In response to critics who label him a Marxist, Pope Francis is taking a page from the famous Seinfeld scene: No, my critique of capitalism is not because I'm a Marxist (not that there's anything wrong with that) -- it's because I'm a Christian.
Since his election last March, the pope has been offering a critique of what he has called "unfettered capitalism" and the "idolatry of money." Just days after the papal conclave, the new pope declared, "Oh, how I would like a poor Church for the poor," and in May he slammed the global financial system for "tyrannizing the poor" and turning humans into expendable consumer goods. And he has consistently been articulating the critique ever since.But it was the pope's more recent comments that really freaked some people out -- and even drew the labels "radical" and "Marxist" from detractors. In his recent apostolic exhortation called Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote:
"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, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems."
In response, Rush Limbaugh, among others, went on a tear: "This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope. Unfettered capitalism? That doesn't exist anywhere. Unfettered capitalism is a liberal socialist phrase to describe the United States. Unfettered, unregulated."In response, Pope Francis offered the Italian newspaper La Stampa this measured explanation on Saturday:
"Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don't feel offended." Then Pope Francis went on to say "there is nothing in the exhortation that cannot be found in the social doctrine of the church."
Translation: I care about the poor not because I'm a Marxist, but because I'm a Christian.
Pope Francis' identity is wrapped up in being a pastor called by the Gospel of Jesus Christ to care for all people. So when Pope Francis sees people who are hungry, homeless, and dying every day only because they are poor, he feels that it is his holy obligation to ask why this is happening and what can be done about it.
My great-grandfather Walter Rauschenbusch had a similar mission. Walter Rauschenbusch served as a pastor in New York's Hells Kitchen a century ago. Walter Rauschenbusch was a pastor who loved and served the needs of his congregation. It was through this pastoral relationship with people who he loved that he became aware of the incredible suffering that they experienced because they were poor.
If you want to understand Rauschenbusch it all goes back to the funerals he performed for the families whose little children had died because of poverty. The little boxes that contained the dead children broke his heart and so he realized that to be a pastor meant to care for both the spiritual and the physical well being of his congregation.
In that time, New York had extreme disparities between those who were wealthy and those who had nothing and the struggle of the poor made him go back to the Gospel to see what Jesus had to say about poor. The result was his book Christianity and the Social Crisis which has, over time, influenced many people, including Martin Luther King, Jr., to consider the obligation of the Christian in the face of the suffering of the poor and the hungry.
In a poignant reconsideration of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Rauschenbusch explained that while it was a good thing that the Samaritan helped that individual who was beaten down and robbed, if the same thing happened again and again, the compassionate response would be to organize to stop the attacks before they happen. Likewise, it was not enough for the church just to keep on mopping up and caring for the human wreckage that the economic system was creating, it had to go to the source to stop humans from being wrecked.
We find a later echo of this call in the famous quote made by Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara who was Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Brazil that goes: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist."
Personally, I agree with Pope Francis' rejection of Marxism. I spent too much time in repressive "Marxist" countries to believe that "unfettered" Marxism can be a successful economic system. But if Marxism has failed, then we must also dare to say that capitalism has failed. You cannot have such inequality and such continued suffering in the world and declare an economic system a success.
Just look at the city of New York. The median price of a Manhattan apartment is about 1 million dollars in a city where 20,000 children are homeless. Worldwide, every three seconds a person dies from extreme poverty. The disparities between the wealthiest and the poor are reaching levels not seen since the gilded age of 100 years ago. Pope Francis' critic of 'unfettered capitalism' is correct -- this kind of suffering is unacceptable.
Instead of being defensive, business, economic and political leaders should take Pope Francis' critique as a challenge to do better. There are so many brilliant people who are in finance including some of my most beloved friends and relatives. If all of us together work to end poverty it would be the greatest accomplishment the world has ever known.
Christians should be equally challenged by Pope Francis' witness. For those who would sideline the Gospel special focus on the poor and the oppressed to secondary concerns or charity should read Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation and realized that a structural critique of economic and political systems are part of a whole cloth of piety to which Jesus calls us.
It is commonly agreed that for the first time in human history we can put an end to extreme poverty if we have the economic, political, moral and spiritual will to do it.
Let's do it.
In the meantime, if you are Christian and someone calls you a Marxist just because you are questioning why extreme poverty persists in era of such extravagant wealth, know that you are in good company -- because Jesus did it first.
Luke 6:20-21 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: 'Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 'Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. 'Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Luke 4:16-19 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.'
Matthew 25:34-36 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."
Mark 10:21-22 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Mark 12:41-44 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
Luke 14:12-14 He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
Luke 16:19-25 "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.
Luke 11:39-42 Then the Lord said to him, "Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you. "But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God
Luke 12:16-21 Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."
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