solution to the Palestinian crisis until they recognize that they have been a huge part of the problem. And fundamentalist Christian preachers in the so-called American Bible Belt continue to be the problem as they refuse to accept any other reading of “biblical prophecy”, and spread misleading Zionist historiography around the world through the Internet and TV channels. There are many churches in Asia and Africa that have imbibed such views without ever examining Scripture as to what is being said is actually there (for example there is not a single reference to the land in the entire New Testament).

Ignorance of history has to be countered with historical facts. Bad theology has to be challenged with good theology. The Christian theologians of Palestine have come up with a Kairos theological statement similar to the seminal Kairos document of South Africa in 1985 that countered Afrikaaner state theology and mobilized the Church against apartheid. I commend it to you:

http://www.kairospalestine.ps/index.php/about-us/kairos-palestine-document

A number of metaphors are used to describe the experience of grief that follows the death of a loved one: the loss of a limb, falling into a black hole, wading through thick mud, submerged in a tidal wave, and so on. And the strange paradox about grief, is that although it is universal (every one of us will experience it at some time in our lives) every experience is uniquely personal, depending on such factors as the depth of one’s relationship with the deceased, one’s personality, upbringing, cultural background, and network of other supportive relationships.

In my case, thankfully, I have not needed medication or professional grief counselling. In the weeks following Karin’s death. I kept a private journal recording all my pain, questions, doubts and spiritual anguish. I have lost not merely a wife, but my best friend, a fellow-traveller, critic, encourager, soulmate. And all the philosophical and theological questions about suffering, evil and death which have haunted me all through my life have returned with a fresh existential intensity. Wrestling with these has been for me a kind of self-therapy.

Of course, tears blind us. Our cognitive capacities are clouded by pain and disorientation. But they can also embolden us to question so much of the conventional wisdom of our churches and cultures. Karin and I have always been irritated by the popular theological clichés regarding suffering and death: “God is in control”, “God took him/her”, “God has a purpose in this”, and so on. They smack of Marx called “false consciousness’ and Sartre “bad faith.”

Karin used to point out that so many Western books on suffering addressed the question “Why me?” posed by normally comfortable people whose lives are suddenly blighted by disease, accident or failure. But what of the vast majority of humankind, in history as well as in many parts of the world today, whose all-too-brief lives from the cradle to the grave fall so far short of the flourishing that the Creator intends for them- and often through no fault of their own? Traditional theodicies and rationalist apologetics seem so painfully glib and irrelevant.

Many Christians invoke Job in situations like this, while missing the point of the story entirely. I am bemused by references to the “patience of Job”, when a cursory reading of the book reveals a man who was anything but patient! He vigorously protests his innocence, and hurls his questions, longings and accusations of unfairness at the gates of heaven. Can this God be trusted? That is the basic question in such times. Job lives in the tension between faith and experience, shuffling back and forth but never settling for an easy resolution. This is the tradition of biblical lament. And I believe that the “problem” of suffering and evil can ultimately only be approached through honest lament and compassionate action; not by theological reasoning.

I have often been haunted by the thought that while our faith can be verified eschatologically, it can never be falsified. If we are all deluded, we will never know it. And there won’t be any answers to the big questions humanity has been asking throughout its history.

I am in the paradoxical situation of remaining utterly convinced of the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (for I can find no other explanation for the origins of the Christian movement); and yet struggling to make sense of how the billions of people throughout history will one day be resurrected into the new creation that has dawned in Jesus’ resurrection. Clearly bodily resurrection implies a social, collective event; for our bodies are the means by which we interact and communicate with others. And the Scriptures take for granted that we shall recognize not only our loved ones but also those who have gone before us. But how does such recognition happen, given that every part of our bodies has evolved to meet the conditions of biological life on this earth? How did Peter recognize Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration? What aspect of our embodied human nature has Christ taken into the godhead for eternity? Is it only our memories, characters and relationships that we take from this life into the next?

I have long been dissatisfied with the standard models of how mind and body interact (dualism, dual-aspect monism, non-reductionist physicalism, etc.). On this and other matters I am content to be agnostic. But when in grief, we cannot but cry out for some assurance from a good and loving God that our loved ones have not passed into oblivion but are with him, in whatever form.

The typical response of my theologian friends has been either “We have never thought of that before” or “You are asking questions we are also struggling with and for which we have no answers.” At least nobody has suggested that my questions are foolish or stemming from hubris. I know that much of theology ultimately fades into deep mystery. Christian maturity is about living with our questions, practising faithfulness to Christ even as we weep, struggle and yearn for that new world.

Where in the world do we find a political party that lost a general election being installed as the “government” of that country by a President who belongs to that minority party himself?

Nowhere but Sri Lanka: a country which in the 1950s was regarded as a beacon for good governance in the postcolonial world, but is now in grave danger of joining the growing list of failed democracies. The new regime installed a month ago has been decisively rejected in a no-confidence vote by the country’s parliament (in the midst of violent attempts in the chamber itself to scuttle the vote). But the regime still clings to power while lacking political legitimacy. It is backed by a large Buddhist-nationalist faction in the country who regard the newly installed Prime Minister (who was ousted as President in 2015) as a “war hero” as well as one of their own. No foreign government, except China, has hitherto recognized the regime. But the country is economically and politically paralyzed. And, despite public protests and demonstrations, mainly in the capital Colombo, large sections of the population appear simply apathetic.

Such apathy, coupled with the gangsterism that has replaced a civil political culture in Sri Lanka, is rooted in massive institutional failures that go beyond parliament and an easily-muzzled judiciary. For many years now, the island’s schools and universities have ceased to be places where students learn critical thinking or how to engage with those from other ethnic, economic and religious backgrounds. Education and the media have become ideologically polarized.

As for religious communities, they tend to live in self-enclosed ghettos, and have ceased to be forums where men and women are equipped with the moral habits indispensable for public life. Indeed, notions such as “the common good”, “the rule of law”, or “conflicts of interest” are little understood, not least among those entrusted with the education of the young, whether in schools or religious institutions.

In my last post, I mentioned the shifting political stances of the Roman Catholic church around the world. In Sri Lanka, the RC church comprises a significant 7 per cent of the population, compared to less than 1 per cent of Protestants. While there are several Roman Catholic priests and nuns who are politically active at the grassroots in promoting justice and reconciliation, the middle-class laity (among whom are found leading politicians, bureaucrats and judges) are largely theologically ignorant and often complicit in wrongdoing. And it is difficult for the RC Bishops to challenge authoritarianism in politics when they themselves are under the thumb of an autocratic Cardinal who is morally compromised and more Buddhist than Christian in his public pronouncements: for instance, claiming recently that a “Buddhist country” like Sri Lanka does not need the “Western religion of human rights” – thus denying his own church’s social doctrine!

In countries like Sri Lanka, the long-term task of building free and accountable institutions is where Christians should devote their energies. It is not simply a constitutional crisis we face, but a deeper moral crisis. Conversion- personal and cultural- goes hand-in-hand with legal and economic change. We are often told that in poor countries, democracy is a luxury, and we should focus on feeding the hungry. However, this is a misleading “either-or”. Famines don’t happen in democracies; and democracies that trade with each other don’t go to war.

“If someone takes away your bread, he suppresses your freedom at the same time. But if someone takes away your freedom, you may be sure that your bread is threatened, for it depends no longer on you and your struggle but on the whim of a master.”- Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Contrary to what is stated in typical undergraduate-level texts on political theory, the first modern political revolution occurred not in France or the US, but in 17th-century England. The English Civil War saw, for a few brief years, the replacement of monarchy by a sovereign parliament. The English dissenters (“Puritans”, “Diggers” and “Levellers”), opposed absolutism on theological grounds and championed freedom of conscience and religious worship. Oliver Cromwell’s ragtag army of common people held formal open debates all over England to determine what kind of government should replace the defeated monarchy. What an utterly remarkable moment in history.

Although Cromwell’s Commonwealth did not last long, his experiment was far-reaching. While monarchy was restored, there was no going back on the sovereignty of Parliament in the government of the English people. And the refugees and immigrants who fled across the Atlantic to New England continued the political experiment begun under Cromwell. Little wonder that in New England immediately after the American Declaration of Independence, slavery was banned (while it continued in the South), women’s rights advanced, and a level of political maturity reached that was unsurpassed anywhere in the nineteenth-century world.

Many otherwise well-educated Americans are ignorant of how much they owe to the English Civil War and its aftermath. Words like Puritan and Calvinist are usually used as “sneer words”: they have become caricatures of gloomy, uptight religious fanatics. Little do we realise how indebted to such men we are in our modern political discourse about equality, rights, the rule of law, and representational democracy.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat who traveled around the newly-independent United States observing its culture and institutions, had no such illusions. In his classic work, Democracy in America, written in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, he observed: “Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions, for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it… I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere belief in their religion- for who can search the human heart? – but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.”

Recovering the rich heritage of Christian political theology is the first step towards the Church learning to speak truth to power and contributing to the building of free and accountable institutions.

In his epochal commentary on the biblical Epistle to the Romans in 1919, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth reminded his readers that “It was the Church, and not the world, that crucified Christ.”

These are words that we need to recall constantly. Authoritarian governments have sprung up all the world in recent years, many of them supported by people calling themselves “Bible-believing Christians.” Even as I write, such folk in Brazil are preparing to vote into the Presidency a former army officer who is brazenly racist, misogynistic, contemptuous of the poor and defensive of the military dictatorship in Brazil’s dark era of repression.

A globally renowned American Christian leader told me a few days ago: “You must understand that Americans are largely an ignorant, uneducated people.” That ignorance, he went on to say, is widely prevalent among the white conservatives of suburban as well as rural churches. This perhaps is the largest “unreached peoples’ group” in the world, a people who need to be converted from fear to love, from prejudice to hospitality, from patriotism/civil religion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That such an ecclesiastical conversion is possible is shown by the case of the Roman Catholic Church. In the first half of the twentieth century the Roman Catholic Church was denouncing the discourse of human rights, and its fear of communism led it to support fascism in Europe and Latin America. All that changed with the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s and the widespread influence of liberation theologies. Today it is the Roman Catholic Church that is spearheading resistance to dictatorships and human rights abuses in many parts of the world, much to the shame of their non-Catholic Christian brethren. So we should not lose hope.

Earlier this month, nearly four decades after his death, the former El Salvadorean Archbishop Oscar Romero was declared a “saint” by Pope Francis. Romero was killed by members of a death squad while performing mass at the Church of the Divine Providence in San Salvador on March 24, 1980. Romero was an outspoken champion of the poor in his country. The day before his death, he publicly denounced the violence carried out by the country’s armed forces against civilian populations during a mass at the National Cathedral. His death sent shockwaves throughout Latin America. It made many sceptics more open to what the Church had to say. Today, when mass consumerism and social conformity has stifled dissent and counter-cultural resistance, the Church (for all its inner contradictions and tensions) quietly and courageously follows Jesus in caring for the poor, the foreigner and the vulnerable.

On this Blog I have often drawn attention to the global class of the “super-rich”, the miniscule fraction of the world’s population who own all the wealth and so influence governmental policies. Last year, a former British journalist Richard Reeves, now at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., argued in his book Dream Hoarders, that in the U.S it is the top 20% who are the real American villains: a large group of well-heeled pickpockets with huge bonuses on top of high salaries, tax breaks on mortgage interests and college savings funds, who engage in a variety of practices that don’t just help their families, but harm the other 80 percent of Americans.

The book shows how this upper-middle class, while not having seen the kinds of income gains made by the top one percent and America’s billionaires, are able to dominate the country’s top colleges, insulate themselves in wealthy neighbourhoods with excellent private schools and public services, and enjoy the best health care. “It would be an exaggeration to say that the upper-middle class is full of gluten-avoiding, normal-BMI joggers who are only marginally more likely to smoke a cigarette than to hit their children,” Reeves writes. “But it would be just that- an exaggeration, not a fiction.”

They then pass those advantages onto their children, sending them to the top universities, providing them with social connections that make a difference when entering the labour force, helping with internships, paying for college tuition and home-buying. All the while, they support policies and practices that protect their economic position and prevent poorer kids from climbing the income ladder- such as reduction in wealth and inheritance taxes, exclusionary zoning, or legacy admissions to colleges.

I believe this is happening all over the world. It may be the top 20% in the West and Japan, a smaller proportion elsewhere, but it’s really the upper middle-class (to whom many of us belong) who are limiting opportunity for everyone else.

This is not a political divide: it’s a social chasm. It doesn’t seem to matter who wins political elections; no party has the will to challenge the way of life of the upper middle classes.

Will the gubernatorial elections in the US next month make any real difference? The upper middle-class Democrats dislike Trump but they are happy to sit out his presidency as they are doing quite well financially under him.

The Rev Martin Luther King famously observed that it was as a cruel jest to tell a man to lift himself up with his bootlaces when he didn’t have any boots.


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