The Gospel Challenges the Economy

February 1, 2010
Working Toward a Faith-Filled Future

Over the past thirty years a powerful minority has created a reality underpinned by rampant consumerism in which having more is equated with being more, being normal.

A normal identity was indexed to an ability to consume, to buy the latest chattel whether or not it was useful or affordable.

The Gospel Challenges the Economy

It was a reality in which there was no balance between needs, wants and the wherewithal to pay for it.

Credit was out of proportion to earnings, akin to writing checks devoid of guarantee or risk.

That era has crashed leaving as much debris, human and material, as the fall of the Berlin Wall.

A system has collapsed, and the effects will be felt for the next several generations around the world.

In the past, people found identities in their geographic and faith communities as well as at work.

In the recent past, people sought identity in leisure activities central to which were holidays, shopping and being a consumer.

The shopping mall became the new cathedral.

However, while going to church cost little, going to the mall presented a myriad of options with powerful attractions that cost money.

What was of style last month was replaced by a must have new brand that gave identity, a sense of belonging and normalcy.

Not to have been at the mall to shop, to be wearing outdated brands, would be judged just as odd among one’s peers as not attending church in the past.

Now the train of consumerism has run off the rails leaving a lot of confusion, loss and grief in people’s lives.

Who will pick up the pieces? The commentators who were the cheerleaders of the market as the Holy Grail, a homeowner- occupied-heaven, endless credit and a celebrity life style, are now preaching that a period of readjustment is necessary until consumer confidence returns.

Essentially, they are saying: let’s go back to limitless credit and continue to consume.

In other words, let’s depend on the virus that has crippled us! Has Christianity any message of hope here? If so, where and how can that message be shared with people who are searching their disappointments and frustration for signs of hope and recovery? Pope John Paul II indicated in one of his encyclicals that the location of modern mission was in urbanization and migration.

Obviously, it is in those areas of society that the pain of the collapse of the global financial system is most deeply felt.

Since the beginning of time, systems have failed, and towers of power that were unrelated to the daily reality of people’s lives have collapsed.

Jesus arrived at a time and place in history that was ruled by the Roman imperial system.

Many groups in that society were excluded politically, socially and culturally.

Roman rule was “For the Church is most true to its own nature, not when it is consolidating its own structures but rather when it is open to and actively engaged in outreach to others that they too might experience for themselves that new kind of existence made possible by the vision and activity of Jesus Christ.” — Irish theologian Michael McCabe, SMA The Gospel Challenges the Economy Working Toward a Faith-Filled Future By Fr.

Bobbie Gilmore CM 006_008 final.indd 6 1/14/10 10:30:24 PM www.columban.org February 2010 7 maintained through brutal force, economic exploitation and society secured by police and military.

Information was controlled by a select, powerful, colonizing cartel and the local secular and religious elite.

While the latter were needed by the ruling power, they were merely tolerated as stooges to promote and protect Roman rule and interest.

Dissent was not tolerated; those who protested and who dared resist the dominant system faced harsh punishment, torture and even death, as Jesus did.

Roman rule, like other colonial dominations throughout history, was at the time of Jesus beginning to collapse and disintegrate.

Roman rule was frayed and weakening because of its arrogance, political personalism and corruption.

These characteristics from the past are found in the present collapse of the financial system.

The mandarins of financial globalization created an infinite virtual reality that had no basis in global finite resources or in researched facts.

The market was the god that ordered things with the state its patron.

The media was its promoter with technology acting as its regulator.

Consumerism was its philosophy, and bonus was its reward.

To question the system was unpatriotic; protest outside international global forums was violently suppressed.

The promised tide of global prosperity did not reach the most vulnerable.

They were excluded and the promised wealth of global consumerism failed to trickle down.

Rather, it went against the laws of gravity and trickled upwards creating a new elite that became more powerful than individual states until they fouled their financial foyers and had to call in the state to bail them out.

Jesus began his mission in a political, social and economic arena that had many of the characteristics of the present collapsing economic system.

As in the time of Jesus, people are confused, uncertain, angry and adrift.

He said, “The kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the good news.” (Mk.1:15) He challenged the smugness of political, financial and religious elite that promoted empty symbols of shallow personalism, and created burdens rather than liberation in people’s lives.

Now, people are searching for answers, good news and hope.

The modern poor are confused, disappointed, uncertain and angry in the urban and migration worlds.

They are exposed, having little security, no gated community or CCTV cameras, no incomes to meet rent and mortgages.

They are poorer still because many of the young unemployed have never experienced need or want.

Consumerism and credit gave them choices, individuality, independence and an identity.

The anonymity of the shopping mall did not promote community, the benefit of the extended family or other social supports.

So, bereft of choices, it is bewildering for them.

It was to those types of disposable people that Jesus talked.

Mission is not just a theoretical discussion, but a process of changing and transforming lives, social policies and politico-economic systems.

It creates structures that put the service of humanity as a priority, creating a protective humanitarian haven between the market and the state.

Jesus talked about taxes, the plight of women, disability, social and economic exclusion and the arrogance of power.

In the intervening centuries, mission was reduced to a recruitment process that brought people into the Church.

However, mission denotes a calling to a radical change of worldview; a change of attitude, of ways of relating to self, others and the surrounding world.

In the present era it involves change from being a prisoner of consumer individualism to participative citizenship with a value system based on justice, truth, charity and respect for others and for the planet.

Mission is not about offering vulnerable people mirages, miracles or quick fixes unrelated to the misery of their lives.

Mission is about accompanying vulnerable people in a struggle to make the structures and networks of life resonant with the values and dignity of the person in the light of the Gospel.

Jesus was saying to the system of His time that there is an alternative.

This was as countercultural and radical as Pope Benedict’s recent encyclical Charity in Truth.

The political and financial powers right now are saying there is no alternative; only a return to rampant credit and consumerism, the two imposters that brought about the present malaise.

There are many who have a strong sense of grievance that something has gone terribly wrong.

Many have lost all—job, house, identity, sense of worth and belonging.

There are those with a vision of something better, but they do not know where to turn for support and network.

In an age of individualism, Pope Benedict’s message highlights the common good.

The economic, social, cultural and religious crisis challenges creativity for change to a new reality linked to people’s everyday lives in participation and decision making.

The present situation raises a vital question for the future of the people of our planet, above all for young people and their future.

Today the great thing is to be “profitable,” to justify their right to exist by being profitable.

This raises a very serious question: must people be profitable in order to “deserve” the right to live? The missionary stands on the threshold between the Church and the world, “betwixt and between what has been and what will be.” (M.

McCabe) Now that the market has been exposed as a false god, the opportunity to build real communities among people of faith is great.

The opportunity of a more faith-filled and generous future can rise from the rubble of the economic meltdown.

Fr. Bobbie Gilmore

Fr. Bobbie Gilmore is the Chairperson of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland.