Tag Archives: Pope Francis

The teaching of 90-year-old billionaires: Can we be alternative?

What does it mean to love in an era when people have been reduced to “human resources?” I wish it seemed obvious to state that the culture of capitalism dramatically affects how people understand themselves and one another. But I don’t think it is obvious; thus, this blog post.

Is Capitalism the best system?

Not long ago I was watching one of the news channels and tuned in to an interview of a 90-year-old billionaire. He interrupted his young interviewer at one point so he could make sure to say what he wanted to teach. He said, “There is one thing everyone needs to understand. Capitalism is the best system. We tried communism, or at least some did, and it failed. We tried socialism and that does not work.”

The interviewer did not say, “What do you mean by ‘working?’ Are you talking about ‘achieving the most profit with as little expenditure as possible for the shareholders or owners of an enterprise?'” Instead, she just moved on, either swallowing what everyone has been taught or being afraid to contradict it.

I think 90% of the people who enter a Sunday meeting  react about the same way as the interviewer every day. They spend the week moving along with capitalism and the billionaires who run it — and preparing their children to do the same. But are the goals of capitalism and the 1% the goals of Jesus? You can already tell that I am going to say “No.” But do I have a leg to stand on?

The secret philosophy that runs us all

Last April George Monbiot summarized his book for the Guardian. He identified the secret philosophy that drives what most of us do all week and infects what we do on Sunday, too. He says, Today’s capitalism

  • sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations.
  • redefines citizens as “consumers“ whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling.
  • teaches that buying and selling has its own morality that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency.
  • maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

People are fighting about how to apply this philosophy in Congress right now. Will a generous version of today’s capitalism (like Obamacare) rule our healthcare or will a radical version rule (like in Trump/Ryan care)?

Monbiot says today’s capitalism fights any attempts to limit competition and labels any question of limits an assault on freedom. It teaches:

  • Taxes and regulations should be minimized, public services should be privatized.
  • The organization of labor and collective bargaining by trade unions are are market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers.
  • Inequality is virtuous: a reward for being effective and a generating wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone.
  • Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

You may have heard those last four bullet points preached from a pulpit somewhere (other than Circle of Hope). Or maybe you just know the viewpoint is assumed, a moot point, in your evangelical church. I have experienced both the preaching and the assumption. For instance, if a variant viewpoint is raised on the BIC-List (our denomination’s listserve), men will come out of the woodwork to reinforce those bullets, as if they were a 90-year-old billionaire interrupting some foolish youngster. They will even marshal the Bible to help make their point, even though everyone knows neoliberalism was not invented by Christians.

Last summer the pope explained this while on a flight from Krakow to Vatican City. He surprised journalists when he told them Muslim attacks on a priest in France were basically caused by neoliberalism. He said, “Terrorism grows when there is no other option, and as long as the world economy has at its center the god of money and not the person…This is fundamental terrorism, against all humanity.” At the time, Americans were in the middle of an election campaign, so they probably did not hear the Pope over all the hubbub about Trump’s tweets. Evangelical Christians were about to overwhelmingly vote for Donald Trump, the epitome of what neoliberal capitalism created since Ronald Reagan.

Are we actually pawns in the philosophy’s system?

What if we Christians, we who are bound and determined to follow Jesus in his suffering and transform humanity, become the unwitting pawns of capitalist deformation of humanity in the image of neoliberal capitalism? Our lives teach. The content of our dialogue sets the contours of the culture are always building!

Can a Christian merely exist in the pluralistic, postmodern capitalist landscape? Does capitalism offer a home for Christians? No. Without Christians creating an alternative, capitalism subjects everyone to its will. We still fundamentally believe, don’t we, that one cannot serve two masters? We might normally think about not serving Mammon within the framework of capitalism and consider how to allow Jesus to be the Lord of how we do capitalism. But what if capitalism is, in effect, the alternative god?

Capitalism makes desire an end in itself and diverts our desire from communion with God. That sin causes us to stray from God’s will and design for us. God’s design for us is to desire God and our true selves. Unfortunately, the economic modalities around us pervert that desire. We cannot serve both our capitalism-perverted desire and God’s desire. We must go back to God, which means rejecting the capitalist way. The two are incompatible.

We need to talk about this, because everyone who comes to our Sunday meeting is feeling desire. Assuming that their desires, dominated by capitalism, are healthy and not a cause of their general illness is wrong. If a person is constantly making a deal and can’t make a covenant with God’s people, if they are trained for desiring what they don’t yet have, if they protect their autonomy and freedom at the expense of their faith, should they not learn that comes from neoliberalism and not God, not even from themselves?

Image result for homo economicus

Capitalism creates homo economicus in its image. That being, by its nature, is:

  • Not in community, not collective.
  • Free to choose. Amidst millions of consumer options, we are free to choose what to do (of course, within the confines of capitalism)
  • Self-interested
  • Driven by Insatiable Desire.
  • Competitive.
  • Reduced to thinking Justice is only about fair exchange regulated by contracts and laws. In capitalism, social justice doesn’t exist because the market is beyond justice.

I think most people who read this far are probably trying to figure out how to be the alternative to what is killing humanity. When people come to the Sunday meeting they come as people condemned to being homo economicus. Is there a way out? If we force them to perform within that bondage, aren’t we preparing them to be consumed consumers? Couldn’t we condemn our children in the name of helping them?

Somehow, we need to risk acting according to the Lord’s economy that is

  • Spirit formed
  • Communal
  • Self-giving
  • Generous out of eternal abundance

After all this theoretical sounding writing, it may seem difficult to think about how to apply it. So will we just go back to being led around by the invisible hand and letting our faith be invisibilized by living under its shelter? Obviously, I hope not. Let’s keep exposing the powers for who they are in the spirit of today’s image of the atonement: Christus Victor. Jesus is our leader in that, present with us, every day.

Why we are Catholics and why we are not

What is a better term for “multidenominational?” The other night at our quarterly Doing Theology a few of us searched for a good word to describe how we identify with the genius of every stream in the broad river of Christianity, even the Catholics.

My journey into Christianity made me very fond of Catholics. For instance, I think of Francis of Assisi (who we celebrated yesterday) as one of my first mentors. I was a history major in college. While I was exploring history I ran into Francis. It was great to find him. He cut through the nonsense of the Church and lived with Jesus. He was just what I needed, since I almost left Jesus because of the Church’s nonsense, especially the Catholic part. I was so poor in college, I never missed the free movies they showed. One night, someone showed Brother Sun Sister Moon, which is all about Francis of Assisi and his friends. Watching his rebellion against war and self-serving authority and seeing his utter obedience to joy and Jesus helped seal my deal with God. I almost became a Franciscan and have been an almost-Franciscan ever since.

As a result, I am a Francis-kind of Catholic. Even through I think the rules say I don’t qualify, whenever the priest offers me communion, I take it like I am a member of the tribe. I figure I am more of a Catholic than a catechized fifth grader and, besides, I don’t care about most of the laws any more than most of the Catholics I know. So I’ve done a lot of travelling with the Catholic Church over the years. I even went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Campostella, which is one of the most Catholic things a person can do.

So why aren’t I and why aren’t we Catholics?

Continue reading Why we are Catholics and why we are not

How to recover from bureaucraseizure

The whole Pope thing came with a giant bureaucraseizure. It is no wonder we had our own temptations to bureaucratize last week. To bureaucratize is a “tendency to manage an organization by adding more controls, adherence to rigid procedures, and attention to every detail for its own sake.”

Being from the land of bureaucratization, I am subject to a malady: bureaucraseizure.

Bureaucraseizure means:

  1. I can be seized by the need to bureaucratize. I might obsess over getting things to work out according to their assigned procedures and I can make more and more procedures in order to make sure nothing uncomfortable happens.
  2. More ominously, bureaucraseizure means I can be seized by bureaucracies, by giant, faceless processes run by “the great other.”  The tendency of our society is to add more controls on us, make us adhere to rigid procedures and provide endless details for us to consider as if they were crucial.

I am not alone in being subject to this malady.

Stories of bureaucraseizure

1) We decided to get new water meter at our project the other day. I was given the mission to procure one. So I called the Water Department, home of fascinating bureaucracy that is usually inscrutable to them, too. Four phone calls into the mission the meter shop told me to go to 1101 Market, 5th Floor, to get a permit. I did. That address is the Personnel Department! But the clerk called a number on my notes and found my contact who said I needed to talk to Vincent Brindisi who was her boss, but he was out on the road. I called him anyway. He answered and happened to be in the neighborhood! He went to the property and personally explained to my plumber why he should already know how the whole process works. I had a bureaucraseizure. All I wanted was a discernible process that did not take me two hours to discover. Instead I got Vinny.

2) Then the Pope showed up and I got bureaucraseized with the rest of us. There were National Guardsmen patrolling Broad and Washington. (Now you know what the government is prepared to do!). I was in Allentown on Thursday, listening to the last static-filled gasp of WHYY when I saw an alert sign telling me about Pope traffic (in Allentown?). At the same time a New Jersey bureaucrat was lamenting  on the radio that only 50 of his 1700 parking spaces had been sold for $44. All I wanted was to be uncontrolled and unterrified for a minute. But I think we have been on orange alert, at least, for ten years. We are seized by forces who can shut down the city for four days.

It is no wonder we become bureaucraseizers. We are constantly being trained. We are trying to navigate some inscrutable bureaucracy that holds the keys to what we need and then some giant bureaucracy rolls over us and floods the whole city with road closures for four days.

Tangled in procedure

At the Imaginarium, l was leading the council of the church, asking for general agreement on direction for quite a number of items. As soon as I laid some things out people immediately became entangled in procedural questions. Almost everyone gave a pass to the ideas — they appeared to be not nearly as interesting as the procedures that might follow their implementation. I was kind of Vincent Brindisi, bumbling around thinking I was fronting the system and they were me wondering where the procedures are!

Afterward, I met with the Cell Leader Coordinators. They wanted better data on the weekly reports they get from the pastors. I finally protested that I did not think there could be enough data to satisfy their itch for assuredness. “At the end of the day,” I said, “you’ll have to feel it.” Organizing data can’t really quell anxiety or achieve wisdom. They felt a bit like big government demanding that everyone fall into line and be justified by filling out the form properly.

Recovery from bureaucraseizure

So everyone is having bureaucraseizures and being bureaucraseized. How to we recover from the trauma?

Pray. Yes, that is the number one Christian answer to everything. Thank God some of us do it. If we don’t pray, we are too weak to withstand the onslaught of bureaucratizing and we begin thinking it is central to how the world works. Jesus upends the powers and sustains us as they flame out.

Relate. It is so wonderful to relate face to face rather than rule to rule, isn’t it? We do well at this. Sometimes we do too well, of course. The Pastors are going through a sea change right now, so they had a four hour meeting on Tuesday. Much of it was about the injustices of recent procedures, I understand. When do we just go ahead and trust God in each other rather than needing to be constantly reassured that nothing bad will ever happen again? It is a hard answer to discern in the moment. Trusting the rule can be easier than trusting a person.

Serve. – We are getting better and better at this, don’t you think? The other day I washed the steps for our tenants. Kind of unexpected for everyone, me being a relatively unlikely washer and the owner. But I overcame the seizure coming on to do what is expected and make them wash their own steps or at least get mad a some worker somewhere for not having it clean already. It was so tempting to ask, “Who’s job is it to keep these things clean?” What bureau is in charge of serving the needy and redeeming the world?

Was Jesus ever tempted with bureaucraseizure? Not in the first century. But every time he calls the water department with you, he gets what it is like to live in 2015 Philly. I imagine he found the popocalypse somewhat ironic, at least, as well. I imagine he agrees that hope comes by praying, relating and serving as the body of Christ assured by the Spirit, not just relatively comforted by how well everything is controlled.