A counter culture: Economy of Communion
It is not capitalistic greed that has caused the severe imbalance of wealth in the world with 1% owning as much, or more, than the 99%. More accurately, it is capitalistic greed that has found sophisticated ways of perpetuating the imbalance that has been there since all of recorded history. For those who remember to look at history in order to understand the context of the present times, I am sure that the most cursory memory will recall how emperors, kings or whatever the royalties in different societies were called then did control everything – and they were less than 1% of the populations they ruled, I am sure.
Today’s value systems that discriminate badly against the poor are but an extension of what has always been – but sophisticated versions, in fact. There have been improvements, some quite spectacular, but the embedded history of mankind is not easy to transform. Most of those who have had dramatic changes from just the feudal times to the present usually went through great violent cathartic processes. Wars, indeed, kept the old patterns intact because the victors who destroyed regimes or dynasties of the past also themselves could hardly wait to enjoy the very same power and wealth they criticized. These wars that caused the deaths of unremembered millions did not keep records of the numbers lost. Only emperors and kings with their favorite warriors deserved mention and stories of their feats. Even then, the poor did not count, even if they were the 99%.
It is not strange, therefore, for Pope Francis (among others) to be calling for a new economic order that will not create victims in the march to amass and control wealth. Sitting as an audience to a recent gathering in the Vatican where the Pope addressed more than a thousand businessmen and advocates involved in practicing a kinder way of doing business, I was not surprised that Pope Francis called for a new economic system and not just reforming the present one. I believe that he knows he will not be alive to see this come to be, but he must also know that only the most radical of viewpoints and corresponding actions can reverse traditional patterns at a faster clip. Every day that the old ways persist in dominating economies and wealth is one more day that billions of poor people suffer. The sense of urgency for radical change cannot be overstated.
Of course, those today who have become champions for hard changes in economic systems are not advocating for something that new or radical. In fact, there was a man two thousand years ago, Jesus of Nazareth, who was very clear and vocal about flipping the pyramid where the first would be last and the last would be first. While he was not specifically talking about the economy, he was precisely referring to the value system that was driving the economic order dominating at that time, and the time before then. Jesus was talking about numbers, about the vast majority who, if all were equal in worth and dignity, would dictate the common good. He was also talking about a new political order we now know as democracy where the common good weighs more than royal interests.
In my mind, it is simple. If any society truly believes that all its members or citizens enjoy the same rights, then democracy can work – and will work. Where all are equal, the majority chooses which way to go every time there is a conflict of interests in a one-man, one-vote system. Democracy is grounded on the dignity and respect due every person in its domain, articulated so succinctly by that great revolutionary, Jesus. And in fidelity to his teachings, his first believers created the early Christian communities, defined by their practice to share everything until there was not one needy person among them.
History after Jesus, however, was not that faithful in the whole. Even within the institution that emerged with the purpose to manifest his teachings, power and wealth were temptations that could not often be denied. That is how difficult it is to change established mindsets, behavioral patterns and policies of governance – religious, political or economic. Which must be why Pope Francis is wading into the fray with everything he has got. Which is why future Popes cannot be less relentless – for the sake of Jesus and his teachings, for the sake of the poor and the suffering of the world.
Which is also why I found myself in the same hall as Pope Francis, listening to his exhortation about changing the economic system. We were delegates to the Economy of Communion (EoC) Conference hosted by Focolare to sympathetic businessmen and advocates around the world. Gratefully, Pope Francis granted an audience to us. Allow me to share a few papal quotes that I found most compelling:
“Economy and Communion are two words that contemporary culture keeps separate and often considers opposite.” The Pope then commended the EoC initiative for holding their profits in communion.
He said, “Goddess Fortune has become a divinity of a hazardous financial system which is destroying millions of families in the world. This idolatrous worship is a surrogate for eternal life.”
“The principal ethical dilemma of this capitalism is the creation of discarded people, then trying to hide them or make sure they are never seen.”
“The entrepreneur who is only a good Samaritan does half of his duty. He takes care of today’s victim but does not curtail those of tomorrow.”
“Capitalism knows philantrophy, not communion.”
His exhortation: May the “no” to an economy that kills become a “yes” to an economy that lets live, because it shares, includes the poor, uses profit to create communion.”
The phrase, Economy of Communion, may be new to most. Its spirit, though, is not. What I have learned through three decades of community development work, especially the last sixteen years with Gawad Kalinga, is that goodness abides in more hearts than not, and goodness is where all great changes start.