Spitting at capitalists


Tax and God
Calls to destroy capitalism and boycott Facebook and Google resonate well with Franciscans. They are a way of dealing with our anger at the greed of corporations and the selling of our personal lives to advertisers. My Facebook wall is filled with slogans against this consumerist plague.

But slogans are not an effective way to critique capitalism. Slogans have no hope of achieving their purpose, because capitalism is so entrenched that its power permeates everything we do. Our slogans will simply accrue to capitalism’s benefit as we use Google or Facebook to shout them. Religion scholar George Gonzalez puts it this way, ‘Capitalism buys and sells futures and shares in the ideas of its own enemies.’

A more thoughtful response will admit the value of capitalism. In the 19th Century, wealthy Christians wanted to respond to the growing urban poverty, and used the new technologies of the industrial revolution to raise many out of poverty into respectable working lives. They poured money into enterprises that not only gave workers the financial means to house and feed their families, but gave them consumer goods, infrastructure like electric lighting, and the sense of well-being that only meaningful work can supply.

The surplus money generated recycled into this system, and most of us in the West have seen the final results of this Christian endeavour in our living standards. Think of the difference in housing, consumer goods, entertainment, and communications in the last fifty years. These are the fruits of capitalism, and few of us protesting its evils are willing to give them up.

In the urbanisation of India and China today, we are seeing millions being lifted out of poverty annually, as the benefits of capitalism trickle down.

When I was young my parents taught me that I should always spend real money that I had actually had earned or owned. I should restrict debt to buying a house, and I should ensure that any shares I owned were shares in real life productive industries.

A rule of thumb current in the sixties was that CEOs should earn no more than four times the wage of their lowest paid employee, and that virtuous companies produced useful goods or provided useful services.

Most people failed to acknowledge the importance of the creative tension between unions and bosses. For this system to work at all the employers need to insist on making a profit to continue the operation of the industry, and the workers’ associations need also to insist that workers are paid fairly and that conditions uphold human dignity.

This ‘modest capitalism’ works. I am neither Calvinist nor conservative, and I believe, for example, that relying on the ‘trickle down’ effect is an abrogation of responsibility, but I understand that this system has its value and should not be easily abandoned. What makes me angry is the distortion of this system. We know the symptoms:

1. Executives paid thousands of times more than their lowest paid employee.
2. People exposed to risk through virtual money, derivatives and futures which relate to nothing in the real world.
3. The commodification of human beings to be sold by giant corporations to advertisers.

These expressions of greed should be condemned, but slogans are not sufficient. We need to understand more fully how the system we have inherited actually works and to thoughtfully articulate good reasons why these practices despoil the vulnerable and destroy our community.

I submit that the responsibility of Franciscans (who are called to be sensitive to the use and abuse of money) is to grow in their understanding of economics, to be real about how capitalism lifts people out of poverty, and from that position of understanding articulate their critique of greed.

Loss of Integrity


PSALM 12 PARAPHRASE
Help, Lord, there is nobody left with integrity.
Loyal and consistent people have vanished from Australia.

Everyone tells lies to their neighbours.
Their flattery is patently insincere. All they want is to get ahead for themselves.

If only the Lord would stop the lies and flattery,
and turn the spin into honest human talk.

They say, “We can talk our way out of everything.
No-one can stay in our way!”

Because of the abuse to Indigenous communities;
because the refugees are treated with disdain,
“I will arise,” says God, “and create safe places for Aboriginal children,
and warm refuges for those who seek asylum here.”

What God says is like tapping the bark of a healthy karri,
like the sympathetic vibration of a tuning fork.

You are sure to provide appropriate protection for us, O Lord.
You will keep us safe in this shifty world.

Though the ruthless strut on every side,
though the vilest call the shots in every State.

This paraphrase was written as an exercise in the Companions in Christ program. It also happened to be the week when Kevin Rudd was deposed as Prime Minister, and the backroom operators of the Australian Labor Party were briefly visible.

Sheep and Eternal Life


Like King David in the Old Testament, I grew up among sheep. The biggest difference was that where David’s sheep numbered in the dozens, our flocks were in the thousands. One of my earliest lessons about sheep was not to be concerned about individuals.

Dad forbade us to keep sheep as pets, knowing the heart-ache that came when a pet was killed for meat. I noticed too the seeming indifference to a sick sheep. If a sheep was suffering, it may have been simply killed, but in general, sick sheep were left to get better on their own – or not. The only exception to this was revealing: if a ewe was having trouble lambing, Dad would sit beside it, all night if necessary, and be midwife in every possible way.

Dad wasn’t a callous man. He was gentle and generous in character. His was the most humane way of keeping the flock healthy. The sheep’s purpose was to feed people, not to be our friends. But Dad’s emphasis on the flock was instructive.

I looked to nature. I loved watching ants go about their busy lives. I noticed that ants had wonderful powers of restoring their apparently dead companions. They would push them gently with one of their six legs, and the motionless ant would pick up its load and continue walking. But they simply walked around ants that were dead or too sick to recover.

I confess as a boy I sometimes stirred up their nests. They would rise up in anger, climbing my legs and stinging all the way. Ants from other nests would come to join their attack on the intruder. They did not care how many I slapped to death on my legs: their task was to defend the queen and her nest, and even their neighbours’ nest.

My studies at school and since have confirmed that in nature survival of a species is paramount over that of individuals. The health, comfort and life of an individual simply do not stand up against the powerful drive for the species to survive.

Nature is species-centred. Most animals seem to accept this reality. It is only humans, fired on by two important events in our history, who think differently and therefore unnaturally.

The first event was when human beings became self-conscious. Because we know we are alive as individuals, we can choose to protect our own life at the expense of others. It is notable, however, that in dangerous situations, people don’t always choose their own life over that of others. We hear often of people who choose to sacrifice their own safety to protect others, particularly women and children, who are the future of the species. They act naturally.

The second event was the European Enlightenment which encouraged us to think very highly of individuals. The Enlightenment accorded to individuals human rights. The Enlightenment encouraged individuals to greater self-expression.

Could it not be that the Enlightenment project is against nature?

It is natural to think not of the individual but of the species. It is natural for people to be stirred up about the damaging effects of climate change: our species is at risk. The plight of low-lying island nations like Kirabiti and the Maldives stirs deep emotions. We don’t want human habitat to be wiped out.

To think that God’s imagination can provide nothing better than the survival of individuals after death is to think poorly of God. God’s mind is on the main game, which is played by species not their individual members.

This is why I find the usual ideas about life after death lame in comparison with the glorious visions of future humanity put forward by say, Teilhard de Chardin and Ilia Delio. As individuals we are secure in Christ. But as a species, how much more secure is our life.

Teilhard’s vision was that homo sapiens continues to evolve. We have come to self-consciousness and are moving towards a complete humanity in Christ. Jesus, the true human is coming to his Omega Point, where humanity converges with God. We will be raised up into the One who has made us.

Ilia’s focus, it seems to me, is on a slightly closer time. What is the next step of this evolutionary journey? How close will humanity come to its machines? Will brains be uploaded into computers? Will human beings extend their thinking power through new digital media? Is our destiny – short-term – to be cyborgs?

In the broader vision, I suspect the speculations of Ilia and others will be swept aside by an even grander picture of what homo sapiens will become, and will have more to do with what happens as the individual is transcended and we each become part of a greater whole. Again, the technological revolution gives us the clue, as the Web becomes more and more an extension of individual minds into the minds of others.

It is true that there are dangers. Monsters may be born. But the teaching of evolution is that that which is best suited to its environment will flourish, and homo sapiens will become more a creature of the cosmos rather than less.

These are extraordinary and beautiful visions of our future life. Bring it on!