Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Speaking of Social Justice: William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire

I haven't been doing a lot of book reviews over the last year, so I thought I'd do a brief one on a book that had been in my head while I was writing the last entry of St. John Chrysosthom: William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. For those who haven't read any Cavanaugh, you should. He's a relatively new Catholic theologian who has been doing some interesting work, especially on the Eucharist and its interconnection with ethics/politics. His first book is the oddly titled, Torture and Eucharist, which discusses Catholicism in Pinochet's Chile, discussing the potential of the Church to serve as the only permissible alternative society to the state and why so many Chilean Catholics failed to take advantage of that alternative and underwrote the Pinochet regime. I'm not doing justice to it, of course, but it is a fascinating study.

In Being Consumed, Cavanaugh considers what the legitimate Christian response to the current economy should be. This volume is designed to be accessible and is clear and concise. It is, also, pleasantly removed from the conventional questions of right vs left, capitalist vs socialist dichotomies which bedevil Christian responses on economic questions. Cavanaugh is interested in developing a Christian (Catholic) response to such things as the market, materialism, globalization and scarcity. His responses are surprising sometimes, but compelling.

What particularly struck me in Cavanaugh's discussion is his point that, really, our problem isn't so much with materialism (that is, the stuff!) as with distorted desire. That is, he argues, rightly, I think, that the consumer economy is designed to encourage desire for things, not so much the things themselves. Indeed, the value of the things we buy isn't so much a factor of acquiring more and more things as to satisfy the desire for what those things represent: status, power etc. In that sense, we are actually surprising detached from the physical realm so much so he sees a comparison with asceticism in its rejection of the physical. We simply don't know (or, in many cases, care) who produces our products or how they are produced or, even, what they are produced from. We are detached from this because the physicality of the product is simply not the point- consumption is. It is an interesting point and explains much about the compulsive over-consumption that we in the West are notorious for.

Cavanaugh's argument doesn't just criticize our consumer economy, but it suggests that the Christian response is, ironically, greater attachment. That is, community and, particularly, that sacramental expression of community, Eucharist, gives us the valuable clues for overcoming that almost Gnostic separation of matter and spirit. We are (or should be) connected to those who produce our foods or other products. We are (or should be) connected to our neighbour and to our own environment. We are (or should be) connected to each other through the anticipation of God's extravagant feast, the Eucharist.

In this analysis, Cavanaugh jumps over the much debated issues of free markets or globalization. He offers a coherent Christian view on the economy- one which we all need to consider. As Cavanaugh points out, we can't avoid being consumers. But we can seek to bring our consumption into line with what our faith teaches us.


Sunday, May 16, 2010

St. John Chrysosthom and Social Justice

It's been awhile since I've written on the blog. That is, of course, May and June for me. Events pile upon events as the school year ends, so most of my energy is spent just trying to keep my head above water. I'm managing that, but this year has been exceptionally busy, so I feel like I'm barely doing that. Still, I have a chance to write today and I'm taking it.

What has moved me to get back in front of the computer is social justice. There have been a number of convergences in my life over the last few weeks which has brought me back to social justice. My wife attended a Justice Camp all last week for her work and came home full of stories. I've been running presentations in my Civics classes about local charities. Then, stir in some St. John Chrysosthom and you'll see where I'm going with this.

Social justice in St. John Chryosthom is hardly a bit leap. He is particularly well known for his uncompromising attitude to the rich and influential members of his flock and his persistent condemnations of luxury and oppressive practices both in Antioch and, later, in Constantinople. No matter the context, St. John was unwilling to compromise in what he perceived as his healing of his rich congregants and, no doubt, this is a large part of the reason why he became so unpopular among the powerful and influential people who dominated the court as well as the ambitious and aggressive individuals which a powerful court will attract. Mind you, implying that the Empress is a Jezebel could hardly have helped St. John's cause.

This passage from Against the Opponents of the Monastic Life should serve as a case in point:

"It is not philosophy, my good man, but the failure to philosophize which destroys and corrupts everything. Who, tell me, really corrupts the present situation: those who live moderately and morally, or those who devise new and illicit modes of luxury? Those who try to possess everything, or those who are satisfied with what they have? Those who have phalanxes of servants and who parade around with a swarm of flatterers and parasites, or those who think that only one servant is enough for them (for I am not treating the height of philosophy, but only what is accessible to most people)? Those who love humanity, who are gentle and who have no need of the honour of the multitude, or those who demand honour from their fellow citizens more than any debt, who cause countless calamities for anyone who does not stand up in respect, greet them first, bow down and act like a slave in their presence? Those who practice obedience, or those who desire political positions and offices and who are willing to do and to suffer everything for this? Those who say that they are better than everyone else and who, therefore, think they can do and say all things, or those who count themselves among the least and who, therefore, reproach the irrational power of passions? Those who live in splendid houses and prepare richly laden tables, or those who desire nothing more than the necessary food and shelter? Those who carve out for themselves thousands of acres of land, or those who think it unnecessary to own even one little plot? Those who compile interest upon interest and pursue the unjust path of all commerce, or those who tear apart those unjust contracts and aid the needy out of their own resources? Those who reflect upon the worthlessness of human nature, or those who do not wish to see this and who with consummate arrogance reject he thought that they are mortal? Those who keep mistresses and wreck other people's marriages, or those who abstain even from their own wives"
I think you see what I mean. Here we have a moral critique of the upper classes of Antioch (in this case--this is an early work, after all) which is bracing applicable to our time. Antioch, after all, was one of the richest cities of the Empire- an imperial capital almost as much as Constantinople had become. It was an important trade center and a major administrative hub for both the civilian and military administration of the East. There were luxurious suburbs like Daphne and, also, I'm sure, slums of aching poverty. The social injustice of Antiochine society (indeed, of Roman) must have been all around St. John and it is part of what provoked him into these kinds of outbursts.

Yet, what would he say to us in the West? We are richer by far than the Romans ever dreamed to be. Even our working poor are rich in comparison with the Romans and, indeed, with the developing world today. There is so much geared towards acquisition and consumerism today that it has become the norm and, I think, we miss the distorted values which feeds into this. Even Christians are, like in St. John's day, infected by this almost compulsive need to succeed in this life and to measure that success by material gain and increases in status. A good dose of St. John reminds us about that compulsion and, hopefully, kicks us back to the weirdness of the consumized world around us.

There is no surprise that, amid the riches of St. John's Antioch, that monasticism flourished nor that there is a move to a 'new monasticism' among younger, committed Christians. This impulse to flee to the desert or to the urban deserts of our day, I think, is an impulse to challenge Christianity as it has grown up in the modern West- rich, privileged and comfortable. This isn't to say that the Christian churches of today or the churches of St. John's day didn't deal with social justice, but rather it is meant to ask whether they or we asked the crucial questions about how we fit into the web of injustice which penetrates into the fabric of our respective societies. And, of course, what are we going to do about that?

St. John's critique resonates even today because we, too, forget the call made by Jesus to be just and help the poor and disadvantaged. We too ignore the call to be content with less, preferring to glut ourselves with the excesses which our time and place afford us.We too ignore the call to deepen our spiritual lives and seek first God's kingdom and our gain last. St. John provides a timely warning for us to repent of our materialism and vainglory because we all know where all this led in the longer term for the Romans. I worry about us in the West because, inevitably, our material prosperity and power will fail and I wonder what we will have left when it does. We have built up a powerful, rich dominion in the West, but it will no more last forever than the Roman Empire did. And what will be left to us when it does?