Monday, January 20, 2014

Musings on Economic Poverty and The Flesh of Christ in Pope Francis and Paul Krugman

                The latter part of the homily tells the basic message of Pope Francis. It is exactly the message of the second Vatican Council found in Gaudium et Spes #22 which announces that Jesus Christ is the prototype of the human person (“Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear”), which then becomes the meaning of Christian anthropology in Gaudium et Spes #24 (“man, the only earthly being God has made for itself, finds himself by the sincere gift of himself”). John Paul II famously took up this truth in giving an account of the first chapters of Genesis as “The Theology of the Body.” Benedict had elaborated this truth theologically in 1968 in his “Introduction to Christianity” prior to his pontificate which basically becomes a magisterial elaboration of it, and now Francis lives it out dramatically in his person before  the cameras and media of the world. He gives conceptual and semantic account of it in his address on the Vigil of Pentecost, Saturday May 18, 2013. In the latter part of the address, he says:
“Times of crisis, like the one we are living through (…) is not merely an economic crisis. It is not a crisis of culture. It is a human crisis: it is the human person that is in crisis! Man himself is in danger of being destroyed! But man is the image of God! This is why it is a profound crisis!
 There is another important point: encountering the poor. If we step outside ourselves we find poverty. Today — it sickens the heart to say so — the discovery of a tramp who has died of the cold is not news. Today what counts as news is, maybe, a scandal. A scandal: ah, that is news! Today, the thought that a great many children do not have food to eat is not news. This is serious, this is serious! We cannot put up with this! Yet that is how things are. We cannot become starched Christians, those over-educated Christians who speak of theological matters as they calmly sip their tea. No! We must become courageous Christians and go in search of the people who are the very flesh of Christ, those who are the flesh of Christ!
When I go to hear confessions – I still can’t, because to go out to hear confessions... from here it’s impossible to go out, but that’s another problem — when I used to go to hear confessions in my previous diocese, people would come to me and I would always ask them: “Do you give alms?”“Yes, Father!” “Very good.” And I would ask them two further questions: “Tell me, when you give alms, do you look the person in the eye?” “Oh I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about it”. The second question: “And when you give alms, do you touch the hand of the person you are giving them to or do you toss the coin at him or her?” This is the problem: the flesh of Christ, touching the flesh of Christ, taking upon ourselves this suffering for the poor. Poverty for us Christians is not a sociological, philosophical or cultural category, no. It is theological. I might say this is the first category, because our God, the Son of God, abased himself, he made himself poor to walk along the road with us.
This is our poverty: the poverty of the flesh of Christ, the poverty that brought the Son of God to us through his Incarnation. A poor Church for the poor begins by reaching out to the flesh of Christ. If we reach out to the flesh of Christ, we begin to understand something, to understand what this poverty, the Lord’s poverty, actually is; and this is far from easy.
However there is one problem that can afflict Christians: the spirit of the world, the worldly spirit, spiritual worldliness. This leads to self-sufficiency, to living by the spirit of the world rather than by the spirit of Jesus. You asked the question: how should we live in order to address this crisis that affects public ethics, the model of development and politics? Since this is a crisis of man, a crisis that destroys man, it is a crisis that strips man of ethics. In public life, in politics, if there is no ethics, an ethics of reference, everything is possible and everything can be done. We see, moreover, whenever we read the newspapers, that the lack of ethics in public life does great harm to the whole of humanity.
I would like to tell you a story. I have already told it twice this week, but I will tell it a third time to you. It is taken from a biblical midrash by a 12th-century rabbi. He tells the tale of the building of the Tower of Babel and he says that, in order to build the Tower of Babel, bricks had to be made. What does this mean? Going out and mixing the mud, fetching straw, doing everything... then the kiln. And when the brick was made it had to be hoisted, for the construction of the Tower of Babel. Every brick was a treasure because of all the work required to make it. Whenever a brick fell, it was a national tragedy and the guilty workman was punished; a brick was so precious that if it fell there was a great drama. Yet if a workman fell, nothing happened, that was something else. This happens today: if the investments in the banks fall slightly... a tragedy... what can be done? But if people die of hunger, if they have nothing to eat, if they have poor health, it does not matter! This is our crisis today! And the witness of a poor Church for the poor goes against this mentality.
The fourth question: “in the face of such situations, I think my confession of faith, my witness, is timid and awkward. I would like to do more, but what? And how can I help these brethren of ours, how can I alleviate their suffering since I can do nothing or only very little to change their political and social context?”.
To proclaim the Gospel two virtues are essential: courage and patience [acceptance of suffering]. They [Christians who are suffering] are in the Church of “patience”. They suffer and there are more martyrs today than there were in the early centuries of the Church. More martyrs! Our own brothers and sisters. They are suffering! They carry their faith even to martyrdom. However martyrdom is never a defeat; martyrdom is the highest degree of the witness we must give. We are on the way to martyrdom, as small martyrs: giving up this, doing that... but we are on the way. And they, poor things, they give their lives, but they do so — as we heard in the situation in Pakistan — for love of Jesus, witnessing to Jesus.
Christians must always have this attitude of meekness, humility, the same attitude that they have, trusting in Jesus and entrusting themselves to Jesus. It should be made clear that very often these conflicts do not have a religious origin; there are frequently other social and political causes, and unfortunately religious affiliation is used like fuel to add to the fire. A Christian must always know how to respond to evil with good, even though it is often difficult.
We try to make these brothers and sisters of ours aware of how deeply united — deeply united! — we are with their situation, how conscious we are that they are Christians who have entered into “patience”. When Jesus goes to his Passion, he enters into “patience”. They have done the same: we should tell them so, but we should also tell the Lord.
I put a question to you: do you pray for these brothers and sisters? Do you pray for them? In your daily prayers? I am not going to ask those who do to raise their hands: no. I am not going to ask that now. But think about it carefully. In our daily prayers let us say to Jesus: “Lord, look at this brother, look at this sister who is suffering so much, suffering atrociously!” They experience the limit, the very limit between life and death. And there are consequences for us: this experience must spur us to promote religious freedom for everyone, everyone! Every man and every woman must be free in his or her profession of religion, whatever it may be. Why? Because that man and that woman are children of God.”
And reconsidering economic poverty as a theological category where the very flesh  that Christ has taken on is the flesh of the increasingly disadvantaged economically, let me offer the remarks of Paul Krugman of the New York Times 

Op Ed of today (1/21/2014):

The Undeserving Rich
JAN. 19, 2014

The reality of rising American inequality is stark. Since the late 1970s real wages for the bottom half of the work force have stagnated or fallen, while the incomes of the top 1 percent have nearly quadrupled(and the incomes of the top 0.1 percent have risen even more). While we can and should have a serious debate about what to do about this situation, the simple fact — American capitalism as currently constituted is undermining the foundations of middle-class society — shouldn’t be up for argument.
But it is, of course. Partly this reflects Upton Sinclair’s famous dictum: It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. But it also, I think, reflects distaste for the implications of the numbers, which seem almost like an open invitation to class warfare — or, if you prefer, a demonstration that class warfare is already underway, with the plutocrats on offense.
The result has been a determined campaign of statistical obfuscation. At its cruder end this campaign comes close to outright falsification; at its more sophisticated end it involves using fancy footwork to propagate what I think of as the myth of the deserving rich.
For an example of de facto falsification, one need look no further than a recent column by Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal, which first accused President Obama (wrongly) of making a factual error, then proceeded to assert that rising inequality was no big deal, because everyone has been making big gains. Why, incomes for the bottom fifth of the U.S. population have risen 186 percent since 1979!
If this sounds wrong to you, it should: that’s a nominal number, not corrected for inflation. You can find the inflation-corrected number in the same Census Bureau table; it shows incomes for the bottom fifth actually falling. Oh, and for the record, at the time of writing this elementary error had not been corrected on The Journal’s website.
O.K., that’s what crude obfuscation looks like. What about the fancier version?
I’ve noted before that conservatives seem fixated on the notion that poverty is basically the result of character problems among the poor. This may once have had a grain of truth to it, but for the past three decades and more the main obstacle facing the poor has been the lack of jobs paying decent wages. But the myth of the undeserving poor persists, and so does a counterpart myth, that of the deserving rich.
The story goes like this: America’s affluent are affluent because they made the right lifestyle choices. They got themselves good educations, they got and stayed married, and so on. Basically, affluence is a reward for adhering to the Victorian virtues.
What’s wrong with this story? Even on its own terms, it postulates opportunities that don’t exist. For example, how are children of the poor, or even the working class, supposed to get a good education in an era of declining support for and sharply rising tuition at public universities? Even social indicators like family stability are, to an important extent, economic phenomena: nothing takes a toll on family values like lack of employment opportunities.
But the main thing about this myth is that it misidentifies the winners from growing inequality. White-collar professionals, even if married to each other, are only doing O.K. The big winners are a much smaller group. The Occupy movement popularized the concept of the “1 percent,” which is a good shorthand for the rising elite, but if anything includes too many people: most of the gains of the top 1 percent have in fact gone to an even tinier elite, the top 0.1 percent.
And who are these lucky few? Mainly they’re executives of some kind, especially, although not only, in finance. You can argue about whether these people deserve to be paid so well, but one thing is clear: They didn’t get where they are simply by being prudent, clean and sober.
So how can the myth of the deserving rich be sustained? Mainly through a strategy of distortion by dilution. You almost never see apologists for inequality willing to talk about the 1 percent, let alone the really big winners. Instead, they talk about the top 20 percent, or at best the top 5 percent. These may sound like innocent choices, but they’re not, because they involve lumping in married lawyers with the wolves of Wall Street. The DiCaprio movie of that name, by the way, is wildly, who cheer on the title character — another clue to the realities of our new Gilded Age.
Again, I know that these realities make some people, not all of them hired guns for the plutocracy, uncomfortable, and they’d prefer to paint a different picture. But even if the facts have a well-known populist bias, they’re still the facts — and they must be faced.

                Recall #202, #203, and 204 of “Evangelii Gaudium:”
202. The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises. Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality,[173]no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.
203. The dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies. At times, however, they seem to be a mere addendum imported from without in order to fill out a political discourse lacking in perspectives or plans for true and integral development. How many words prove irksome to this system! It is irksome when the question of ethics is raised, when global solidarity is invoked, when the distribution of goods is mentioned, when reference in made to protecting labour and defending the dignity of the powerless, when allusion is made to a God who demands a commitment to justice. At other times these issues are exploited by a rhetoric which cheapens them. Casual indifference in the face of such questions empties our lives and our words of all meaning. Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.
204. We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.
                But, you still ask: What is the solution? That before God, each one turn work into a personal gift of self! The problem is theological before it is economic.

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