Then They Sat Down to Eat (Gen 37:25)
Thomas Menamparampil, SDB
The Weakest Brother Sold Off
Apparently this is a most unimpressive statement: “Then they sat down to eat”. But a contextual reading of the text stuns you beyond description. Here was a bunch of brothers who had lowered their youngest brother into an empty well and abandoned him there to die. With what calm and composure could they sit down to a pleasant meal? Could they lean back with a sense of ‘mission accomplished”? Or would their consciousness be loaded with a profound sense of guilt for having betrayed a beloved bother, the youngest and the weakest among them? Could they look straight at each other’s face and enter into a conversation in a relaxed manner without the piteous look of their brother haunting them? Could they really enjoy the meal, possibly enriched with some choice items that their brother himself had brought for their special delight?
The very statement “Then they sat down to eat” is pointing to a great measure of insensitivity. And yet, it is this insensitivity that is evident today in an “economy of exclusion and inequality”, an economy that kills, exploits, oppresses, excludes, marginalizes…making people outcasts (EG 53). Will these helpless people be made to serve merely a commercial interest being sold outright, as Judah suggests (Gen 37:26-28), or will someone develop Reuben’s mind, wanting to rescue their weakest brother (Gen 37:29-30), or will skills be developed for removing even evidences of injustice as was ultimately done by the brothers when they showed Joseph’s blood-stained robe to their father (Gen 37:31-32).
Joseph had been sent by his father Jacob to find out if everything was well with his brothers (Gen 37:14), and this was the reward he earned. For all his boyish pride and pretentions, he was merely an immature adolescent. But the fact that he was smart and was the favoured of his father was enough to undo him. Brother-betrayal has remained a central theme in all human history. The Joseph-story has thrilled millions, both for its pathos and for its true reflection of the human situation. The account reaches a climax with the sale of youngest for twenty shekels of silver. We are familiar with similar stories: brothers betrayed, peers betrayed, bonds broken, loyalties forgotten, the helpless taken advantage of. Here was a brother sold to migrant tradesmen, forced to become part of the merchandise in the global market. Similarly, the Market dominates the day. Pope Francis pleads, “avoid the “idolatry of the market”.
A Crisis Provokes Thought, Invites Solidarity
“It is a human crisis,” cried Antonio Guterres, the Secretary General of the UN, referring to coronavirus. The calamity has placed us in the midst of the worst crisis since World War II. “It is much more than a health crisis. It is a human crisis.” Trump admits that Covid-19 attack has imposed greater damage on America than what Pearl Harbour defeat or the September 11 attack on the Twin Towers had done. Over 1.4 million are already affected. In India too, the number of affected people is fast growing. These are times when our social order is being questioned, our values are being placed on scales, our relationships are being weighed up. What are reported in the news are mere numbers. The psychological strain on society is too little reflected upon, sociological consequences are not studied, possible abuse of power is being ignored for the time being.
Guterres foresees the struggle as a “fight of a generation”. During the Easter season he lamented the world of “Empty places of worship”. He requests religious leaders to come forward and help, remove panic from hearts, and urge wholehearted cooperation. “Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities; it has taken over our lives”. Health workers are under continuous emotional stress.
Suffering stimulates generosity. Resources began building up. While governments and public institutions began allotting generous funds for a common struggle against the virus, donations began pouring in also from private agencies, and from the very humblest. The message that dominated the scenario irrespective of community and country was a call for an attitude of solidarity and mutual assistance. The ILO urged a “social dialogue”, asked for the promotion of “public trust” among social agencies and groups. Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, conducting a digital Easter service called for the resurrection of “a common life”. The Canterbury Cathedral bell began ringing every evening in remembrance of the coronavirus victims of that day.
The Painful Reality
Over 200 countries have been affected by Covid-19. According to ILO, nearly half of global workforce stands in danger of losing their jobs, 1.6 billion of losing livelihood. The United States of America shed 20 million jobs in April, the UK faces the worst slump since 1706. A UN study reveals that 400 million Indians are already wrestling against total poverty. When Nitin Gadkari says that Small and Medium Enterprises are on the verge of collapse, we need to take him seriously. He is part of the Government, and has no reason to advertise its failure. All thinking people are well aware how the unplanned imposition of demonetisation and GST has ruined middle income entrepreneurs and small scale industries. The worst hit are 89% of Indian workers who are in the informal sector, of whom 52% are self-employed and 24% casual labourers. Covid-19 has worsened the situation putting 418 million into total joblessness.
A trend had already been set in recent years in the direction of weakening the weaker sections of people in India, as elsewhere in the world. We were labouring under the “dictatorship of an impersonal economywithout a human purpose, as Pope Francis puts it (EG55).In the present situation, Thomas Piketty claims, wealth is steadily going into in hands of fewer and fewer people, both at the national and world levels. For example, he says, “Top managers by and large have the power to set their own remuneration, in some cases without limit,” even without any relation to their respective contribution to productivity and profit (Piketty 24).
In fact, since 1978, CEO compensation has risen 940%, while the workers’ wages grew only by 12%. The result has been that India added three dollar-billionaires a month in 2019 taking the total number up to 138. China added three a week; she has already 799 billionaires as of now, and US 626. But the inequality rate is highest in India, the richest 1% of Indians owning 73% of the wealth. Arundhati Roy puts it in this way: 63 of India’s richest people hold more wealth than the Union Budget for a year. And this inequality is accentuating. Indifference is growing. Insensitivity is mounting. The Genesis story of Joseph is coming alive.
We are told that the uncertainties that the coronavirus has created have driven people to despair, not a few taking away their lives. “To be or not to be?”, that is the question that many people ask today. These trends were already set. Young people were moving into anxiety when they thought they had only a bleak future before them. Twenty-eight students committed suicide every day in 2018, bringing up the number to 10,159. Think of the disastrous situation that may arise by 2030 when the world is expected to have 500 million in absolute poverty. In crisis, each society reveals its own vulnerabilities. “Epidemics are a mirror”, says Frank Snowden, “which shows who we really are: our ethics, beliefs, and socio-economic relationships”.
The Corporates Are in Command of Every Area of Human Life
“Winners Take All”, (Giridharadas 2018) wrote Anand Giridharadas, exposing the domestication of every sphere of human life by political and financial power in close collaboration. It is very like Joseph’s brothers joining hands together. National leaders keep pandering their party bosses and donors, ignoring the welfare of the larger society. Even the social services and works of charity they patronize are instrumentalized for self-promotion. Arthur Lyon Dahl calls it a ‘stranglehold’ that they have acquired on every economic activity, including both the production of life-saving medicine and life-destroying weapons. Arundhati Roy was not wrong in alleging that as wars are being ‘manufactured’ to keep the weapons’ industry going, needs are created to keep the consumer goods industry prospering.
We are moving deeper and deeper into a world where nations exaggerate their sovereignty, multinational corporations their profits, and leaders their ego. And as the coronavirus has proved, since we are interconnected, we suffer together. YaschaMounk of the Harvard University says that elected leaders have only one anxiety: how to please the king-makers in their party and…but, most of all, to recover the huge sums spent during the previous elections (Mounk 81). Therefore, fund-raising is their main concern in view of the next-elections. They keep close to their sponsors, lobbyists and special interest groups; and the rest of the time with their own party-men and peers, and with cultural and financial elite, so that they have no time for the people whom they represent. It is such self-interested elitist groups that shape the value-systems, ideas, and assumptions of the present-day politicians (Mounk 87). As we read in the book of Genesis, “Then they sat down to eat” (Gen 37:25). The entire economy is laid on their table.
What they resent most of all is criticism. But they themselves feel unrestrained by civility in speech, dignity in conduct, refinement in relationships. They have risen above a sense of obligation to any such code of conduct. The media they control eliminate every evidence of the unfairness they contrive. And their accumulated money moves to tax havens like Switzerland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Hong Kong, or Bermuda.
The Politics of Indifference
Amidst all these anxieties, what Pope Francis notices is only a sea of indifference. Immediately on hearing of the outbreak of a pandemic in Wuhan, he sent some six hundred thousand masks to China for the provinces of Hubei, Fujian, and Zhejiang. China, in turn, was to return the compliment, sending millions of masks to Europe: the Czech Republic, Serbia, Ireland to many other countries. But unfortunately, soon enough, and as tens of thousands were dying, there began a war of words as to who neglected their duty, the Wuhan medical team and the Chinese Government or the leaders in their respective countries.
Things got worse. There was growing anxiety that a hidden competition had already begun as to who would produce the coronavirus vaccine first to make the best profit out of the greatest human tragedy in recent history. A vaccine war! Drug companies are cosying up to political potentates to become the privileged producers and distributers of the much awaited vaccine. There have been rumours of cyberhacking of hospitals and research centres to steal findings from each other, to be the first in the race. Then, they would like to ‘sit down to eat’ (Gen 37:25), and enjoy the benefits.
Taking advantage of the corona-crisis, America has deregulated many more sectors to smoothen the path for business. But the average citizen is left to fend for himself. In India, the same call for self-reliance (which really means, government-neglect) is garbed under the stained ‘robe’ of swadeshi. All evidence of injustice done remains hidden. UP and MP governments have lifted labour-protection norms to invite investment, as thy claim; but really, to take advantage of their own labour force. With the very same zeal that cow-protection norms were imposed in these states, labour-protection regulations have been removed.
The Weak, the Poor, the People of the Move, Suffer Most
In times of pandemics, minorities and the marginalized suffer most. In medieval Europe, the Jews were attacked; in the nineteenth century America, Irish Catholics fell victims to fanatics. In the twentieth India, slum-dwellers and rural poor were often blamed for spreading the disease. Under the present regime, religious minorities and Dalits are likely to be targeted. In the prevailing condition, daily labourers have been hit the hardest. Not only are they more likely to be affected by the coronavirus, but the lockdown has taken away their only source of income. They have been truly lowered into a well (Gen 37:24), and they are left there helpless despite the symbolic assistances they are offered.
Further, migrant workers call for special compassion. Not being indigenous to the place where they work, they are already in a weak position. They are often exploited by labour contractors and not rarely by the neighbourhood. They are, most of all, at the mercy of employers, who know how to bend the labour laws in their own favour and keep the labour inspectors bribed. They are today like the people of Israel who were reduced the status of slavery in Egypt (Ex 1:11-14).
During the recent lockdown, most migrant workers were not paid and felt compelled to go home merely to survive. Not a few walked home covering long distances. Special trains were arranged for them after considerable delay, and as they were growing restless. Their train fare could easily have been waived, if big business loans could have been waved. For instance, just recently the Reserve Bank of India had allowed banks to waive loans worth Rs. 68,607 crore taken by 50 defaulters. And again, Nirmal Sitharaman, the Finance Minister announced a ‘tax holiday’ for big investors. Evidently such privileged treatment is meant for the top business cadre. A retired Airforce Officer commented that if the Government was truly interested in migrant workers, army aircrafts could have offered them a free flight home on an emergency basis.
But possibly worse things are still to come: the mass hunger that awaits the working class in their own places, under-nourishment and related ailments.
The Phenomenon of Mass Migration
Whatever be the immediate problems of migrants, the anxieties linked with the domestic and international migration of people in search of jobs are growing at the world level. A painful incident these days was the return of 500 Rohingyas to Bangladesh who had been held up on the seas for a long time and prevented from entering Malaysia; sixty of them died before they reached back. Political and social troubles in their home countries and the weakening native economies have made increasing number of people from Africa and Asia to seek to build a future in Europe or America. Asylum seekers and fortune seekers rub shoulders in the race.
With an aging population in developed countries, those in command of the economy welcome the immigration of young people to strengthen their work force, but ardent defenders of indigenous cultures consider them a threat. There is an additional anxiety that the immigrants deprive the indigenous population of job opportunities. The populists in the Western World thrive on these fears. They are growing stronger from one election to the other. But the pressure of migration does not seem to ease. Neither the threat of a wall on the Mexican border nor vigilance on the Atlantic coast seems to have reduced the pressure from migrant workers who want make their way into the more developed parts of the world.
The Cold War Propaganda is Revealing their Fallacies
Sober voices have been heard suggesting international cooperation to ensure security and wellbeing in the lands where the migrants come from so that the present erratic migration trends can be reduced, controlled and regulated. The present world leadership is unacquainted with the categories of thought that could enable them to develop strategies to address the problems of a fast-changing world. Christian Parenti argues that a World that had concentrated its attention on issues related to Cold War militarism and neoliberal profit-making, is ill-equipped to understand and address the present situation of violent dislocations of people and its consequences.
To some extent Parenti is right. Between the two World Wars, society was invited to make a decision for fascist nationalism or against it, and after World War II for Communist totalitarianism or against it. There were no options offered in between, or any other way of looking at things, e.g. as the non-aligned nations dared to do. So, during the Cold War, the option was between Marxist absolutism or liberal democracy. What partisan intereststhe champions of liberal democracy had besides freedom was not frankly admitted. Whether they themselves were true to the ideals they proposed in every respect was not adequately scrutinised.
Liberal Ideologies as Masks for Other Interests
Countries, communities, movements, leadership, scholarship, publications…everything was either for liberal democracy or against it, ‘for us’ or ‘against us’, friends or foes. In reality, this distinction amounted to: those who promoted ‘our interests’ and those who promoted ‘other interests’. Those who expanded ‘our markets’ advanced the cause of freedom. Those who promoted ‘our arms sales’ furthered democracy. The ideologues who formulated this vision were blind to other social forces at work, like cultures, religious loyalties, ethnic identities, tribal alliances, community polarisations that were very strong in Asia and Africa. All these meant nothing to those who looked at the world from the “We-and-the Other” point of view. These dynamisms in society called for other categories of thought. Unfortunately, the lack of understanding of these realities and the inability to deal with them accordingly, continue to act as a stumbling block to solutions.
So it happens, that the unreflected strategies adopted to handle the Cold War problems have left behind a horrible legacy: Taliban and ISIS in West Asia, proxy wars of “armed groups”, movements of weapons, and the activities of smuggling networks in weaker nations. These ill-advised processes have corrupted the officialdom in many developing countries. This situation has been accentuated by the negative fruits of murderous competition in the Third World, where extreme inequality is creating a state of mounting anger and a situation of ‘permanent crisis.’ In many countries governments have been immensely weakened (Parenti 8).
The Rise of Xenophobia
Parenti foresees the stronger economies of the North going through a period of xenophobia, racism, and police repression, turning their nations into political fortresses and neo-fascist islands. The Global South, on the contrary, will undergo an intense experience of political-economic-environmental chaos leading to criminality, hunger, disease, and fanaticism, with the danger of ‘social breakdown’ (Parenti 20). Civil unrest, intermittent war, and the danger of state collapse will invite interventions from the North with “counterinsurgency” measures that may go on interminably (Parenti 11,18), as in fact it is happening in many parts of the Third World today.
In the meantime, the grievances of ethnic, tribal, religious minority groups keep mounting. Resentments are in multiple directions. Francis Fukuyama of the Stanford University says, voters are angry at their inability to influence policies. In their helplessness they opt for a maverick leader. Dictators keep emerging. Countries like Russia, Venezuela, Iran, Philippines, and Turkey manipulate elections, close down independent press, control opposition activities. They seek to remove checks and balances, and weaken the rule of law (Fukuyama 4). The way the present Indian regime has manipulated the Judiciary and the Parliament, pushing their ideological agenda with regard to Ayodhya, Kashmir, and CAA, gives evidence that the same concentration of power is at work in our country as well
Polarisation along Diverse Lines
Governance failure plagues many democratic countries, e.g. perpetuating gross inequality in Africa and Latin America where class hierarchy represents racial and ethnic ones. Even in traditionally democratic countries representative assemblies have become so polarized, that it is near impossible to pass a law. Checks and balances have been used more to block progressive action than to defend rights (Fukuyama 251). Ideological differences between parties have nearly disappeared. The quality of public debate has fallen. The calibre of leadership has sunk. Rabble-rousers, boasters, xenophobic hate-mongers win the day. Those who capture leadership today are amoral economic performers and partisan bullies who push their community’s interests ahead.
What are being discussed today are not ideas, but sectarian concerns; in India communal interests. Polarization is not along ideological lines, but interest group lines: trade unions, agribusinesses, drug companies, weapons lobbies, which can veto measures that can hurt their interests. In India the polarisations are along communal lines. Populist anger is on the rise worldwide, polarization descending to hate words, use of rough and crude language. Rising inequality makes people feel convinced that the elite groups are controlling affairs for their own interests (Fukuyama 8). Today any GDP rise merely means how much wealth has gone to the elite (Mounk 36).
Economy in Crisis, Democracy in Shambles, The Rise of Populism
The achievements of Capitalism are not without their limitations. While it has quadrupled global wealth since the 1970s with more nations opening doors to the open market, economy has remained volatile, rushing from one crisis to another: Europe 1990s, Asia 1997-98, Brazil 1998-99, Argentina 2001, US-EU 2008-09. The present day economy as it is emerging, is not self-regulating, especially with reference to Banks and financial institutions. Economic instability speaks negatively of the political system (Fukuyama 6).
Citizens therefore are increasingly disillusioned with the democratic government. In fact, only a small proportion of the younger generation believe that democracy is important. Quite a good proportion hold that army rule is good (Mounk 5). What they are looking for is an ‘honest’ ruler who understands their mind, attends to their needs, and abolishes all institutional roadblocks on the way. They accept electoral democracy, but are evidently illiberal (Mounk 8), prejudiced against racial minorities, immigrants, people of other religions. Hate speeches are on the increase in the social media (Mounk 17). Thus, liberalism and democracy clash in multiple contexts (Mounk 13). If liberal democracy means supporting abortion, euthanasia, same sex marriage, and a host of other things, religious believers too withdraw.
Legislators are often reduced to a position of helplessness. Technical experts and “independent agencies” formulate policies. Boards and commissions handle “legally difficult, technically complex, and often politically sensitive decisions.” These bodies issue regulations and make administrative decisions independently of the elected members (Mounk 64). According to most Constitutions, judges have the power to protect minorities and restrain Strongmen. They can insist on individual rights and the rule of law (Mounk 73). But in increasing number of situations today this does not happen. And the Strongmen decide. And gradually this becomes the accepted norm.
Searching for Solutions
Milton Friedman, the economist, once said, “Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces a real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around”. Certainly, the dominant idea asserts itself again: rescue the institutions, give aid to the banks, reduce the tax on investors, impose austerity measures on ordinary citizens. Trump believes that rescuing businesses protects society against every possible danger, including the coronavirus. Modi calls for self-reliance, swadeshi, inviting support for indigenous business barons. Xi promises to double the exports, beginning with masks, medical equipments and medicines, so that profits lost during the covid-19 period may be regained.
But there are other ideas too lying around, even though mostly forgotten: 1. Human values of natural goodness and an eagerness to search for truth may not have been rejected outright, but they are lying around like the ruins of an earlier civilization. Courtesies are paid to them, but their relevance and validity are hardly recognised. 2. Religious values of openness to the transcendent and mutual concern are harder to locate, as they have changed colour and figure being instrumentalized by government agencies, corporate trusts, and political party affiliates. 3. Christian values of a search for selflessness and radical commitment in behalf of the ‘Other’ on Christ’s model is hardest to be unearthed; for, though it is buried in every heart, of late, it has sunk deeper leaving too little trace of its precise location.
An important dimension of our Christian mission today is to unearth these values in society and hold them for attention in appropriate contexts. Even a while before the pandemic, Pope Francis had announced a “World Educational Alliance” which would bring together representatives of main religions, organizations, academicians of political, economic, cultural worlds. “Today’s world is constantly changing”, the Pope says, “and faces a variety of crises”. Due to this “rapidification” of social processes, we need to keep up with new semantics that come into existence, and develop new paradigms of search (Osservatore Romano 13.9.19). A doctrinaire approach will not suffice. There are no readymade answers when economic, political, and medical anxieties challenge human society as they do today. Holy Father has invited the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, including social sciences, to do an intense work of research in the light of the pandemic (Asia Catholic News 17.3.20).
Populism on the Rise
What the Pope seeks to do most of all is to rouse a ‘sense of collective responsibility’ in society. He asks us to rewrite the “grammar of taking responsibility” in new contexts as new needs make their demands (ACN 31.1.20). He has already been growing anxious about new trends in the political world. Speaking to Mediterranean bishops at Bari, he told them that the new populists leaders reminded him of the leaders of the 1930s (Catholic World Last Week 1.3.20). He was evidently referring to the Fascist and Nazi leaders of the last century. And addressing Eastern Catholic Bishops, he warned them against particularisms that are a danger if they turn on to become populisms (OR 20.9.19).
We have already referred to the rise of populist and authoritarian leaders in many countries. Even democratic leaders are beginning to claim limitless rights. Trump recently affirmed that the President’s power was ‘total’. Duterte compared the nation’s Constitution to a “scrap of toilet paper”. During the Covid-19, Macron in France and Boris in UK have assumed special powers. Orban of Hungary has decided to rule the nation by decrees. In India, Modi has recourse ordinances about land acquisition and tax exemptions as he is confident of rushing anything through the Parliament. Leaders crack down on dissidents, when people are distracted with the pandemic. Anand Teltumbdeand Gautam Navlakha have been arrested. Armed forces, paramilitary forces and police forces are being strengthened; and recruitment is increasingly done along ideological lines.In the freedom of the press Index 2020, India has sunk to the 142nd position among 180 nations …coming even after Afghanistan!
Friedrich Nietzsche called the absolute state the “coldest of all cold monsters” (Fukuyama 82). Others described the states in which leaderstook advantage of citizens and extracted the highest level of resources for their own use as ‘predatory states’ (Fukuyama 210). More and more states are moving in that direction. Politicians who distribute favours to relatives and supporters win elections (Fukuyama xiii). In India, authoritarianism and favouritism are combined with divisive politics and communal polarisations. Politicians have yet to learn that, while divisive politics is good political strategy for an election victory, it is a “very bad economic strategy” for a united effort towards national wealth creation. Consequently, the GDP keeps falling.
Pope Francis passes on to us a sense of mission in such a situation, “Today, while all too many inequalities and divisions threaten peace, we feel called to be artisans of dialogue, promoters of reconciliation and patient builders of a civilization of encounter that can preserve our times from the incivility of conflict.” (OR 20.9.19). A new world must be brought into existence. Could slogans like “America first” or “India first”, for example, be changed to “Humanity First”?
The Marginalization of the World of Principles
When in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, it was acclaimed as the victory of freedom. “Liberal democracy has proved itself right”, was the cry. During the Cold War, both sides had been highlighting the ‘ideals’ they stood for: the liberation of the labour class on the one side, and freedom of self-expression and human dignity on the other. Both sides sought to hide the facts that would reveal how far they were from their own ideals. Entire societies were brainwashed by the propaganda of the two parties in contest. With the fall of the Wall, the lid was lifted, and reality became visible. After a brief spell of celebrations, now that all challenges were gone, ‘ideals’ were set aside, and life was made to bend to a more pragmatic worldview; which, soon enough, began to reveal its ugly side.
Milton Friedman’s idea that profit-making was the only social obligationof business began to be the dominant philosophy of all the major actors in public life. Religious beliefs and value-systems to which loyalty used to be affirmed to contrast it with the atheism professed by the Soviets hastily got sidelined. Philosophical and sociological principles on which the concepts of human dignity and freedom were based came to be ignored. What remained were the ruins of an earlier cultured tradition, the bare bones with which a skeleton of a framework for social interaction could be constructed. The validity of all metanarratives, transcendent and universal truths, was rejected. Certain relics were tolerated among sensitive groups, to keep alive the memory of themes like Human Rights, option for the poor, concern for the minorities, weaker sections, women, children, immigrants. Neoliberalism had come into its own.
Surrender to the Market
The Market dominated thought, social relationships, value systems, working norms, educational principles, entertainment styles; the concepts of duty, reliability, and transparency. Everything was subjected to Market assessment: international agreements, cultural heritages, classical values, political views, people’s movements, climate change, environmental damage, health care, educational strategies, research programmes, religious events, even family bonds.
The Market alone counts, the idolatry of money is acclaimed (EG 55). The ‘Golden Calf’ is lifted aloft (Ex 32:1). No principle holds, no value is given an inherent worth. Nature is assaulted. Workers are reduced to slavery: landless, homeless, foodless, healthlessdue to an unbalanced re-distribution of wealth and total wastefulness (EG 191). Noam Chomsky thunders, loot has been legitimized. Pope Francis laments, the Market has been deified (EG 56). He pleads, “Money must serve, not rule!” (EG 58)
Meanwhile the poles melt, biodiversity falls, habitats of animal species diminish, climate changes, water reserves diminish, and hurricanes increase. Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old environmental activist, cries at the Davos World Economic Forum, “The house is on fire.” No reaction, no response. She is welcome to express herself, but the Market goes on. Paris Climate Agreement is rejected, international deals are downplayed. All objections fall on deaf ears.
There have been vigorous protests from people suffering from the consequences of the present order of things, like minority communities or deprived youth: the Arab Spring, Occupy the Wall Street, Indignados in Spain. Young people worry about their future indeed. About half the world population is under 30; which means, over 3.8 billion young people are on the war path. They worry for tomorrow. Their protests have been described in Time Magazine as “Youthquake”. But nothing shakes the world of business.
The Crisis of 2008 Suggested a Course Correction
A serious warning came with the financial crisis of 2008. Banks had lent to riskier borrowers and reaped the result. The entire economic system collapsed. But nothing changed. The bankerswho caused the crisis were assisted by the respective governments. That is part of the Market Dogma: to help the richer people (EG 190) to save the economy. To make up for the government subsidies to the banks, “austerity” measures had to be imposed on ordinary citizens; which meant, cutting on social spending and enforcing greater labour control. It is like prescribing the following norm: “Privatize all national profits and socialize all national losses”. This amounts to saying: the benefits go to the business magnates and the losses to the average citizens. Thus, we have learned nothing from the 2008 crisis.
During the coronavirus crisis, they are zealously adopting exactly the same measures. The cry is, ‘save the entrepreneurs’. One question that the Market promoters will need to answer is, “If taxes will demotivate entrepreneurs (1%), will not austerity measures demotivate society itself (99%)?”
There are no easy answers. Pope Francis never denies that. That is why he keeps constantly seeking expert advice, asking scholars to keep exploring. He insists that business people have a ‘noble vocation’ if they increase goods and make them available to all. What he recommends is ‘an inclusive capitalism that leaves no one behind. Shared prosperity. How can a healthy redistribution system be evolved? Recently a number of young economists organized a conference at Assisi (20.1.20) to discuss the theme the “Economy of Francesco” in (CWLW 26.1.20). We must keep searching.
Co-thinking, Collective Search, Self-discipline
Sushmita Dev of the Congress commenting on the present regime’s strategies insisted, “Listen to the voice of reason. Listen to the domain experts”. There was a strong feeling that in India that a top-down strategy was being followed and perceptive persons were being ignored. One Man wisdom is showing its limits. We are reaching a stage of helplessness even at the international level. The mightiest nations are struggling to grapple with the problem of the coronavirus. With increasing number of health-workers dying, entire health systems are collapsing.
In times of crisis, Naomi Klein says, impossible ideas suddenly become possible. Social Distancing has showed us that, difficult as it may be, humans can discipline themselves when they see that it is for common benefit. Certain amount of ‘renunciation’ springs spontaneously from the need of the situation. They feel it protects them, safeguards their interest and builds them up. Confucian ethics of self-disciple helped China, Hong Kong and South Korea to handle the coronavirus anxiety somewhat skilfully.
If assertion of self-interest is required for self-preservation and self-advancement, self-regulation is equally required for realistic self-promotion and purposeful relationship with others. Thus, values rooted in human nature and embedded in human traditions are re-awakenedin situations where they are needed most.
Self-renunciation for Others Is Supreme Self-fulfilment
In the same way, difficult though it be, it is possible for human beings to think differently and yet continue to co-think through intense sharing, discussion, and debate. It is possible to withdraw for a while, criticize oneself, change positions, and accept another’s point of view. It is possible to arrive at solutions together and decide to collaborate. Though things seem impossible at one moment, they reveal themselves to be quite possible at another. Civilizations have developed in this manner; humanity has grown in this way.
More than anything else, human beings can evaluate what they are doing, the way they are doing it, and change their strategies in view of the Common Good. Working together for Common Good, collective health, shared prosperity…these things are not impossible. In this manner alone can we construct a sure future. Such co-thinking and co-planning can be made possible in times of crisis. People have modified their ideas, renounced their interests, sacrificed their personal comforts when a common challenge appeared on the horizon. Self-chosen personal ‘austerity’, for example, contributes to personal fitness, others’ welfare and environmental protection. Discreet abnegation befits, not only ascetics, but also eminent achievers.
But what is most difficult of all, what nearly looks impossible in today’s Market ethos is a total self-renunciation in behalf of others. But that is just what is happening in our own days. Thousands of health workers have been affected by the covid-19, many have died; but the work goes on. While self-renouncers have great anxiety, they have the greatest sense of fulfilment, rescuing others while risking their own lives. They are givers of hope.
Be Ye Givers of Hope
The Pope asks us to spread the “contagion of hope” (ACN 12.4.20). In the immediate context it would mean, protection from the virus; but in the wider context of India, it should include giving hope to the weak and the marginalized: tribals, their land and their culture; Dalits, their livelihood and their dignity; minorities, their security and their future; migrant workers, their survival and their long-term interests; the unborn child, its life and its destiny. God sent Joseph ahead to Egypt to save the entire family (Gen 45:7). The weaker sections will ultimately prove to be the saviours of humankind. ‘The stone which the builders reject becomes the corner-stone’ (Ps 118:22). That sort of mutual dependence is in God’s inscrutable plan. Our destinies are intertwined. It is for us to read his design in the processes of history.
In the quietness of Social Distancing, God has been conversing with his people. Paul Quenon, a Cistercian monk at Gethsemane, New York, explained how he was deeply impressed these days by verse 6 of Psalm 91 which read, “You need not fear…the plagues that strike in the dark”. It was a verse he had read any number of times before, but it made special meaning to him in these coronavirus days (ACN 23.4.20). The apartness that Covid-19 ensures gives us time to go through some of the Christian classics and deepen out spirit, peruse some stimulating literature and find motivation, and search for God’s master plan for humanity so that our brothers and sisters can enrich each other rather than seek to eliminate each other. There are solutions to all problems. More of our minds must work on them, and more of our hearts interact.
Asia Catholic News, Health Camp, Gudalur, Tamilnadu
Catholic World Last Week, Xaveriana, Tuticorin
Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis, Rome, 2013
Fukuyama, Francis, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, The Origins of Political Order, New York, 2012
Giridharadas, Anand, Winners Take All, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2018
Mounk, Yascha, The People Vs. Democracy, Harvard University Press, 2018
Parenti, Christian, Tropic of Chaos, National Books, New York, 2012
Piketty, Thomas, Capital, Bellnap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014